Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jake Blumgart

Zoning (Philadelphia)

[caption id="attachment_29545" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A color-coded zoning map created by the city of Philadelphia in 2017. A zoning map of Philadelphia in 2017 shows the many categories under which a property can be classified throughout the city based on its use. (City of Philadelphia)[/caption]

From its inception, zoning became a fraught subject. By empowering neighborhood groups and local politicians with power over land use in their communities, zoning brought such groups in Philadelphia and elsewhere into contest with developers, industrial concerns, and sometimes with other people who wanted to move into their neighborhoods. The policy generated results both noble, like removing noxious industrial development from residential areas, and vicious, when it was used as a means to prevent African Americans and lower classes from moving into wealthier and whiter areas. In its multiple uses, zoning helped determine what jurisdictions were and what they could become.  

 Zoning emerged first in early twentieth century New York, although West Coast cities began experimenting with the concept a few years earlier. The purpose of the new policy was to allow local governments to control land use, a marriage of Progressive Era good government ideals and a conservative effort to protect the interests of the upper classes and business owners. Zoning proponents did not want “incompatible” uses (industrial or cheap housing) or certain people (of lower classes and non-white races) in close proximity to their homes and businesses.

[caption id="attachment_29375" align="alignright" width="266"]A black and white photograph of a zoning notice in Philadelphia. A zoning notice, placed outside a building at Rhawn and Jeanes Streets in Philadelphia in 1966, announced a public hearing regarding the zoning of the area. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

By the early 1920s residents in the neighborhoods to the west of the University of Pennsylvania were gathering for meetings about the application of zoning in West Philadelphia in response to high-rise development. At the same time, many of Philadelphia’s inner-ring suburbs—from Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County to Springfield Township in Delaware County—began to consider zoning for fear of increased density and the possibility of new working class—and possibly non-white—neighbors. (These areas of early suburban development were of a density unusual to later suburban developments and confronted many of the same dynamics as the city itself, albeit on a smaller scale.) 

Block-by-Block Zoning Maps

Philadelphia’s original zoning code created a series of residential, commercial, and industrial classifications that largely accorded with the existing built environment. In the beginning, there were twenty different zoning districts, including nine residential, four commercial, and a variety of  other uses, including shopping centers and park land.  Block-by-block zoning maps were established along with the ordinance. Because the types of residential zoning were relatively few—today there are over twenty—multifamily housing was not often entirely zoned out of neighborhoods as it was in the suburbs. But these building types had to conform to the typology of the surrounding buildings and meet requirements for air and light—which often prevented the construction, for example, of, large apartment buildings in rowhouse neighborhoods.

Under the code, any new building constructed in the city, or any substantial alterations to old buildings, first required the developer to obtain a zoning permit. If the project accorded with the zoning map, then the permit was granted and allowed to proceed. If the request for a permit was denied because it did not accord with the specifications of the ordinance, the applicant could appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA).

The ZBA was comprised of five members, appointed by the mayor. Philadelphia’s ZBA was meant to consider appeals to the code. These were only to be granted if “a literal enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance will result in unnecessary hardship.”  (Such bodies were a common aspect of zoning codes because they allowed such ordinances to avoid a full-on clash between the police powers of the state and the rights of property owners.)

Because the zoning code became a site of contest from the beginning, Pennsylvania courts were forced to make a series of rulings to clarify the ordinance. These rulings established (among other things) that variances could only apply to an area limited to a parcel.

By the mid-1950s, less than three decades after the creation of the code, the ZBA was swamped by requests for variances. With only two inspectors employed to enforce the code in a city of over two million, many cases simply resulted from inadequate code enforcement. Often property owners who had been unaware that they were violating the code applied for variances once they found out. 

Lawyers in Zoning

Zoning lawyers became increasingly important in the process starting in at least the 1950s. It became clear that applicants could use the legal assistance because “a large number of applicants have no conception of what the term unnecessary hardship implies,” a University of Pennsylvania Law Review analysis reported.

[caption id="attachment_29373" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Mayor Tate signing the new zoning code for Philadelphia. Mayor James Tate, successor to Mayor Richardson Dilworth, signed Philadelphia’s new zoning code in 1962. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Mayor Richardson Dilworth (1899-1974) and master planner Edmund Bacon (1910-2005) were proponents of a zoning overhaul, and in 1962 they helped effect a major overhaul at the tail end of a seismic era of change in the city’s government and its planning apparatus. Those changes, which no doubt stemmed in part from the staggering number of variances, drew more broadly from the work of  Democratic reformers who overthrew the moribund Republican political machine and installed a suite of reforms that included a new city charter and a civil service regimen for much of the bureaucracy. The utility of the zoning code reform of 1962 was rapidly sapped, however, as the political-economy of the city changed radically in the subsequent 20 years, making it the last meaningful revision until the code was overhauled under Mayor Michael Nutter (b. 1957) in 2012.

In many ways, postindustrial Philadelphia turned out to be a dramatically different place than anyone had predicted in the early 1960s. Many of the row-house neighborhoods were originally zoned to allow multifamily housing because it was believed the city would continue growing beyond its 2.1 million people. Instead, that turned out to be the peak of Philadelphia’s population, and developers proposed few multifamily housing projects as more housing demand shifted to the suburbs. Industries were fleeing the city too, leaving much of Philadelphia’s residential and industrial zoning out of sync with shifting construction demand.

Over one thousand changes were made on an intermittent basis, expanding the zoning code from a relatively slim volume into a vast tome.  New tweaks included the creation of new residential districts for uses like trailer parks and more accommodating parking in commercial and residential zones as cars became more common. The only major alteration after 1962 was a major 1988 overhaul of the zoning for Center City alone, which perhaps helped account for the rapid redevelopment and rebirth of downtown in the 1990s and 2000s.

The stultifying nature of the rest of the code acted to repress development in the city. Much of the language was archaic, complex, and highly specific. (There was, for example, a provision that allowed the construction of a factory that made rigatoni, ravioli, and spaghetti but not angel hair pasta.) As the code became more complex, and its content was not altered to fit a changing world, developers had to turn to the ZBA more frequently to get their projects done. By the 1990s and 2000s, anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of development projects required a variance and a trip to the ZBA.

When Council Intervenes

[caption id="attachment_29374" align="alignright" width="250"]A black and white photograph of a rowhouse in Philadelphia to be demolished to make way for the Philadelphia Police Administration Building. A zoning notice on 145 North Eighth Street in Philadelphia in 1960 satisfied the preliminary steps for the demolition of the building to make way for a new police headquarters. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

More rarely, developers with political influence turned to City Council for spot zoning bills, which would legislatively change the zoning of a parcel to fit the developer’s needs—sparing them a trip to the ZBA. This kind of narrowly cast legislative remapping thus long proved controversial because it was by nature a small-scale and imprecise action to change zoning reactively to accommodate a particular project and not proactively as part of a larger public-minded vision for the future. Although it was technically illegal, adroit politicians could usually get around that by remapping some surrounding parcels as well.  This approach contrasted with legislative remapping supported by the Planning Commission, which was often crafted with input of the community, local politicians, and other interests over a months-long open and democratic process.

Political tampering with the zoning code led to further pressure for change. Many good-government advocates and urban experts argued that spot zoning undermined the spirit of the larger zoning code, empowered the politically connected, and incentivized corruption (or at least its appearance). In 2007, the head of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Praxis, Harris Steinberg, argued that zoning reform was needed to cut down on this kind of legislative remapping, arguing, “It keeps the development world in a constant state of guessing, encourages backroom deals, and keeps community groups on the defensive to protect their little piece of earth.”

As frustration with the code grew in the first part of the twenty-first century, reformers sought to align the code with “smart growth” best practices, including incentives to create density around transit hubs and other central locations, while also simplifying it so that fewer variances or legislative work-arounds would be required. Councilman Frank DiCicco (b. 1946) proved an influential backer of zoning reform, introducing legislation to establish a Zoning Code Commission and convincing Mayor John Street (b. 1943) to sign it despite his skepticism. DiCicco’s support was the result of his stewardship of a district that included swaths of Center City, the southern river wards, and South Philadelphia east of Broad Street—where much of nascent development pressure was concentrated—so he was able to witness just how obtrusive the zoning code had become.

Zoning Revision Begins, 2007

In 2007 Michael Nutter, a City Council member running as a reform candidate for mayor, bested many other better-established political figures in the race. That same year voters approved the creation of DiCicco’s Zoning Code Commission to study potential reforms to the code. The process of revision took years, involving an intricate series of public meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations. But despite the political machinations involved, the scale of public input was impressive and impossible to imagine at any point in the twentieth century.

It took four years, but the new code was crafted with the intent of making the language much more simple and general. The reformers tried to avoid the highly specific and quickly outdated alterations that cluttered up the old code. This was partly accomplished by codifying more of the language in charts, which were easier to read and more condensed. The end result reduced the code from seven hundred to four hundred pages.

[caption id="attachment_29438" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a building with a zoning notice to become a branch of Philadelphia's public library. A zoning notice placed on a door at the corner of Beulah and Carpenter Streets marked the location for a proposed library branch. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

In 2011, City Council passed the new zoning code and Mayor Nutter signed it into law.  (There was a built-in delayed start of nine months, so it went into full effect in August 2012.) The reformers succeeded in making it easier for new development in the city to be denser and less vehicle-focused. Parking requirements for residential projects were lessened and, in some districts, done away with entirely. The square footage of the minimum allowable lot sizes for new row houses dropped dramatically to allow smaller and, therefore, more affordable housing. It was also made easier to build new, smaller units in existing buildings. Garages that fronted on sidewalks were made more difficult to obtain as well, safeguarding the pedestrian environment, while a new process called Civic Design Review was implemented to guide better building practices. With that change, major projects could trigger Civic Design Review, bringing developers before a board of experts for advice, although the process had no binding power.

In advance of the new code, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission crafted a new comprehensive plan for the city dubbed Phila2035. They then began drafting new district plans, which were also shaped by public meetings and civic engagement, for every area of the city. These offered recommendations for redoing zoning maps, which could then be taken up in City Council. Because these efforts depended on the assent of individual council members, some areas did not adopt new maps when members failed to act.  

Although reform efforts were also meant to reduce the number of cases that come before the ZBA, the body still handled dozens of cases a week, and applicants for variances almost always won them. According to a 2014 City Paper report, in one month eighty-five cases were considered and only ten denials were issued, while between 2008 and 2013 90 percent of 6,946 variance appeals were granted.

The new code also remained heavily contested after its adoption. Many members of City Council attempted, with some success, to increase parking requirements and reduce density incentives in response to constituent complaints about parking, traffic, and the need to preserve their neighborhoods in their current state—much the same concerns that animated their predecessors a hundred years earlier .

This messy reality mirrored the original intention of those who crafted zoning policy a century earlier. Although the players were different, zoning remained a tool used to prevent massive neighborhood change and to protect the interests of those who already lived, or owned, in a community. For those who wished to see zoning utilized as an instrument of rational good government, the state of the policy was immensely frustrating, for zoning, remained, as it had from its origins, a creature of municipal realpolitik.

Jake Blumgart is a reporter for WHYY’s PlanPhilly.

West Philadelphia

One of the single largest sectors of the city of Philadelphia at almost fifteen square miles between the Schuylkill River to the east and Delaware County to the west, West Philadelphia at its peak, in the early twentieth century, attracted an influx of new residents to its verdant, suburban-feeling neighborhoods. But over the course of the twentieth century, as the area became majority African American, it was hobbled by racist lending and employment practices. As a consequence, large swaths of the area became deteriorated and underpopulated, despite a vibrant black political and cultural scene and, in the twenty-first century, a resurgent higher education and medical cluster.

West Philadelphia did not exist until the middle of the nineteenth century. Although this part of the region witnessed small settlements of Lenape and Swedes who established Lutheran churches and log cabins on the west side of the Schuylkill, it was not included in the original plan of Philadelphia.  William Penn wrote that the area “is likely to be a great part of the settlement of this age” and intended to expand settlement across the river. But he abandoned the idea by 1684, two years after his arrival.

[caption id="attachment_24779" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white illustration of the front entrance of a rural cemetery with mourners entering. Woodlands Cemetery opened in 1840 on the site of one of West Philadelphia's earliest homes, William Hamilton's The Woodlands. The grounds became a green space for city residents to pursue recreational activities. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Throughout the eighteenth century much of what would become West Philadelphia remained sparsely populated farmland. Then on the far bank of the Schuylkill, port and mercantile infrastructure began to build up at this westward point of entry to the city. A major wagon route, Lancaster Pike, ran through the area, and in 1805 the first permanent bridge was built over the Schuylkill at Market Street. The Darby Road also ran up to this point, granting access to communities like Chester farther down the Delaware River. A few large estates were built during this time as well, most notably the Hamilton family’s Woodlands with its iconic Georgian mansion and that of John Bartram (1699-1777), the renowned botanist and Quaker who cultivated extensive gardens along the banks of the Schuylkill.

Bridge Promotes Growth

[caption id="attachment_24773" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white illustration of an uncovered wooden bridge spanning a river Until the construction of the Schuylkill Permanent Bridge in 1805, West Philadelphia was accessible from the city only by ferry. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The new bridge spurred growth, prompting a network of industries, including stockyards, lumber mills, slaughterhouses, coal yards, foundries, and glass factories to serve the city across the river. Small communities began to spring up to support these businesses, like Hamiltonville in 1804. The then-scion of the family, William Hamilton (1745-1813), established the estate’s Georgian mansion and laid out Hamiltonville as a continuation of Penn’s grid in Philadelphia proper. Other settlements followed, including Mantua Village, carved from the holdings of a local landowner, Judge Richard Peters (1743-1828), and laid out in 1809. Neither area proved popular at first, but as the city became more highly developed the lots began to sell. By the 1840s developers in Philadelphia, which was the second-largest city in the United States at the time, were already looking beyond the Schuylkill for fresh land. Abraham Brower’s innovative omnibus service, introduced to Philadelphia in 1831, allowed new settlers speedy access into the central city. At the time, the majority of residents were working class—about half immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and England—and settlements of any density tapered off at what would become the boundaries of Fortieth Street, with the wealthy clustered along Walnut and Chestnut near this westward extremis.

[caption id="attachment_24772" align="alignright" width="241"]A map of Philadelphia's modern borders Philadelphia expanded from its colonial boundaries to include all of Philadelphia County in 1854, bringing under the city charter the independent townships that made up West Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

To accommodate the bourgeoning population, in 1844 Hamiltonville, Mantua, and Powelton joined together to incorporate as the borough of West Philadelphia, before being brought into the city proper with the consolidation of 1854. After that, the population exploded from eleven thousand in 1850 to twenty-three thousand in 1860. For the next half century at least, West Philadelphia largely became a suburb in the city—abetted by a series of advances in transportation technology, starting with the horsecars of the 1850s.

A bustling light industrial sector continued to grow south of Market Street on land adjacent to the river, relying on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s infrastructure around 30th Street Station to convey the sector's goods efficiently. Some of the largest concerns included the metal workings at Job T. Pugh's Auger Works, the Otto Gas Engine Manufacturing Company, and the Allison & Sons Car & Tube Works, one of the biggest wagon firms in the nation until its destruction by fire in 1872. Like the rest of the city’s manufacturing sector, West Philadelphia’s industry enjoyed great diversity. Everything from printers and bakeries to slaughterhouses and mirror manufacturers dotted this slice of the landscape.

Residential at First

Despite the industry clustered along the area’s shores, development in this period remained largely residential in the rest of West Philadelphia. This set the living pattern apart from its counterparts in North and South Philadelphia, where row houses were interspersed with factories and warehouses. On the far side of the Schuylkill, the new housing developments were mostly marketed for the middle and upper classes, whose westward movement was further enabled by the replacement of the omnibus by horse cars in 1858. New routes into the city aided this movement too, like the Chestnut Street bridge completed in 1866.

[caption id="attachment_24777" align="alignright" width="300"]a color postcard of the red brick library and green main building of the University of Pennsylvania The University of Pennsylvania moved from central Philadelphia to West Philadelphia in 1872. Today the school's influence is heavily felt in University City and surrounding neighborhoods. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Then in the 1870s the University of Pennsylvania left its cramped center city location for West Philadelphia, a move with enormous effect on the development of surrounding neighborhoods, especially during the second half of the twentieth century. After 1880 the larger houses closer to the river and the university, which dated to earlier in the century, began to be carved into smaller units. Apartment buildings—unusual in this row-house-dominated city—began to spring up as well. At the same time, new development moved beyond Forty-Fifth Street out to Cobb’s Creek, the border with Delaware County.

The introduction of electric streetcars in the 1890s further altered the area, as those with more resources moved farther out, leaving behind a more broadly based middle class. This process accelerated with the full extension of the Market-Frankford line in 1907, which boosted settlement, including that of immigrant and black laborers living close to the line. By the twentieth century many of the wealthy residents who remained in West Philadelphia located away from the Market-Frankford elevated line or the multiplicity of trolley lines, further accelerating the growth of the Main Line suburbs in the process.

The district still had fewer than a hundred thousand people in 1890, but every new census revealed meteoric growth. In 1900 West Philadelphia had 148,548 residents, in 1910 the number grew to 247,928, and by 1920 there were 359,601. In 1923 the Philadelphia Bulletin estimated that at least half the population of the district commuted in to center city every day. Housing was at a premium, and due to the desirability of the area, the newspaper of record noted that more than any other section of the city, West Philadelphia encouraged the construction of apartment buildings and the subdivision of old mansions to accommodate the boom.

Soaring Ambitions

[caption id="attachment_24778" align="alignright" width="300"]A color postcard of a row of identical victorian row homes on a tree lined street Much of West Philadelphia's housing stock was built on speculation during the streetcar boom of the late nineteenth century. Streetcars made it easy to commute from West Philadelphia and other outlying neighborhoods to Center City. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

As West Philadelphia’s population climbed in the 1920s to the point that would have ranked it the nineteenth most-populous city in the United States, ambitions for the area soared. In 1924, the president of Drovers and Merchants National Bank argued that West Philadelphia should have its own seat on the local Federal Reserve Board. He noted there was $60 million in manufacturing capital invested in the district, mostly by the river, and fifteen banks with total deposits of $40 million. Multiple  business corridors sprouted on Fifty-Second Street and Baltimore, Lancaster, Woodland, and Girard Avenues.

By the 1930s one of the more notable developments in West Philadelphia was the growing number of black residents and the discriminatory pressures that boxed them into an intensely segregated area stretching south to Market Street, west to Fifty-Ninth Street, and bounded to the north and east by the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the river beyond it.

The process began during World War I, as black migrants arrived in the city in increasing numbers. By the end of the 1920s, 220,000 African Americans lived in Philadelphia, and they desperately needed housing beyond the older black ghetto in North Philadelphia. By the 1940s, the new area of settlement stretched from the river out to Fifty-Ninth Street and housed about forty-four thousand African Americans, from poor and working class by the water to the black elite in the northwestern neighborhoods closest to the Main Line.

The black population swelled again during World War II, breaking West Philadelphia’s racial boundaries by moving south of Market Street and west of Fifty-Ninth Street. As African Americans began living in more neighborhoods, the white population began fleeing to the expanding suburbs. By 1950, West Philadelphia had lost a quarter of its Irish-American and 11 percent of its Italian-American population, while the African American population increased by 72 percent. As the century wore on, the only corners of West Philadelphia that were not overwhelmingly black were immediately around Drexel and Pennsylvania universities and in a band of neighborhoods to the west of the higher education cluster that remained racially mixed from the 1960s onward.

The black residents of West Philadelphia were forced to contend with redlining and other discriminatory practices that limited access to capital and higher-paid employment for many residents. They were also discouraged, by legal means or by violence, from immediately following the white population into the growing suburbs. But during the early decades of majority-black West Philadelphia, these challenges were attenuated by the growth of African American political power and the slowly declining, but still available, unionized industrial jobs.

Public sector employment in city government and the school district offered a wide range of employment opportunities for black workers, from professional positions as managers and teachers to jobs that required less formal education, like sanitation and transportation. Many public sector unions became majority African American, or at least enjoyed large minorities of black members, giving their neighborhoods larger political and economic anchors.

University Master Plan

[caption id="attachment_24776" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a boy walking down a mostly demolished residential street. Two clusters of derelict homes still stand. The construction of the University City Science Center in the 1960s required the displacement and demolition of the mostly working-class Black Bottom neighborhood despite widespread opposition from the community. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

As West Philadelphia became majority African American, the University of Pennsylvania began an ambitious expansion framed by its 1948 master plan (the university’s first update in almost half a century). A few African American neighborhoods close to campus were largely destroyed by eminent domain as a result, most famously the area known as Black Bottom that stood between the university and Powelton Village. The black neighborhoods closest to the river, and therefore closest to Penn, tended to be those with the lowest income and the least political power. Farther west, African American neighborhoods tended to be more stable, with larger populations of public sector workers and private sector white collar workers, but that was little comfort to the displaced residents of Black Bottom.

The impetus for Penn’s expansion came from an infusion of government research funding along with the urban renewal dollars made available by the national Housing Act of 1949. During this period, the university  adopted the moniker  “University City” for the surrounding neighborhoods. Penn took full advantage of postwar federal largesse, competing successfully with its counterparts in higher education for research and development grants—especially after the flood of funding following the Soviet Union’s Sputnik success in 1957. Penn also competed with other parts of the city for urban renewal funds (much of the money allocated within West Philadelphia went to the university’s ends). The upgrades to campus were impressive. They were also necessary to create a more walkable environment and additional housing for a growing student body. But the expansion into surrounding residential neighborhoods embittered many residents.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century West Philadelphia kept changing as the white population continued to drain out of the city. The remaining African American neighborhoods continued to suffer discrimination in access to jobs and capital while many of the jobs that previously fostered economic stability were lost or undercut by the flight of manufacturing firms. This postindustrial economic vise resulted in the kind of divestment and shadow economy dealings that blighted many other inner city neighborhoods. In the 1980s some immigrants began to move into the area, chiefly African and Cambodian, although the latter population would almost entirely decamp for other parts of the city by the beginning of the twenty-first century.

[caption id="attachment_24775" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a man speaking into a microphone in front of a barricaded home Police and the group known as MOVE  engaged in two fatal clashes in West Philadelphia. The second time, in 1985, left eleven dead and sixty-two homes destroyed. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the mid-1980s, crack cocaine reached West Philadelphia and wreaked havoc in many neighborhoods, resulting in a crime wave that scared off  many middle-class African Americans and some of the remaining white families as well. The police department made matters worse by becoming the first U.S. law enforcement institution to bomb its own city. During a confrontation at the fortified compound of the anarcho-primitivist group MOVE in 1985, the police attempted to drop a high explosive on a bunker atop the radicals’ home. The resulting explosion sparked a conflagration that consumed much of the block and killed eleven people. In the following decade, farther to the east, general violence continued to rise, as it did in the rest of the country. After several high-profile murders of Penn graduate students living in the mixed- race neighborhoods beyond the campus borders, which had lost much of their white population during the 1990s, the university began to again be active in the community.

Under the guidance of university president Judith Rodin (b. 1944), who was born and raised in West Philadelphia, Penn promised to not repeat the aggressive steps taken in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, it provided unarmed security services to patrol the area and exercised soft power to provide incentives to staff, from professors to janitors, to buy and repair homes in a catchment area around the university. Penn also invested in local public schools, founding the Sadie Alexander School, for pre-K through eighth grade. With other anchor institutions in the area, it supported development of the University City District to provide further amenities.

[caption id="attachment_24771" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of people walking past the Queen of Sheba restaurant on Baltimore Avenue In the early twenty-first century, some parts of West Philadelphia saw a resurgence. In the Cedar Park section, Baltimore Avenue gained a lively mix of shops, restaurants, and residences. (Photograph by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

This activity resulted in the rejuvenation of the neighborhoods surrounding the university and the historically mixed-race neighborhood to its immediate west, which in 2010 became majority white for the first time since 1970. The university was not the only force at work; its efforts were aided by a nationwide decline in crime and marginal increase in the desire for urban living among a segment of the professional classes. Meanwhile, in many neighborhoods on the border of Delaware County and elsewhere, conditions worsened during the Great Recession and the subsequent decimation of the public sector workforce.

By the early twenty-first century West Philadelphia was about as populous as it had been in 1910, having lost more than a hundred thousand residents after 1950. It stood divided, like much of the city and the country, between the haves and the have nots. Its western majority African American neighborhoods were declining in population and median income. Much of the vacancy and crime that blighted West Philadelphia could be found in these areas, which were still cut off from legitimate employment and capital markets. This situation was counterpoised by the rise of University City, which was quickly becoming a rival for Center City in term of jobs and investment. It remained to be seen whether the ascendancy of the eastern section of West Philadelphia, where old industries and worker housing were giving way to new investment, would be enough to buoy the fortunes of the outlying, formerly middle class areas.

Jake Blumgart is a reporter for WHYY’s PlanPhilly.

Films (Feature)

Philadelphia’s association with movie-making dates back to the beginning of the film industry, when the city’s Lubin Manufacturing Company created and distributed many of the first generation of silent films. But after the company’s early collapse, the city never again attained a prominent role in the nation’s filmmaking. After Lubin, Philadelphia served as a setting for telling stories set just outside the national centers of power in New York and Washington, D.C., and far away from Los Angeles, the kind of urban stories that needed local color and a unique backdrop.

The Lubin Manufacturing Company was founded in 1902 by Siegmund “Pop” Lubin (1851-1923), an eyeglasses salesman-cum-industrialist who got his start shooting homemade movies in his backyard. Between 1896 and his film company’s demise in 1916, Lubin produced more than 3,000 movies, but Philadelphia itself did not play a prominent role in his filmography even though the company’s imprint was an image of the Liberty Bell.

[caption id="attachment_18117" align="alignright" width="300"]a sepia tone photograph of Lubinville studio showing glass ceiling and several active sets Siegmund Lubin built his massive Lubinville studio complex in North Philadelphia in 1910. Here he could work on up to five films simultaneously. He made three thousand films throughout his career, many of them lost to a 1914 fire. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

After Lubin’s brief reign at the top of the motion picture industry, Philadelphia receded from its prominent position in cinema. The city and its environs continued to make periodic appearances, however, usually playing one of three very particular roles. In the mid-twentieth century, visions of haughty, manner-bound Main Line society dominated depictions of Philadelphia. As deindustrialization began in earnest in the 1970s, attention began to shift to the city itself, especially its rotting manufacturing infrastructure and working-class row house neighborhoods. Subsequently, Philadelphia served either as a distinctive backdrop for a few recurring directors, notably M. Night Shyamalan (b. 1970) and David O. Russell (b.1958), and more often as an archetypal urban area. Philadelphia played that role before, but the frequency of the city’s anonymous appearances greatly expanded with the multimillion-dollar tax credits that the state of Pennsylvania began offering to film studios in 2004.

Glamour

The Main Line dominates depictions of Philadelphia in many mid-century films, which represent the city—or at least its upper crust—as a bastion of old money and rigid, almost European, class distinctions.

The most famous, and highest quality, of these pictures is The Philadelphia Story (1940), which managed to squeeze three of Hollywood’s most indelible stars onto one screen: Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant. The movie is effortlessly classy, the setting all crystalline champagne glasses and book-lined boudoirs. All the action takes place in three estates on the Main Line. There, Hepburn’s heiress, based on real life socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (1904-95), must choose between the affections of three men. The city itself is never seen and is mentioned only in passing when Grant promises to pick up Stewart’s visiting journalist at a train station in North Philadelphia. (This perhaps betrays an ignorance of the city’s transportation geography on the part of the New York-born playwright and the out-of-town screenwriters who adapted his work).

The Philadelphia Story broke box office records and won critical accolades and a few Academy Awards. But Hepburn lost Best Actress to Ginger Rogers, who won for her star turn in another Main Line-focused Philadelphia film. Largely forgotten since, Kitty Foyle, based on a novel by Philadelphia journalist Christopher Morley, tells the story of a working-class girl who dreams of ascending into the city’s ossified elite class. She comes close to succeeding when she falls into a romance with a scion of a prominent banking family, only to be frozen out and nearly destroyed by the massed forces of snobbery and inherited wealth. In her early life, Rogers’ character haunts the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, depicted as the city’s citadel of privilege. Nearly twenty years later, Paul Newman’s The Young Philadelphians (1959) explored similar tropes, again focusing exclusively on the city’s elites depicted as WASP blue bloods obsessed with class distinctions to an almost un-American degree. To drive home the point, the slogan featured on the film’s posters was “When you rip the upper crust off any city, you’ll find raw flesh underneath.”

The Philadelphia Story is much more forgiving of the American aristocracy, depicting Hepburn’s up-by-the-bootstraps fiancé as the heel, not Grant’s absurdly wealthy dilettante. However, depictions of the city’s social hierarchy as stultified and oppressive in Kitty Foyle and The Young Philadelphians proved to have far greater longevity. As the twentieth century wore on, films focusing on the Main Line or Rittenhouse Square set became rarer, although the unflattering depictions of the city’s old school elite as cruel, prejudiced, and capricious appeared again in Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning HIV/AIDS morality film Philadelphia (1993). In a lighter, though similarly damning vein, Eddie Murphy’s comedy Trading Places sends up Philadelphia’s elite. (Dan Aykroyd’s snotty commodities trader is suitably named Louis Winthorpe III.) But that 1983 film unknowingly highlights one of the reasons for the decline of old, glamorous, rigid Philadelphia society: In the 1980s, old money families were being supplanted by those winning fortunes in the newly financialized economy, focused in New York, and leaving little for Philadelphia’s sclerotic stock market.

Grit

[caption id="attachment_18116" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photo of Mayor Frank Rizzo and Sylvester Stallone holding boxing gloves Sylvester Stallone's Rocky films revolve around the life of a down-on-his-luck Philadelphia boxer. They were largely filmed in the Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia. In this photograph, Stallone (right) is with Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo in 1976, the year of the movie's release. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s most indelible cinematic scenes are undoubtedly from the gritty, bleak, and oppressive movies of the 1970s and 1980s. When industrial capital definitively escaped the city in the 1970s, countless abandoned factories and warehouses were left looming over suddenly impoverished working-class neighborhoods. Similar vistas of deindustrialization captured the imaginations of filmmakers in New York and Detroit, but Philadelphia more than held its own in this grim competition.

The most famous film of post-industrial grit was, inarguably, 1976’s Rocky. After the parade of cheerier sequels, each seemingly more motivational than the last, it is easy to forget the darkness—literally and figuratively—of the first film starring the "Italian Stallion." A pall of soot and ash seems to hang over the entire movie, choking Rocky’s row house neighborhood in Kensington. Sylvester Stallone’s (b.1946) iconic character works as an enforcer for a loan shark and is painfully awkward in his interactions with Adrian (who, in turn, works in a shabby little pet store). Everyone seems angry, alienated, and hopelessly stuck in place.

A similar atmosphere pervades the industrial wasteland of David Lynch’s (b.1946) 1977 movie Eraserhead, although here the existential dread and grotesquery is ramped up to an almost unbearable degree. The story, such as it is, focuses on a bizarrely coiffed factory worker, Henry Spencer, who works, lives, and courts women in a space dominated by factories and ex-factories. The movie cannot be properly said to have a narrative, but is instead obsessed with the products of an impoverished, deindustrializing landscape. Factories are still operative in the movie, as mysterious mechanical sounds, clanking and shrilling, adding to the unease of Lynch’s film. Meanwhile the absurd grotesques who populate the landscape are nightmarish caricatures of the characters the filmmaker met while living in an impoverished, violent, dirty corner of the city in the 1960s and 1970s. While Eraserhead (1977) was filmed in Los Angeles a few years after Lynch had moved away from Philadelphia, the vistas of the film are avowedly formed by his experiences in Philadelphia, where he lived in Callowhill and Fairmount, when both of those neighborhoods were more violent and sootier than they became when they subsequently gentrified.

Other classic movies of the era reflected the rising crime wave that threatened to swamp the city, along with much of urban America, and pervasive paranoiac views of authority. In both 1985’s Witness and 1981’s Blow Out, people are murdered horribly in the bathroom of 30th Street Station by figures of supposed law-and-order (a police officer and a government assassin, respectively). When 1995’s 12 Monkeys is not depicting a post-apocalyptic city ruled by animals released from the zoo, it is flashing back to pre-Armageddon days where the city is shown as a dingy and dangerous streetscape scarred by graffiti and abandonment.

Unlike the glitzier Philadelphia films of earlier years, these gritty masterpieces were definitely anchored in the city itself. Although Center City was spotlighted most often, with its array of distinctive landmarks and monuments, these movies also exposed less-seen aspects of Philadelphia. Blow Out even featured a Mummers troupe marching in a Fourth of July parade, while Rocky and, to a lesser extent, Witness showed the old row house blocks that have long housed such a large portion of the city’s poor and working-class residents.

Anonymity

Recent years also witnessed movies set in Philadelphia, or its immediate suburbs, that offered a new window on the city, with neither old money glitz nor postindustrial grime. Silver Linings Playbook (2012) was largely set in white working-class suburbs of Delaware County, including locations in Ridley Park, Upper Darby, Ridley Township, and Lansdowne. There was even a booth in Upper Darby’s Llanerch Diner where Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s characters ate that reported increased trade after the movie’s success. David Russell’s follow-up, American Hustle, focused on the Abscam scandal that took down several prominent Phila-area politicians, but focused on the New Jersey angle instead. M. Night Shyamalan’s movies often took place in the tonier sections of Center City: Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, Old City, or in the city’s stable northwestern neighborhoods. Like almost all Philadelphia movies, the city’s iconic Center City sights were featured prominently. Neighborhoods like West Philadelphia, Kensington, South Philadelphia, or the Northeast were not featured at all. There were a few exceptions, like 2010’s Night Catches Us, set in 1976 and focusing on an ex-Black Panther’s return to his old neighborhood and the dangers and temptations that awaited him there.

[caption id="attachment_18113" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of the Colonial theatre in Phoenixville, Pa. Phoenixville's Colonial Theatre was prominently featured in the 1958 sci-fi film The Blob. The theater hosts the annual Blobfest festival, drawing thousands to the area with live music and screenings of "creature features," capped by a reenactment of the famous scene in which moviegoers flee the theater under attack by the Blob. (Photograph by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

But the city’s distinctive presence in the films of Russell and Shyamalan did not become the norm in the latest era of Philadelphia movies. Instead, the industry increasingly used the city or its environs simply as a stand-in for “Anywhere U.S.A.” That practice dated back at least to 1958 creature feature The Blob, shot in Chester County and Downingtown, but it could have been anywhere. That practice remained the exception, however, until the mid-1980s, with the creation of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office (GPFO). Spearheaded by Sharon Pinkenson, a former wardrobe stylist, the office claimed to have created “$4 billion of economic impact” since its inception, but in the process the city was relegated largely to a secondary film role as backdrop.

Further returns followed Governor Edward Rendell’s (b. 1944) establishment of a $75 million dollar tax credit for filmmakers. In 2009, eleven movies and television shows were shot in Philadelphia resulting in $270 million in direct spending in the region. But few of these movies—Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), The Best and the Brightest (2010), Shooter (2007), Unstoppable (2010), Paranoia (2013)—actually used the city as a setting, instead using it as a stand-in for New York or some other vague metropolis. When The Answer Man (2009) director John Hindman was asked why he filmed in the city, he said, “Because of their wonderful tax incentives.” When the tax credits were reduced under Governor Tom Corbett (b.1949) to $60 million and then $42 million in fiscal year 2009-10, movies that had planned to use Philadelphia moved elsewhere. Brad Pitt’s World War Z (2013) made Glasgow, Scotland, into Philadelphia because the tax credit deal fell through.

Although the tax credits recovered from their post-recession decline and remained stable at $60 million in 2015, their fruits were spread across the state, and Philadelphia was not guaranteed a pride position. Only one major studio picture filmed in Philadelphia in 2015: Ryan Coogler’s (b. 1986) Creed, the seventh sequel to Rocky, focused on the city, a welcome return to the neighborhood-based story telling of the first Rocky. Another major studio production, Clerks III, was shot in Philadelphia, but in this instance Philadelphia stood in, again, for New York. Thus while Philadelphia managed to retain some role in film into the twenty-first century, its position remained a pale shadow of its promising beginnings.

Jake Blumgart is a reporter, editor, and researcher based in Philadelphia. He is a contributing writer at Next City and PhillyVoice.

Chester, Pennsylvania

Located 30 miles down the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the small but once industrially mighty city of Chester emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century as but a shadow of its former prominence in the county and the region. The municipality’s fortunes shifted many times over the 334 years of its existence, evolving from a small Swedish settlement to the near-capital of the Pennsylvania colony to a neglected village to a manufacturing powerhouse and then into dire post-industrial decline.

[caption id="attachment_16435" align="alignright" width="353"]A sepia-tone birds eye map of the City of Chester with important buildings enlarged in the upper and lower margins Chester's population grew rapidly after the Civil War as migrants were drawn in by plentiful employment opportunities. This 1885 map shows a well-populated industrial city with a busy seaport. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Initially dubbed Upland when it was settled in the 1600s by Swedish and, then, Dutch traders who lost control of the area after the Anglo-Dutch War of 1674, the town was renamed Chester by William Penn, who rechristened the village upon his arrival in 1682. He held Pennsylvania’s first General Assembly there, and even tried to make it his capital. But when local landowners objected, Penn instead chose a site farther north that became Philadelphia. As a consequence, Chester remained a lightly populated village throughout the eighteenth century (although it remained the seat of what was then Chester County until it was split in 1789 to create Delaware County).

Chester finally began to grow in the 1800s, especially after the Civil War, establishing itself as the economic and social heart of Delaware County. Beginning in the 1870s, its working-class population swelled with Irish, Polish, Italian, and African-American migrants attracted by plentiful work along the waterfront (notably John Roach’s iron shipyards) and in the city’s textile industry. In 1889 the independent borough of North Chester amalgamated with the city, and South Chester followed in 1897, giving the city its present physical geography.

The early decades of the twentieth century cemented Chester’s status as a factory town, beyond textiles, with a burgeoning base in heavy industry. The number of industrial jobs tripled between 1910 and 1920 as new industries began to dominate the waterfront—most prominently in the form of the Pew family’s Sun Ship shipyard and Sun Oil Company (located in Marcus Hook). Among other notable industrial employers nearby were Scott Paper, Ford Motor Company, the Baldwin Locomotive Works, and Westinghouse Electric Company. The city’s population jumped by almost 20,000 people during this period to 58,030.

The Wild Side of Chester

The early twentieth century also established Chester’s reputation as a wild town, home to dozens of bars, brothels, drug dens, and gambling halls, with a thriving red-light district in the Bethel Court section. All of this activity was abetted by the local political machine, which won power with funds largely derived from organized vice while sustaining the loyalty of its constituents with patronage and social services. In addition to the daily pulse of vice and corruption, the city was periodically wracked by mass violence. A 1908 streetcar strike lasted from April through August and was punctuated by dynamite bombings, gunfights, and mob attacks. In the summer of 1917, during the peak of the wartime population boom, a series of race riots convulsed the city, featuring running battles between blacks and whites that resulted in twenty-eight shootings and seven deaths.

During the 1920s Chester contained roughly a third of Delaware County’s residents, but as the first wave of suburbanization occurred new population centers began to form on the western border of Philadelphia (especially Upper Darby). Still, the industrial and political heart of the county remained to the south. Even though Media had replaced Chester as the county seat in the mid-nineteenth century, Chester was home to the powerful Republican political boss John McClure. He ruled the city from 1907 until 1965, despite being sentenced, although not imprisoned, in 1933 for bootlegging. The machine’s power was near total, with his favored candidates easily winning elections with the help of police officers who served as political agents and payments made to those who voted Republican.

[caption id="attachment_16439" align="alignright" width="300"]A large crowd of working men in front of the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company yards, with a billboard celebrating sixty years in the background Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company secured lucrative defense contracts during the World Wars. The company employed 35,000 workers in its peak years and was the largest employer of African Americans in the nation. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Pews’ industrial interests in and around Chester were the focal point of social and political tensions in the city. In 1936, the family offered control of employment at the shipyards and the oil company—which never suffered layoffs, even at the height of the Depression—as patronage to lure McClure out of his post-scandal retirement. The family wanted his help in defeating New Deal Democrats and their allies in the unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which were locked in bloody conflict with Sun Ship. The campaign culminated in the CIO-affiliated workers winning the right to unionize in 1943 after nearly a decade of organizing. After the beginning of World War II, as work at the shipyards increased by tens of thousands, Sun Ship became the largest private-sector employer of African Americans in the nation—even controversially segregating many of its black workers into Yard No.4.

That influx of African-Americans, most of whom were the first to be laid off from industrial work after the war, and federal postwar housing and veterans’ policies that specifically excluded African-Americans, eventually transformed Chester into a majority-black and impoverished island cut off from a more prosperous majority-white region. Even as the elite population largely decamped for the suburbs, the construction of Interstate 95 blatantly severed the poorest sections of the city from the surrounding area. In 1950, Upper Darby became the most populous municipality in the county, and over the following decade Chester’s population shrank for the first time. Although McClure continued to rule from a mansion in the city, where Richard Nixon visited him during the 1960 political campaign, his political machine increasingly drew its strength from the growing suburban townships.

Educational Desegregation

Within the city, African-Americans fought long, hard campaigns to desegregate public accommodations, public housing, and public education. The education campaign would not come to fruition until after 1964, when huge protest marches, sporadic violence, and a lengthy boycott of downtown merchants finally forced integration of the schools.

But these victories were bitter, as industry abandoned the city at the same time. In 1950 over 50 percent of the city’s workforce was employed by manufacturing firms, but by the early 1960s many of the area’s biggest employers had already closed, including Baldwin Locomotive and Ford. Sun Ship dramatically downsized to 4,000 workers from a peak of 35,000 during the Second World War. Plentiful jobs could be found in the suburbs, but most of the surrounding municipalities bitterly, and successfully, resisted attempts by Chester’s African-Americans to move closer to employment opportunities.

[caption id="attachment_16437" align="alignright" width="300"]The facade of a modern casino building with red signage reading Harrah's Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack opened in 2006 on the former site of Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. While it draws tourists into Chester and has generated over $1 billion in tax revenue since its opening, critics note that only a small percentage of employees are Chester residents. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

By the 1980s Chester was a city bereft of industry, although the Crozer-Chester Medical Center and Widener University remained in the city. (The Crozer Theological Seminary, which Martin Luther King Jr. attended, left Chester in the early 1970s.) Saddled with the remnants of McClure’s Republican machine numerous bottom-rung projects opened in Chester, including a trash incinerator, a sewage treatment plant, and a prison. McClure’s mansion became a substance abuse treatment center. More promising, it seemed, were the arrivals of Harrah’s Casino in 2007 and the PPL Park soccer stadium in 2010. Despite their potential for spurring further development, that prospect was compromised by a scarcity of full-time jobs for local residents and the separation of these institutions from the city by a large road and vast parking lots. The school district was intermittently run by the state, and close to half the students attended charter schools, innovations that did nothing to improve the district’s abysmal performance or sustained budget crises. Chester’s downtown was largely abandoned, its neighborhoods scarred with blight, and the population in 2010 roughly half the 1950 number.

Jake Blumgart is a reporter, editor, and researcher based in Philadelphia. He is a contributing writer at Next City and Flying Kite.

Share This Page: