Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

South Street

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 shops; from a depopulating backwater slated for destruction to a booming destination for hip consumers. Throughout its rich history, South Street’s diversity and vibrancy have been its main attractions.

South Street (then known as Cedar Street) formed the original southern boundary of William Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia. In the eighteenth century, it was a liminal space between an increasingly cosmopolitan central city and rural townships to the south. Farmers came to hawk their wares at the New Market, which stood on today’s Headhouse Square at Second and South Streets. Southwark Theatre—Philadelphia’s first—was built on the southern side of the street, since Quaker doctrine forbade live performances within Philadelphia proper. Indeed, over the next three hundred years, South Street would continue to attract those who sought to live beyond the reach of Quaker-influenced city governance.

map of part of the seventh ward, showing broad and south streets in the center

South Street served as the Seventh Ward’s southern border (and Spruce Street its north) when W.E.B. Du Bois conducted his sociological study The Philadelphia Negro, examining the Seventh, which was a neighborhood predominantly populated by free African Americans in the late nineteenth century. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

By the early 1800s, South Street was becoming the epicenter of the city’s black community. Freed slaves clustered near the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church—the first AME church in America—just north of South Street. After emancipation, Philadelphia’s black community grew steadily as migrants came north, boosting its numbers from 31,699 in 1870 to 84,459 by 1910. With that growth, black settlement extended westward to the Schuylkill River along the South Street corridor. Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) documented life in this densely packed neighborhood in his seminal 1899 study, The Philadelphia Negro. Meanwhile, the western blocks of South Street became a bustling African American shopping and entertainment strip. Black-owned restaurants were especially numerous. Walking down South Street, a recently arrived migrant from North Carolina remembered being met with strange and wonderful odors, the smell of coffee mingling with “spices and the strange, dank odor of the river.”

Wave of European Immigration

Beginning in the 1830s, African Americans were joined by an increasing number of European immigrants. Droves of Irish came to the area in search of work on the waterfront. In the 1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad built the Washington Avenue Immigration Station on a pier just south of South Street. Over the next forty-five years, hundreds of thousands of Italians, Poles, and eastern European Jews streamed through the station. Between 1870 and 1910, the number of Philadelphia’s Russian-born Jews rose from fewer than 100 to nearly 91,000. Arrivals listing Italian origins skyrocketed from 500 to 45,000. Many of those immigrants settled just north of the Immigration Station in row houses on or near South Street itself.

By the early twentieth century, South Street had evolved into a commercial corridor with multiple identities. The Shambles, an open-air food market, bustled just north of Second and South Streets. Garment workshops, warehouses, and stores dominated South Street’s eastern stretch, from the Delaware River to Sixth Street, along with adjacent Fabric Row on Fourth Street. These Jewish-owned shops were a less-expensive alternative to Center City’s department stores, and South Street bustled with shoppers looking for bargains. West of Broad Street, the area around South Street was populated by African Americans—some pushed westward by waves of European immigration, others recent migrants from the South. From 1900 to 1920, the number of blacks living on the blocks around western South Street rose from 9,000 to 12,241. In this area, African American restaurants, churches, and cabarets thrived. In the 1910s, several black-owned theaters opened on the western stretch of South Street. In the 1920s, the Royal Theater hosted famous performers like Bessie Smith (1894-1937) and Fats Waller (1904-43).

Photograph of the exterior of the Royal Theater, showing the marquee for the last show, as well as a for sale sign

When the Royal Theater opened its doors in 1920 it quickly became a center for African American arts and culture in Philadelphia. Patrons at the 1,200-seat theater could see performances by Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, and other prominent black artists and entertainers. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In the decades that followed, South Street’s reputation for commerce and entertainment only grew. In 1963, the R&B group The Orlons christened South Street the “hippest street in town,” an homage to the black hipsters who flocked to South Street’s nightclubs and cruised their cars up and down the strip. Throughout this era, popular novels like William Gardner Smith’s South Street (1954) depicted it as a contact zone—a place where different ethnicities and social classes interacted. South Street was the space where the black community rubbed up against white ethnics and where the working and middle classes met. All of that intermingling translated into excitement. As one of Smith’s characters remarked, “There was life in the air of South Street.”

The Expressway Threat

At the same time, however, South Street was beginning to experience the forces that contributed to its mid-century decline. The biggest blow came with the city’s announcement in the 1950s that it planned to bulldoze South Street and neighboring Bainbridge Street to make way for the eight-lane Crosstown Expressway. Real estate values along South Street plummeted. Vacancy rates soared as businesses and homeowners fled to other commercial districts. After years of traffic studies and funding delays, in 1966 the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation notified South Street’s remaining residents—many of whom were black and impoverished—that their houses would finally be razed. In response, African American neighborhood leaders George T. Dukes (1931-2008) and Alice Liscomb (1916-2003) mobilized to oppose the planned highway, forming the Citizens Committee to Preserve and Develop the Crosstown Community.

Meanwhile, South Street’s eastern blocks were undergoing a limited revival. In 1964, the avant-garde Theatre of the Living Arts (TLA) opened on the 300 block of South Street. The TLA was an immediate hit. From 1964 to 1969, it sold over 250,000 tickets. The TLA also became a magnet for artists and elements of a burgeoning counterculture as they settled on nearby blocks to give South Street a bohemian air. As galleries and cafes began to spring up around the TLA, South Street was once again becoming a locus of creative energy—an entertainment destination for consumers from all over the region.

In the late 1960s, new residents joined with the existing community to continue fighting the planned Crosstown Expressway. In 1968, this coalition asked the architectural firm of Venturi and Rauch to conduct a study that would demonstrate South Street’s enduring vitality. Denise Scott Brown (b. 1931), the study’s lead author, argued that the city should preserve South Street’s valuable mix of low-cost shops and vernacular architecture. In 1970, a city-hired consultant agreed: The expressway no longer made fiscal or architectural sense. While various planners tried to revive the expressway during the 1970s, it met continued (and ultimately successful) resistance from neighborhood residents.

The Residents Prevail

As the threat of the expressway faded during the 1970s, South Street’s eastern half grew into a lively commercial district. Hip restaurants like the Black Banana and Lickety Split joined feminist bookstores, natural foods stores, and a growing number of galleries. South Street also began to attract many gays and lesbians. In 1973, Giovanni’s Room bookstore opened at 232 South Street. The shop became a center for Philadelphia’s gay community, hosting poetry readings and community meetings.

Color photograph of a crowd gatehred on South Street, celebrating around a maypole with colorful streamers on top

In the twenty-first century South Street is both a commercial and residential area where Philadelphians and visitors gather to eat, drink, and see and be seen. (Visit Philadelphia)

South Street’s resurgence accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s as newspapers and magazines broadcast the allure of the South Street scene to a broader metropolitan readership. Weekend arts festivals and outdoor concerts drew visitors from all over Greater Philadelphia. The Odunde Festival, a celebration of African and African American culture, was held yearly on the western blocks of South Street. Upscale businesses that catered to increasingly wealthy residents of Bella Vista and Queen Village (neighborhoods to the immediate south of South Street) sprung up. They were joined by edgier storefronts—tattoo parlors, punk-themed record stores, and sex shops—that catered to a youth market. As in decades past, South Street emerged as a heterogeneous commercial corridor, its sidewalks thronged with a diverse range of shoppers.

In the early 2010s, however, the tenuous racial peace that had reigned on South Street was threatened. Hundreds of teenagers, many of them black, massed on South Street in what city officials called “flash mobs.” There were reports of violence and vandalism; police arrested a handful of youths and enacted a strict curfew. Some media outlets blamed the incidents on social networking, others on poverty and disaffection. Still others claimed that they were simply organized dance parties. Whatever the case, the so-called “flash mobs” demonstrated that racialized fears lurked under South Street’s veneer of diversity. As the western strip of South Street rapidly gentrified in the 2010s—transitioning from majority-black to majority-white in just a few years—it remained to be seen if the street could retain the peaceable cosmopolitanism that had been its hallmark.

Dylan Gottlieb is a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, where he works on recent American urban history. His latest publication is “ ‘Closer to Heaven’: Race and Diversity in Suburban America,” which was published in the Journal of Urban History.


Copyright 2015, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Adams, Carolyn et al. Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Postindustrial City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Hunter, Marcus A. Black Citymakers: How The Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Klemek, Christopher. The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Rotella, Carlo. October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Collections

South Street Museum Papers, Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Philadelphia City Planning Commission papers, Philadelphia City Archives, 3101 Market Street, Philadelphia.

Edmund Bacon papers, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives, 220 S. Thirty-Fourth Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Royal Theatre, 1500 block of South Street, Philadelphia.

Theatre of the Living Arts, 300 block of South Street, Philadelphia.

3 Comments Comments

  1. Dylan, thanks for this essay on my neighborhood, South Street. You captured its vibrancy, quirkiness and diversity. Thanks, especially for including the LGBT chapters of its history that are often left out. By the way, Philadelphia’s first gay community center opened in 1976 on Kater Street, one block below South, between 4rd and 5th Streets.

    Bob Skiba Posted September 9, 2015 at 9:05 pm
  2. Being a kid who was born and raised in the original 7th ward during the 1940’s and 50’s, I had no idea of the rich cultural heritage that surrounded my family. I knew the area was different but was never aware of its true historical significance until recently. I grew up in the area of 18th and South St, an area that could only be described as the Vegas Strip meets Bourbon Street. I can recall as a kid looking from my grandmother’s window and watching bar patrons darting in and out of the many bars, clubs, and restaurants. The people seemed so happy and joyous, and the party never ended. As I became older the unground and seedy side of the area became evident. Reading about what has been written about the area, has given me insight into the behavior of the people in general and my own family in particular. I would like to hear from anyone who lived in the area of 17th, 18th, or 19th and South Streets during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Please email me with your recollection of the area at that time.

    Charles Arnold Posted December 21, 2016 at 12:16 pm
  3. Please like me on facebook at Philadelphia’s 7th Ward Descendants.

    Charles Arnold Posted December 26, 2016 at 9:27 pm

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