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News » Author Archives: Lucy Davis
The expression “I’d rather be in Philadelphia” is derived from a fictional epitaph that locally-born entertainer W.C. Fields (1880-1946) proposed for himself in Vanity Fair magazine in 1925: “Here lies W.C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” By implying that Philadelphia would be slightly preferable to the grave, the joke tapped a vein of critical commentary about the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Variations of the witticism persisted in popular culture, but it did not ultimately find a place on the entertainer’s tomb.[caption id="attachment_33544" align="alignright" width="234"] Philadelphia-born actor W. C. Fields, shown left in the 1920s with theater producer Philip Goodman, originated the phrase “I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” in a 1925 Vanity Fair article. The actor suggested the sardonic expression as an epitaph for himself. (Library of Congress)[/caption]
Fields often lampooned Philadelphia, the boyhood hometown that he left to follow a career in show business. With the given name William Claude Dunkenfield (or Claude William, according to some sources), Fields was born in Darby, Delaware County, and grew up in a succession of rented row houses in West and North Philadelphia. After only a few years of school, he picked up odd jobs available to boys of his era: assisting in a cigar shop, hawking newspapers, delivering ice, shucking oysters, racking balls in billiard halls, peddling produce, and carrying cash between departments in the Strawbridge and Clothier store on Market Street. Frequently at odds with his father, he left home for at least a few months of his youth—a period he later embellished into tall tales of life on the streets as a vagabond.
Fields found his calling as an entertainer in Philadelphia’s theater district, which at the time thrived on North Eighth Street between Race and Vine. Captivated by the vaudeville shows of the 1890s, he taught himself to juggle and developed an act as “tramp juggler,” a silent hobo character who could adeptly toss cigar boxes, which became a hallmark of his act. After getting his start in venues like Natatorium Hall at Broad Street and Columbia Avenue, Plymouth Park near Norristown, and Fortescue’s Pier in Atlantic City, he attracted the notice of promoters of touring burlesque and vaudeville shows. With them, he performed nationally and internationally, gaining the skill and acclaim that led him to Broadway and the famed Ziegfeld Follies. The stage name he adopted, “W.C. Fields,” became his legal name in 1908.
By the 1920s, when Vanity Fair published his imagined epitaph, Fields was transitioning from pantomime juggler to character actor, comedian, and storyteller, not only on stage but in the emerging mediums of radio and the movies. Barbs about Philadelphia became a common part of the act. “I once spent a year in Philadelphia,” he said. “I think it was on a Sunday.” Or, “Anyone found smiling after the curfew rang was liable to be arrested.” In a later feature film, My Little Chickadee (1940), a character played by Fields described his last wish: “I’d like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do.” His humor struck a chord among audiences accustomed to thinking of Philadelphia as sedate, old-fashioned, and corrupt—a perception that had been nurtured by such commentators as Charles Dickens (1812-70), who described the city as “rather dull and out of spirits”; Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936), who identified Philadelphia as “the most corrupt and the most contented” of cities; and Henry James (1843-1916), who referred to its “bourgeois blankness.”[caption id="attachment_33546" align="alignright" width="300"] Philadelphia’s tourist and marketing campaigns attempted to overcome the image of Philadelphia that Fields created in his work. This billboard stood on the Schuylkill Expressway near Conshohocken in the 1970s, serving as a humorous rebuttal to the city’s popular portrayal by local residents. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]
In later years, place-marketing and tourism promotion campaigns worked vigorously to counteract the image of Philadelphia embedded in Fields’ comedy. Still, variations of “I would rather be living in Philadelphia” persisted. While hospitalized in Washington after the 1981 assassination attempt on his life, President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) scribbled on a note, “All in all, I’d rather in be in Philadelphia.” Similar phrases cropped up in dialogue in the movie Die Hard (1988) and the television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993). “I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” served as a title for a 1983 compilation rock album, a 1993 mystery novel by Gillian Roberts, and a 2007 episode of the television series Gilmore Girls. On the internet in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the expression appeared frequently as a touchstone for bloggers and as the title for a Twitter feed.
The comedy of W.C. Fields, while not flattering to Philadelphia, contributed to the city’s place in American popular culture even after the entertainer left the city behind. After his death, the marker on his vault at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, bore the simple inscription: “W.C. Fields, 1880-1946.”
Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
As railroads reached outlying villages and the countryside around Philadelphia during the nineteenth century, railroad companies and other enterprising real estate developers created fashionable residential enclaves, new suburban towns, and vast semirural estates. These developments enabled prosperous Philadelphians to live apart from the city while still enjoying its amenities and maintaining their positions in the urban industries, businesses, and professions that produced their wealth. In the new railroad suburbs, local shopkeepers and service workers also helped sustain semirural living for the upper and middle classes. Although automobiles later changed commuting habits, the railroads and the suburbs that developed around their stations established a geography and social order that in many ways persisted into the twenty-first century.
The region’s first railroad suburbs developed along the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad (the PGN), which introduced commuter trains running northwest from the city in 1832. Using steam locomotives, the PGN operated frequent passenger service along essentially the same routes later served by SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill East and Norristown regional rail lines. The commuter trains made Germantown, founded in 1683, a suburb connected with Philadelphia long before its consolidation into the city in 1854. By the late 1850s, in addition to its stock of colonial-era homes Germantown had a cluster of suburban villas in the neighborhood of West Walnut Lane and Greene and West Tulpehocken Streets. Farther northwest, a few commuters from Chestnut Hill connected to the PGN by stagecoach or carriage during the 1830s and 1840s, but after 1854 they could ride the new Chestnut Hill Railroad to Germantown. The construction of a new Episcopal Church, St. Paul’s (built 1856-61), signaled Chestnut Hill’s increasing status as a suburb for the elite.
As railroad commuting expanded during the later decades of the nineteenth century, it produced social and geographic segregation as upper and middle class families sought distance from the intensifying industrialization and high rates of immigration in Philadelphia and other American cities. The cost of rail fares initially put daily commuting by train out of reach for all but the wealthiest riders, while local streetcars and (later) buses remained the affordable options for others. Because rail fares varied by distance, inner suburbs like Germantown had more middle-class commuters than more distant, semirural idylls of the elite. Steam trains did not appeal to many middle-class commuters to Philadelphia because the locations of terminals on the periphery of the business district required an additional long walk or streetcar ride to get to work. Streetcars running into the central city from closer, newly developing areas of North and West Philadelphia offered more-direct access, as did the Delaware River ferries that connected with railroads serving South Jersey. This did not change until late in the nineteenth century, when the two major rail systems serving the city relocated their main facilities to Center City (the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station, built 1879-82, and the Reading Terminal, built 1891-93).
Similar Patterns Elsewhere
The development of railroad suburbs in the Philadelphia region resembled patterns of metropolitan expansion occurring around the same time along railroad lines radiating from other major cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago. During the 1850s, other Philadelphia-area railroads joined the PGN in offering commuter train services. The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad started publishing housing guides for its line through Delaware County, and the West Chester and Philadelphia touted its route for commuters between its namesake communities. In southern New Jersey, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad, which began service in 1854, led to residential growth in Haddonfield, and a group of Philadelphia merchants acquired land and developed Merchantville after the arrival of the Camden and Burlington Railroad in 1867-68. From these South Jersey suburbs, commuters traveled by rail to Camden and then crossed by ferry to the commercial center of Philadelphia east of Sixth Street.
By the 1870s and 1880s, a period of transition for the railroads, some lines had few commuter trains but on others the service became quite intensive. For example, in 1876, the Chestnut Hill Branch of the Philadelphia & Reading (successor to the PGN) offered thirty daily round trips between Center City and Germantown and encouraged daily commuting by offering special low-fare trains. During the 1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad created havens for the elite along its Main Line, which extended west of Philadelphia through parts of Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, and spurred similar suburban development in Chestnut Hill. Developers of new suburbs also sought to appeal to the middle class, and the railroads offered incentives (such as free or discounted tickets) to encourage middle-class families to build houses along their lines. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s activity along its Main Line inspired the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad to develop a similar but more affordable planned suburb for the middle class, Ridley Park, simultaneously with the opening of a new line in 1870 through southeast Delaware County between Philadelphia and Chester. In response to the availability of rail service, Sharon Hill and Norwood also developed along the line. A new line of the Pennsylvania Railroad running from Philadelphia to Norristown and Reading, beginning in 1884, enticed real estate developers to buy up farmland to create the middle-class suburb of Cynwyd (formerly known as Academyville). Along the Main Line, during the 1880s the co-owners of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, George W. Childs (1829-94) and banker A.J. Drexel (1826-1893), developed the planned suburban community of Wayne. In South Jersey, beginning in 1885 local landholders near the Camden and Atlantic Railroad line sold building lots to create the new suburb of Collingswood. Around the same time, local entrepreneurs began to convert farmland into the new suburb of Haddon Heights and persuaded the Reading Railroad, owner of the Philadelphia and Atlantic City Railway, to establish a station to serve the community.
In the new railroad suburbs, buyers found large single-family and semidetached homes with expansive porches and yards, a distinctly different environment from Philadelphia’s row houses. Making these railroad suburbs attractive to these residents required not only countryside ambiance but also more infrastructure of the type available in the city, such as water systems and paved streets. The Pennsylvania Railroad acknowledged this in a 1916 brochure when it touted “the charm of this suburban life, with its pure air, pure water and healthful surroundings, combined with the educational advantages provided, churches, stores and excellent transit facilities to and from the city, is manifest.” Despite developers’ appeals to the middle and upper classes, however, the railroad suburbs were never solely the domain of the region’s wealthiest residents. Most evolved around or within existing communities with their own people and histories, and even the most luxurious suburban estates required a network of support from local businesses and service workers who lived close to the railroad stations in row houses or other modest homes. Starting in the 1890s, electrified streetcar lines also brought more class diversity to some of the same suburbs that had originated along the rail lines, including Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia and Merchantville and Collingswood in New Jersey. Transit fares held steady while working-class incomes rose, making more distant places affordable to a wider range of residents.
The Main Line Corridor[caption id="attachment_33015" align="alignright" width="225"] The Bryn Mawr Hotel, constructed in 1872 and rebuilt in 1890, echoed the atmosphere of the elite seaside resort town of Cape May, New Jersey. Developers used community centerpieces like the hotel and new Welsh names to entice prospective buyers to villages along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]
The Pennsylvania Railroad’s role in developing Philadelphia’s western suburbs originated from its purchase of farmland during the 1860s and 1870s in order to straighten the route of its Main Line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. With its expanded holdings within commuting distance of Philadelphia, the railroad developed a corridor of privilege from existing villages and the surrounding countryside. To increase the area’s appeal, the company gave Welsh and Scottish place names to towns that did not already have them: Athensville became Ardmore, for example, and Humphreysville became Bryn Mawr. To give prospective buyers an opportunity to become acquainted with the area, the railroad took its cue from the resort ambiance of Cape May, New Jersey, and built the Bryn Mawr Hotel (opened in 1872, rebuilt in 1890 and later home to the Baldwin School). Railroad executives led the way by building estate homes. Alexander Cassatt (1839-1906), later the Pennsylvania Railroad’s president, had a city residence on Rittenhouse Square, but in 1872 he began building Cheswold, a mansion set on fifty-four acres in Haverford. Leaders of Philadelphia business and industry followed, including department store partner Isaac Clothier (1837-1921), who built a castle called Ballytore in Wynnewood in 1885. Collectively, the communities and estates that developed around Pennsylvania Railroad stations from Overbrook west to Paoli became “the Main Line,” a name that became synonymous with upper-class living despite the continuing presence of other local residents as well as the businesses and domestic workers necessary to support a gracious lifestyle. Many of the massive estates later became home to religious orders, schools, or other institutions.
In Northwest Philadelphia, completion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Chestnut Hill Branch in the early 1880s set off a new wave of suburban development west of Germantown Avenue. Henry Houston (1820-95), a member of the railroad’s board of directors with extensive land holdings in Northwest Philadelphia and adjacent Montgomery County, proposed the new rail line and then followed the pattern of the Main Line by beckoning elite residents to Chestnut Hill with amenities such as the Wissahickon Inn (1883, later the Chestnut Hill Academy), the Philadelphia Cricket Club (1883), and another Protestant Episcopal Church, St. Martin-in-the-Fields (1888). In his Wissahickon Heights development (later renamed St. Martin’s), he made homes available by lease. Houston’s son-in-law George Woodward (1863-1952) continued the family tradition and Chestnut Hill’s suburban evolution in the early twentieth century with picturesque developments such as French Village (1913), Linden Court (1915), and English Village (1925). Between Chestnut Hill and Germantown, in Mount Airy, the Drexel Company built the planned suburb of Pelham between 1895 and 1910.
In the golden age of railroad suburbs, from the 1880s through the 1910s, more than one thousand daily trains served hundreds of stations in and around Philadelphia. The combination of railroad and streetcar suburbs brought population growth to Philadelphia’s suburbs. The population of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, doubled between 1870 and 1920 while Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Camden County, New Jersey, quadrupled during the same period. Most early growth took place within about an eight-mile radius of the city, because of both travel time and the distance-based railroad fares. Bedroom communities within this range included Bala, Cynwyd, Darby, Jenkintown, Lansdowne, and Narberth in Pennsylvania; and Audubon, Bellmawr, Collingswood, Haddon Heights, Haddonfield, Magnolia, Runnemede, Westmount, and Westville in New Jersey.
Autos Begin to Erode Rail Demand
By the 1920s, automobiles and buses came into the suburban transportation mix and railroad suburbs, although still located on train lines, no longer depended on the rails to link them to the city and neighboring communities. In New Jersey, the 1926 opening of the Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) also hastened the shift from rail to automobile commuting. As passengers left the trains, the railroads eliminated or cut back service on many lines, although the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads invested in electric trains and often increased services between 1915 and 1933. After World War II, as automobile ownership and suburban bus service increased, and by the 1960s, the once-dominant railroads wanted to discontinue their money-losing commuter trains. In Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia and then the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) intervened in the 1950s and 1960s, and by 1983, SEPTA had taken over the remaining trains. For the New Jersey suburbs, the Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) between Philadelphia and Lindenwold took the place of earlier rail systems in 1969. New Jersey Transit’s River Line began operating between Camden and Trenton in 2004. In the automobile age, some railroad suburbs retained their appeal as fashionable enclaves while others transitioned into neighborhoods of large houses divided into cheap apartments.
In the early-twenty-first century, although most people living in Philadelphia’s railroad suburbs did not use the trains to go to work, the old commuter lines still affected the social geography of the region because the road system largely followed those lines. With the exception of a handful of edge cities like King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, much of Philadelphia’s suburban development followed the old railroad lines. In 2017, SEPTA and PATCO trains still carried more than 156,000 daily riders, including not only suburban dwellers but also working-class and lower-middle-class reverse commuters traveling to jobs in the suburbs. Along the tracks, railroad stations and homes built by the enterprising developers of the nineteenth century survived as visible reminders of the origins of the railroad suburbs.
Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. John Hepp is Professor of History and co-chair of the Division of Global Cultures at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He teaches urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the middle classes in the period 1800 to 1940.
Through more than three centuries of building and rebuilding settlements, towns, and cities, the region centered on Philadelphia and spanning southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and northern Delaware became a living museum of American architectural history. The fate of structures ranging from log cabins and colonial mansions to courthouses, warehouses, and the famed Independence Hall often depended on changing economic circumstances in communities or happenstances of care or neglect by property owners. However, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries an organized preservation movement emerged locally and across the nation. By the twenty-first century, layers of local, state, and federal law supported historic preservation, but controversy could flare when plans for new development came into conflict with desires to protect buildings regarded as significant representations of the past.[caption id="attachment_33252" align="alignright" width="300"] Independence Hall escaped demolition in 1816 when the city purchased it from the state, which planned to sell the land as building lots. The campaign to save and restore the building, originally the Pennsylvania State House, was the earliest recorded historic preservation effort in the United States. (Library of Congress)[/caption]
As early as 1748, the Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm (1716-79) noted during his travels that Philadelphians were preserving an aging house—identified only as “the Swanson house”—as a reminder of the city’s earlier settlers. But in the colonial and early national eras, in a region with a growing population and high demand for residential and commercial structures, sentiment seldom saved old buildings from being replaced with new ones. Memories of streetscapes and landscapes were more likely to be preserved through works of art, such as the prints of William Russell Birch (1755-1834) published in the 1790s or the illustrations in Annals of Philadelphia, by New Jersey native John Fanning Watson (1779-1860), published in various editions beginning in 1830. In Delaware, a street survey by architect Robert Mills (1781-1855), Survey of New Castle, documented that town’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings in 1805. Colonial-era structures that survived into the nineteenth century did so as a byproduct of durability or continuing use, which preserved architectural legacies such as the pattern-brick houses of southern New Jersey. Northwest of the original limits of Philadelphia, mansions remained standing as a result of the city’s purchase of country estates in the early nineteenth century to create Fairmount Park. Farther out, mansions in Germantown passed down in families for generations. Throughout the region, the most substantial homes built of stone or brick had the highest rates of survival.
The slow emergence of interest in historic preservation can be charted by the treatment of Independence Hall, originally the Pennsylvania State House (built beginning in 1732). Pennsylvanians demonstrated a lack of interest in preservation when, in 1781, they demolished the building’s original wood steeple after it became unstable. In 1813, the state also demolished the original arched piazzas and wing buildings that flanked the central structure and replaced them with rows of fireproof office buildings. Around the same time, descendants of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) also allowed his Franklin Court home and property to be demolished and redeveloped into building lots.
Preserving the Old State House
Regard for the old State House as a physical reminder of the past changed with the passage of time, especially as the American Revolution began to fade from lived experience into historical memory. In 1816, long after the Pennsylvania capital moved west to Lancaster and then to Harrisburg, Philadelphians mobilized to purchase the old State House and its square as city property rather than see the state carry out plans to sell them off for building lots. City officials had practical as well as historical motives, given the building’s use as a polling place for local elections and the value of a healthful open square in the increasingly congested city. Still, their action marked the first documented act of historic preservation in the United States. In 1828, when the Philadelphia City Councils authorized reconstructing the State House steeple to house a new clock and bell, they insisted that the architect William Strickland (1788-1854) revise his designs to replicate the original as closely as possible. Nearby, in the 1850s the Carpenters’ Company also preserved its headquarters, Carpenters’ Hall (built 1770), the meeting place of the First Continental Congress.[caption id="attachment_33057" align="alignright" width="300"] New Jersey’s State Assembly officially adopted the Declaration of Independence at the Indian King Tavern in 1777. In 1903, the tavern became the state’s first government-owned historic site. (Library of Congress)[/caption]
Historic preservation during the nineteenth century focused primarily on high-style buildings, especially residences associated with prominent individuals. In Philadelphia and the surrounding region, where George Washington (1732-99) slept, worked, and led armies into battle, some of these efforts drew inspiration from the 1850s campaign to save Mount Vernon, Washington’s Virginia home—a project generally regarded as the birth of the historic preservation movement in the United States. The Colonial Revival, an embrace of colonial-era aesthetics that emerged around the time of the 1876 Centennial, also inspired preservation campaigns. In the subsequent decades, in an era of when increasing immigration and industrialization seemed to undermine older social and economic orders, historical societies, patriotic organizations, and state governments took steps to safeguard sites of early American history. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state appointed a Valley Forge Park Commission in 1893, and in New Jersey, the state made the Indian King Tavern (built c. 1750) in Haddonfield its first government-owned historic site in 1903. The first preservation organization in Delaware, the Friends of Old Drawyers, formed in 1895 to save the Presbyterian church by that name (built c. 1773) in New Castle County.[caption id="attachment_33027" align="alignright" width="201"] Women spearheaded many preservation projects in the twentieth century as a way to participate in the public and civic realms. Suffragist Mabel Lloyd Ridgely, pictured in The Women Citizen in 1919, saved the Old Delaware State House from demolition in 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]
Often, leaders of preservation projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could trace their own ancestry to the era of colonial settlement or the American Revolution. And like the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in Virginia, women often led local efforts to preserve or restore historic homes. During the second half of the nineteenth century, women organized to save the Valley Forge home that served as Washington’s headquarters during the 1777-78 encampment of the Continental Army. Ancestral societies such as the Colonial Dames of America prevented demolition and preserved historic houses such as Stenton (built 1720s), the Germantown country home of colonial leader James Logan (1674-1751). The Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1890s took the lead in renovating the second floor of Independence Hall to reestablish a colonial ambience, and in Delaware Mabel Lloyd Ridgely (1872-1962) saved her state’s old State House (built 1787-91) from demolition in 1912. Later, in the twentieth century, the Colonial Dames of New Jersey took charge of the preserving and conserving Peachfield, a Burlington County estate dating to 1674, and the 1759 “Old Schoolhouse” in Mount Holly.
Period Rooms in Museums
While some colonial houses converted into museums, the interiors of others became museum pieces as appreciation for colonial-era aesthetics led art museum curators to install period rooms stripped from actual colonial-era houses. Thus, in 1918 the interior of a room from the Philadelphia home of Mayor Samuel Powel (1738-93, home built 1765) came to be preserved in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Interiors from other parts of the country, especially from the South, came to Delaware for the collections of Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), who created the Winterthur Museum showcase of American decorative arts. The museum became a point of pilgrimage for preservationists, and du Pont and his sister Louise du Point Crowninshield (1877-1958) became early leaders in organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, founded in 1949. In the same era at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), the architecture and preservation authority who served as director for nearly three decades, oversaw the installation of period rooms as well as restorations of mansions in Fairmount Park.
Historic preservation gained momentum among professional architects and citizen activists during the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. New Castle, Delaware, became a destination for architects seeking to learn from the surviving colonial-era buildings of the town founded by the Dutch in 1651, where William Penn (1644-1718) first landed in America in 1682. Preservation in the riverfront town gained momentum during the 1920s and 1930s as individuals and groups purchased and restored structures including the building known as the “Dutch House” (c. 1690-1710), the Amstel House (c. 1738), and the George Read House (1797-1803).[caption id="attachment_33025" align="alignright" width="255"] Frances Wister devoted most of her life to the preservation of Philadelphia’s historic landmarks and homes, including those belonging to her own extended family. This photo shows Wister in 1924 after a successful battle to save the Academy of Music. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]
Preservation activity also responded to industrial and commercial growth, which produced a new generation of buildings overshadowing and sometimes threatening structures of earlier times. Organizations formed for the specific purpose of historic preservation, especially in the oldest sections of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, founded under the leadership of Frances Wister (1874-1956) in 1931, saved the colonial-era Powel House at 244 S. Third Street from demolition. The society later extended its protection to the Hill-Physick House (built 1786) nearby on Fourth Street; Grumblethorpe (built 1744), the Wister family home in Germantown; and Waynesborough (built 1724), the birthplace of Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne (1745-96), in Chester County. Inspired by the Landmarks Society, residents of Elfreth’s Alley took steps to preserve their little colonial-era street near the Delaware River between Arch and Race Streets, which unlike other nearby structures had been spared during construction of the Delaware River Bridge (opened in 1926, later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge). Another group, An Organization for the Conservation of Historic Sites in Old Philadelphia, evolved from a committee of the Sons of the Revolution under the leadership of Judge Edwin O. Lewis (1879-1974). In 1942, Lewis and other prominent Philadelphians founded the Independence Hall Association, which successfully lobbied the state and federal governments to create expanded parks around Independence Hall (ironically spurring widespread demolition of nineteenth-century structures during the 1950s to showcase buildings associated with the nation’s founding). The authorization of Independence National Historical Park in 1948 brought a new cadre of National Park Service professionals to town, among them the nationally known preservation architect Charles E. Peterson (1906-2004), who took an active role in revitalizing the Center City neighborhood that became known as Society Hill.
Post-World War II Preservation[caption id="attachment_33054" align="alignright" width="300"] Thousands of historic homes in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia escaped the wrecking ball in the 1950s and ’60s when urban renewal efforts were causing widespread demolitions nearby. The homes on the 600 block of Spruce Street remain largely unchanged from this 1957 photograph. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]
New fuel for the historic preservation movement arrived after World War II as urban renewal and the construction of interstate highways led to widespread demolition of aging urban neighborhoods in the Philadelphia region and elsewhere. In reaction, interest in preservation expanded beyond colonial-era buildings associated with famous people to encompass a wider range of time periods and building types. Philadelphia became one of the first cities in the nation to establish a Historical Commission, created by ordinance in 1955 and given the power to certify properties as historic, thereby adding protections against alterations or demolition. In Society Hill, Philadelphia departed from urban renewal through wholesale demolition and pioneered an approach of selectively preserving and restoring colonial-era buildings. The neighborhood, which had deteriorated into slum conditions by the middle of the twentieth century, transformed into a showcase, although gentrified by homeowners who were younger, wealthier, and more likely to be white than earlier occupants. In Germantown, a citizens group called Colonial Germantown Inc. (formed in 1956) adopted a similar strategy of combining historic preservation with development.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia and in other cities in the region, widespread demolition remained the rule. Proposals for new highways spurred movements to preserve communities that risked being displaced. Residents of the South Street corridor in Philadelphia successfully mobilized against a planned Crosstown Expressway during the 1960s, but Chinatown lost its battle against the Vine Street Expressway in the 1970s. The construction of I-95 during the 1960s and 1970s separated most of Philadelphia from its historic waterfront and wiped out late nineteenth-century neighborhoods in Wilmington, Delaware, where most traces of eighteenth-century life had already been erased by urban renewal. The Delaware Historical Society saved some of Wilmington’s early buildings by moving them, forming the Willingtown Square collection of eighteenth-century buildings in 1976.
In the face of continuing threats to historic resources, federal law during the 1960s and 1970s opened a new era in preservation, with significant impact in Philadelphia and the surrounding region. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 established a National Register of Historic Places, which necessitated state-level review of nominations. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware all established historic preservation offices to review proposals for the Register and offer technical assistance. In addition to individual buildings, historic districts and sites likely to hold archaeological resources could be nominated for the National Register. Properties at least fifty years old could be listed, setting a new threshold for defining sites as “historic” to encompass not only the distant past but also parts of the twentieth century. The law’s Section 106 also called for assessing impacts on historic resources prior to federally funded projects, a requirement that spurred creation of local consulting firms employing preservation architects, historians, and archaeologists. Their work produced new knowledge and documentation for sites such as the First African Baptist Church Burial Ground at Eighth and Vine Streets in Philadelphia, excavated during the 1980s and 1990s in connection with projects adjacent to the Vine Street Expressway.
Tax Incentives for Preservation
Further impact in the region followed the Tax Reform Act of 1976, which created the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program. Federal tax credits proved to be enticing to developers and transformational in local neighborhoods like Old City in Philadelphia, where developers rehabilitated and adapted former factories, warehouses, and office buildings. The new purposes for these structures, many from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ranged from affordable housing for seniors to high-end apartment buildings that developers later converted to condominiums. Following the federal government’s lead, Pennsylvania and Delaware enacted state-level tax credits for preservation.
With designations for the National Register of Historic Places largely honorary, legal protections for historic buildings required additional support and regulation at the state and local level. In the region around Philadelphia, New Jersey went farthest in creating an infrastructure for historic preservation, establishing the New Jersey Historic Trust (1967), a Historic Sites Council (1967), and a New Jersey Register of Historic Places (1970). In 1971, Haddonfield became the first municipality in the state to adopt a historic preservation ordinance, and many others followed after 1986, when an amendment to the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law included provisions encouraging local historic preservation ordinances. Despite preservation successes in many communities, however, destruction of notable New Jersey buildings occurred in the service of redevelopment and with support of state government agencies. For example, the state overruled a 2007 decision by the Historic Sites Council to prevent demolition of the 1927 Sears Roebuck building in Camden, setting the stage for a five-year court battle by local activists that ultimately failed. Demolition followed, clearing the site to become a corporate campus for Campbell’s Soup and Subaru International. In 2017, the New Jersey Department of Transportation bulldozed the Hugg-Harrison-Glover House (built 1764) in Bellmawr in the midst of a vigorous preservation campaign by the Camden County Historical Society.[caption id="attachment_33253" align="alignright" width="297"] The recent popularity of historic preservation projects and a long battle waged by preservationists could not save the Boyd Theater’s 1928 Art Deco interior from destruction. In 2014, the Philadelphia Historical Commission approved demolition on the basis of the financial hardship of the owner. (Phillyhistory.org)[/caption]
In Pennsylvania, relatively few municipalities established local governance over historic preservation through two available programs, the state-level Act 167 for certifying local historic districts and the zoning provisions of the Municipalities Planning Code. Momentum for historic preservation depended heavily on activism by nongovernmental organizations such as the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation (founded 1979) and Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (founded 1982), which merged in 1996 to form the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. Even in Philadelphia, with an established Historical Commission, failures to establish local certification for structures on the National Register left historic properties at risk, as illustrated in 2016-18 by plans to add a high-rise apartment building towering over nineteenth-century Jewelers Row. In 2014, Philadelphia preservationists also lost a hard-fought battle to preserve the Boyd Theater (built 1928), an Art Deco movie palace at Nineteenth and Chestnut Streets that the Historical Commission allowed to be demolished on the basis of financial hardship of the owner. By 2017, the apparent weaknesses in Philadelphia’s historic preservation policies prompted Mayor Jim Kenney (b. 1958) to appoint a task force to recommend improvements.
By the twenty-first century, advocates for historic preservation emphasized not only aesthetics and historic values but also economic benefits, such as the role of preservation in supporting the heritage tourism industry. Preservation advocates stressed both the cost savings and the environmental benefits of rehabilitating structures over scrapping them to build anew. The pressures of development remained among the chief challenges to historic preservation, not only in cities but also in rapidly changing rural areas. Meanwhile, climate change raised new concerns as rising sea levels began to impact shore areas of New Jersey and Delaware, floods occurred more often in historic riverside communities in Pennsylvania, and high-intensity storms increased in frequency. In all three states, preservation agencies struggled to rebound from funding and staff cuts imposed during the economic recession that began in 2008. Across the region, preservation activists developed action plans for the long term, and fought battles where necessary, to assure a future for the material remains of the past.
Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
Forming a core of civic, commercial, and residential life since Philadelphia’s seventeenth-century founding, Center City has been a continually evolving experiment in urban living and management. The roughly rectangular area of about 2.3 square miles between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, from Vine Street to South Street, occupies the territory of the original 1682 city plan for Philadelphia. Once a forested expanse with hills, ponds, and streams, the land between the rivers transformed over time into a populated grid where residential and commercial interests jostled, shifted, and spread from east to west to fill in the footprint of “the city proper.” Rivers, roads, and later railroads, public transit, and highways linked the city with the wider region, making the urban core a hub for people, culture, and commerce—but also making it possible for residents and businesses to move to outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. In the twentieth century, new generations of city planners mobilized to combat the effects of suburbanization and revitalize Center City as a place where residents and visitors could live, work, and play.[caption id="attachment_33037" align="alignright" width="300"] This map, drawn by surveyor Thomas Holme and published in London in 1683, is the original plan for Philadelphia. William Penn hoped that development would occur along both the Schuylkill and Delaware River waterfronts and High (Market) Street, leaving plenty of open space. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]
Surveyor Thomas Holme (1624-95) and founder William Penn (1644-1718) conceived the idea for a gridded city punctuated by garden squares in the 1680s. They drew inspiration from baroque town planning, post-Great London fire (1666) concerns for city health, desires to compensate initial investors in Pennsylvania with land, and personal preferences of Penn and early interest groups such as the Free Society of Traders. The plan drawn by Holme intended settlement to occur on both the Schuylkill and Delaware waterfronts and along the main streets of High (later Market) and Broad. After the first printing of the plan in 1683, the river-to-river grid appeared prominently on maps of Pennsylvania, but creating a city in the image of Penn and Holme’s plan required nearly two centuries of clearing trees, leveling land, extending streets, and building upon the grid.[caption id="attachment_33093" align="alignright" width="300"] Center City's little streets, like Elfreth's Alley in this 2013 photograph, developed as Philadelphians subdivided the spacious lots imagined by the original city plan. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by Jamie Castagnoli)[/caption]
Early settlement focused on the Delaware waterfront, which became the main site of commercial and residential building and growth during the colonial era. While property at the city plan’s western edge, on the Schuylkill, remained relatively open with scattered farms and industrial workshops, the Delaware riverfront grew with wharves, warehouses, churches, taverns, and houses. Settlement hugged the Delaware shore in a semi-crescent shape, most densely along High Street and thinning to the north and south. More and more residents clustered into the area by subdividing lots. Residences of the most prosperous Philadelphians faced the main streets while smaller houses on back alleys and courts filled with laborers and the poor. Instead of civic buildings on a center square, as Penn and Holme had planned, by the 1720s a town hall and Quaker meetinghouse anchored the city at Second and High Streets. Construction of the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in the 1730s pulled the city westward to around Fifth Street, but as late as the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) received advice to rent quarters east of Seventh Street because “so few houses” stood farther west.
Port of Commerce and Entry
The port on the Delaware, ferries from New Jersey, and roads radiating outward into Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland enabled people and goods to move in and out of the compact city. Throughout the colonial era English, Irish, Scots-Irish, Welsh, German, and free and enslaved people of African heritage came through the port of Philadelphia to build and settle the city and surrounding region, which had been occupied earlier by Native American camps and Swedish settlements. From nearby hinterlands and across the Delaware River from New Jersey, agricultural products came to the High Street market and shipped out to other colonies and the world. The presence of the market, which extended to the west as the city grew, gave High Street of the original city plan a new name: Market Street (informally at first, made official in 1858).[caption id="attachment_33039" align="alignright" width="300"] This scene by John Lewis Krimmel shows an election day crowd in 1815, with a steeple-less State House (Independence Hall) in the background and Congress Hall, seat of the United States Congress from 1790 to 1800, in the foreground. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]
The settled area of the city extended to Seventh Street by 1790, and by 1800 the forest had been cleared from river to river. In the decades following the American Revolution, as property values closest to commercial High Street increased, the settled area of Philadelphia became more segregated by economic status. The laboring class and the poor migrated in greater concentrations to low-rent districts at the southern and northern fringe, including a notoriously bawdy area known as “Helltown” north of Arch Street between Third Street and the Delaware River. Beginning in the 1790s and continuing into the early nineteenth century, a significant free African American neighborhood grew at Sixth and Lombard Streets, around Mother Bethel AME Church. African Americans also clustered in the area north of Arch Street and west of Fourth. A German neighborhood formed on the city’s northern border, and French immigrants who arrived during the French and Haitian revolutions opened businesses in the vicinity of Second and Walnut.[caption id="attachment_33017" align="alignright" width="300"] Previous to City Hall, the land at Center (or Centre) Square most notably acted as home to a pump house designed by the architect Benjamin Latrobe that stood from 1801 to 1829, supplying water to the city via a gravity-fed system from the Schuylkill. This 1819 sketch by John Lewis Krimmel uses the square and its pump house as the setting for a raucous Fourth of July celebration. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]
Philadelphians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century made choices that imposed order and shaped the look and feel of the city proper for centuries to come. In 1795, city officials banned wood-frame buildings from inside the city limits, which assured that the fine rows of new homes built in the early decades of the nineteenth century would be made of red brick, often with marble-front raised basements and steps. The city government also looked back to the original city plan to guide improvements of the neglected public squares. Between 1801 and 1829 the center square, which Penn and Holme had intended for public buildings, became home to a neoclassical pump house that architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) designed to supply water to the city via a gravity-fed system from the Schuylkill. In 1825 the City Councils gave the squares new names that imprinted history in the landscape: Washington (for the southeast square), Franklin (northeast), Rittenhouse (southwest), Logan (northwest), and Penn (in the center). Washington and Franklin squares transformed during the 1820s and 1830s from neglected plots and sometime burial grounds into landscaped parks. Rittenhouse and Logan squares similarly improved during the 1840s and 1850s, as the population spread west. Rittenhouse Square became an especially prime address as lands west of Broad Street began to fill with row houses, new houses of worship, schools, and businesses during the 1850s and 1860s.
Expansion on the Waterfront and Inland
While residents and businesses planted new structures across the width of the grid, earlier settled blocks churned with changing purposes and redevelopment. The Merchants Exchange completed in 1834 at Third and Walnut Streets signaled the continuing importance of maritime commerce, as did the 1830s rebuilding of a warehouse district on Front Street north of Market Street and the creation of the waterfront Delaware Avenue, funded by a bequest of merchant Stephen Girard (1750-1831). However, businesses also moved inland from the waterfront and formed specialized clusters for banking, insurance, and publishing. In the oldest sections of the city proper, many colonial-era homes survived but deteriorated into subdivided multiple-family dwellings or industrial workshops. Homes associated with the nation’s founders gave way to commercial buildings on High Street, and factories replaced brick houses on Arch and Cherry Streets. Philadelphians built over cemeteries and turned streams into underground sewers.[caption id="attachment_33038" align="alignright" width="300"] This map, drawn in 1857 from the west bank of the Schuylkill River, shows how Center City began to expand in the nineteenth century. Industry started to take root on the Schuylkill waterfront, but population and commercial districts were still largely concentrated east of Broad Street. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]
The relationship of the city proper with outlying areas changed fundamentally from the 1830s through the 1850s, first with the expansion of public transportation networks and then with the Consolidation Act of 1854. Railroads, omnibuses, and horse-drawn streetcars allowed increasing numbers of Philadelphians to move beyond the boundaries of the original “walking city.” The Consolidation Act extended the city’s boundaries to encompass all of Philadelphia County, but in doing so it reduced the old city proper into a nameless section of a larger whole. “Old city proper” lingered as a name for the central city, remaining in use as late as the 1920s. However, by the late nineteenth and early centuries “center city” (or “centre city”) appeared frequently in newspaper advertisements for real estate and employment, suggesting a widespread understanding of the phrase as a designation for Philadelphia’s downtown. During the 1920s and 1930s, Center City (sometimes capitalized and sometimes not) became more common as a place name in advertising, in the names of buildings, and in city government communication. Thereafter, embraced by city planners as well as organizations such as the Center City Residents Association (formed in 1947), Center City dominated as the name for the old city proper.
Following consolidation, Philadelphians made another pivotal decision for the future shape and functions of the central city when they selected Penn (or Center) Square, the site Penn and Holme had intended for public buildings, as the location for a new City Hall. The site at Broad and Market Streets, determined by referendum in 1870 after years of debate, followed the westward trend of the city away from the traditional home of municipal government on Independence Square. By the time voters chose Penn Square over Washington Square, substantial development had occurred on Broad Street, including construction of the Academy of Music (opened in 1857) and fine hotels on South Broad and development of business and industry to the north. Anticipation of the new City Hall, which took form between 1871 and 1901, spurred additional nearby development. The Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading Railroad opened massive new stations on Market Street flanking Penn Square (Broad Street Station, built 1880-82 and expanded 1892-94 at Fifteenth Street, and the Reading Terminal, built 1891-93 at Twelfth Street). Adding to Broad Street’s status as a cultural corridor, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts moved to its new building designed by Frank Furness (1839-1912) in 1876. The same year, as Philadelphia celebrated the nation’s centennial, John Wanamaker (1838-1922) opened his “Grand Depot” store in the former Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Depot at Thirteenth and Market Street, heralding an era when large department stores drew crowds of shoppers from the city and surrounding areas to an increasingly bustling and diverse downtown.
Immigrant Settlement in Older Areas[caption id="attachment_33020" align="alignright" width="235"] The Friendship Gate at Tenth and Arch Streets has been a major landmark of the Chinatown district of Center City since its construction in the 1980s. Urban renewal plans have targeted Chinatown for redevelopment multiple times, leading residents to form strong opposition groups. (Library of Congress)[/caption]
Older blocks continued to lose their cachet but served as points of entry for immigrants and other new arrivals to Philadelphia. Beginning in the 1870s, a Chinatown began to form in the 900 block of Race Street as Chinese merchants and laundrymen migrated to Philadelphia from the West Coast. With few options, the Chinese created their community in the midst of a vice district known as the Tenderloin, north of Race Street between Sixth and Thirteenth Streets. In the remnants of the colonial city near the Delaware River, refugees from pogroms in Russia created a Jewish Quarter beginning in the 1880s. African Americans migrating from the South to escape repressive Jim Crow conditions extended the historically black neighborhood around Mother Bethel AME Church westward toward Broad Street and beyond.
In the northwest quadrant of Center City, meanwhile, the new City Hall helped to fuel imagination of a grand new boulevard extending northwest to link the center of the city with Fairmount Park. Plans formed slowly but came to fruition with the opening of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1918. The civic improvement gave Philadelphia an expansive new avenue in the style of Paris and spurred development of a new cultural district around Logan Square (which became a traffic circle). In the process, the city demolished 1,300 residential and industrial properties but spared the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, which had faced Logan Square since 1846.
Although the urban core remained in part residential, by the early the twentieth century commerce and culture firmly dominated the landscape and the skyline. The central city reached new heights not only with the 548-foot tower of City Hall but also with the advent of skyscrapers, starting with the Land Title Building at Broad and Chestnut Streets (fifteen stories built 1897-98; twenty-two story addition built 1902). The combination of railroad stations, cultural institutions, department stores, and other businesses anchored Center City as a hub for commercial and cultural life, including conventions that filled Broad Street hotels. At the same time, a greater variety of residents gained the option of commuting from outlying areas on electrified streetcars (introduced in the 1890s), the Market-Frankford Subway-Elevated Line (built 1903-8, extended to Frankford in 1922), and the Broad Street Subway (1928-32). Motor vehicles added flexibility of travel and the option of driving to New Jersey over Philadelphia’s first bridge over the Delaware River, the Delaware River Bridge (opened in 1926 and renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 1955).
Restructuring in the Twentieth Century[caption id="attachment_33026" align="alignright" width="300"] Urban renewal efforts in the mid-twentieth century targeted areas of Center City deemed “blighted.” Edmund “Ed” Bacon spearheaded many of these campaigns as the president of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970. He is shown (right) receiving an award from the Center City Business Men’s Association in 1962. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]
As the region became more suburban from the late nineteenth into the twentieth century, Center City felt the impact. By the 1950s and 1960s, urban reformers focused their attention on areas of poverty and “blight” along the Delaware waterfront and in nearby neighborhoods. Pointing to areas that had “changed over the years from aesthetic assets to eyesores,” the Philadelphia Planning Commission led by Edmund Bacon (1910-2005), the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (established 1945), and the Olde Philadelphia Development Corporation (1956) spearheaded massive restructuring plans for Center City that involved redeveloping areas perceived as slums and adding infrastructure. Catering to car culture, highways created new boundaries and connections for Center City. Construction of I-95 along the Delaware waterfront in the 1960s linked Philadelphia to the Northeast Corridor but largely cut off the city from its formerly bustling harbor. On the other side of town, the Schuylkill Expressway reached completion in 1958. Planners also sought to improve movement of automobile traffic across the city with new expressways along the northern and southern boundaries of the old city proper. They succeeded in implementing the Vine Street Expressway, over strong opposition from residents of Chinatown, but could not overcome neighborhood resistance to a planned Crosstown Expressway along South Street.
In Center City, redevelopment sought to compete with the appeal of suburbia with a new mix of residential, recreational, and commercial space, including high-rise apartment buildings and the suburban-style Gallery shopping mall on Market Street. West of City Hall, the Penn Center complex of office buildings rose in the corridor where an aging viaduct known as the “Chinese Wall” had carried trains into the old Broad Street Station. Around Independence Hall, historical parks managed by the state and federal governments replaced blocks of commercial buildings. South of Independence Hall, by removing and resettling predominantly ethnic and poor residents, then preserving and restoring the best of their colonial-era homes, urban renewal transformed the old Jewish Quarter into upscale Society Hill. In addition to the urban pioneers who bought and rehabilitated the houses of Society Hill, residents added new vitality to other Center City neighborhoods, for example creating a “Gayborhood” in the vicinity of Thirteenth and Locust Street and an arts community in the abandoned factory lofts east of Third Street and north of Market.
The High-Rise Boom[caption id="attachment_33019" align="alignright" width="233"] Philadelphia’s City Hall was constructed between 1871 and 1901 on Center (Penn) Square. A “gentleman’s agreement” prevented construction of any building taller than the 37-foot bronze statue of William Penn on the central tower. (Library of Congress)[/caption]
The continuing revitalization of Center City as a mix of residential and commercial historic ambiance and new development built upon these twentieth-century projects. Beginning in 1976, federal tax credits for historic preservation spurred creation of a new supply of luxury apartments through adaptive reuse of old hotels, factories, and office buildings. A boom in skyscraper construction west of Broad Street occurred after 1987, when One Liberty Place broke a longstanding but unofficial practice of respecting the William Penn statue atop City Hall as the highest point in the city. Other skyscrapers followed, with Comcast surpassing all others for height with its fifty-seven-story headquarters built in 2008 and again with its sixty-story Technology and Innovation Center built between 2014 and 2018. East of Market Street, after retailing suffered the failures and consolidations of department stores, the onetime showcase urban shopping mall, the Gallery, itself became the site of redevelopment into a retail-entertainment complex to be called Fashion District Philadelphia.
In an era of industrial decline, Center City anchored a tourism industry that became increasingly important to the region’s economy. Promoters showcased the birthplace of a nation with museums and historic sites like Independence National Historical Park as well as yearly attractions such as the Mummers Parade, an abundance of public art, and a thriving dining and entertainment scene. To compete for conventions as well as recreational travelers, the Pennsylvania Convention Center opened in 1993, taking up the whole of four city blocks between Arch and Race Streets from Eleventh Street to Thirteenth (then more than doubling in square footage with an extension to Broad Street in the 2010s). Redevelopment in service to tourism also occurred in Independence National Historical Park, which gained a block-long visitor center, an expanded exhibit hall for the Liberty Bell, and the National Constitution Center, and nearby a Museum of the American Revolution.
Stewards of Philadelphia’s Center City, like those in other American cities, grappled with the challenge of preserving the past while ensuring a secure future for the city and its residents. Beginning in 1991, the Center City District—a business improvement district—supplemented city services to improve quality of life with initiatives ranging from street cleaning to development of Dilworth Park adjacent to City Hall and Sister Cities Park on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. By the early decades of the twenty-first century, new attention turned toward reintegrating the Delaware River waterfront into the urban grid, and the Schuylkill River Trail opened on the western edge of the original city plan. By 2017, an estimated 190,000 of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents lived in Center City and adjacent blocks north to Girard Avenue and south to Tasker Street, including a high concentration of young professionals and increasing numbers of older residents relocating from the suburbs. In a city of many neighborhoods, Center City remained a heart of political and cultural activity and a visible expression of Philadelphia’s growth and change—not only a geographic location, but a signpost of urban vitality.
Catharine Dann Roeber is associate professor of decorative arts and material culture at the University of Delaware and the author of the PhD dissertation Building and Planting: Material Culture, Memory, and the Making of William Penn’s Pennsylvania, completed at the College of William and Mary in 2011. Charlene Mires is professor of history at Rutgers-Camden and editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
During the 1980s, Philadelphia and its surrounding communities emerged as a mecca for the sport of skateboarding. The region developed more than twenty skate parks, and local professional skateboarders achieved international fame over the next four decades. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately 105,000 of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents skateboarded. Despite occasional opposition by city officials to skateboarding in public locations, the sport flourished.
Skateboarding began in 1958, when early pioneers of the sport attached roller skates to the bottom of boards. This allowed traditional ocean surfers to “sidewalk surf” in places where there were no waves. The following year, Roller Derby, a company with operations in Illinois and California, began to mass-produce skateboards with metal wheels. Between 1963 and 1968, manufacturers of surfboards, such as Makaha and Hobie, started making better-quality skateboards with clay wheels and trucks. This improved construction and distribution and opened the door for the increased popularity of the sport, prompting the advent of skate contests, the first of which was held in Hermosa Beach, California, in 1963. In the 1970s, skateboards could be purchased at mainstream retailers, such as JCPenney, throughout the United States.[caption id="attachment_33040" align="alignright" width="300"] Skateboarders in the late twentieth century valued John F. Kennedy Plaza, better known as LOVE Park, for its rails and ledges. Considered a nuisance but defended by skateboarders and city planner Ed Bacon, the park lost these features when redeveloped by the city into the smoother landscape visible in this 2018 photograph. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]
Beginning in the 1980s, local skateboarders descended on John F. Kennedy Plaza (Love Park), at Fifteenth Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Center City. This park, designed by city planner Edmund Bacon (1910-2005) and architect Vincent Kling (1916-2013), had opened in 1965 between City Hall and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In 1976, the iconic Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture became the park’s most distinctive feature. The park fell into disrepair in the 1980s, but it became a popular spot for local and visiting amateur and professional skateboarders because of its features, such as ledges, railings, stairs, and desirable landing spots. Skateboarders from around the world described the park as “Philadelphia’s skate spot,” “legendary,” and “the greatest skate spot ever.” Popular skateboarders such as Josh Kalis (b. 1976), Stevie Williams (b. 1979), and Kerry Getz (b. 1975) skated in the park as it rose to prominence in skateboarding circles.
The Bans of 1994 and 2000
To the displeasure of skateboarders, city officials formally banned skateboarding on two occasions, in 1994 and 2000. These bans led to conflict between skateboarders and police that often resulted in arrests and hefty fines. The friction sparked a debate between backers of the skateboarders and lawmakers over the rights of individuals and groups to use public space. Ultimately, the debate ended when renovations to the park in 2002 and 2016 resulted in destruction of some of the best spots to skateboard.
After city government attempted to end skateboarding in Love Park in 1994, a section of South Philadelphia’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park located beneath Interstate 95 was opened to skateboarders. The city contributed sixteen thousand square feet of unused public land beneath the interstate and added skate park features, including pyramids and a grind box for tricks. Local skateboarders created additional features to improve the terrain for better riding and for performing tricks. Over the years, through the efforts of volunteers and international attention caused by competitions and video games, the park evolved into one of the more popular and well-known skateparks in the world. The park hosted the Gravity Games, a multi-event extreme-sports competition, in 2005 and was featured in the 2007 video game Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground. Local professional skateboarders such as Chuck Treece (b. 1964), Bam Margera (b. 1979), and Willy Akers (b. 1986) became regulars at this skate park and were photographed and recorded riding there on numerous occasions.[caption id="attachment_33035" align="alignright" width="300"] Prompted by bans and hefty fines, skateboarders advocated for safe places to practice their sport. Paine’s Skate Park opened near the Schuylkill River Trail in 2013 with the support of ad-hoc group Paine’s Skate Park Fund, later renamed SkatePhilly. (Photograph by M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]
As the young people who were once chased out of Love Park by the police became adults, they became activists for the sport they loved. Frustration from the Love Park debate emboldened local skateboarders to organize and lobby for the designation of public space for skateboarding. Josh Nims (b. 1975), a local skateboarder, founded an advocacy group called Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund (FPSF) to raise funds for a new park and to advocate the value of skateboarding for American cities that chose to embrace the sport instead of criminalizing it. After ten years of fund-raising, the organization raised enough capital to break ground in 2012 on a new facility, Paine’s Skate Park, at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Schuylkill River Trail and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With support from many individuals in the local skateboarding community, including Jesse Rendell (b. 1980), a skateboarder turned lawyer and son of Ed Rendell (b. 1944), former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania, the multimillion dollar project opened in May 2013.
Suburban Skateboarding[caption id="attachment_33018" align="alignright" width="300"] By the 1970s, mainstream retail stores sold skateboards, and the sport’s popularity extended far from its birthplace in California. This 1978 photograph shows skateboarders using a half-pipe in the beach community of Wildwood, New Jersey. (Library of Congress)[/caption]
Skateboarding also became popular in communities surrounding Philadelphia. In the suburbs, local governments succeeded in establishing partnerships to raise funds, build, and maintain skate parks. The borough of Ambler, Pennsylvania, partnered with local supporters and volunteers to open the Ambler Skatepark in 2011. Patrick Kerr Memorial Skatepark in Abington Township, Pennsylvania, took its name from the leading advocate of the project, who died in 2003. Supporters of this skate park also maintained an educational scholarship fund for young skateboarders from the Abington area. Other popular skate parks could be found throughout South Jersey in Brigantine, Maple Shade Township, Medford, Ocean City, Sea Isle City, West Deptford, and Williamstown. A $750,000 skate park in Ocean City was built in 2015 with $500,000 in Cape May County Open Space funding and $250,000 in city money.
The opening of skate parks throughout the region in the twenty-first century coupled with the abundant support of the skateboarding advocacy nonprofit organization Skate Philly, formed by members of the Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund to promote the positive aspects of skateboarding in the region, demonstrated the resilience, organization, and dedication of the local skateboarding community.
Matthew Ward is a boxing historian and writer from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Arizona State University in 2007 with a B.A. in History and Culture, and Rutgers University—Camden in 2018 with an M.A. in History. He worked in financial services for over nine years and serves as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is also an Army veteran who served in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2010 to 2011. He grew up on the Jersey Shore and runs a boxing blog and podcast called The Weigh-In.
Professional Skateboarders from the Greater Philadelphia Area
Willy Akers (b. 1986), Wilmington, Del.
Tom Asta (b. 1990), Langhorne, Pa.
Chris Cole (b. 1982), Langhorne, Pa.
Pete Eldridge, Pennington, N.J.
Kerry Getz (b. 1975), Lehighton, Pa.
Josh Kalis (b. 1976), Philadelphia.
Brandon Cole “Bam” Margera (b. 1979), West Chester, Pa.
Ricky Oyola, Pemberton, N.J.
Chuck Treece (b. 1964), Philadelphia.
Ishod Wair (b. 1991), Bordentown, N.J.
Stevie Williams (b. 1979), Philadelphia.
Long an important center of African American musical life, Philadelphia played a key role in the development of black gospel music. One of the seminal figures in developing the gospel style, Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), moved to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the early twentieth century and became a well-known gospel songwriter. As the region’s African American population grew and black churches flourished, Philadelphia served as home base for many of the music’s biggest stars who settled in the city during the mid-twentieth century “golden age” of gospel.Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]
Gospel music emerged from urban African American churches in the early twentieth century, growing out of longstanding sacred black music traditions. In colonial Philadelphia, African Americans sang sacred songs from their African homelands as well as European-derived psalms and hymns that they infused with African elements. The music became more formalized in the city’s first black churches in the 1790s, particularly Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1794 by Richard Allen (1760-1831). In 1801 Allen published a hymnal for his congregation titled A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected From Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister, the first American hymnal compiled for a black congregation. Allen later issued expanded editions of the hymnal, which included primarily traditional Protestant hymns along with some he wrote himself.C
While gospel music first developed in urban black churches in the North, its roots lay in the rural South. Prior to the Civil War, the harsh conditions of slavery in the South produced two major African American vocal traditions: the blues and the Negro spiritual—the former secular, the latter sacred. Spirituals, the great body of African American religious folk songs, served as the foundation for gospel.
Following the Civil War, African Americans migrating from the South brought their musical traditions to northern cities, where the urban environment gave rise to a new kind of worship music, the gospel song. In contrast to spirituals, which were improvisatory folk songs passed down orally, gospel songs were composed, formally structured tunes that incorporated elements of popular music and blues. Their lyrics reflected the new realities of urban black life.New York Public Library)[/caption]
Charles Albert Tindley
One of the creators of the gospel style, Charles Albert Tindley, moved to Philadelphia during the increasing wave of African American migration from the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Born into a slave family in Maryland and largely self-taught, Tindley became pastor of Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church (later renamed Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church) in South Philadelphia in 1902. Under his leadership, the congregation expanded significantly and in 1906 moved to its longtime location at Broad and Fitzwater Streets (where it was later renamed Tindley Temple). Tindley wrote gospel hymns, which he began publishing in 1901, the first such songs in the new style to be published. He later issued several gospel hymn collections, published by companies he helped to establish. Through preaching and singing, songwriting, publishing, and radio broadcasts, Tindley became an important figure in gospel music in Philadelphia and beyond. Several of his hymns became gospel standards, including “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which served as the inspiration for the well-known civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Six of his hymns appeared in Gospel Pearls, a collection published in 1921 that was the first hymnal geared toward African American congregations to use the word gospel in the title.
Tindley sometimes has been called the “Father of Gospel Music,” but most historians give this title to Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), the Chicago-based pianist and songwriter who originally worked in blues before turning to gospel in the early 1930s. Following in Tindley’s footsteps, Dorsey became a prolific gospel songwriter and promoter. An astute businessman as well as musician, he successfully marketed his songs, founded gospel choirs and conventions, and promoted the career of Mahalia Jackson (1911-72), the most famous gospel singer of the twentieth century. Dorsey and other gospel songwriters of the period, most of whom acknowledged Tindley’s influence, helped to usher in the “golden age” of gospel in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when black congregations across the nation sang gospel music in their worship services and gospel recording artists and performers enjoyed great popularity.
Several distinct musical styles developed within black gospel. More-traditional Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal congregations generally took a reserved approach. Their performances, while spirited, retained traditional song forms and harmonies and they rendered the songs in a dignified manner. Conversely, in Pentecostal or “holiness” churches, the music was highly charged and improvisatory, with exuberant shouting, hand clapping, and dancing. The Church of God in Christ, a denomination founded in the 1890s, became the chief home of the Pentecostal style. The repertoire of these churches varied, from centuries-old Protestant hymns, to Negro spirituals, to the gospel songs of Tindley, Dorsey, and others. The use of instruments also varied. Some congregations and performers sang a cappella, eschewing instruments as too secular. Others employed instrumental accompaniment, from just a guitar or tambourine to a full band.
One of Philadelphia’s preeminent churches in the Pentecostal style emerged under the leadership of Ozro Thurston Jones (1891-1972), who moved from Arkansas to Philadelphia in 1925 to assume the pastorship of Holy Temple, a small Church of God in Christ congregation located in West Philadelphia. Holy Temple was originally located at Fifty-Seventh and Vine Streets before moving to Sixtieth and Callowhill Streets in 1935. For a time, the congregation included Elizabeth Dabney (c.1890-1967), a Virginia native who became a leading figure in the Church of God in Christ. She later helped her husband, a singing preacher, establish another prominent Church of God in Christ congregation, Garden of Prayer, in North Philadelphia. Gertrude Ward (1901-81), who moved to Philadelphia from her native South Carolina around 1920, attended the lively services at both Holy Temple and Garden of Prayer regularly, bringing her daughters Clara (1924-73) and Willarene (Willa, 1920-2012). The three later formed the nucleus of the Ward Singers—also known at various times as the Famous Ward Singers and Clara Ward and the Ward Singers—one of the most popular gospel groups of all time.
Singers Drawn to Philadelphia
By the mid-twentieth century, gospel emanated from the numerous churches in the growing black neighborhoods of South, North, and West Philadelphia, as well as other cities in the region with significant African American populations. Some of the biggest names in gospel music moved to Philadelphia from the South in this period, including the nationally popular male quartets the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Sensational Nightingales. Soon after settling in the city in 1942, the Dixie Hummingbirds secured a daily program on radio station WCAU, laying the groundwork for a long, successful career. In the mid-1940s, Hummingbirds singer Ira Tucker (1925-2008) began staging gospel shows at the Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets in North Philadelphia. Featuring his own group and other local and national gospel acts, these very successful shows made “the Met” an important gospel venue.
Philadelphia became known especially for its female gospel groups, including the Ward Singers, Davis Sisters, Stars of Faith, and Angelic Gospel Singers. Of these, the Ward Singers achieved greatest success. Performing in elaborate gowns and hairstyles, they took gospel into nightclubs and jazz festivals, which enhanced their popularity but alienated more-conservative gospel adherents. Marion Williams (1927-94) moved to Philadelphia from Florida in 1947 to join the Ward Singers and sang with them for eleven years before breaking away to form the Stars of Faith and later embarking on a solo career. Considered one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, Williams was honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1993. Mary Johnson Davis (1899-1982), an influential singer and group leader who moved in the 1950s from her native Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, maintained an active performing career and, with her friend Gertrude Ward, nurtured gospel talent in the area.[caption id="attachment_32604" align="alignright" width="300"] Sister Rosetta Tharpe, pictured in 1944, became successful in both gospel and secular music styles. Her distinctive guitar style earned her the title “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” (New York Public Library)[/caption]
Singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73), perhaps the most successful—and unusual—female gospel artist of the period, moved to Philadelphia in 1957 after years of touring and living in other cities. Major gospel artists routinely received tempting offers to cross over to the more lucrative secular world of jazz, rhythm and blues, and popular music. While a number of prominent gospel singers refused to abandon sacred music, many did make the transition, to the consternation of their more traditional audiences. Uniquely, Tharpe moved back and forth between secular and sacred music several times in the course of her career, enjoying great success in both realms. Tharpe also developed a distinctive virtuoso guitar style, earning her the title “Godmother of Rock and Roll.”
Changes in society, musical tastes, and the music business in the 1960s signaled an end to the golden age of gospel, as well as other black music styles. While traditional gospel remained popular, a new “contemporary” gospel style began to emerge, incorporating elements of modern popular music and often featuring elaborate musical arrangements and sophisticated recording techniques. Gospel music, both contemporary and traditional, remained an active, thriving tradition into the early twenty-first century in the Philadelphia area. It formed an integral part of the services of black churches throughout the region and gospel artists continued to enjoy the support of loyal audiences who listened to local gospel radio stations and attended concerts at churches and major venues such as the Robin Hood Dell and Temple University’s Liacouras Center.
Jack McCarthy is an archivist and historian who specializes in three areas of Philadelphia history: music, business and industry, and Northeast Philadelphia. He regularly writes, lectures, and gives tours on these subjects. His book In the Cradle of Industry and Liberty: A History of Manufacturing in Philadelphia was published in 2016 and he curated the 2017–18 exhibit "Risk & Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia" for the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. He serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mann Music Center and directs a project for Jazz Bridge entitled Documenting & Interpreting the Philly Jazz Legacy, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
Catharine Dann Roeber is associate professor of decorative arts and material culture at the University of Delaware and the author of the PhD dissertation Building and Planting: Material Culture, Memory, and the Making of William Penn’s Pennsylvania, completed at the College of William and Mary in 2011.
J.A. Reuscher is an Associate Librarian with the Pennsylvania State University Libraries and holds degrees in history and library science.
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