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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Bandstand's Backyard

Throughout 1954, white and African American teenagers fought outside of WFIL-TV’s West Philadelphia studio on an almost daily basis. Philadelphia experienced more than its share of racial tension in this era, but these teenager brawls stand out because they were sparked by a television program. WFIL broadcast the popular, regionally televised, teenage dance show Bandstand (which became the nationally televised American Bandstand in 1957). It broadcast Bandstand to parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, a four-state region it called “WFIL–adelphia.” In its calls for advertisers, WFIL emphasized the station’s ability to help advertisers reach millions of these regional consumers.[i] WFIL-TV was a particularly lucrative advertising venue because it was part of Walter Annenberg’s media empire, which also included WFIL radio, the Philadelphia Inquirer, TV Guide, and Seventeen magazine among other properties. At the same time WFIL aimed to capitalize on its regional market, the area around the station’s West Philadelphia studio became a site of intense struggles over racial discrimination in housing. Just blocks from Bandstand’s studio doors, white homeowners associations and civil rights advocates fought a block-by-block battle over housing. Groups of homeowners like the Angora Civic Association sought to prevent black families from moving into West Philadelphia. The racial tensions around Bandstand’s West Philadelphia studio threatened to scare off the advertisers who funded the show and forced Bandstand’s producers to take a position on integration. Fueled by the show’s commercial ambitions, the producers chose not to allow black teenagers to enter the studio. By blocking black teens from the studio, Bandstand, like the white homeowners associations, sought to protect homes from the perceived dangers of integration.

The respective efforts of WFIL and the white homeowners associations to maintain segregated spaces constituted overlapping and reinforcing versions of “defensive localism,” a term used by sociologist Margaret Weir and historian Thomas Sugrue to describe the way homeowners associations emphasized their right to protect their property values and the racial identity of their neighborhoods.[ii] As historian David Freund has shown, white homeowners in the postwar era expressed a deeply held belief that black people posed a threat to white property values. This way of viewing race was significant, Freund argues, “because it allowed whites to address their racial preoccupations by talking about property instead of people.”[iii] In Forbidden Neighbors, his 1955 study of racial bias in housing, Charles Abrams noted the pervasiveness of this link between race and property values:
Homeowners, home-builders, and mortgage-lenders seemed convinced that people should live only with their own kind, that the presence of a single minority family destroys property values and undermines social prestige and status. National and local real estate organizations were accepting these assumptions as gospel, as were popular magazines, college texts, and technical journals.[iv]
As Abrams notes, the federal government and private mortgage lenders directed housing loans to maintain segregated housing markets. At the neighborhood level, white homeowners associations used covenants and violence to protect what they viewed as their right to live in racially homogenous neighborhoods. The term “defensive localism” is useful to understanding white mobilization for segregation because it links the monetization and racialization of space. As in other northern cities, anti-integration forces in Philadelphia seldom used explicitly racist language to defend their position. Rather, racial integration was rejected as a threat to property values. This logic applied not just to homeowners, but also to the television stations and advertisers that sought to reach them. Figured in this way, the pursuit of profit, in this case through home equity or advertising revenue, could be used as a defense of racial prejudice and de facto segregation. Indeed, while homeowners associations fought to protect their home investments by keeping their neighborhoods exclusively white, WFIL fought to protect the commercial prospects of the fledgling Bandstand by making the show’s representations of Philadelphia teenagers “safe” for television viewers in “WFIL–adelphia.”

WFIL’s description of its four-state broadcast area as “WFIL-adelphia” points to the fact that postwar television was both urban and regional, that it was both a physical site of production and a network of viewers and advertisers responding to televisual images. Media studies scholar Anna McCarthy describes this as television’s capacity to be both “site-specific” and “space-binding.”[v] These qualities were in tension for WFIL. The everyday actions in Philadelphia and the images broadcast across “WFIL-adelphia” influenced each other in important ways. The station and its advertisers wanted access to the population, spending power, and creative potential of the nation’s third largest market, without any of the perceived problems of broadcasting from an urban area with a racially diverse population. With Bandstand, WFIL resolved this tension by drawing on Philadelphia’s interracial music scene to create an entertaining and profitable television show, while refusing to allow the city’s black teenagers into the studio audience for fear of alienating viewers and advertisers. Like the white homeowners associations’ concerns about property values, WFIL’s version of defensive localism built on a belief that integration would hurt the station’s investment in Bandstand. When WFIL’s Bandstand broadcast images of white teens on a daily basis, it disseminated the anti-integrationist views held by homeowners associations across a large regional broadcasting area. This broad view of defensive localism, stretching from the local homeowners associations around WFIL’s West Philadelphia studio to the station’s racially exclusive admissions policies on Bandstand, illustrates how housing and television formed overlapping and reinforcing sites of struggle over segregation and how the everyday material reality of race in Philadelphia intersected with media representations of race in “WFIL-adelphia.”

WFIL opened its West Philadelphia studio at 46th and Market Street just before Bandstand debuted in 1952. The studio housed all of the station’s radio and television operations and sat next to the Market Street elevated train that connected West Philadelphia with center city to the east and Upper Darby to the west.[vi] While Market Street featured primarily storefronts, the area surrounding Bandstand’s West Philadelphia studio included a mix of residential housing, including two- and three-story row homes, three-story Victorian semi-detached “twin homes,” low-rise apartment complexes, and a smaller number of detached single family homes. Although the area was less densely populated than South Philadelphia and North Philadelphia in the early 1900s, West Philadelphia experienced a period of rapid urbanization from 1910 through 1940; by World War II, the area housed almost 20 percent of the city’s total population.[vii] The racial demographics of the city, and especially the area around its West Philadelphia studio, were changing rapidly when Bandstand debuted.

Demographic figures convey the scope of racial change in Philadelphia in this era. From 1930 to 1960, the city’s black population grew by three hundred thousand, increasing from 11.4 percent of the city’s total population to 26.4 percent. The changes were similarly dramatic in West Philadelphia. The black population expanded in West Philadelphia after World War I and settled primarily in the area between 32nd and 40th Streets and from University Avenue to Lancaster. This eastern section of West Philadelphia, then called the “black bottom,” expanded again in the 1940s and 1950s. Working-class blacks were drawn to the area because of strong neighborhood institutions and opportunities to rent apartments and houses denied them in other parts of the city. By the 1950s, the “black bottom” was a vibrant neighborhood of businesses and row homes, 15 to 20 percent of which were owned by black families.[viii] Through the 1940s and 1950s, as many white residents moved to new suburban developments in other areas, West Philadelphia’s black population continued to expand further west and north. The increase first occurred above Market Street, an area with many subdivided housing units and lower rents. Through the 1950s and 1960s, black families expanded to the west of the “black bottom” on the south side of Market Street where homeownership opportunities were greater.[ix] By 1960, the black population in West Philadelphia was the second largest in the city.[x]

These statistics, however, do not adequately convey the block-by-block struggle over housing. Racially discriminatory housing practices fueled the concentration of blacks in West Philadelphia and other neighborhoods. Private housing developers openly discriminated because they believed their white customers wanted segregated neighborhoods. As the former president of the Philadelphia Real Estate Board acknowledged, “most of the people when purchasing or renting homes place great value upon exclusiveness in terms of religion and ancestry, and particularly to color. These desires are in conflict with the basic concept of the open market.”[xi] Fair-housing advocate Charles Abrams also noted that builders could accommodate white home buyers’ racial prejudice without raising the price of the home. “Unlike the tiled bathroom, venetian blinds, and television outlets,” Abrams noted, “the promise of racial exclusiveness cost the builder nothing.”[xii] These real estate practices severally limited the housing options for black Philadelphians. A 1953 Commission on Human Relations study of new private housing in the Philadelphia metropolitan area found that only 1,044 of more than 140,000 recently constructed units (less than 1 percent) were available to blacks.[xiii] From 1946 to 1953, only 45 new homes were offered for sale to blacks. With their options limited by racially restrictive covenants and mortgage redlining, the other twenty thousand black families who became homeowners in this period bought secondhand houses at higher financing charges.[xiv] Historian Beryl Satter has shown how speculators profited by selling houses to African Americans on exploitative terms. “The reason for the decline of so many black urban neighborhoods into slums was not the absence of resources,” Satter argues, “but rather the riches that could be drawn from the seemingly poor vein of aged and decrepit housing and hard-pressed but hardworking and ambitious African Americans.”[xv]

This widespread housing discrimination posed a challenge for the city’s Commission on Human Relations (CHR). The city’s voters passed a city charter in 1951 that established the CHR to administer antidiscrimination provisions in employment and public accommodations. The CHR’s first annual report declared that, with support from the city’s administration, the CHR’s “substantial powers of investigation,” and “strong community backing mobilized by the Fellowship Commission,” the city had assembled the tools for an “effective attack on racial and religious prejudice and discrimination and for building rich and wholesome relationships among the racial, religious and nationality groups that make up America.”[xvi] The creation of the CHR encouraged many Philadelphians to see their city as a leader in racial equality.

At the same time, however, the CHR lacked the power to address housing or educational discrimination, and its case-by-case approach to employment discrimination was overwhelmed by the number of complaints received.[xvii] For its part, the Fellowship Commission, the city’s leading civil rights coalition, prioritized fair employment legislation over fair housing legislation, before eventually lobbying the state to enact a narrowly tailored housing bill (excluding private sales of owner-occupied houses) in 1961.[xviii] Without fair-housing legislation, black residents in West Philadelphia and other neighborhoods continued to face a restricted housing market throughout the 1950s.

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