But this last bastion of separation may be going the way of the hot comb. Pushed by a recession-driven shakeout and shifting trends in hair care, the walls are starting to come down.
Walk into Saks Fifth Avenue's salon in Bala Cynwyd - historically home to a mostly white, upper-class clientele - and you will now see black and white clients getting their hair done by white and black hair stylists. There also are an increasing number of black stylists at typically white Center City salons such as Bubbles and Adolf Biecker. And black-owned beauty salons are hiring a more diverse group of stylists.
Of the six stylists at the year-old Ends Hair Design and Day Spa in Northern Liberties, owner Natalie McNeil employs three African Americans, one Asian, one white stylist and one Latina. Brandy Davila, an African American owner of the multicultural Salon Tenshi in North Philadelphia, opens her doors to all clients and stylists.
"And I'm finding it's a learning experience for everyone," Davila said. "White clients get to see what goes on with African American hair, and my black clients see that white people's hair isn't as easy to deal with as we think."
This new take on diversity is no small thing. Black women have gone to self-segregated salons not just to get their hair coifed, but to feel positive - and safe - during their experience. (There's a reason the latest YouTube sensation of a brown Sesame Street puppet singing "I Love my Hair" has legions of black women talking.)
But the change to color-blind beauty havens hasn't been a planned one. Salons have been forced to adapt after the sputtering economy closed hundreds of African American salons nationwide, and stylists and business owners had to find jobs in mainstream salons.
"African American salons suffered a lot during the last couple of years due to the troubled economy," said Geri Duncan Jones, executive director of the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute, a Chicago-based national trade association that represents the ethnic beauty industry.
"There has also been decreased business due to drastic changes in hairstyle trends [as more black women opt for] virgin hair weaves, braids, natural hair, and wigs."
These lifestyle changes - forgoing chemical processes or wearing weaves and lace-front wigs - mean that black salons no longer corner the market in black hair care. In fact, anyone can get that straight, full-bodied look, à la the women in the Bravo Housewives series, by going to multicultural salons now offering Brazilian keratin straighteners and the more eco-friendly Coppola keratin; blow-out and flat-iron combos; and Goldwell Elumen color treatments, which help keep natural hair extensions silky straight, even in high humidity.
Yet even with the decrease in needed maintenance, black women tend to be more regimented about their hair care: While the most particular white woman may visit her hair stylist every six weeks, most black women go every two weeks. Some have a weekly standing appointment.
It's no wonder that black hair-care products are expected to generate $154 million this year, according to Mintel, a Chicago-based research marketing firm.
Seline Braswell, a black stylist, catered mostly to black clientele for the 12 years she owned Vivid Hair Salon and Seline Hair Designs in Center City; in a good year, her gross sales were $500,000. Then in 2008, she noticed that her twice-a-month regulars were stretching out their appointments, coming only once a month. Some came only when they needed relaxers.
"The recession was very hard on us," Braswell said. "Not to mention people didn't want to pay for parking downtown."
So Braswell got a job at Saks Fifth Avenue - she wasn't the first black stylist at the salon, but there were none when she applied - and soon enough, her 500 regular clients followed, giving Saks a welcome boost in business. In addition, Braswell brought with her two stylists and two assistants. That meant an infusion of more than 1,000 new clients, most of them African American.
Sarah Baker, then manager of Saks Salon, said it was going to recruit more African American stylists.
For black women who want their hair visit to be a quick one, this is good news. The all-day stay that's often mandatory in an African American salon is a luxury many black working women can no longer afford.
That's what led Yvonne Montgomery away from black salons 10 years ago, when she first started getting her hair relaxed and cut by Rick Boldini at Siaani Salon on Chestnut Street.
"The thing that sold me on the salon was that you could get right in and out," said the 41-year-old attorney. "And it's true, I'm on my lunch break right now. I mean, I have spent days at the salon. And that is just unacceptable right now. This is a different experience."
Boldini, who is white, started his salon in 1991. From the beginning it served clients of all ethnicities - which was rare at the time - because he wanted his business to reflect his lifestyle.
"For years people put [stylists] in a box," Boldini said. "For years people wanted to know if I knew how to do black hair. I sure do."
But there are others who believe the barrier-breaking salons will not only remove money from the African American community, but also rob black women of a cultural experience.
It's the same argument often made about historically black colleges. Sure, students at a diverse school - or clients at a salon - may have expanded opportunities and more resources, but they likely will miss out on experiences that are special to their culture. Certainly, they won't be in an environment that caters solely to their unique needs. Outside a black salon, women might miss getting the latest DVDs or fish dinners from vendors who stop by. And where else might they have a safe place to talk about issues that matter to them?
"You are erasing culture, you are erasing history, and you are erasing a way African Americans have socialized with each other for decades," said Charles Gallagher, a white professor of sociology, criminal justice, and social work at La Salle University.
"These J.C. Penneys and Saks are culturally spaceless. You don't learn about culture, gender, or experience, and the lessons about the politics of the community, that's all gone."
White stylists and black clients may be a recent pairing, but for the last five years, black women have patronized Dominicans to have their hair blown straight or styled into a bouncy bob.
"Spanish people have traditionally done people with all textures of hair," said Jason Tavares, who worked as a stylist for years at the salon in the Bellevue on Broad Street before it closed last month. Now Tavares travels between Miami and Philadelphia. On this day, he was painting highlights onto the hair of Jennie Dellinger, who is white.
"Because we have such mixed backgrounds," Tavares said, "we aren't afraid of the different textures of hair."
Salon Tenshi's clientele comprises blacks (half), Latinas (one-quarter), and whites. Owner Davila, who used to train stylists at Bubbles on Walnut Street, said she offers steam treatments for breakage and dryness and keratin treatments that straighten all hair types.
"What's really uniting people is the look," Davila said. "If you can look past the complexion of the client, for the most part, the technique is the same."
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.