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Ogontz Area Neighbors Association Reaches 50th Anniversary
Woodrow Wilson famously said that America is not a country of people who get their names in the newspapers, and the founding of the founding of the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association in December of 1959 did not get any newspaper coverage at all.
At a house somewhere between Broad Street and Ogontz Avenue, between Olney and Chelten Avenues, an interracial group of African Americans who had arrived in the community relatively recently and white, largely Jewish people, whose roots in the community went back further in time, decided that it was time for people of both races then present to work together to improve their mutual community.
While the formation of such a group was by no means unprecedented, it was indeed a very rare occurence. The founding citizens implicitly rejected the prevalent notion that black migration into a community inherently meant that the community declined. They also implicitly rejected the prevalent notion that blacks and whites were separate tribes of people with little in common and little reason to listen to each other or trust each other.
Finally, they defined community in a manner that was inherently self-renewing: a community was a group of people who lived in the same neighborhood at any time, not a group of people who lived in the same neighborhood at a particular time.
They did not believe that the community was moving out and strangers were moving in; they believed that old friends were moving out and new friends were moving in.
The founding meeting was not merely the expression of a widespread community sentiment. It also was the fulfillment of a suggestion by a staff member of the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, who felt that a community organization would ease racial tensions and slow or stop the process of white flight.
Elected Vice-President at that first meeting was my mother Florence Cohen, who would be the most enduring of the early founders. Since my birth, ten and a half years previously, she had been a full time homemaker who had given birth to a total of three children (Denis and Sherrie as well as myself) and who was eight months pregnant with a fourth child (Judy). At the time of the meeting, she was looking forward to beginning studies for a master's degree in education, with a goal of teaching in the Philadelphia school system.
Before her exit from the work force, she had graduated from the academically elite Walton High School in the Bronx at the age of 15, worked as secretary, passed a civil service test for a secretarial job in Washington, been elected as secretary of the board of her union local, earned a degree in economics from George Washington University, became a government economist, and served as a union organizer and spokesperson in New England and New York City.
The founding President began with an emotional pledge to stay in the neighborhood. But a few months of focusing on the problems of his community was followed by his bailing out of the organization and of the community. In the Spring of 1960, Florence Cohen succeeded to the Presidency. She would either be President, Vice-President or a Board member of the completely volunteer organization into the early years of the 21st century.
The Ogontz Area Neighbors Association became a major force at the Philadelphia Zoning Board, contesting numerous land uses that the community felt were not in its interests. After their original volunteer lawyer dropped a case he had accepted in favor of a paying client, David Cohen was recruited by Florence Cohen to serve in that capacity. He won his first case with less than 24 hours to prepare, and won the vast majority of other cases as well, always acting in a pro bono capacity.
The Ogontz Area Neighbors Association saw commercialization of the community as a major obstacle to preserving its middle class status. They did not want buildings to subdivided into rental units, or to devolve into commercial structures. Anyone who drives through their community today will see the large degree to which they succeeded. Ironically, community blight today is disproportionately limited to empty apartment houses; it is a middle class black community of home owners.
The Ogontz Area Neighbors Association encouraged the Fairmount Park Commission to remove the largely abandoned commercial buildings in Kemble Park, and plant trees there instead. The park now is a beautiful attraction to the community as well as a magnet for recreational activities.
The Ogontz Area Neighbors Association lobbied for a library in their community for more than three decades, before gaining in 1997 what is now (since 2007) the David Cohen Ogontz Library.
When David Cohen was elected Democratic wardleader of the 17th Ward in 1966, he recruited many Ogontz Area Neighbors Association volunteers as committeepeople, making the 17th Ward Democratic Executive Committee a model of community-political cooperation in an era in which that was rare indeed.
Mable Windham, an early joiner of the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association after its initial founding (she met my father when he took her to register Democratic to vote for John Kennedy for President), is another longtime leader and board member of the organization. When my father died in 2005, she was elected as Democratic wardleader to succeed him.
Since November of 1977, she has been the leader of my district office staff, where she has handled many thousands of complaints with graciousness, skill and empathy.
Kelly E. Miller was the first person to succeed Florence Cohen's first stint as Chairman of Ogontz Area Neighbors Association. An extremely articulate spokesperson, he demonstrated great skills in the position which helped fuel his rise to leadership in the Philadelphia civil service and the United Methodist Church.
The late Richard Gilmore, an accountant for Penn Fruit in the early 1960's, was stimulated by his activity in Ogontz Area Neighbors Association to become more active in the city's political and civil life. He served for a while as the Finance Director in the administration of Wilson Goode; he had turned town an offer from Mayor Rizzo to serve in that position and turned down an offer from the Democratic City Chairman Pete Camiel to run for City Controller in 1973.
Everything the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association and the people within it tried to achieve did not succeed. The original founders of both races would have liked the area to remain an interracial community like Mount Airy is today; except for a very small amount of gentrification around LaSalle University, that vision did not materialize. The houses in the area were probably not large enough or distinctive enough to make the area a destination location for many liberal or diversity-accepting white people.
Nor did a scaled down vision of encouraging school integration through school feeder pattern alterations work in the long run; after a few years, there were not enough whites attending public schools left for meaningful integration to take place, whatever the school feeder patterns were.
But citywide schools in their area remain integrated: Central High School, Girls High School, and the Widener School for the Handicapped. And in listening to Central High President Shelly Pavel, the longest serving chief executive in Central's proud history, talk about the benefits of the great diversity that Central has to offer, my mind sometimes wanders back to the days in the 1960's when the Board of the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association met at our family home, and I imbibed the optimistic talk of what was possible between people of different races. Now my daughter hears it regularly from Pavel as a Central junior.