Diversity a Draw for Mixed-Race Families in Mt. Airy

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By:  Christopher M. Matthews  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: Aug. 3, 2009

Manuel Malia and Lori Tharps talk about raising a mixed-race family.  (News21 video by Christopher Matthews)

PHILADELPHIA - When Lori Tharps and her family left Brooklyn four years ago, they feared they would be unable to find a place to live as diverse and tolerant as the New York neighborhood they were leaving. Then they discovered Mt. Airy.

"Whatever you are, it doesn’t matter; there’s room for you here,” says Tharps' husband, Manuel Malia, who teaches at a Spanish immersion elementary school in Philadelphia.

Indeed, Mt. Airy’s residents come in nearly every race, religion and sexuality, says Laura Siena, executive director of the West Mt. Airy Neighborhood Association. The Philadelphia neighborhood of roughly 35,000 people also has a high number of residents who identify as mixed race. In the 2000 census, those who selected two or more races made up 2.7 percent of the population in the tracts that make up the neighborhood -- 11 percent higher than the national average and 23 percent higher than the greater Philadelphia area.

It was this overwhelming diversity that lured Malia and Tharps. Malia, 38, is Spanish, while Tharps, 37, is African American.

"You can’t be an interracial couple in America and not be commented on or stared at or asked or spoken to,” says Tharps, an author who writes about the subject of racial identity. “I mean even in New York City, the epicenter of multiculturalism, I think somebody spit at us once."

Demographic Breakout
of Mt. Airy
Race Total Percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Data compiled by Christopher M. Matthews

The couple's comfort level with Mt. Airy underscores a national phenomenon: A 2002 Fannie Mae Foundation study found that multiracial people tend to live in more diverse neighborhoods than persons of a single race. This trend may have increasing importance in coming decades, since those who identify as mixed race comprise one of the fastest-growing demographics in the United States.

Recent Census figures estimate that the number of multiracial people in the United States rose 3.4 percent last year, to nearly 5.2 million.

More than anything, Malia and Tharps say they were attracted to Mt. Airy because of their two sons – Esai, 8, and Addai, 4.

“I think the move was more about them than us,” Malia says. “The environment would shape the little ones, so our decisions about where to live have been predicated pretty much around the children."

Siena says because Mt. Airy is so diverse, those who identify as multiracial are not given special consideration. "They are a highly visible presence," she says. "But, to be honest, it's not something we think about much. They are visible in the sense that they are present, but they are just part of the fabric of this place."

Lise Funderburg, 55, who has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years and identifies as mixed race, would agree. Funderburg, a writer who has written about her biracial identity, says it's easy for multiracial individuals to blend in.

"I've lived here for twelve years and lots of people know me, but do they know that I'm mixed race? Not necessarily," Funderburg says.

The experiences of Portia Sampson-Knapp, a 20-year-old Skidmore College student who grew up in the neighborhood, illustrate that Mt. Airy's diversity can also affect the identities of its children. She says she wasn't really aware of her mixed-race identity as a child because she was surrounded by people of many backgrounds.

News21 photo by Christopher Matthews
Malia and Tharps say they wanted to live in a community where their boys' mixed-race background would not set them apart. (News21 photo by Christopher Matthews)


I don't think I noticed when I was younger. I think my parents did a pretty good job of putting me in situations where there were mixed populations," says Sampson-Knapp, whose father is African American and mother is white. "Even just coming home and playing with other kids on the block -- by living in Mt. Airy, I think I've been exposed to a lot, so I don't think I really notice [identity] so much."

This is exactly what Malia and Tharps wanted for their children -- a place where their children’s mixed-race identity would not set them apart.

"We felt we needed to find a place we thought it would be healthy for them to grow up, and they would be exposed to different kinds of people,” Malia says.

"If you are a mixed family," Tharps says, "you're going to come here because you're going to know that you won't be stared at, and nobody's going to throw you off their block."


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