City of Neighborhoods
William Penn, the founder of Philadelphia, grew up in the Tower Hill section of London, one of the many storied neighborhoods in the capital of England. Before Penn set foot on the Delaware River shoreline in October 1682, he lived in a number of European cities including Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam. Each of those centuries-old European cities contained a rich fabric of fabled neighborhoods.
Curiously, the moniker of “The City of Neighborhoods” is carried by the city Penn founded instead of one of the European cities where firmly established neighborhoods existed long before Philadelphia was even a figment in Penn’s imagination.Read More
New York City, formally founded before Penn’s arrival in America, has hundreds more identified neighborhoods than Philadelphia, judging by the list of nearly two hundred neighborhood names compiled by the Philadelphia City Department of Records. In New York, for example, there are nearly ninety neighborhoods in Queens, one of the five boroughs comprising America’s largest city. Yet New York’s Department of City Planning references America’s largest city merely as “A City of Neighborhoods” – not using “the” as a distinguishing word as Philadelphia does. Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities also regard themselves as “a” City of Neighborhoods.
Origins of “Neighborhoods” Label Unclear
The origins of Philadelphia’s claim as “The City of Neighborhoods” are unclear. The city was regarded as “The City of Homes” as far back as the 1870s, and an 1893 book termed Philadelphia “a city of residences” with praise for the legacy of homeownership by “employers and employees” dating from Penn’s arrival. A 1976 booklet on the historical development of Philadelphia neighborhoods published by Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission stated, “Philadelphia as a city of neighborhoods has antecedents as far back as the city’s founding.”
Referencing Philadelphia as “The City of Neighborhoods” – whether the savvy snagging of an adroit marketing slogan or sheer happenstance – is consistent with the fact that historically Philadelphia has a track record of defining itself through its residential character.
Implicit in Philadelphia’s “City of Neighborhoods” dynamic is the intense pride Philadelphians hold regarding the distinct residential communities comprising this city. While Philadelphians love their city they particularly love those sections of their city where they were born, raised, and in many instances continue to live.
Many of the current neighborhoods around Philadelphia existed as separate boroughs, districts, or townships in the County of Philadelphia before absorption into the city via the 1854 Act of Consolidation. Until that time, the city’s boundaries followed Penn’s original plan, extending from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River and from Vine to South Streets.
Tacony Is Oldest
The distinction of being Philadelphia’s oldest continuously occupied neighborhood belongs to Tacony, with records of residents dating from a decade prior to William Penn’s arrival. This neighborhood located along the Delaware River, in what is now Philadelphia’s Lower Northeast section, is near the place where Penn made a Treaty of Peace with the Native Americans who originally inhabited the Philadelphia region.
Consolidation brought previously separate jurisdictions into the city such as Spring Garden on the northwest edge of Penn’s original city boundaries and historic Germantown, formally founded one year before William Penn’s arrival.
Germantown, eight miles outside the original boundaries of Philadelphia, retains evidence of its past in its many historic buildings, including a house George Washington used during his presidency. Spring Garden, now a middle-class neighborhood, in the twentieth century gained an additional designation as the “Art Museum Area” for its location near the famed Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Neighborhoods also formed through transportation innovations and real estate development. Mount Airy, in Philadelphia’s leafy Northwest section, inherited its name from the mansion owned by a Colonial-era Chief Justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. But it expanded residentially in the late 1800s, spurred partly by the extension of trolley and commuter train lines from the city core. Girard Estates, in South Philadelphia, arose in the early 1900s when the City of Philadelphia built rental homes on land once owned by banker Stephen Girard, the richest man in the United States when he died in 1831.
Byberry Known for Abolitionist Leanings
Byberry, in the Far Northeast section, was the most rural section of Philadelphia County at the time of the 1854 Consolidation and had a vibrant abolitionist/anti-slavery presence prior to the Civil War. One of the nation’s first protests against school segregation occurred there in 1853 when a wealthy African American, the richest resident in that community, refused to pay taxes and forced town leaders to quickly reverse their edict on banning black children from the public school.
Philadelphia neighborhoods appear to be stable, yet they are continually changing.
This is evident in Society Hill, the lauded upscale community of colonial-era homes adjacent to Independence National Historical Park. The name Society Hill originated with the Free Society of Traders, a colonial-era merchant’s society, and once applied to the entire region from today’s Pine Street down to Christian Street. The name fell out of use by the nineteenth century, but assumed new life during the 1950s period of urban renewal.
Urban renewal transformed Society Hill from a hardscrabble residential area filled with commercial buildings into an elite enclave. However, that renewal also triggered removal of Philadelphia’s oldest African American community dating from colonial times – the area examined in Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ seminal 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro, prepared as sociological research for the University of Pennsylvania.
Powelton Village, a West Philadelphia neighborhood north of Drexel University and adjacent to Thirtieth Street Station, began its residential life in the late 1800s as a location desired by some of the city’s industrial tycoons. After some descent on the economic ladder, Powelton Village again gained distinction as the locus for Philadelphia’s counter-culture and anti-Vietnam War scenes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Currently Powelton Village, with streets lined with Victorian-era homes and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, enjoys a quiet residential character.
Other neighborhoods have physically disappeared.
Wissahickon Residents Bought Out
The rugged wilderness-like Wissahickon Valley in Fairmount Park, listed as a National Natural Landmark, once contained residential clusters of housing for workers in the scores of water-powered mills along the Wissahickon Creek. During the late nineteenth century, the housing and mills were razed as the Fairmount Park Commission bought land to preserve the purity of the creek for Philadelphia’s water supply.
During the 1980s a large section of Logan was demolished because homes built there decades earlier were constructed on unstable ground, causing the foundations to sink and some houses to collapse. That razing of nearly 1,000 homes left an eerie landscape of street grids with no structures.
Surprisingly for a city steeped in history, the neighborhood-memory of most Philadelphians extends back for only a couple of decades. Neighborhood histories sometimes become lost as populations and places change, but new histories are constantly being created.
Few among the thousands coming to the Sports Complex in South Philadelphia yearly to cheer the city’s professional baseball team are aware that Philadelphia’s century-plus-long baseball tradition began in North Philadelphia during the nineteenth century.
Beginning in the 1870s, North Philly housed six of the thirteen facilities used by the city’s professional baseball teams. Two teams from that era remain active in Major League Baseball, including the Phillies, who played in North Philly until Veterans Stadium opened in South Philadelphia in 1971. The other is the American League team once known as the Philadelphia Athletics, now the Oakland Athletics following a move to the Midwest in the 1950s and then to the West Coast.
Pastoral North Philadelphia
North Philadelphia, although identified in the public mind as quintessentially inner-city urban, began as a rural pastoral area.
North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion section, once known as Summerville, traces its name to a mansion-housed restaurant that once served strawberries and cream to wealthy guests in the nineteenth century. In a placid park section on the western edge of Strawberry Mansion are a series of architecturally significant colonial-era mansions located on ridges overlooking the Schuylkill River.
Now overwhelmingly African American, in the first half of the twentieth century Strawberry Mansion housed Philadelphia’s largest Jewish community, numbering more than 30,000 residents. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the neighborhood’s total population dropped to 22,562, and 97.58 percent of those residents were African American. Whites in Strawberry Mansion – of all religious and ethnic groupings – comprised less than one-half of one percent of the community’s population.
Successive waves of immigrants from across Europe, blacks migrating from the South, and Latinos (primarily Puerto Ricans) have added distinctive imprints on the complexions of neighborhoods.
Many currently think of Philadelphia’s Latino community as historically rooted in northeastern North Philadelphia and western Kensington, but there is also a fading memory of the once-vibrant Puerto Rican presence in Spring Garden, evidenced by the Roberto Clemente Playground. That facility honors Clemente, the Puerto Rican-born professional baseball star and respected humanitarian, who was the first Latino selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (Interestingly, Clemente has no direct connection to Philadelphia.)
Many see South Philadelphia as historically the Italian section of the city. Few are aware of that area’s origins with Swedish settlers as evidenced by the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, the oldest church in Pennsylvania. And along with Italians, the area has growing Mexican and Southeast Asian populations.
Most recently, immigration from East Asian countries like Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam expanded the business ownership complexion of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, located in Center City a few blocks east of City Hall, and other city neighborhoods.
Ironically, Philadelphia’s famous nickname – the “City of Brotherly Love,” derived from the translation of the Greek name Penn gave his city – masks a history of un-neighborly turmoil.
Philadelphia’s earliest turf-related race riots targeted African Americans in today’s Society Hill in the early nineteenth century, and by the 1840s anti-Catholic sentiment targeted Irish immigrants in Kensington and Southwark.
In the 1950s and 1960s efforts to preserve racial integration by staunching “white flight” became defining struggles in neighborhoods like Mount Airy and the Wynnefield section of West Philadelphia. Today Mount Airy is widely recognized as a national model for an integrated neighborhood.
In the 1980s some politicians in Philadelphia’s Northeast mounted a campaign to have that section secede from the city and become an entity known as Liberty County. Secession supporters cited their feeling of being overtaxed but receiving short-shrift in city services. Critics of the movement claimed the campaign rested in part on a desire to sustain the then-overwhelming white population character of that sprawling area, which built up residentially largely after World War II.
The proposed state legislation to create the separate Liberty County died from inaction. In the decades that followed, diversity in the Northeast increased with non-whites from other sections of Philadelphia and immigrants from Russia and other countries.
The dawn of the twenty-first century did not lessen turf-related tensions. South Philadelphia High School witnessed attacks on Asian students by black classmates and tensions roiled in Southwest Philadelphia between blacks and immigrants from African countries.
Neighborhoods are sometimes places of conflict but at the same time they remain sources of pride. The heartfelt loyalty held by Philadelphians about their neighborhoods radiates through the collective psyche of the city. That loyalty animates the Philly-centric sense of place and purpose manifest in an emotional swagger referenced locally as “Attytood.”
“Attytood” is a driving force in Philadelphia, contributing to national reputations for the love of local cuisine like juicy cheesesteaks and dry soft pretzels and the often-raucous sports fans’ allegiances to local professional sports teams. Consistent with “Attytood.” the name for the mascot of Philadelphia’s Major League Baseball team is the “Phillie Phanatic.”
Although Philadelphia’s population fluctuates and the features of its communities change, the pride in being a part of a neighborhood remains resilient.
Topics: Creating Communities
People of African descent have migrated to Philadelphia since the seventeenth century. First arriving in bondage, either directly from Africa or by way of the Caribbean, they soon developed a small but robust community that grew throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although African Americans faced employment discrimination, disfranchisement, and periodic race riots in the ⇒ Read More
Throughout much of its modern American history, barbering has been derided as “servile” work, unfit for native-born, white citizens. As such, the profession has been dominated by marginalized groups. In the Philadelphia region, African Americans owned and operated the majority of barber shops during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Since then, waves of immigrant ⇒ Read More
More than any other city, Philadelphia epitomized the significance of Negro League baseball in urban communities. For a remarkable eight decades, local fans consistently supported a series of black ball clubs whose successes generated racial pride and represented a triumph of African American institution-building. In Philadelphia, the first all-black baseball teams surfaced in the 1860s. ⇒ Read More
From the time the game was created to its organization into a professional league, and from the first National League game ever played to some of the earliest World Series, the city of Philadelphia has played a prominent role in professional baseball history. Variations of the game of baseball became popular some three decades prior ⇒ Read More
The Better Philadelphia Exhibition, which ran from September 8 to October 15, 1947, at Gimbels department store in Center City, showcased new ideas for revitalizing Philadelphia after decades of depression and war. Conceived by young architects and planners and funded by prominent citizens, the exhibition introduced more than 350,000 people in the metropolitan area, free ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia’s Fifth Ward, south of Chestnut Street near the Delaware River, became infamous in the late nineteenth century for election-day riots among the Irish, blacks, and the police, with ward boss William “Bull” McMullen (1824-1901) at the center of the violence. By the early twentieth century, the area had become known as the “Bloody Fifth,” ⇒ Read More
Distinguished by its ubiquitous row houses and high rates of home ownership, Philadelphia has been long been known as a “city of homes.” But for much of its history, it also has been a city of boardinghouses. “Boarding” and “lodging” houses did not enter the local lexicon until the late eighteenth century, but the practice ⇒ Read More
For over one hundred years, Philadelphia neighborhoods, for better and worse, played a significant role in molding fighters. Over two dozen world boxing champions throughout various weight classes called Philadelphia home. Nearby communities such as Camden, New Jersey, and Easton, Pennsylvania, also produced world champions. Over time, Philadelphia-area boxing was supported by a wide network ⇒ Read More
“No other street in America quite compares with Broad Street,” wrote E. Digby Baltzell, author of Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, of the varied architecture north and south of City Hall. Philadelphia’s Broad Street goes past stores, churches, synagogues, museums, funeral parlors, fast food places, gas stations, apartment houses, and rows and rows of row ⇒ Read More
Cemeteries have been integral features of the Philadelphia-area landscape since the earliest European settlements of the mid-1600s. Over the centuries, and in tandem with developments such as epidemics, immigration, industrialization, war, and suburbanization, the region’s cemeteries matured from small, private grave sites, potter’s fields, and church burial yards to rural cemeteries, national cemeteries, and memorial ⇒ Read More
A cheesesteak is a sandwich unlike any John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), might have encountered. Thin bits of frizzled beef served on a locally-made Italian roll, usually topped with fried onions and Cheez Whiz drawn from the can with a paint stirrer, the Philly cheesesteak also is distinguished, in part, by its ⇒ Read More
Settled by Chinese migrants in the 1870s, Philadelphia’s Chinatown grew over the course of the twentieth century from a small ethnic enclave on the outskirts of Skid Row to a vibrant family community in the heart of Center City. Threatened by urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, Chinatown residents marshaled the redevelopment process to ⇒ Read More
Two-year, public colleges—commonly known as community colleges—first appeared in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Situated at the intersection of secondary and higher education, they were local institutions that offered both general studies and vocational training. Referred to as junior colleges before the 1950s, they owed their inspiration to Benjamin Franklin ⇒ Read More
During the community development movement, which arose in the 1960s in large part in response to years of disruption spurred by government-imposed urban renewal, Philadelphia became an important center of activism and institutions devoted to locally-based improvement programs. Community development programs sought to provide greater control over the future of neighborhoods at a time when ⇒ Read More
Community development corporations (CDCs), initially a federal initiative intended to direct resources to beleaguered neighborhoods where local activists would take the lead in identifying and solving their most pressing problems, first formed in Philadelphia at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. As federal funding for such efforts dried up in the Reagan era, ⇒ Read More
Commuter trains have helped to shape and define Philadelphia and its region since their introduction in 1832. The trains influenced suburban development and shaped Center City. For most of this period, the trains charged higher fares than other forms of public transit and remained a largely middle-class means of transport. Commuter trains connected middle-class homes ⇒ Read More
The Consolidation Act of 1854 extended Philadelphia’s territory from the two-square-mile “city proper” founded by William Penn to nearly 130 square miles, making the municipal borders coterminous with Philadelphia County and turning the metropolis into the largest in extent in the nation, a position it held until Chicago leapt ahead in 1889. Consolidation’s supporters believed ⇒ Read More
The Crosstown Expressway, a proposed limited-access highway on the southern edge of Center City, became the subject of prolonged controversy during the 1960s and 1970s as redevelopment schemes met with neighborhood resistance. The envisioned highway first appeared in redevelopment plans for Center City during the 1940s and came to play a role in regional traffic ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia region’s long-held reputation as the “workshop of the world,” though richly deserved, did not prevent it from suffering the same loss of manufacturing firms and jobs that devastated the economies of other manufacturing centers. Local products ranged widely, from locomotives and ships to silk hosiery, wool carpets, machine tools, hand tools, lighting fixtures, ⇒ Read More
Delaware Avenue, the north-south thoroughfare closest to the Delaware River in Philadelphia, owes its existence to the richest man in America, who wanted a grand avenue along the central waterfront. The street, including a portion renamed Columbus Boulevard in the 1990s, played a significant role in the development of Philadelphia’s maritime activity, particularly food distribution ⇒ Read More
Free clinics known as dispensaries served the “working poor” of European, British, and American cities from the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Paid or volunteer physicians saw patients on site or at their homes in the dispensary’s district, caring for both minor ailments and more serious diseases. The Philadelphia Dispensary for the Medical Relief ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia was one of several key cities where, in the 1950s and early 1960s, singers created the small-group vocal harmony style of rhythm and blues known as doo wop. Doo wop was an urban style, sung on city street corners and in school hallways. Its name, derived from a type of sound singers made in ⇒ Read More
Down There, a hardboiled crime novel by Philadelphia writer David Goodis (1917-67) published in 1956, follows Eddie Lynn, a former concert pianist, who hides from his past until his estranged brother shows up and forces him to grapple with his ghosts. Although not one of Goodis’s most successful novels, Down There became his most famous ⇒ Read More
In the twentieth century, many urban school districts, which had been among the finest in the nation, became some of the most challenged. The Greater Philadelphia region reflected this trend. In 1900 the region’s school systems consisted of largely uncoordinated public, parochial, and private schools. Between 1900 and 1965 politicians, educational administrators, and civic leaders ⇒ Read More
Nestled between Second Street and the Delaware River, thirty-two Federal and Georgian residences stand as reminders of the early days of Philadelphia. Elfreth’s Alley exists today as a residential street, historic landmark, and interpreted site labeled the “Nation’s Oldest Residential Street.” The heroic efforts of residents and local historians from the 1930s to 1960s preserved ⇒ Read More
Years before the United States Congress put housing discrimination law into effect with the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, Philadelphia and its suburbs grappled with the cumulative effects of policies that severely limited African Americans’ housing options. By the mid-1960s, new laws and policy initiatives addressed the situation in the Greater Philadelphia area with ⇒ Read More
In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia and the region surrounding it came to contain free black communities that by most measures were the most vibrant, dynamic, and influential in the United States. Free African Americans relied on each other to confront the persistent power of slavery and white supremacy in Philadelphia and the region. At the ⇒ Read More
In the second half of the twentieth century, the Center City neighborhood that became known as the Gayborhood formed in the vicinity of Locust and Thirteenth Streets. The community and the geographical spaces it occupied played a vital role in the social and political struggles of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people locally and ⇒ Read More
Even as Philadelphia experienced deindustrialization and decline in the 1970s, a handful of neighborhoods began to experience a phenomenon known as gentrification—a process where affluent individuals settled in lower-income areas. As middle-class residents returned, formerly moribund commercial corridors came alive with restaurants and shops catering to the well-heeled. Soon, real estate prices began to creep ⇒ Read More
The Delaware Valley’s frosty winters have always required residents to heat their homes for months at a time. At the time of the Philadelphia’s founding, the dense forests in its hinterland offered ample stocks of firewood—the region’s first home heating fuel. Anthracite coal from northeastern Pennsylvania began to supplement wood in the early nineteenth century ⇒ Read More
Originating in the nineteenth century, high school sports accompanied the spread of secondary schooling and became a nationwide phenomenon as students initiated team competitions and schools instituted physical education programs. In the Philadelphia region, early scholastic sports gained legitimacy from mentoring provided by the area’s many colleges and from the School District of Philadelphia’s commitment ⇒ Read More
Throughout the Philadelphia area, in communities large and small, concentrations of buildings, landscapes, and natural features that collectively reflect the region’s cultural and historical development have been documented and recognized as historic districts. Often described as areas where the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” historic districts have been at the core ⇒ Read More
Located six miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia, Germantown is one of America’s most historic neighborhoods. It is also one that offers provocative examples of how people consider the past. Originally part of 5,700 acres that William Penn sold to two groups from the Rhine region of what is now Germany, German Township was a processing center, made ⇒ Read More
The revival of immigration to Philadelphia and its surrounding region in the early nineteenth century provided one of the most powerful elements in reshaping the city’s society. After a decline in immigration during the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the growing industrialization of the Philadelphia region began to attract streams of ⇒ Read More
During the national explosion of immigration that took place between 1870 and the 1920s, the Philadelphia region became more diverse and cosmopolitan as it was energized by immigrants who indelibly changed the character of the places where they settled. With its reputation as the “Workshop of the World,” Philadelphia attracted immigrants to jobs in industry, ⇒ Read More
For most of the decades since the United States’ immigration restriction acts of the 1920s, Philadelphia was not a major destination for immigrants, but at the end of the twentieth century the region re-emerged as a significant gateway. Beginning with changes in U.S. law in 1965 and accelerating by the 1990s, immigration added large, diverse ⇒ Read More
European settlement of the region on both sides of the Delaware River dates to the early seventeenth century. The population grew rapidly after 1682, when Pennsylvania’s policy of religious tolerance and its reputation as the “best poor man’s country” attracted people from all walks of life. By the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia was ⇒ Read More
The growth and decline of industry in the Philadelphia region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also shaped the character of many of its neighborhoods. Compact industrial neighborhoods originated at a time when the lack of public transportation made it necessary for workers to live within walking distance of the factories. These row house blocks ⇒ Read More
The Italian Market, located in the Bella Vista neighborhood of South Philadelphia, is the popular name for the food shops and curbside stands on Ninth Street between Fitzwater and Wharton Streets, where merchants sell fresh produce, prepared foods, imported products, goods, and equipment for both household and commercial consumption. The majority of food establishments specialize ⇒ Read More
Although ties between Italy and Greater Philadelphia stretched back generations, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that Italian migration increased to the extent of forming visible points of settlement in the area. Over time, loosely connected clusters of Italians in various neighborhoods, mainly in South Philadelphia, coalesced into a singular ⇒ Read More
Labor Day, celebrated the first Monday of September, has been observed in the Philadelphia region since the 1880s, before it became a nationwide holiday. New Jersey was one of the first states to grant Labor Day legal status in 1887, and Pennsylvania followed suit by the end of the decade. The earliest incarnations of Labor ⇒ Read More
The iconic Levittown communities–the first in Long Island, New York, and the subsequent two in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Burlington County, New Jersey–endure as symbols of the unique character of post-World War II U.S. suburban development. A confluence of forces encouraged the particular nature of these large-scale, mass-produced, low-cost suburban tract housing developments, including a ⇒ Read More
City and state politicians representing Northeast Philadelphia, deeply unsettled by the shifting economy and demographic makeup of the city in the 1980s, proposed seceding to create “Liberty County,” a separate, suburban municipality to ostensibly address taxpayers’ demands for improved municipal services. The primary impetus for such a radical step, however, was reaction to Philadelphia’s first ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia mayoralty, almost as old as the city itself, has changed markedly since its inception. When the post was created in the eighteenth century, citizens put up their own money in order to avoid having to serve. By the early 2000s, in contrast, candidates and supportive political action committees poured millions into mayoral elections. ⇒ Read More
The early Europeans who settled in what would become Montgomery County in the eighteenth century tended prosperous farms, forges, and mills. They depended on the Philadelphia market to sell their products and on its port to connect them to the wider colonial world. Subsequent generations built a dense transportation network that linked county laborers, suppliers, ⇒ Read More
For more than sixty years, West Mount Airy, nestled in the northwest corner of Philadelphia, has earned a reputation as a national model of racial integration. In the years following World War II, when many American neighborhoods were experiencing rapid racial transition, homeowners in West Mount Airy worked to understand and put into practice the ⇒ Read More
MOVE, a controversial Philadelphia-based organization often associated with the Black Power movement, combined philosophies of black nationalism and anarcho-primitivism to advocate a return to a hunter-gatherer society and avoidance of modern medicine and technology. The group’s very loud and public quest for racial justice, as well as its strong views on animal rights, led to ⇒ Read More
The Mummers Parade, an institution in Philadelphia since 1901, brought together many of the loosely organized groups of folk performers who roamed the streets each year between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Known variously as mummers, shooters, belsnickles, fantasticals, and callithumpians, these masqueraders traced their roots to immigrants from England, Sweden, and Germany who ⇒ Read More
Murals in the Greater Philadelphia region, like those in the United States at large, belong to an extraordinarily diverse set of histories and genealogies, from indigenous rock carving to decorations for private houses to paintings in public buildings and community initiatives. Philadelphia-area murals have spanned this diverse heritage, including three particularly important mural movements: Beaux-Arts ⇒ Read More
Where exactly North Philadelphia begins and ends is a matter of debate. Even native Philadelphians have difficulty identifying the boundaries of this area of their city with precision. This is likely because so many of the neighborhoods located north, northeast, or northwest of Philadelphia’s center enjoy common histories and developmental patterns and consequently look a ⇒ Read More
From its initial, colonial foundations as a sparsely populated farming hinterland to its dramatic postwar housing development after World War II, Northeast Philadelphia developed into a desirable destination for those seeking to improve their economic, social, and cultural standing within Philadelphia’s city boundaries. Even as Northeast Philadelphia came to symbolize a middle-class environment rooted around homeownership, commercial development, and mass ⇒ Read More
Northwest Philadelphia, bound loosely by the Roosevelt Expressway to the south, Broad Street to the east, and the suburbs of Montgomery County to the north and west, has origins as old as the city itself. Developing around the Schuylkill and Wissahickon Creek waterways, and later Fairmount Park, the Northwest expanded and changed with the advent ⇒ Read More
The Octavia Hill Association of Philadelphia was founded in 1896 to provide clean dwellings at reasonable rents to some of the city’s poorest residents, who were often exploited by profit-hungry landlords. Still active as a real estate management company, the Octavia Hill Association has a history of responding to changing economic conditions and housing needs. ⇒ Read More
One of the earliest forms of public transportation in Philadelphia (and its early suburbs prior to the 1854 consolidation of the city with the county) was the horse-drawn omnibus introduced in 1831. The omnibus, together with the railroad, created the first urban commuters and it effectively became the model for all future street-based public transportation ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), a nonprofit corporation controlled jointly by the city government and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, formed in 1958 to support existing businesses and attract new ones by offering land and low-cost financing for both for-profit and nonprofit enterprises. To accomplish this mission, PIDC manages the oldest municipal land ⇒ Read More
In 1899, the University of Pennsylvania published The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, the first scholarly race study of an urban place in what became a growing trend of Progressive-era social surveys. The massive report about Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward became a distinctive (and still relevant) landmark in the annals of sociological study and social advocacy. ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia Social History Project (PSHP) was a large and ambitious interdisciplinary project that played a central role in transforming the study of urban and social history. From its inception in 1969 until the project’s closure in 1985, the PSHP employed dozens of research associates and computer programmers, as well as hundreds of undergraduate students, ⇒ Read More
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, children’s play became an important concern of urban reformers, who regarded playgrounds—outdoor environments designed, equipped, and sometimes staffed, to facilitate children’s play—as essential components in shaping behavior and ordering urban space. Many public and semipublic playgrounds established as a result of their efforts became permanent features of the Philadelphia ⇒ Read More
Since 1914, police officers in urban areas have seen the need for better relations between the police and local youth as a means of reducing crime and promoting wholesome play under proper supervision. In that spirit, the first Police Athletic League (PAL) in the greater Philadelphia area formed in North Philadelphia in 1947 “to build ⇒ Read More
Urban areas in the United States have always attracted destitute persons, including immigrants and internal migrants fleeing even worse poverty and harsher conditions elsewhere. Philadelphia and its environs were no exception, having had a reputation as “the best poor man’s country” reaching as far back as the city’s founding in 1682. Despite the area’s vibrant ⇒ Read More
Public bathing became a civil and social imperative in the Philadelphia region and elsewhere in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. Following the cholera epidemic of 1849, which devastated the American population, leaving hundreds of thousands of deaths in its wake, including that of President James K. Polk, it became ⇒ Read More
From one of America’s earliest public secondary schools to the large, neighborhood high schools of the early twentieth century and sprawling suburban campuses after World War II, through later experiments aimed at restructuring and reforming urban high schools, Greater Philadelphia has been notable in the development of secondary education in the United States. Central High ⇒ Read More
In the second half of the twentieth century, many parents moved their families out of Philadelphia, Camden, or Wilmington so that their children could enroll in suburban public schools because they perceived them to be better than their urban counterparts. Before then, many believed that the best public schools were urban and that rural schools ⇒ Read More
In 1837 the Philadelphia Board of Education—then known as the Board of Controllers—embraced “universal education” and opened the city’s publicly supported and publicly controlled schools to all school-age children, free of tuition. The board proudly proclaimed: “the stigma of poverty, once the only title of admission to our public schools, has . . . been ⇒ Read More
As the dominant response to the housing needs of low-income residents since the 1930s, public housing in the Philadelphia region provided shelter for thousands. Over the years, however, as needs as well as programs changed, the city and the region struggled to provide safe, decent, and sanitary living quarters when the private market failed to ⇒ Read More
For more than three centuries public transportation has helped both to shape and define the Greater Philadelphia region. Befitting one of the world’s largest cities, Philadelphia and its hinterland have been served by a bewildering array of transportation options, and these vehicles and routes have helped to define the extent of the region. Public transportation ⇒ Read More
The centuries-long relationship between the Philadelphia region and Puerto Rico unfolded in four interrelated areas: economic links, political channels, personal networks, and cultural exchange. Several dynamics shaped those connections over time. Colonialism, first under Spain and later the United States, set the broad context for trade relations and government policies. Individual reactions to those policies ⇒ Read More
Redlining, the practice of basing access to capital and financial services on neighborhood characteristics such as race and ethnicity, had destructive effects on older, nonwhite areas of Philadelphia. Especially in areas of South, West, and Lower North Philadelphia that form a ring around downtown, banks and other lending institutions issued proportionally fewer mortgages than in ⇒ Read More
More than just a popular series of Hollywood films or the fictional prizefighter whose life and career they chronicle, Rocky is a late-twentieth-century cultural phenomenon that reframed Philadelphia for local, national, and international audiences. Rocky premiered in 1976. Written by and starring Sylvester Stallone (b. 1946), the film introduced audiences to Rocky Balboa: a down-and-out ⇒ Read More
Parochial schools in the Philadelphia region share a common Catholic mission and similar patterns of growth and development. For more than three centuries they have responded to the changing characteristics of the region’s Catholic population. Several of these developments, such as schools for specific ethnic groups, occurred in Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., and Wilmington, Del., within ⇒ Read More
Parishes stand at the center of Roman Catholic religious life. Since the arrival of Catholicism in the Philadelphia region in the early eighteenth century, parishes have shaped Catholics’ sense of communal identity by functioning as both the administrative unit of a diocese and the primary site of Catholic worship. Developing into expansive complexes that often ⇒ Read More
Lining Philadelphia’s straight, gridiron streets, the row house defines the vernacular architecture of the city and reflects the ambitions of the people who built and lived there. Row houses were built to fit all levels of taste and budgets, from single-room bandbox plans to grand town houses. The row house was easy to build on ⇒ Read More
The two most prominent forms of savings societies are the mutual savings bank and the savings and loan association, and Philadelphia is the home to the first institution for both. The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS), founded 1816, and Oxford Provident Building Association, formed in 1831, were member-owned cooperatives whose success helped launch two financial ⇒ Read More
Family names and place names were almost the only names one needed to know when America was composed of small, homogeneous communities. Often interchangeable, such markers signified social and cultural status. But they ceased to be sufficient when America became more diverse and the family less communal. An institution like the school needed a name ⇒ Read More
Fully opened for traffic November 25, 1958, Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway was gridlocked from the first day of its operation. Envisioned by city planners as a panacea for economy-suffocating urban traffic congestion, but built on flawed engineering assumptions about traffic flows, the expressway ignored any concern for postwar social and regional realities. Rather than being acclaimed, ⇒ Read More
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (better known by its acronym SEPTA) is a state authority charged with funding and operating public transportation in the city of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery. Created in 1963, SEPTA often struggled with management issues, employee morale, strikes, aging equipment, inadequate funding, and poor public ⇒ Read More
The settlement house movement, a phenomenon of the Progressive era with origins in London, spread to Philadelphia in the 1890s as a large influx of needy immigrants and unsanitary conditions in the city attracted the attention of middle-class, college-educated reformers. Living among the poor in South Philadelphia, Kensington, and other neighborhoods, settlement house residents sought ⇒ Read More
Shopping centers, which bound retailers together into one physically convenient and accessible commercial venue for suburban consumers, profoundly altered Greater Philadelphia, redefining the region’s socioeconomic dimensions and destabilizing the city’s old, commercial core, the Central Business District. Commercial retailing also underwent significant changes, as the location, planning, and physical proportions of shopping facilities dramatically transformed ⇒ Read More
Slovak migration to the Philadelphia region was no less a part of the Slovak experience in the United States than the larger Slovak migrations to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or Chicago. Although much smaller and often overlooked in larger migration accounts, Slovak-speaking workers contributed to Philadelphia’s reputation as a “Workshop of the World” through their contribution to ⇒ Read More
Society Hill is one of Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhoods, with more buildings surviving from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than any other in the country. Usually defined by the boundaries of Walnut, Lombard, Front and Eighth Streets, this area south of Independence National Historic Park evolved over the centuries as a diverse, complex residential and commercial ⇒ Read More
South Asian migration to Greater Philadelphia arrived in small numbers through the 1800s from the group of seven countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Myanmar. This large region shared a history of British colonization until as late as 1965, and different migration patterns and political histories made community life unique ⇒ Read More
From the film Rocky (1976) to the Italian Market, South Philadelphia’s image as an urban village has been entwined with Italian immigration. While South Philadelphia’s large Italian immigrant community marked the neighborhood in many ways, an array of ethnic, racial, and religious groups have resided in South Philadelphia since the seventeenth century, making its history ⇒ Read More
Along its east-west course, South Street has been a space where different types of Philadelphians—white and black, poor and wealthy, parochial and urbane, straight and gay—have met and mingled. From its early days as a theater district, it evolved through various incarnations: from a locus for African American life to a center for immigrant-owned garment ⇒ Read More
“South Street,” a hit song for the Philadelphia vocal group the Orlons in 1963, celebrates an iconic Philadelphia thoroughfare and is among a select group of songs that came to define the city in popular culture in the late twentieth century. The song’s catchy opening line—“Where do all the hippies meet? South Street, South Street”—became ⇒ Read More
Southwest Philadelphia, which along with adjacent Tinicum Township, Delaware County, is the location of the Philadelphia International Airport, greets many visitors to the city. Yet, Southwest Philadelphia, often described as “far” Southwest, is quite possibly the least-known area of the city, even to Philadelphians. Kingsessing, as this vicinity was originally named, was the first section ⇒ Read More
Philadelphians, having pioneered the gridiron street layout in North America, also led the way in street numbering. The grid had been in place for more than a century by the time citizens began to experiment with ways to number the buildings that lined their streets in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But by ⇒ Read More
From the colonial period to the present, street vendors have been integral yet contentious features of Greater Philadelphia’s economic landscape. Providing massive numbers of customers with food, clothing, and other goods while allowing many working people an occupational foothold in the region, vending also sparked controversies regarding taxes, regulation, public health, and uses of space. ⇒ Read More
Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s growing streetcar network facilitated the movement of upper and middle class Philadelphians to residential districts outside of the urban core. New streetcar-centric suburban developments combined the allure of pastoral living with fast access to work and commerce in central Philadelphia. In this way, streetcar suburbs represented ⇒ Read More
For more than 150 years streetcars have served the Philadelphia area and helped Center City Philadelphia retain its commercial, retail, and entertainment supremacy in an ever-expanding region. Although the motive power switched from horses to electricity (with short detours into steam and cable), most change has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Perhaps the greatest transformation ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia’s subway and elevated network consists of four lines that connect with other transportation options to serve much of the region. Although the network is relatively simple compared with systems in other cities, its history is complex. It took over eight decades to plan and to build, and its construction required a variety of public-private ⇒ Read More
From small operations in the colonial era to elaborate social spaces in the twenty-first century, taverns in and around Philadelphia have been vital institutions, offering respite, nourishment, and camaraderie to travelers and patrons. Over time, attitudes and laws regarding the consumption of alcohol altered the character of the tavern and gave rise to modern hotels, ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia region has provided a backdrop for numerous television programs, including shows by creators from the region. Although the programs often were shot in other places, like New York or Los Angeles, the Philadelphia setting provided important references and details. In some cases, stories called for posh suburbs, such as those on the Main ⇒ Read More
In the final decades of the 1800s, a vice district emerged just north of Philadelphia’s city center. Bound by Sixth Street on the east, Thirteenth Street on the west, Race Street to the south, and Callowhill Street to the north, this neighborhood was called the Tenderloin, like similar districts in many other cities of the ⇒ Read More
Served by Italian bakeries in South Philadelphia since the early twentieth century, the tomato pie became known by many names: church pie, square pizza, red pizza, granny pizza, and red pie. Although made in a rectangular or square shape similar to Sicilian-style pizza, tomato pie within the city and surrounding region remained distinct from contemporary ⇒ Read More
The University City Science Center, the nation’s first and oldest urban research park, represents a pivotal chapter in the story of American urban renewal, its associated racial tensions, and the important role played by institutions of higher education. Established in 1960 in West Philadelphia adjacent to and intertwining the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania ⇒ Read More
Urban renewal was a nationwide program aimed at maintaining the dominant position of central cities in the face of the urban crisis and suburban growth that marked the decades following World War II. Philadelphia was a leader in this revitalization practice, reserving more federal urban renewal grant funding ($209 million), by the end of 1965, ⇒ Read More
The Vine Street Expressway (Interstate 676), a 1.75-mile depressed limited-access highway traveling east-west across the northern edge of Philadelphia’s central business district, resulted from more than sixty years of effort to connect I-95 and I-76 and move traffic more easily between and through the city to surrounding counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Its route ⇒ Read More
Like many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Harrowgate, located just northwest of Kensington, experienced dramatic changes as a result of the industrial boom in the nineteenth century. Prior to industrialization, Harrowgate was a small community built around medicinal springs and attracted only the wealthiest of Philadelphia’s citizens. Industrialization, however, transformed Harrowgate. By the late nineteenth century, Harrowgate ⇒ Read More
One of the single largest sectors of the city of Philadelphia at almost fifteen square miles between the Schuylkill River to the east and Delaware County to the west, West Philadelphia at its peak, in the early twentieth century, attracted an influx of new residents to its verdant, suburban-feeling neighborhoods. But over the course of ⇒ Read More
From its inception, zoning became a fraught subject. By empowering neighborhood groups and local politicians with power over land use in their communities, zoning brought such groups in Philadelphia and elsewhere into contest with developers, industrial concerns, and sometimes with other people who wanted to move into their neighborhoods. The policy generated results both noble, ⇒ Read More