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West Chester, Pennsylvania

Boosted by its strategic location some twenty-five miles from Philadelphia, West Chester, Pennsylvania, grew and prospered for most of its history as the county seat of Chester County. Pressured by mid-twentieth-century suburbanization, the borough lost its commercial and residential dominance and even its role as county seat somewhat diminished as the growth of the surrounding county required more employees and offices than the borough could reasonably accommodate. In the early twenty-first century, the borough established itself as a destination for restaurants, entertainment, and specialty shopping that attracted residents and visitors alike.

[caption id="attachment_27426" align="alignright" width="300"] West Chester promotes itself as an entertainment and cultural heritage destination, a strategy that proves its appeal with crowds that swarm downtown for a chili festival. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Borough of West Chester originated from a crossroads in West Goshen Township, Chester County, the county originally adjacent to Philadelphia to the west. The modern town developed on land that was part of several contiguous land grants from William Penn (1644-1718). About 1710, Goshen Road to the small settlement at Goshen in East Goshen Township and then to Philadelphia was the first road laid out. An east-west road (Gay Street, eventually West Chester Pike) through these tracts to Philadelphia was laid out in 1735. Ten years later, a north-south road (High Street) to Wilmington, Delaware, also opened. A log tavern built near the crossroads was named Turk’s Head Inn and marked by a large sign of a turbaned Turkish man, so local farmers described where they lived as “Near the sign of the Turk’s Head.” A log schoolhouse built at the intersection of these two roads served as a hospital for casualties from the Battle of the Brandywine, which took place a few miles to the south in 1777. 

The definitive event that propelled this crossroads toward town status was the Pennsylvania legislature’s decision in 1786 to move the county seat of Chester County from Chester, in the southeastern part of the county, to the more centrally located Turk’s Head, to accommodate larger numbers of residents in the northern and western portions of the county. After opposition from Chester, in 1789 the legislature split off the eastern part of the county to form Delaware County and Turk’s Head became West Chester, county seat of a smaller Chester County. Ten years later, the state legislature accorded it borough status, freeing residents from township control and enabling officials to collect taxes and provide services, such as constables, to residents. Its role as county seat determined the character of the early town:  law offices, taverns and hotels, livery stables, banks, small shops, and dwellings quickly clustered near the county courthouse (completed in 1786) and nearby prison.

Athens on High Street

The county seat experienced steady growth in the decades prior to the Civil War. The population jumped from 374 residents in 1790 to 4,757 in 1860. Early residents were British, mainly English, with a small group of Irish Roman Catholics present. A Roman Catholic Church was the first built in the borough, where it was located to serve a large area of the county. Many Protestant denominations eventually followed, but the Society of Friends built the second church in 1812, and Quakers were long prominent among residents and community leaders. The 1820s through the 1840s were perhaps the most significant decades in the borough’s history, with its greatest population growth and a building boom that shaped the physical layout and appearance of the town. Spanning out from the courthouse at the center, the borough developed in four quadrants defined by the meeting of the two main roads (Gay and High Streets), a pattern that continued into the twenty-first century.

[caption id="attachment_26781" align="alignright" width="165"] William Everhart was one of West Chester's most influential citizens and instrumental in the expansion and prosperity of the city. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Improved transit quickened development by connecting the borough with surrounding counties. In the mid-1790s, the state opened a road extending from Gay Street west to Strasburg in Lancaster County. The creation of several more state roads through the vicinity, one extending from New Hope in Bucks County to Cecil County, Maryland, prompted entrepreneur William Everhart (1785-1868) to develop an area just south of the court house. New roads and the growth of the surrounding population encouraged other investors to purchase and subdivide centrally located farms in the borough, which consisted of 1.8 square miles.

Wagon roads often proved problematic, but the advent of the West Chester Railroad in 1832 promised more efficient ties to Philadelphia via nearby Malvern. Sensing new opportunities, Everhart erected the first purpose-built office building, the Everhart Building (ca. 1833) on Market Street across from the courthouse. Connections to a larger world benefited county farmers and diversified the borough’s economy to include artisan crafts such as pottery, clock- and watchmaking, and a few small early steam-driven industries, such as an iron foundry and a brewery. Nurseries also became a significant part of the industrial economy of West Chester as they organized production and marketing to buy, sell, and trade species throughout the world. The most successful—Morris Nursery (1849), Kift Nursery (1852), and Hoopes Brothers and Thomas (1856)—were founded by midcentury, although they experienced their peak years later. In the 1890s, Hoopes Brothers employed three hundred county workers and sold about 900,000 seedlings annually. The business lasted until 1948.

By the Civil War, black residents accounted for about 10 percent of the population. African Americans had been present from the borough’s earliest days, including a few slaves. In the early nineteenth century, some experienced economic success. The 1838 tax list, for instance, included sixteen black artisans and small businessmen as taxpayers, including a blacksmith, barber, shoemaker, oysterman, and huckster among several other occupations. A few black residents lived scattered around the borough, but by the 1850s most lived in the southeast quadrant, near brick- and lumberyards, the West Chester Gas facility (1852-1960s), and by the Civil War a second rail line, in a neighborhood known as the East End. While small row- and semi-detached houses set close to the street characterized portions of all quadrants, in the East End they were largely unrelieved by larger dwellings and spacious yards, reflecting the lower economic status of most East End residents.

Courthouse as Anchor

[caption id="attachment_26778" align="alignright" width="300"] Designed by Thomas U. Walter, Philadelphia architect and designer of the U.S. Capitol dome, the West Chester City Courthouse was completed in 1847. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Even as the town diversified, the courthouse remained the vital center of the county seat. Steady county settlement boosted courthouse business and supported a growing number of law offices, banks, taverns, livery stables, dwellings, and churches for visitors and residents. In 1846 Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter (1804-87), who had previously designed the Bank of Chester County (1836) in the Greek Revival style, was commissioned to design a new and larger courthouse in the same style as county affairs outgrew the 1786 courthouse. These centrally located buildings and others in popular architectural styles marked the transition of the simple market town to a more cosmopolitan society.

The county seat offered opportunities to able and ambitious lawyers, businessmen, and physicians who also served as representatives to the state legislature and the United States Congress and as judges on district courts in Philadelphia. These men and their families moved back and forth between West Chester, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Washington, D.C., so that this small urban center was as up-to-date as larger cities and a model for other towns in the county, as its fashionable churches and public buildings by architects such as Walter and William Strickland(1788-1854) visually demonstrated. 

After county and borough administration, education was the most enduring economic activity. The cosmopolitan and well-educated lawyers, judges, doctors, and Quaker farmers desired superior education for their sons and daughters. The many private academies and boarding schools for young men and ladies drew students from Philadelphia and farther afield. The West Chester Academy (est. 1813) was the antecedent of West Chester University, while the Institution for Young Gentlemen run by Antoine Bolmar (1797-1861) attracted many students from the South and from the West Indies, particularly Cuba.

Civic leaders also founded an array of scientific and cultural institutions. In 1848, a new Horticultural Hall became the cultural center of the county during an era in which lectures by famous people constituted entertainment: Horace Greeley (1811-72), Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) were some of the luminaries of the day on the speakers’ circuit who lectured there. Four years later, this building became the site of the First Women’s Rights Convention in Pennsylvania and the second in the nation after the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The combination of schools, cultural institutions, and Greek Revival architecture earned West Chester its nicknames as the “Athens of Pennsylvania” and “Athens on High Street.” The well-educated population supported three newspapers, one of which, the Chester County Times, housed in the Everhart Building, published the first biography of Abraham Lincoln, helping him win the presidency in 1860.

A Suburb of Philadelphia

Following the Civil War, West Chester grew steadily for another lengthy period through World War II, although the Depression presented challenges to the town’s general prosperity. Even during the national recession of the 1870s, the decision of the state legislature to transform the West Chester Academy into a state Normal School provided a significant catalyst for growth.

Increasing responsibilities of county administration led to construction of a courthouse annex in 1891. The following year, the founding of the Chester County Hospital, originally sited within the borough but in the 1920s relocated a few hundred yards outside the boundary, increased the importance of the county seat to area residents. Further notable additions to the architectural landscape, including the borough’s first and only skyscraper for the next one hundred years and the six-story Farmers and Mechanics Trust Building (1906), showcased West Chester’s prosperity.

By the time West Chester celebrated its centennial in 1899, its residents no longer thought of it as an isolated inland town but as the most important suburb of Philadelphia, according to the Centennial Souvenir. Just the year before, the trolley line along West Chester Pike that traveled between Sixty-Third Street in Philadelphia and Newtown Square was extended to West Chester. Additionally, just prior to the Civil War, a second rail line had connected the borough to Philadelphia through Media, Delaware County, and also with Baltimore and the South, readying the borough for more industrial development. After the Civil War, the sections of the two eastern quadrants closest to the rail lines became the most industrialized in town, as the massive Hoopes Brothers and Darlington Wheel Works (1866-1973) joined established manufacturing concerns. The most important company for a time was the Sharples Separator Works, established in 1881 by P. M. Sharples (1857-1944). This company’s most profitable product was a centrifugal cream separator sold internationally, inspired by the prevalence of dairy farming in the county. At its height, the works employed six hundred borough and county residents, but it went out of business in the 1930s Depression.

[caption id="attachment_26777" align="alignright" width="255"] Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and became one of its most famous natives as a prominent activist during the civil rights era of the 1960s. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, banks clustered around the courthouse remained important for visitors to the county seat and county farmers who sold their produce in two market houses in the borough. Hotels, taverns, and restaurants remained necessary in a county seat, and some well-known establishments were owned by black residents. One of these was the Spence Restaurant on Gay Street, known for the area’s best oyster stew and patronized by white businessmen. On the other hand, the Magnolia House Hotel, owned from 1866 to 1897 by the son of a southern slave, was located in the largely segregated East End and catered exclusively to black customers, including Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-95). In the early twentieth century, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (1912-87) grew up partly in the East End, though the relatively wealthy grandparents who raised him lived at several different locations within the borough, including the white Catholic section. He attended the segregated Gay Street School and West Chester Junior High, although biographers state that because of many interracial activities, Rustin did not realize as a boy that the schools were segregated. As a student at an integrated high school with few black students, Rustin was arrested for trying to sit in the white section of the Warner Movie Theater.

World War II propelled a second major industry related to county agriculture. West Chester-born chemist G. Raymond Rettew (1903-73) worked on improving the county’s mushroom production and in the process successfully developed a way to mass-produce penicillin. By 1943, Chester County Mushroom Laboratories in West Chester produced most of the world’s supply. The expanding mushroom industry further diversified the population by attracting Hispanic residents to the county and to the borough. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals took over production during the World War II and produced penicillin in the borough during the post-war antibiotics boom. Wyeth operated a West Chester plant until the early twenty-first century.

Decline and Renewal

With the end of World War II  West Chester seemed poised for another era of steady growth. Instead, the changing landscape of retail and the fast-paced suburbanization of the surrounding rural county contributed to the loss of businesses and, in the 1970s, a loss of some 10 percent of the population in the borough. Within the borough, as in many larger cities, successful revitalization efforts focused on downtown.

In the 1950s, West Chester remained the retail center of Chester County, with three department stores and fifteen smaller clothing and shoe stores. These stores lost business, however, after King of Prussia Plaza, about twenty miles northeast of West Chester, opened in the early 1960s. The borough’s history as a crossroads destination was reversed when a new four-lane highway (Route 202) built from Wilmington, Delaware, to King of Prussia bypassed the borough and made the journey from West Chester to King of Prussia a twenty-minute drive. The last remaining department store in town, Mosteller’s, declined through the 1970s and closed in 1981.

West Chester’s population reached its peak in 1970, even as the population of the surrounding county exploded as farmland rapidly converted to suburban tracts, a process accelerated by the transformation of West Chester Pike (Route 3) into a four-lane highway in the 1950s. The accompanying expansion of county government led to tension over whether the small county seat could accommodate additional offices and parking spaces. In the 1960s, a new wing was added to the courthouse, and a few years later the Dague Building was constructed to house the county library and other offices. For a while branch libraries proved sufficient to serve the county, but in 1980 the main county library  moved from West Chester to the site of the new Exton Square Mall (opened in 1973), where it was more easily accessible by automobile.

The increasing importance of the automobile at the expense of public transportation hurt the borough. West Chester was connected by frequent bus service to the Sixty-Ninth Street Terminal in Upper Darby via West Chester Pike. However, in 1986, rail service from the county seat to Media and from there to Philadelphia was discontinued, partly because county officials preferred to expand service at the Exton Station on SEPTA’s Paoli-Thorndale line where there was room for parking. By the end of the twentieth century, Exton, eight miles north of West Chester, rather than the county seat, in large measure became the retail, entertainment, and transportation hub of southeastern Chester County. 

The disposition of government services also affected the borough.  In 1993, the location of a new Chester County Government Services Center outside the borough in Westtown removed five hundred county workers from the downtown district.  Within a short time a number of small businesses in West Chester closed. The movement of services out of West Chester finally reversed in 2008, when the Chester County Justice Center replaced the Dague Building, bringing  some county workers back to the borough. Further proposals for such controversially large-scale buildings (including downtown apartment buildings and hotels) and additional high-rise parking, however, generated concerns that such investments would compromise the quality of life in the borough.

[caption id="attachment_26823" align="alignright" width="300"] One of a series of institutions that evolved into West Chester University, the West Chester State Normal School opened in 1871 with the intention of training high school teachers. The serpentine stone of Main Hall, depicted here, came from the Joseph H. Brinton Quarry south of the borough. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Over time West Chester also became a university town, benefiting businesses but creating unwanted development pressures at the same time. By 2016, the university enrolled almost seventeen thousand students drawn mainly from Chester and surrounding counties, many of whom lived in the borough during the school year. As customers and employees of many downtown restaurants, bars, and boutiques they helped boost the town’s commercial viability. On the other hand, traffic congestion, lack of adequate parking facilities, unruly late night behavior, and the university’s desire to further expand its enrollment and physical facilities caused concern for many borough leaders and residents. A 2002 borough planning study found that the “extremely” high percentage of housing units devoted to rental housing created a destabilizing effect on neighborhoods, a trend that began in the 1980s and continued in the early twenty-first century.

Many sections of the borough contained spacious dwellings, yards, and green spaces, but residential neighborhoods varied greatly and some areas remained segregated. The East End remained home to most African American residents (about 12 percent of the population), although that quadrant was no longer heavily industrial and student rental housing was pressing eastward from the university campus. The western side of the northwest quadrant was home to most of the borough’s Hispanic residents (about 13 percent of the population). In 2000, many families living in those areas accounted for a large part of the 20 percent of residents living below the poverty line.

The revitalized downtown, though, presented a different story. Together, the borough and the Business Improvement District, a partnership of downtown commercial interests formed in 2000, promoted West Chester as an entertainment and cultural heritage destination. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, small boutiques, a farmers’ market, restaurants, and music festivals  increased foot traffic and generated nightlife, and by  2016 the borough population had slightly surpassed its 1970 peak. Proposals for several more luxury hotels, high-rise apartment buildings, and a live performance theater demonstrated that, despite ongoing tension between development and preservation, West Chester had resuscitated its reputation as a cosmopolitan place to visit and live.

Anne Krulikowski holds a Ph.D. in American History with a concentration in material culture/preservation from the University of Delaware. She teaches American history and public history at West Chester University.

Stefano Luconi

Stefano Luconi teaches History of the Americas at the University of Florence and specializes in Italian immigration to the United States, with special attention to Italian Americans’ transformation of ethnic identity. His publications include From Paesani to White Ethnics: The Italian Experience in Philadelphia (State University of New York Press, 2001) and The Italian-American Vote in Providence, Rhode Island, 1916-1948 (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004). He also edited, with Dennis Barone, Small Towns, Big Cities: The Urban Experience of Italian Americans (American Italian Historical Association, 2010).


Mexicans and Mexico

Greater Philadelphia’s economic ties to Mexico date to the era of European colonization. However, substantial Mexican immigration to the region started only in the 1970s, in Chester County’s mushroom growing towns, and in the 1990s in Philadelphia. Still, Mexicans became the region’s second-largest immigrant group in the early twenty-first century and were the largest immigrant group in the United States as well. With this surge in population, Mexicans had a substantial impact on the region’s culture and economy, sustaining its agricultural sector and revitalizing once-depressed city and suburban neighborhoods.

[caption id="attachment_27137" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo of front of a mexican restaurant The operators of South Philadelphia Barbacoa (above), Cristina Martinez and Benjamin Miller, started their Mexican-dining business with a food cart and nurtured it into an award-winning restaurant. Philadelphia's Mexican-American population is deeply involved in the restaurant business both as employees and owners.  (Photograph by M. Fischetta for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Greater Philadelphia’s ties to Mexico were relatively modest before the late twentieth century. Philadelphia merchants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did a small trade with Mexican ports, mainly Alvarado and Veracruz. Typically, the Philadelphia ships brought re-exports from Europe and Africa, including cocoa, textiles, jewelry, and wine, and returned with specie, gold bullion, and cochineal for use in dyes. Some Philadelphians, including members of the First City Troop cavalry, fought in the Mexican-American War in 1845-46, in which the United States took the territories between Texas and California. In the twentieth century, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology acquired some ancient artifacts from Mexico, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired paintings, sculptures, and prints by prominent Mexican artists. As the tourism industry expanded in Mexico across the twentieth century, residents of Greater Philadelphia also increasingly visited the country, especially resorts like Acapulco and Cancún.

Small numbers of Mexicans also settled in the Philadelphia region in the twentieth century. In the 1910s and 1920s, as Mexicans increasingly emigrated in search of employment, some came to work in agriculture, construction, and railroads, and a few stayed in the area. During World War II, labor agents recruited Mexican men to work mainly for railroads in the region, part of a national effort to address wartime labor shortages, and again a small number remained. In the 1970s, another small group of Mexican men and women settled in Philadelphia. Some started small businesses in North Philadelphia, including Razo’s Grocery and La Raza restaurant at Second and Allegheny, and established Mexican teams in the Hispanic Soccer League of Philadelphia that played in Hunting Park. Mexican men also worked seasonally in the region, especially the agricultural townships of southern New Jersey, picking blueberries in Hammonton or tomatoes in Vineland and Bridgeton. These became more permanent settlements of Mexican families in the late twentieth century.

Greater Philadelphia became a significant destination for Mexican immigrants in the 1990s, when Mexican migration to the U.S. accelerated and spread beyond the older gateway regions of New York, Chicago, and the Southwest. Most migrants came from working-class or rural backgrounds in Mexico, often places whose agricultural economies struggled after the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. Many also came from the New York metropolitan region, attracted by Greater Philadelphia’s lower costs of living and seeking greater safety and opportunities for their children. By the early twenty-first century, Mexicans had become the second-largest immigrant group in the city of Philadelphia and the broader region, even though Mexicans are commonly undercounted in U.S. Census estimates.

Agricultural Towns

[caption id="attachment_26982" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo showing a bed of white mushrooms in the foreground with a booth worker in yellow shirt in background. The annual Mushroom Festival in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, draws tens of thousands to celebrate the mushroom industry that first drew Mexican workers to the area. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The first large concentration of Mexican immigrants in Greater Philadelphia grew up in the mushroom farming capital of the world in southwestern Chester County, around Kennett Square, Avondale, Oxford, and Toughkenamon. Like South Jersey agriculture, this area drew migrant labor beginning in the early twentieth century, first Italians, then African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and finally Mexicans. Mexican migration to this area began in the early 1970s, when some migrants already working in Chicago learned of the mushroom work from Puerto Ricans who had relocated from the region.

Most Mexican migrants in southern Chester County came from the state of Guanajuato, and many gained legal status in the United States through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. By the early twenty-first century, the population of people of Mexican origin in southern Chester County was around forty thousand. In Kennett Square, in 2014 at least half of the town’s six thousand residents were of Mexican origin.

Starting in the 1980s, Mexican men working in Vineland and Bridgeton also brought their wives and children to live in New Jersey. Some of these families opened small businesses like grocery stores and restaurants. Mexicans succeeded Italians and Southeast Asians as the primary resident agricultural labor force in South Jersey. Many Mexicans also passed through the region in the seasonal migration of farmworkers harvesting fields up and down the East Coast.


Beginning in the 1990s, significant numbers of Mexicans settled in suburban towns in the region, with the largest population in Norristown, the county seat of Montgomery County. The origin story relates that a man of Italian descent visited Acapulco on vacation, met and fell in love with a Mexican woman there, brought her back to Norristown, and she in turn invited family and friends. This began a “chain migration” in which Mexicans from Acapulco, Puebla, and Mexico City came to settle or work seasonally in the town’s construction and landscaping businesses. By 2000, the Census counted three thousand people of Hispanic origin in Norristown, and almost ten thousand by 2010, most of whom were Mexican immigrants and their children, though a smaller Puerto Rican community also contributed to those figures. Mexicans revived the commercial district of West Marshall Street and surrounding blocks and helped regrow the population of this older industrial town that lost residents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mexican immigrants settled in suburban towns across the Philadelphia region in the first part of the twenty-first century. In Norristown, Pottstown, Hatboro, Bristol, Upper Darby, Pennsauken, Swedesboro, and other working-class suburbs, Mexicans settled usually in small numbers, finding affordable rents in towns that scholars Michael Katz and Kenneth Ginsburg have called “reservations for low-wage labor.” They commonly found work in landscaping, housekeeping, construction, and other services for the more affluent residents of nearby suburbs, as well as their malls and office parks.

Philadelphia and Camden

While Puerto Ricans remained the largest Latino group in the cities of Philadelphia and Camden, the Mexican communities of both cities grew significantly since the late 1990s. Migrants from the state of Puebla came to dominate the Mexican populations of Philadelphia and Camden, arriving first from New York and subsequently attracting newcomers directly from Mexico. People from the rural town of San Lucas in the mountains of Puebla settled in East Camden, via New York. One man from San Lucas invited an acquaintance from the neighboring town of San Mateo Ozolco in Puebla, who ventured across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge one day and found a job at the upscale Mexican restaurant Tequilas in Center City Philadelphia. He settled in South Philadelphia, and by the early 2000s roughly half of the residents of San Mateo had made their way to Philadelphia, along with other Mexicans from Oaxaca, Mexico City, and other states. Between 2000 and 2010, the Mexican population of Philadelphia more than doubled from 6,000 to 15,500, according to the Census.

[caption id="attachment_26341" align="alignright" width="300"] The Cinco de Mayo celebration in Philadelphia features a parade in which participants dress as historic characters from the famous Battle of Puebla. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Mexican immigrants played a large role in the revitalization of Philadelphia and its neighborhoods in the early twenty-first century, including the city’s restaurant and construction booms and gentrification of neighborhoods surrounding Center City. Mexicans opened shuttered storefronts in the historic Italian Market, which the city government had labeled blighted at the turn of the century, and established a vibrant Mexican restaurant scene in this and other neighborhoods. South Philadelphia became home to the second-largest community of Mexicans in the region, after the area around Kennett Square. As in the suburbs and agricultural towns of the region, and in the nation at large, what was initially a community composed mainly of single men transitioned to a community of families, a shift reflected in the opening of dress shops, bakeries, and other family-serving shops in the Ninth Street Market.  Like the region at large, by the 2010s an estimated more than twenty thousand Mexican immigrants lived in neighborhoods across the city, contributing substantially to the reversal of Philadelphia’s decades of population decline.

Mexican Civil Society

As Mexican communities grew in Greater Philadelphia, organizations that served their needs—social service organizations, Catholic missions, migrant-led hometown associations, and immigrant rights groups—began to emerge, providing a range of services, from English as a Second Language classes to legal aid in Spanish. Some adapted from initially serving Puerto Rican constituencies, like the health and educational programs of La Comunidad Hispana in Chester County and Acción Comunal Latinomericana de Montgomery County (ACLAMO) Family Centers in Norristown and Pottstown. Others grew out of the Catholic Church, like Mission Santa Maria in Chester County and the Church of St. Patrick in Norristown, which offered bilingual services and hosted events for Mexican Independence Day and the feast day of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. CATA–the Farmworkers Support Committee–established by Puerto Ricans in South Jersey in 1979, advocated for Mexicans in the Bridgeton and Kennett Square areas. The Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health and the newer Restaurant Opportunities Center supported Mexicans working in the construction, landscaping, and food industries. Legal aid organizations assisted people without U.S. legal status who were brought to the region as children in applying for legal employment status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program of President Barack Obama (b. 1961).

[caption id="attachment_26289" align="alignright" width="300"] Dancer wearing traditional dresses performed at the Carnaval del Puebla in South Philadelphia in April 2016. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

In South Philadelphia, JUNTOS emerged as a community organizing and immigrant rights group supporting day laborers, immigrant parents advocating in public schools, and hometown associations. The hometown association from the village of Oyometepec in Puebla raised funds and organized community members in Mexico to plant trees for reforestation. Grupo Ozolco raised funds to build a high school and repair the main church in San Mateo, and with JUNTOS it established a bi-national cooperative in which members in Mexico grow and process indigenous blue corn and members in Philadelphia sell a corn flour called pinole to restaurants, cafes, and bakeries. JUNTOS members also helped found the Puentes de Salud health clinic, its community-led health promotion corps, and the Casa Monarca cultural center. Other cultural organizations in South Philadelphia included the San Mateo Carnavalero, which organized traditional festivals and participated in the Mummers Parade, as well as Philatinos Radio and other media ventures aimed at the Mexican community. The Mexican government opened a consulate on Independence Mall, where it established the Mexican Cultural Center as well.

Politics and Immigrant Rights

While many Philadelphians recognized Mexican migrants’ social and economic contributions to the region, the fact that most Mexican immigrants were in the United States illegally made their migration controversial. The United States recruited labor from Mexico for over a century, while never providing sufficient visas for this labor force to come legally. One controversy occurred in South Philadelphia, where Joey Vento (1939-2011), the owner of Geno’s Steaks, drew attention in early 2006 over a sign he placed in his establishment: This is AMERICA. WHEN ORDERING PLEASE “SPEAK ENGLISH” (emphasis in the original). Vento became a national figure in the illegal immigration restriction movement that erupted that year, demanding that his Mexican neighbors assimilate more quickly. That same spring, Philadelphia became the first city in the nation to mount immigrant rights protests, led by JUNTOS, in response to the U.S. House of Representatives passage of a bill aimed at criminalizing unauthorized immigrants and their supporters. Later that summer, first Hazleton in the Poconos and then the Philadelphia suburbs of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, and Riverside, New Jersey, passed “illegal immigration relief acts” seeking to punish landlords and employers of unauthorized immigrants. Riverside soon repealed its ordinance, and federal courts later struck down these laws.

By contrast, local governments in Philadelphia and Norristown sought to welcome and protect immigrants in the U.S. illegally. In 2003, Norristown passed an ordinance recognizing the Mexican consular ID card as valid documentation for accessing local services such as public schools, libraries, and health clinics. Town council members convinced local banks to do the same for Mexicans to open bank accounts locally. In the early 2000s, the administration of Mayor John Street (b. 1943) issued a directive reminding Philadelphia police that they may not ask people about their immigration status, a policy originally established in the 1980s to protect Central American asylum seekers. In the late 2000s and 2010s, the city’s mayors and city council repeatedly reaffirmed Philadelphia’s Sanctuary City status, refusing to cooperate with increasing federal detention and deportation efforts under Presidents George W. Bush (b. 1946) and Obama. The only hiatus in this Sanctuary City policy came when Mayor Michael Nutter (b. 1957) repealed it at the very end of his term, though incoming Mayor James Kenney (b. 1958) reinstated it on his first day in office. The New Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of city and suburban congregations supported by JUNTOS, was largely responsible for inspiring and sustaining this commitment.

As Philadelphia’s connections to Mexico grew markedly during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Mexican immigrants, many of whom were undocumented, contributed mightily to the city and region’s cultural and economic vitality. Although immigrant arrivals from Mexico declined after the recession of 2008, their number continued to grow and those already in Greater Philadelphia deepened their ties to local communities as they raised new generations of Mexican Philadelphians.

Domenic Vitiello is Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is former board chair of JUNTOS and is co-editor with Thomas J. Sugrue of Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

Hilary Parsons Dick is an Associate Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University. She completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2016, she was a Wenner-Gren Hunt Fellow, during which time she completed her first book, Words of Passage: Discourse, National Belonging, and the Imagined Lives of Mexican Migrants (forthcoming, spring 2018, The University of Texas Press).

Danielle DiVerde has a B.A. in International Studies and Spanish from Arcadia University. She has worked as research assistant to Hilary Parsons Dick for three years and is currently a Lead Customer Service Representative and Latin America Specialist at MEJDI Tours.

Veronica Willig has a B.A. in International Studies from Arcadia University. She has worked as Hilary Parson Dick’s research assistant for two years and is currently serving as an AmeriCorps Community Projects Coordinator with YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School.

Woodbury, New Jersey

[caption id="attachment_26613" align="alignright" width="300"] The Woodbury Friends Meeting House, constructed in 1715, served as the community center of the town for much of the colonial period. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Located on the Woodbury Creek in the northwestern part of Gloucester County, Woodbury formed as a result of the first Quaker family to settle the area, in 1683. Initially a lightly populated farming community, the village eventually became the seat of Gloucester County and over time emerged as an important center for transportation, manufacturing, and for the legal and medical professions.

Woodbury remained a farming hamlet throughout the colonial era. Initially a part of Deptford Township, Woodbury was known as a village until its designation as a borough in 1854. The availability of quality farmland in the surrounding area provided a major attraction for settlement. A Quaker community from the beginning, in 1715 the village constructed its Friends meetinghouse, which served as a center for the community during the period.

Established in 1686, Gloucester County designated Gloucester Town (later Gloucester City) as its county seat. Due to its location on a virtual island, the town’s growth lagged, and when the County Courthouse, built in 1719, burned down in 1786, county officials sought a new location to conduct governmental business. Woodbury, with its rich agricultural hinterland, won that honor by referendum.

Woodbury’s designation as county seat, capped by construction of a new county courthouse in 1787, spurred the town’s growth. By 1815, the village contained four taverns and over seventy houses, which were filled with a diversifying workforce of farmers, blacksmiths, merchants, lawyers, and physicians. Population growth remained modest, however, even after the completion of the Woodbury and Camden Railroad in February 1838. Due to a lack of passenger traffic and the national financial panic of 1837, the line closed only eight years later. Despite the loss, Woodbury continued to grow. The West Jersey Railroad restored rail service to Woodbury and South Jersey beginning in 1854.

City Designation, 1871

[caption id="attachment_26615" align="alignright" width="300"] An artistic survey of Woodbury in 1886 highlights the residences, businesses, and government building throughout the city. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

George G. Green (1842-1925) brought his patent medicine and glass manufacturing business to Woodbury in the early 1870s. His businesses, and the employment opportunities they offered, further spurred Woodbury’s growth, with the population expanding from 2,100 in 1870 to 3,867 by 1890. Legislatively designated as a city in 1871, Woodbury’s new status spurred even more employment opportunities.

The United States’ entry into World War I in 1917 further boosted Woodbury’s manufacturing industries. The building that had housed the Blasius Piano Company was repurposed to manufacture gun stocks and to store munitions for the U.S. Army. After the war, the Belber Trunk Company moved into the Blasius building after Blasius entered bankruptcy in 1919. The Belber Trunk Company remained in Woodbury until 1949, when it responded to a union strike by relocating to Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Woodbury’s population reached its peak in 1960 at 12,453. The city’s central role in the county nonetheless suffered with the boom in automobile use during the 1950s and 1960s. As a sign of its lost status, passenger rail service through Woodbury ceased in 1971. While the city’s immediate decline was modest, its status continued to decline as the area’s first mall, in Deptford Township, opened in 1975. The new mall, about three miles away, swiftly became the preferred shopping center for people who formerly shopped in Woodbury.

New Justice Complex, 1985

In the face of the setbacks the service industry faced in Woodbury, the continued presence of the legal and medical professions prevented the town from entering a spiral of complete decline. The county completed a new courthouse—the Gloucester County Justice Complex—in 1985 in the northeastern part of town and completely revitalized the neighborhood hosting the new building. Lawyers seeking to move their practice to within walking distance of the courthouse bought many Victorian-style houses, which they then renovated into new law offices. Just a few blocks north of the new Justice Complex, Underwood Memorial Hospital continued to expand during the late twentieth century. Established as a private facility in the 1910s, the hospital erected several new buildings in the 1970s and 1980s. Underwood merged with South Jersey Healthcare to form the Inspira Health Network in 2012. Its center in Woodbury became a 305-bed hospital, which employed a staff of over 1,800 full- and part-time workers.

This spirit of revitalization and renewal continued when Woodbury in the late 1990s renovated its dated city hall, portions of which had been standing since 1774. A developer purchased Green’s Block, an opera house constructed by the medicine tycoon George Green in 1880, saving it from the wrecking ball in the late 2000s, choosing instead to renovate and repurpose the building for shopping and offices. Just as lawyers had done in the 1980s, some developers began to buy into historic Woodbury. With a total population of 10,174 in 2010, Woodbury exhibited an improving level of vitality as the Gloucester County seat.

Arthur Murphy earned his Master’s Degree in Public History from Rutgers University-Camden and will enter Rutgers Law School in Camden in the fall of 2017.  

Arthur Murphy

Arthur Murphy earned his Master’s Degree in Public History from Rutgers University-Camden and will enter Rutgers Law School in Camden in the fall of 2017.  

Single Tax Movement

During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Philadelphia helped give birth to the single tax movement, one of the country’s more influential, if less well-remembered, reform movements. The idea of a “single tax” on the unimproved value of land, rather than on productive activities, was popularized by Henry George (1839-97), a native of Philadelphia. The city was also home—at least periodically—to one of the movement’s most prominent twentieth-century leaders, Joseph Fels (1853-1914). Thus, the Philadelphia region became a major epicenter for a movement that maintained that the value of land should benefit the whole community, rather than serve as a source of wealth for private individuals. By the 1920s, the region was home to a prominent communal single-tax experiment and to substantive tax reform inspired by George’s ideas.

[caption id="attachment_26167" align="alignright" width="219"] Henry George developed the economic theory of the "single tax." (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The son of a Democratic Party activist, George was influenced in his youth by the city’s vibrant social movements, particularly abolitionism and the Working Men’s Party. The first of these inspired in George a belief in the free market, whereas the second instilled the idea that access to land was important for truly free competition. Later in his life, George developed close personal relationships with some notable veterans of both movements. However, George did not fully formulate his philosophy until after he moved to San Francisco in 1858. There he gradually concluded that high urban rents were consuming all the gains of industrialization. He came to believe that increasing population and demand for natural resources caused the value of the world’s finite stock of land to increase in value, skewing wealth toward the elite, even when owners did nothing but idly hold their property.

In 1879, George published Progress and Poverty, in which he argued for what his followers later called the “single tax.” All government revenue, he posited, should be derived from a tax equivalent to the full rental value of land. George, an advocate of free trade, was eager to end the federal tariff system, but also to fund social welfare programs. Land values were defined as the value of natural resources and premiums for urban locations. Buildings were not to be taxed because they were the product of labor and contributed to the progress of the community. Land, on the other hand, was created by God and belonged to all in common. George believed that industry should be free from taxation and regulation and that the confiscation of land rents would be sufficient to fund programs such as free public transportation and higher education. George’s unique combination of classical liberalism and socialism won a wide hearing. He campaigned twice for mayor of New York City, even outpolling his Republican opponent, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), in a three-way race during the campaign of 1886. By the time of his death in 1897, about five million copies of George’s books had been distributed throughout the world, making him one of the most widely read American writers of the nineteenth century.

During the election of 1896, Georgists formed the Single Tax Party to wage a concerted campaign for control of Delaware’s state government. Single taxers believed that because Delaware was such a small state a nationally organized campaign would have disproportionate influence there. However, splintering voters from the major parties during that year’s hotly contested presidential election proved impossible; George himself largely stayed away from Delaware to cover the campaign of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). However, Delaware’s Single Tax Party connected local Georgists who would be active in the state during later years. In 1900, Georgists created a village outside of Wilmington, Delaware, as an experiment in the single tax. They founded this village, Arden, as a private corporation that owned the land and leased it to residents. The corporation used the revenue from leasing land to fund community projects and cover the residents’ taxes, largely realizing the goal of paying all taxes in the form of land rent. Arden not only survived the twentieth century with its system of revenue, but grew, annexing adjacent towns.

[caption id="attachment_26168" align="alignright" width="265"] Joseph Fels was instrumental in the spread of the single tax movement, both in the United States and the world. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Though George never returned to Philadelphia, one of his most prominent followers, Joseph Fels, resided in the city periodically. Fels made a fortune marketing Fels-Naptha soap, one of the most commercially successful detergents of the era, and used his wealth to propagate both Zionism and the single tax. Fels helped form the Philadelphia Vacant Lots Cultivation Association in 1897. To demonstrate how the poor could help themselves if land was not held idle for speculation, this organization took abandoned lots in the city and lent them out for working-class families to farm. In 1909, Fels donated tens of thousands of dollars to create the Joseph Fels Fund, which spread Georgist propaganda across the globe and sponsored single-tax political campaigns. In the United States, it campaigned to have referendum processes established in several states, and then used the referendum to try, unsuccessfully, to enact the single tax.

Georgists obtained one of their largest legislative victories in Pennsylvania. They pushed for property tax reform following a study by J. T. Holdsworth, the dean of the School of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh, that demonstrated that the city suffered from unusually high rents. Georgists attributed the city’s high rents to a property tax system that underassessed land. In 1913, the state legislature enacted a law that enabled Pittsburgh and Scranton to impose a greater tax burden on land than improvements. This “split-rate” or “two-rate” tax did not remove taxes on buildings, but it did cut them in half, shifting the burden onto land values. By the latter half of the twentieth century, supporters of land value taxation cited Pittsburgh, which maintained relative prosperity during deindustrialization, as one of the chief examples of the benefits of land value taxation. In subsequent years, Pennsylvania’s state legislature expanded the law to allow other municipalities to shift the property tax burden onto land at progressively higher rates. Other cities later adopted the system, including Allentown and Harrisburg.

As American politics took a conservative turn in the 1920s, mass support for the single tax waned, although, throughout the world, taxes based on George’s plan remained in effect. The single tax movement retained some adherents throughout the twentieth century. The twenty-first century experienced an uptick in interest in land value taxation, primarily because rising urban rents resurrected concerns about real estate’s effect on the distribution of wealth. Philadelphia continued its important role in the movement, in part because it was George’s birthplace and in part because Pennsylvania offered the premier examples of land value taxation in the United States.

In 2013, the Henry George School of Social Science began operating Henry George’s Birthplace in Philadelphia as a museum and archive. The city’s unique history with the single tax has survived the test of time, becoming an integral part of Philadelphia’s heritage.

Christopher England has taught U.S. history at Georgetown University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. from Georgetown University, where he wrote his dissertation on the single tax movement.

Veronica Willig

Veronica Willig has a B.A. in International Studies from Arcadia University. She has worked as Hilary Parson Dick’s research assistant for two years and serves as an AmeriCorps Community Projects Coordinator with YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School.

Danielle DiVerde

Danielle DiVerde has a B.A. in International Studies and Spanish from Arcadia University. She has worked as research assistant to Hilary Parsons Dick for three years and is a Lead Customer Service Representative and Latin America Specialist at MEJDI Tours.

Hilary Parsons Dick

Hilary Parsons Dick is an Associate Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University. She completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2016, she was a Wenner-Gren Hunt Fellow, during which time she completed her first book, Words of Passage: Discourse, National Belonging, and the Imagined Lives of Mexican Migrants (forthcoming, spring 2018, The University of Texas Press).

Works Progress Administration (WPA)

In response to the rising tide of unemployment nationally, and after the short-lived Civil Works Administration (CWA) failed to stem that tide, Congress in May 1935 created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the “alphabet soup” of economic recovery programs enacted as part of the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Later called the Works Projects Administration, the job-creation program aimed to employ 3.5 million men and women throughout the nation, especially those living in Depression-wracked urban areas such as Greater Philadelphia. Inevitably, in Philadelphia as elsewhere, critics charged that the program was steeped in politics.

With a congressional appropriation of $4.8 billion dollars, the WPA sought to find useful jobs for the able-bodied unemployed as an alternative to the demeaning, psychologically and physically debilitating “dole” (public welfare). Moreover, WPA monies were to go into workers’ paychecks, not to be spent on materials, which would be covered by states or municipalities.

On the eve of the WPA’s creation more than ninety-three thousand needy families, many of them jobless, relied on the Philadelphia County Relief Board (CRB) for relief. Nearby industrialized cities such as Camden, New Jersey; Chester, Pennsylvania; and Wilmington, Delaware, also suffered. In Camden, per-capita annual income fell from $839 to $433 between 1929 and 1933, and the New Jersey Emergency Relief Administration shut down in 1936 for want of funds. Philadelphia’s suburban counties such as Montgomery and Bucks in Pennsylvania, being much less industrialized, endured only half the joblessness of the City of Brotherly Love.

With harsh weather predicted for the winter of 1934-35, the New Deal launched the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which put jobless relief clients to work on a host of street, road, and park projects and on white-collar work especially in town and city halls. A CWA and WPA mattress project employed many women sewing and stuffing mattresses for transient camps and for poor families with incomes under $2,000 a year. But while labor leaders in Philadelphia cheered the CWA, the city’s Republican mayor in 1934, J. Hampton Moore (1864-1950), a devout fiscal conservative and apostle of retrenchment, refused any federal assistance monies in Philadelphia.

Resisting WPA

Moore just as adamantly barred cooperation with the WPA, which in June 1935 allocated $60 million to Philadelphia to employ seventy thousand jobless. By August fewer than thirty-five thousand Philadelphians had been enlisted through the program to build city schools and work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and in jobs outside the city in Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks Counties. It was not until December 1935 that Moore atypically approved two large WPA projects, one to pave city streets and the other to vastly improve the city’s airport at Hog Island. Founded in 1927 as the Philadelphia Municipal Airport, the facility became the S.D. Wilson Airport after the WPA modernized it by adding a terminal, and later became the Philadelphia International Airport.

[caption id="attachment_26059" align="alignright" width="301"] Philadelphia Mayor S. Davis Wilson (center) was a committed supporter of the WPA. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

In contrast to Moore, S. Davis Wilson (1881-1939), a former Republican elected city controller in 1933 and mayor in November 1935 as candidate of the Fusion Party, made cooperation with the WPA his first priority. Wilson determined to use the WPA to employ eighty-five thousand jobless city residents. Indeed, as his first act as mayor Wilson rushed to Washington, D.C., to secure for Philadelphia the 1936 Democratic Convention and WPA projects to clean both City Hall and Independence Hall. In August he returned to Washington to wheedle $100 million from WPA Administrator Henry L. Hopkins (1890-1946) for street paving, waterworks, sewers, schools, parks, and a range of white-collar jobs such as compiling records of all delinquent water rents in the city for the previous fifty years.

In terms of miles of paved streets, numbers of new schools, post offices, parks, and playgrounds, the WPA together with the Public Works Administration (PWA) and Civil Works Administration (CWA) transformed urban America. Still, in places like Philadelphia, Camden, Chester, and Wilmington, the WPA failed to fill its quota of jobs. Wilson had promised the city jobless eighty-five thousand WPA jobs, but by 1938 it employed scarcely forty-nine thousand. The problem?  In Philadelphia, as elsewhere in a region suffering from lower property values and eviscerated tax revenues, municipalities proved unable or unwilling to allocate monies for materials. They were more likely to approve projects such as one for destroying poison ivy in Philadelphia parks that required no allocation. Philadelphia benefitted from thirty-seven sanitation projects between 1935 and 1938, most costing less than $50,000 in materials. Among fifty-five park projects of the same period that did require some allocation from either the state or an agency such as the Fairmount Park Commission, the WPA built thirteen stone and log trail shelters and comfort stations in Fairmount Park. In Pastorius Park it built an attractive rustic stone restroom. At the Philadelphia National Cemetery, WPA workers erected a rostrum in the form of a Tuscan-order Temple.

The WPA created work not only for jobless factory workers but also for the nation’s unemployed writers, musicians, and artists. Low-cost WPA white-collar projects employed relatively few people, but were numerous and popular. WPA art projects included a mural celebrating Philadelphia industrialism placed in the auditorium of Olney’s Finletter Elementary School. The youthful WPA artist Jackson Pollock (1912-56) created his “Male and Female,” later added to the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ahron Ben Shmuel (1903-84) created a WPA sculpture placed at the reptile house at the Philadelphia Zoo. As part of the American Guide Series the WPA Federal Writers Project employed jobless city white collar workers to create a series of guidebooks for states and cities, including Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace (1937).

Maintaining Streets

[caption id="attachment_26073" align="alignright" width="300"] Typical work for the WPA involved building and repairing roads.  (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Large-scale, more costly projects proceeded with the sponsorship of the state or federal government. During the Great Depression Pennsylvania took over 145 miles of Philadelphia streets and maintained them with WPA assistance. In 1937 the WPA spent over $2 million on Philadelphia street projects. Another large-scale project added a rail line (later the PATCO high-speed line) across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. One of Philadelphia’s largest projects employed women sewing garments and other goods to be distributed to the needy. Pennsylvania sponsored ten sewing room projects in Philadelphia between 1935 and 1938, the first costing $300,000, the second and largest costing $1.3 million. After 1937, as the threat of war loomed in Europe, projects to renovate and enlarge military installations topped the WPA’s list. Washington spent $500,000 to renovate Philadelphia’s Frankford Arsenal, $375,000 for the Navy Yard, and $109,000 to fireproof the magazine and improve roads at Fort Mifflin.

[caption id="attachment_26072" align="alignright" width="236"] WPA workmen repainted the French Renaissance room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Nevertheless, the WPA failed to provide work sufficient to employ the mass of Philadelphia’s seventy thousand jobless families. A similar story prevailed in bankrupt Camden. Still, the region garnered a significant legacy of projects that helped Philadelphia, Camden, Chester, Wilmington and other urban places weather trying times. In Camden, for example, the WPA paved the city’s major Broadway thoroughfare, a project that provided the jobless 242 hours of labor and consumed four thousand tons of gravel and asphalt. The WPA also paved the city’s Federal Street and Haddon Avenue. In 1936 alone the WPA constructed Elijah Perry Park (replete with a swimming and wading pool), built Farnham Park, enlarged and improved Pyne Point Park, and constructed Roosevelt Plaza Park. Moreover, by uprooting rails from Camden streets and asphalting the resulting cavity, the WPA helped prepare the city and other urban areas for the end of trolley transportation and the coming age of urban bus transit. Likewise in Wilmington, the WPA undertook multiple waterworks projects, as well as major road projects, a number of which had begun with CWA. Among other Wilmington projects, the WPA improved the sewage system at all-black Delaware State College, expanded the Rock Manor Golf Course, and with PWA and WPA replaced the city’s smaller Du Pont High School with a handsome neocolonial seventy-nine-room edifice.

Despite the effort to cast the WPA as “real” as opposed to “made” work, the WPA never escaped the stigma of “leaf-raking.” Nor did it escape the charge of being “political.” Until FDR’s reelection in 1936, when forty-two of the city’s fifty wards voted for the president, the Republican machine ruled Philadelphia. The election crushed the machine that had been led by William S. Vare  (1867-1934). Seeking a scapegoat, Republicans found the WPA. Democrats never denied that politics infused the WPA. Hopkins conceded that it was impossible to expunge politics at the local level. Lorena Hickok (1893-1968), a journalist employed by Hopkins to report on economic circumstances around the country, exclaimed about the WPA in Philadelphia, “Oh, it’s plenty political alright; but the Republicans would do the same thing if they had the WPA.”  Indeed, she reported, many Democratic committeemen in Philadelphia held WPA jobs and on election day “worked like hell at the polls.” Still, the legacy of the WPA’s beautiful parks, paved streets, modernized systems, and inspiring murals not only helped maintain and upgrade a languishing urban infrastructure but also kept thousands of families in Greater Philadelphia with modest but essential livelihoods.

John F. Bauman is Professor Emeritus of California University of Pennsylvania and Visiting Research Professor at the University of Southern Maine. He has written numerous books and journal articles on a broad range of modern urban policy issues.

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