Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Matthew Smalarz

Reading Terminal Market

[caption id="attachment_34343" align="alignright" width="300"] A pedestrian strolls past the Reading Terminal Market on Twelfth Street between Filbert and Arch Streets. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Opened to the public in 1893, Reading Terminal Market came into being amid the chaotic, but transformative, industrial and commercial forces that swept through late nineteenth-century Philadelphia. A descendant of the market-oriented atmosphere and culture entrenched primarily along High (subsequently Market) Street since the colonial era, the Reading Terminal weathered myriad commercial, labor, and legal hurdles during its storied evolution, standing apart as a marketplace innovator that overcame structural and competitive challenges that repeatedly threatened its continued development.

Rooted in the long tradition of market venues scattered throughout the city that pedaled and sold various farm goods and meats, the origins of the Reading Terminal Market stemmed from a change in state law in the early 1850s conferring new economic powers on private market houses. Responding to the poor condition and fiscal mismanagement of the aging and decrepit market sheds that had long dotted the congested corridor of High Street, the city ordered them to close in October 1859. To replace them, the proprietors of private market halls invested considerable capital to attract customers by constructing ornately designed, well-ventilated, and refrigerated facilities. By the advent of the Centennial celebration in 1876, guidebooks could tout a vast array of market house options throughout the city’s neighborhoods.

Two private markets houses—The Farmers’ Market and the Twelfth Street Market—exemplified the push to erect appealing facilities, but their success was threatened by the intense rivalry between the Reading and Pennsylvania railroads in the 1880s and early 1890s. Feeling the pressure to expand its operations to counter the Pennsylvania Railroad’s recent construction of a new railroad shed—Broad Street Station—at Broad and Filbert, the Reading lobbied City Council to build a new train terminal at Twelfth and Market Streets, threatening in the process to displace the two markets through eminent domain. To compete with its rival in the heart of downtown, the Reading also aimed to erect a marketplace venue that would attract more customers to utilize its passenger lines. Unwilling to allow the Reading Railroad to determine their fates, however, representatives from both markets lobbied the Reading throughout the summer of 1891, finally brokering a deal that granted them commercial space on the ground level of Market Street, immediately beneath the rail line’s proposed elevated track and terminal. There, they could expect to operate their stalls, as well as to maintain access to a newly constructed cold storage basement in which to store perishable foodstuffs.

To elevate the physical grandeur of the proposed market, the Reading Railroad contracted the services of George McKay, who had built the resplendent Center Market in Washington, D.C., to monitor the construction of its grandiose terminal facility, while consulting with Francis Kimball (1845-1919), a New York-based architect, to devise the ornamental features that would grace its structural façade. The train shed alone was estimated at 559 feet in length and 88 feet in height and sheltering thirteen train tracks, on which thirteen load-bearing locomotives and an endless array of train cars could be placed. The terminal’s architectural features, which included 135,000 feet of glass and 50 million pounds of iron, soon marked it as one of the finest market venues in the nation. The market officially debuted February 22, 1892, even as ongoing construction forced multiple delays, such as a leaky, makeshift roof and the installation of the cold storage unit. Upon completion in January 1893, the market was almost entirely occupied by vendors of all types, selling a wide array of seafood, meat, produce, and poultry items, while its outstanding architectural and engineering flaws had been fully resolved.

Reading Railroad Bankruptcy

The Reading Railroad, however, after falling into financial disrepair as part of a devastating national depression, declared bankruptcy in 1893. To salvage the railroad from further financial ruin, the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company, which obtained the lease to the Reading Terminal, converted its assets into a holding company after consulting with J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), the most influential financier of the Gilded Age.

The market weathered a series of maintenance challenges upon its opening, the most notable being the replacement of the recently installed roof from 1897 with a sturdier and less porous one in 1901. Despite this, the market prospered into the mid-twentieth century because of its wholesale supply operations with local dining establishments, its ability to ship goods across the country through the U.S. Express Parcel Company—a shipping entity under the direction of the Reading Company—and the importance of its cold storage unit. In the first decade of the market’s existence, 380 vendors established their presence by selling a wide variety of foodstuffs, most notably fish, poultry, various meats, flour, tea, coffee, spices, and ice cream. Bassett’s Ice Cream, which occupied a room in the upstairs of the market beginning in 1898, became a notable fixture in the market by creating ice cream at its own stand.

The emergence of supermarket chains, with the capacity to sell a wider variety of foodstuffs, threatened the stability of the market during the early twentieth century. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company debuted its "economy stores" starting in 1912, and soon thereafter opened a store on Twelfth Street directly across from the Reading market to compete for its customers.   

Challenges of the 1950s

[caption id="attachment_34341" align="alignright" width="300"] A Reading Terminal Market butcher sells meat to a customer under the meat rationing program introduced during World War II. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The Reading Railroad and its market merchants also dealt with a multitude of structural and financial hardships following World War II, as the rise of an automobile culture, changing consumer trends, and marketplace competition affected their industries. Despite efforts to refurbish its facilities in order to attract more passengers and alleviate labor tensions among its rank and file, the Reading Railroad was forced to downsize by closing numerous stations and unloading unprofitable property holdings by the late 1950s. The economic decline of the railroad affected, and coincided with, the falling revenues and occupancy rates of the market during the 1950s, which increasingly struggled to retain merchants and attract customers. 

Faced with these mounting obstacles, the Merchants’ Association of the Reading Terminal Market in 1958 petitioned the rail company to provide security through long-term leases, but quickly shelved the plan when disagreements arose among its members over the proposal’s financial viability. Instead, the Reading raised rental fees on its merchants to offset its financial losses and entertained offers from real estate developers to convert the market into a “Merchandise Mart,” which would sell discounted goods to improve the financial standing of its merchants. The company also considered an offer from the city to transform the market into a bus station and parking garage at a time when major planning initiatives, including the proposed construction of the Vine Street Expressway and Market East, aimed at drawing in affluent, white suburbanites to patronize the Central Business District. The physical redevelopment of Society Hill momentarily increased market patronage, but the ongoing decline of tenants, which rested at 70 percent occupancy in 1959, only dampened hopes that it could withstand the financial challenges besieging it.

The Reading Company, which declared bankruptcy in 1971, further distanced itself from the financial calamities that plagued the market by selling a third of its shares to Chicago real estate investors and then proceeded to hand control of train operations over to Conrail and SEPTA. The railroad also sold the property on which the market stood to free itself from further financial entanglements, reaching a five-year lease agreement in 1976 with Sam Rappaport (1932-2016), a prominent real estate mogul who hoped to profit from his investment by transforming the market into a festival marketplace akin to the recently refurbished Faneuil Hall in Boston to coincide with the city’s Bicentennial celebrations. Challenging Rappaport’s plan to compel them to sign long-term leases on individual terms rather than traditional, monthly leases, its remaining merchants, especially the outspoken butcher Harry Ochs (1929-2009) rallied to force Rappaport to acquiesce to their demand for short-term agreements. To further appease the merchants, the Reading Company negotiated a deal whereby it acquired his remaining financial holdings in the market in the late 1970s.

1980s Revitalization

[caption id="attachment_34344" align="alignright" width="300"] Kauffman’s Lancaster Country Produce, among the Amish merchants at Reading Terminal Market, has been supplying seasonal produce at the market since the 1980s. (Photograph by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The ambitious push to revitalize the market and its surrounding neighborhoods in Center City compelled Reading to develop and invest in new real estate projects, the most notable being the construction in the early 1980s of a thirty-two-story office structure and an immense parking garage aimed at catering to market patrons. To demonstrate its commitment to the revitalization of the market, the company also planned to shift its real estate operation back to the terminal to bolster its property assets. The diversification and addition of new vendors, notably Amish farmers and Asian produce vendors, also widened the variety of food offerings. It became the embodiment of what ethnologist Elijah Anderson has called a “cosmopolitan canopy”—a social space where diverse peoples come together, and for the most part practice getting along—amid its resurgence during the 1980s.

Concerned merchants, however, worried that plans to redevelop the area around the market with an immense, new convention center would threaten its existence under the direction of a new state entity—the Convention Center Authority. Fearful about the possible implications of the state’s assumption of the convention project on the market, Robert Brecht and Harry G. Ochs Jr. (1929-2009), two of the market’s most visible tenants, revived the Merchants’ Association—which at various points throughout the history of the market had represented the legal and negotiating needs of market tenants—in order to launch a petition campaign to keep it from closing. They obtained over seventy thousand signatures in support of their campaign to modify the convention center proposal in order to keep the market open. Heeding the voices of frustrated merchants and customers, city politicians and leaders organized a blue-ribbon panel to protect the physical appearance of the market. Immediately prior to assuming full control of the project in late 1990, the Convention Center Authority reached an accord with merchants in which it not only promised to keep the market operational during the construction project, but also to reimburse them for any structural damages incurred and preserve important historical trappings of the market, specifically merchant counters and stalls.

Having endured countless economic trials, structural hurdles, and legal obstacles throughout its storied past, the revitalization of the market enabled it to thrive well into the twenty-first century.  Fresh produce and a vast array of food offerings—Thai, Indian, Cajun, Pennsylvania Dutch, and other cuisines from around the nation and the world—drew consumers from various backgrounds into one of the most distinctive cultural, social, and culinary experiences in modern Philadelphia.

Matthew Smalarz teaches history at Manor College in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where he serves as Chair of the Social Sciences Department and received the Outstanding Educator of the Year Award for the 2016-17 academic year.

Penn Center

Deemed one of the boldest planning projects undertaken by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission during the mid-twentieth century, Penn Center replaced the Pennsylvania Railroad’s infamous “Chinese Wall” viaduct and Broad Street Station in Center City with modern civic spaces and commercial structures. The complex, which grew to comprise thirteen buildings stretching from Market Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, embodied the planning strengths and limitations of its visionary originator, Edmund Bacon (1910-2005). The final rendering of Penn Center, far from its intended original design, nonetheless signaled the growing influence of city planning under Bacon’s stewardship during the 1950s.

Penn Center originated from business and civic reformers’ collective efforts to rehabilitate both the physical and political state of the city after years of Republican machine rule. Through the formation of the City Policy Committee starting in the late 1930s, they sought to modernize the city’s physical state and in 1942 also reconfigured the City Planning Commission, which had been established in 1929 with the consent of the Philadelphia City Council. To further extend the reach of their work, they forged the Citizens’ Council on City Planning in 1943 to advocate for and supervise the actions of the commission. As the culmination of their collective activities, the Better Philadelphia Exhibition in 1947 at Gimbel Bros. department store evoked through the vision of architects Oscar Stonorov (1905-70) and Louis Kahn (1901-74) a transformation of the heart of the city through the creation of Independence Mall, the rehabilitation of what came to be called Society Hill, and, most notably, Penn Center as the centerpiece to the city's central commercial district.

[caption id="attachment_33935" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Market Street and the Chinese Wall with trains running on it. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Filbert Street Viaduct, better known as the Chinese Wall, formed a physical and psychological barrier to the west of City Hall. Its demolition in 1953 cleared the way for Penn Center. This image is most likely from 1941. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

One of the principal obstacles to realizing the Penn Center project was the so-called “Chinese Wall,” constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad on a six-block stretch along Market Street, which physically divided and impeded the physical redevelopment of downtown Philadelphia.

Stonorov and Kahn, who had been selected by the planning commission to create a redevelopment plan for the Chinese Wall site, proposed constructing three new commercial structures and a submerged, pedestrian walkway that would mimic Rockefeller Center in New York City. Seeking to maximize its financial investment in the site, the Pennsylvania Railroad fought the plan, and it was up to Bacon, on assuming the position of planning director in 1949, to resolve the issue.

The Early Proposals

Bacon’s first instinct was to collaborate with Kahn, who envisioned eleven symmetrical structures that would span from the Chinese Wall to the Schuylkill River, with a pedestrian walkway traversing them from beneath—an expansion of his earlier design concept from the Better Philadelphia Exhibition. Bacon, however, eventually deemed Kahn’s vision impractical. He soon turned to Vincent Kling (1916-2013), an innovative, young architect known for his professional and architectural connections to the railroad, to design a model that would encompass three office structures on the eastern half of the Chinese Wall, a submerged concourse dotted with stores, and nearby access to the Suburban Station concourse. Encouraged by interest expressed by James Symes (1897-1976), the presumed heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad, Bacon used a luncheon for members of the Citizens’ Council on City Planning on February 21, 1952, to announce that the Public Utilities Commission had agreed to allow the railroad to dismantle the Chinese Wall and Broad Street Station, a seventy-one-year-old railroad depot located at Broad and Market Streets, to make way for the project. Although Symes hinted that the site’s future redevelopment had yet to be completely determined, Bacon officially designated the project Penn Center and declared that “these plans represent a conception of a way of rebuilding . . . the city core expressive of the dignity of Philadelphia as the center of a growing metropolitan region.”

Bacon and newly elected Democratic Mayor Joseph Clark (1901-90), an outspoken municipal reformer who highlighted the centrality of Penn Center to the city’s comprehensive planning agenda, soon experienced setbacks. At the insistence of its president, Martin Clement (1881-1966), the railroad sought to make a quick profit by selling the site piecemeal rather than developing it as one continuous project. In addition, a number of civic organizations objected to Bacon’s suggestion of making way for the project by dismantling City Hall, with the exception of its tower. Bacon’s Penn Center Redevelopment Area Plan, which reached from Vine Street to Market Street, released in August 1952, answered critics by arguing that while the Chinese Wall site was privately owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the city was within its purview to redevelop adjoining properties in the immediate vicinity. Although the proposal did not include City Hall, it nevertheless heeded civic fears by calling for a study to determine the merits and liabilities of refurbishing or razing it. To advance the city’s unified vision for the site among the railroad’s leadership, which entertained offers from numerous developers, the plan called for a pedestrian walkway, additional surface transit lines, and a submerged expressway at Vine Street as well as a height restriction of 340 feet on newly erected structures to ensure that City Hall remained the tallest building in the city if it was retained.

For Bacon, the planning document proved insufficient to achieve his goals. The Pennsylvania Railroad demolished the Chinese Wall in May 1953, but instead of cooperating with the planning commission it leased two blocks of property at Fifteenth and Market Streets on the site to Uris Brothers, a real estate development firm from New York City, which proposed designing and building a drab, twenty-story structure designated “Three Penn Center,” further eroding Bacon’s goal of developing the land as one continuous project. Although Bacon had repeatedly sought to compel the Pennsylvania Railroad to incorporate the aesthetic and civic dimensions of the city’s Penn Center Plan, the railroad ultimately aligned with private developers to design a project intended to yield profitable returns.

First Up: Three Penn Center

As construction on the first Penn Center structure Three Penn Center commenced in late November 1953, Mayor Clark persuaded representatives from the railroad to construct the submerged pedestrian walkway, one of the plan’s critical features. But Bacon could not persuade the developers of the site to embrace most of his ideas for Penn Center, especially the inclusion of a continually open concourse. The final product and its four surrounding offshoots, which spanned from Market Street to JFK Boulevard and consisted of glass and concrete building materials, was widely condemned by architectural critics who deemed it “pretty miserable” and “an uninspired compromise with real estate interests” by its near completion in the late 1950s.

[caption id="attachment_33936" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Richardson Dilworth sitting at his desk Richardson Dilworth, shown in this 1957 photograph, served as mayor of Philadelphia from 1956 to 1962. He installed Edmund Bacon as executive director of the City Planning Commission. Bacon went on to pioneer many city projects, including Penn Center. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Despite Bacon’s dismay with the aesthetic features of Penn Center, he did not view the project as an abject failure, for he regarded it as an integral part of the broader redevelopment of downtown Philadelphia. He partnered with Dean Holmes Perkins (1904-2004), a city planner and dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, who was installed by Mayor Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) as chairman of the City Planning Commission, to acquire and mold the properties surrounding Penn Center into visibly appealing public spaces. The most notable of these public spaces, Dilworth Plaza (later Dilworth Park), occupied part of Penn Square, one of William Penn’s five original public squares for the city and the site of City Hall. He also collaborated with Vincent Kling to design a public plaza, later known as John F. Kennedy Plaza and LOVE Park, at the eastern end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. To maintain the historical connection between the physical centrality of City Hall and William Penn’s original plan for the center of the city, he also devised an “unwritten gentleman’s agreement” compelling builders to only erect structures that would not eclipse William Penn’s statue atop City Hall, which stood at 548 feet as the highest structure in Philadelphia, an idea that had first appeared in the 1952 Penn Center Redevelopment Plan, which would be completed by the early 1960s.

Despite architectural criticism, Penn Center advanced Bacon’s broader agenda to modernize the physical appearance of downtown and signaled the emerging impact of city planning recommendations on the decision-making processes of private corporations in advocating for the needs of the city.

Matthew Smalarz teaches history at Manor College in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where he serves as Chair of Social Sciences as well as History and Social Sciences Coordinator.

Liberty County

City and state politicians representing Northeast Philadelphia, deeply unsettled by the shifting economy and demographic makeup of the city in the 1980s, proposed seceding to create “Liberty County,” a separate, suburban municipality to ostensibly address taxpayers’ demands for improved municipal services. The primary impetus for such a radical step, however, was reaction to Philadelphia’s first African American mayor, W. Wilson Goode (b. 1938), whose election in 1983 further stoked racial anxieties throughout Northeast Philadelphia. Supporters of secession pressed for independence from the city throughout Goode’s two terms as mayor, but after his reelection in 1987 the movement diminished as many residents, refusing to acknowledge Goode’s municipal contributions to their neighborhoods because of his race, chose to move to the suburbs rather than continue the fight.

[caption id="attachment_29460" align="alignright" width="225"]a black and white photograph of Wilson Goode smiling in a crowd Wilson Goode was the first African American mayor of Philadelphia, serving from 1984 to 1992. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

A rising political star in Philadelphia politics who had served as managing director for Mayor William Green (b. 1938), Goode campaigned throughout Northeast Philadelphia in an effort to convince skeptical white voters that he would improve municipal services if elected mayor. Residents remained hostile to Goode’s candidacy, however, largely because of his race.  Shortly after his election, Frank “Hank” Salvatore (1922-2014), a Republican state representative from Far Northeast Philadelphia, submitted a bill to the Pennsylvania legislature proposing that Northeast Philadelphia secede from the city to become a separate entity to be known as Liberty County. Goode countered by working to establish an amicable relationship with business and civic organizations in the  Northeast and promising in 1984 to build “a mini-City Hall” there.  His efforts fell short, however, as Northeast city council representatives Joan Krajewski (1934-2013) and Brian O’Neill (b. 1949) remained skeptical of Goode’s intentions, eventually joining an emerging chorus of community activists who questioned whether the mayor could fulfill his promise to build a municipal services center.

In May 1985 relations between Goode and his Northeast constituents took a further turn for the worse.  Following the tragically botched effort to remove the black nationalist and anarcho-primitivist group MOVE from Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia on May 13, Northeast residents began to speak fearfully of the possibility that Goode might similarly resort to dropping explosives on their neighborhoods if they failed to comply with his executive authority.  Even as the city launched a formal investigation into the mayor’s handling of the crisis, Hank Salvatore sought to capitalize on the mayor’s political misfortunes by demanding a concurrent state legislative inquiry about the mayor’s actions against MOVE and its compound. Not to be cowed, Goode rebuffed his white political and civic-minded critics and made good on his promise for a Northeast “mini-City Hall,” which opened at the Northeast Shopping Center at Roosevelt Boulevard and Welsh Road in September 1985. 

[caption id="attachment_29458" align="alignright" width="206"]Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo Examining the New Police Insignia. Frank L. Rizzo, shown here in 1968 examining the new police insignia on a patrol car located at Eighth and Race Streets, was a national voice of get-tough policing as both commissioner (1967-71) and mayor (1972-80). (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Goode’s action failed to alter the situation and animus against him in the Northeast peaked just months later in July 1986 during a municipal services strike that left piles of trash strewn on neighborhood sidewalks. Residents blamed the mayor for failing to resolve the crisis. With cries for Salvatore’s secession proposal still festering, the emergence of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo (1920-91) as a candidate once again for mayor further aggravated relations with the city. Labeled by supporters as a “Great White Hope,” Rizzo stormed Northeast neighborhoods, where he assured supporters that he would significantly improve city services if elected.  By contrast, Goode, who had pledged color-blind governance in 1983, found little support in the Northeast during the 1987 campaign and increasingly courted African American voters in other parts of the city.  While Goode ultimately prevailed over Rizzo to gain reelection–winning a significant number of black voters but losing by large margins in Northeast Philadelphia–he was left governing a city that had failed to expunge its racial demons.

Resentful of Goode’s continued presence as mayor, Salvatore rallied those who supported his secessionist stance one last time by openly threatening again in February 1988 to create a separate, suburban entity, Liberty County, through state legislation. His action drew praise from some Northeast residents, who called him a latter-day “Patrick Henry” who would save the Northeast from the perceived tyranny of “King Wilson I.” But his plan lacked the same widespread community support it had initially corralled during the mid-1980s. Liberty County became little more than a fantasy to its white supporters, who slowly left the city for better housing opportunities and municipal services in the nearby suburbs during the 1990s and early 2000s. Salvatore’s supporters periodically reproposed his Liberty County idea in local newspapers throughout the Northeast , but lacked sufficient political support in their communities to make it a viable initiative. 

Matthew Smalarz teaches history at Manor College in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where he serves as the History and Social Sciences Coordinator and received the Outstanding Educator of the Year Award for the 2016-2017 academic year.

Roosevelt Boulevard

[caption id="attachment_17656" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A bird's-eye view map, c. 1926, depicts roads and highways linking Philadelphia to the region. Roosevelt Boulevard extends from North Broad Street into the Northeast. (Library of Congress) A bird's-eye view map, c. 1926, depicts rivers, roads, and highways linking Philadelphia to the region. Near the center of the map, Roosevelt Boulevard begins at North Broad Street and extends into the sparsely populated Northeast. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Snaking its way through parts of North and Northeast Philadelphia, the Roosevelt Boulevard, formally known as the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Boulevard, has become one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in the Philadelphia metropolitan region. Initially conceived amid political maelstroms during the “corrupt and contented” phase of Progressive Era Philadelphia, “the Boulevard,” as it became known, evolved in phases and embodied the complicated planning and political factors, especially following World War II, that went into its convoluted and still unsettled development.

The Boulevard’s history dates to 1902 when, in a bold effort to continue binding the commercial interests of downtown Philadelphia with the largely untrammeled and unoccupied lands of Northeast Philadelphia following the Act of Consolidation (1854), the mayoral administration of Samuel Ashbridge (1848-1906) called for building a modern transportation link to facilitate economic growth and residential opportunities along the proposed corridor. But the incestuous business and political relationships of the Republican Organization, the predominant political machine in Philadelphia, undermined the integrity of the venture from its onset.

[caption id="attachment_23238" align="alignright" width="208"]Photograph of Rudolph Blankenburg Reformer Rudolph Blankenburg denounced the Boulevard as political "effrontery and thievery." (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Engaging in the sordid practice of “honest graft,” the Philadelphia Land Company, which was established in 1902 by well-connected and corrupt Organization officials, purchased land extending from downtown Philadelphia to Torresdale through which the modern thoroughfare would be constructed, even though it served no immediate, practical purpose, largely because few inhabitants of the area lived close to the proposed roadway. Because of its close political ties with city officials, the Philadelphia Land Company eventually sold the properties it had acquired from local farmers to the City of Philadelphia for a generous return on its initial investment. Future mayor Rudolph Blankenburg (1843-1918), a highly respected businessmen and civic reformer, criticized the crass nature in which the Boulevard scheme had been conceived, for he deemed it the “culmination of Organization effrontery and thievery. . . which is open to curves as crooked as its projectors.”

Designated the “Torresdale Boulevard” at its inception–largely because Torresdale would serve as the roadway’s northeast terminus–the road developed in phases between 1903 and 1914. To forge the much sought-after link between downtown Philadelphia and Torresdale, home to many affluent families who might be enticed to patronize the department stores of downtown Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Department of Streets established a right-of-way from Broad and Cayuga Streets to the Boulevard, which was renamed the Northeast Boulevard—principally because it did not officially extend to Torresdale upon its initial development—by the time of its official opening in 1914. Over the next four years, real estate interests drove the continued expansion of the boulevard toward Pennypack Creek, largely because they sought to capitalize on the burgeoning, and potentially lucrative, housing market in the lower Northeast. The Boulevard underwent one final name change upon the completion of its extension to the Pennypack Creek—making the roadway seven miles long—in 1918, when its principal supporters renamed it the Roosevelt Boulevard, in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).

1920s: The Boulevard Flourishes

[caption id="attachment_17677" align="alignright" width="300"]Postcard depicting bus on Roosevelt Boulevard. Traveling on a still-rural portion of Roosevelt Boulevard in the 1920s, a No. 206 bus carries passengers toward the Margaret-Orthodox station of the Market-Frankford El. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

As federal and state transportation agencies became more involved in the construction of new highways prior to the Second World War, the City of Philadelphia gradually relinquished control of the Boulevard to federal and state highway authorities. The Boulevard therefore slowly grew into part of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. With widespread ownership of automobiles and federal oversight of a nationalized highway system following the Federal Highway Act of 1921, the Boulevard and its surrounding environment flourished in the 1920s with the construction of new commercial facilities, such as the Sears-Roebuck department store and a mixture of row houses and single-family residences. Formally absorbed into the federal interstate highway system in 1926, the Boulevard became part of the newly created U.S. Route 1, a north-south interstate highway stretching from Maine to Florida. Although the Boulevard functioned as one of many vital arteries along U.S. 1, the federal government ceded control over its local, physical maintenance to the Philadelphia Department of Streets and then, in 1937, to the Pennsylvania Department of Highways (later renamed the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation or PennDOT), which became the primary vehicle for initiating construction projects and obtaining funds from the federal government to finance them.

Following World War II, the City Planning Commission crafted highway policies in collaboration with state authorities that sought to remedy traffic issues and address residential concerns associated with postwar suburbanization and the entrenchment of an automobile culture. In 1947, the City Planning Commission, acknowledging the effects of the automobile on residential decentralization of the surrounding region, announced its plan to build the Roosevelt Expressway to bridge the physical divide between the existing Roosevelt Boulevard and the planned Schuylkill Expressway. Edmund Bacon (1910-2005), chairman of the Planning Commission, acted as an intermediary between aggrieved residents and state highway authorities over plans to construct the Boulevard Extension through densely populated neighborhoods. In 1950, Bacon met stiff resistance from Germantown residents who loathed the extension proposal and lobbied for the construction of a bypass north of the city to keep their neighborhoods free from the possible overflow of traffic congestion on the Boulevard. Bacon, however, disagreed with critics of the Planning Commission’s highway program, remarking that the bypass would only exacerbate, not alleviate, traffic problems inside city neighborhoods.

[caption id="attachment_17680" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Roosevelt Boulevard extension An extension of Roosevelt Boulevard, shown here in 1971, created a link to the Schuylkill Expressway but did not relieve traffic congestion. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Although Bacon rejected the residents’ overtures for a bypass to divert traffic around their neighborhood, he nevertheless worked behind the scenes to secure support from the Pennsylvania Department of Highways to minimize the impact of the extension construction on local residents. He convinced the Department of Highways to narrow the lanes on the proposed extension from six to four, which kept 500 residents from being displaced. The eventual completion of the 3.5-mile Roosevelt Expressway in 1961, however, did little to ease traffic issues on the Boulevard, eventually compelling the commission to adopt another plan to relieve traffic snarls among the rapidly growing neighborhoods and thoroughfares of Northeast Philadelphia.

Northeast Expressway Proposal

The alternative remedy to the traffic quagmires on the Boulevard–a proposed Northeast Expressway devised by the City Planning Commission in 1964–met relentless attacks from state officials and Northeast residents. While the Boulevard had been expanded into the Far Northeast to accommodate residential expansion and shopping centers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Northeast Expressway proposal would have extended 14.9 miles from Hunting Park in North Philadelphia to Bensalem in Bucks County. An accompanying nine-mile extension of the Broad Street Subway Line also would have expanded public transit options for those living in the Northeast. PennDOT purchased homes along the Boulevard during the early 1970s to make way for the expressway, but many residents and activists in the Near Northeast objected, arguing the extension would disrupt residential life and pollute Tacony Creek Park. PennDOT and Philadelphia city officials scrapped the expressway proposal in the early 1980s, daunted by the economic, political, and social hurdles they would have to overcome.

After the demise of the Northeast Expressway proposal, city and state officials attempted repeatedly to improve the quality of transportation and safety along the Roosevelt Boulevard. Attempting to resolve structural problems plaguing the twelve-lane boulevard, in 2003 the City Planning Commission completed the Roosevelt Boulevard Corridor Transportation Investment Study, which explored ways to improve the grading and routing of the Boulevard and called for mass transit alternatives to alleviate traffic. In 2008, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s Long-Range Vision for Transit modified some of the ideas in the 2003 study, envisioning, for instance, an extension of the Broad Street Subway and an elevated line along the Boulevard to the Bucks County boundary. Far from a settled issue, the ongoing policy debates about the Boulevard’s development remained not only an outstanding question among city planners and state officials but also reflected the complex, political forces that brought it into existence over a century ago.

Matthew Smalarz is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Rochester who teaches history at Manor College. His dissertation examines middle-class whiteness and public space in Northeast Philadelphia following World War II.

Northeast Philadelphia

From its initial, colonial foundations as a sparsely populated farming hinterland to its dramatic postwar housing development after World War II, Northeast Philadelphia developed into a desirable destination for those seeking to improve their economic, social, and cultural standing within Philadelphia’s city boundaries. Even as Northeast Philadelphia came to symbolize a middle-class environment rooted around homeownership, commercial development, and mass affluence following World War II, it spurred acrimonious racial tensions between white and black residents and confronted city politicians and policy makers about local concerns related to zoning, commercial, and municipal services. Stretching from Frankford in the lower Northeast to Somerton in the Far Northeast, its vast geographic expanse underwent dramatic spatial, economic, and racial transformations throughout its complex and still unfolding history.   

[caption id="attachment_10802" align="alignright" width="209"]A map of the Northeast section of Philadelphia. The boarder of Northeast Philadelphia is colored red, and the map separates political districts with shades of light blue, yellow, pink, and green. The map mostly shoes roads, but some rivers, streams, and lakes are displayed on the map. Northeast Philadelphia, 1883. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Northeast Philadelphia’s earliest enclave, Frankford, consisted of Lenni Lenape Indians and Swedish settlers prior to the founding of the Pennsylvania colony by William Penn in the early 1680s. Immediately following Pennsylvania’s establishment in 1681, Quaker settlers constructed a meetinghouse, built in 1684,  and post office at William Penn’s request in what was initially designated the Manor of Frank during the mid-1680s. Situated to the northeast of the city of Philadelphia, Frankford’s importance as a center of commerce and trade grew principally because of its geographic location along the King’s Highway (present-day Frankford Avenue). It developed into a manufacturing village in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, drawing in German and English settlers, who opened numerous mills along the Frankford Creek. In addition to European settlers, free blacks established fraternal, religious, and anti-slavery institutions in the village to counter the creeping signs of residential segregation and employment discrimination surrounding them.  Located within the boundaries of Philadelphia County, Frankford’s commercial dominance attracted nearby farmers, who principally resided in Northeast townships, such as Lower Dublin and Moreland, to process their raw materials and farm products in Frankford’s bustling mills. The village also became a vital munitions site for the U.S. Army after the War of 1812, when the federal government began the construction of an arsenal, completed in the mid-1820s,  along the banks of the Frankford Creek. 

Other settlements, primarily centered on farming and mill activity, dotted Northeast Philadelphia’s rural terrain and creek beds prior to and following the Consolidation Act of 1854, with pockets of gilded affluence appearing sporadically along the Delaware River in the late nineteenth century. Multiple townships throughout the Northeast possessed small, farming enclaves and communities, especially Bustleton, Somerton, and Fox Chase. In the early 1850s, residents from the Northeast decried the city’s plan to annex their communities into a newly consolidated city-county governance authority, which aimed to confer municipal services and policing functions on outlying suburbs in exchange for jurisdictional control over their neighborhoods. Some Bustleton residents, afraid of losing their independence, resisted the city’s annexation plan in 1852 by initiating legislation, which ultimately failed, to thwart the proposal. While the Northeast remained predominantly rural following the Act of Incorporation’s passage, some of Philadelphia’s well-heeled elite erected palatial mansions and estates in Holmesburg and Torresdale, with the most notable Victorian structure being the opulent Glen Foerd mansion, which still overlooks the Delaware River, in Torresdale.

Flourishing Industry

Additional industrial enterprises and communities emerged and flourished immediately north of Frankford along the Delaware River in the mid- to late nineteenth century, as some industrialists sought additional space to accommodate their expanding companies. Henry Disston (1819-1878), an English industrial entrepreneur, moved his burgeoning saw works enterprise from the congested confines of Northern Liberties to Tacony in 1872. Upon relocating his saw works, he gradually constructed a self-sufficient company town to house his workers. Disston’s company town attracted both existing and newly arrived ethnic, European immigrant communities, namely Irish, Italian, Polish, and Germans, and offered them generous benefits and homeownership opportunities, melding them into a productive and loyal working-class community.  

In the early twentieth century, Philadelphia’s elected officials embraced the City Beautiful Movement with the intention of improving the city’s infrastructure and attracting affluent suburbanites to downtown Philadelphia. One of these projects, the Northeast Boulevard, which was renamed the Roosevelt Boulevard in 1918, opened in 1914 to much fanfare, as builders and private developers soon capitalized on the city’s investment in the roadway to construct single- and twin-family dwellings along its expansive corridor, especially in the Northwood section of Frankford in the lower Northeast. As the Roaring Twenties progressed, commercial development also coincided with residential expansion in the lower Northeast. Local booster organizations, especially the establishment of the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and Sears-Roebuck’s new merchandising facility, which opened in 1919, symbolized the Northeast’s flourishing commercial identity. 

The Great Depression’s onset, however, soon dampened the homebuilding spirits of Northeast boosters and exacerbated economic tensions between middle-class WASPs, who inhabited bungalows and mansions along the Boulevard, and ethnic whites and working-class blacks, who remained consigned to industrial enclaves closer to the Delaware River. In the mid-1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which created detailed, color-coded residential security maps to demarcate desirable from dilapidated housing throughout the city of Philadelphia, documented and widened, through its discriminatory redlining policies, the emerging residential and class disparities in the lower Northeast.

The oldest, residential precincts, especially in Tacony and Wissinoming, primarily housed skilled workers laboring in the Disston Saw Works and other industrial facilities east of Torresdale Avenue. Meanwhile, Mayfair, Lawndale, and the Northwood section of Frankford, home to a mixture of white- and blue-collar workers, had experienced significant construction and residential upgrades immediately south of Cottman Avenue and along Roosevelt Boulevard during the 1920s and early 1930s. 

Public Housing Segregation

The growing demand for adequate housing during World War II, in fact, led to increased racial segregation in, and civic resistance to, public housing projects in Northeast Philadelphia. The 1941 Lanham Defense Housing Act established the funding provisions that facilitated the construction of Pennypack Woods and Oxford Village I in 1942, with both housing complexes only accepting applications from white war workers and their families. Speaking on the behalf of anxious, middle-class homeowners in the Northeast, the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce resented what it regarded as the federal government’s intrusive wartime housing schemes, openly assailing the government’s intention to provide affordable housing to war workers in the Northeast, albeit on racially segregated terms.  

Generous government benefits, namely the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (GI Bill) and FHA home lending policies, assisted returning veterans, the majority of whom were white, in their quest to move from Philadelphia’s densely packed industrial neighborhoods to the quasi-suburban atmosphere of Northeast Philadelphia following World War II. Prominent builders, most notably Hyman Korman (1891-1964) and A.P. Orleans (1888-1981), capitalized on these circumstances to expand home construction west of Roosevelt Boulevard in the Near Northeast, especially in Rhawnhurst, Lawndale, and Oxford Circle, in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Far Northeast, on the other hand, remained largely undeveloped until the late 1950s and 1960s, at which point large contingents of affluent, white households, many of whom were Jewish, were drawn to Cape Cod and ranch dwellings designed with a suburban feel nestled in Bustleton and Somerton. Residential development of a mixed, aesthetic character, containing both row house and single-family dwellings, also unfolded east of Roosevelt Boulevard in the Far Northeast, especially in Torresdale, Holme Circle, and Academy Gardens, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, where an assemblage of white, ethnic Catholics with strong community affiliations to nearby parishes bought homes.  

[caption id="attachment_10803" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white image of a Gimbels department store. A parking lot filled with vehicles and a road to enter the store's property is also depicted. Gimbels was the anchor of the Bustleton-Cottman shopping center, which opened in 1961 and competed for Northeast customers with Philadelphia’s central business district. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Commercial development, especially shopping centers, also molded the spatial alignment of Northeast Philadelphia’s neighborhoods in the postwar period. Just as mini-strip shopping centers began to dot the Northeast’s still developing landscape during the 1950s and early 1960s, some Northeast residents, apoplectic about commercial overexpansion in their neighborhoods, requested the construction of a major shopping facility to counteract the sometimes unwieldy dimensions of commercial growth in the Northeast. In 1961, for instance, civic boosters, city officials, and residents congregated at the Bustleton-Cottman shopping center—a newly erected major regional shopping facility that openly competed for Northeast customers with Philadelphia’s central business district—to mark its  opening, with Gimbels serving as its principal anchor department store.  

Amid the rising tide of middle-class prosperity coursing through Northeast Philadelphia in the postwar period, there also developed a residential backlash among white homeowners toward proposed zoning changes to accommodate public housing in residential neighborhoods and fair housing proposals offered by civil rights advocates. In July 1959, Harold Stassen (1907-2001), the Republican mayoral candidate, sought the support of Northeast voters by claiming that he would disassemble “City Hall’s bungling socialistic experiments” aimed at providing public housing for low-income families and racial minorities in Northeast neighborhoods. While popular defiance toward public housing in the Northeast persisted over the next two decades, Northeast Realtors and residents also resisted anti-discriminatory overtures in the private housing market, as calls for fair-housing legislation mounted among Philadelphia city officials and state legislators in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Although the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a fair-housing law in 1961 to end discriminatory practices in the private marketplace, Cecil B. Moore (1915-79), a prominent African American civil rights advocate who grew dissatisfied with the pace and trajectory of residential desegregation, still accused the Northeast of being a “lily-white island” within the city’s limits in 1964. 

Racial animosities between whites and blacks in Northeast Philadelphia intensified further around busing and school-desegregation proposals  during the late 1960s and 1970s. As president of the School Board of Philadelphia, Richardson Dilworth (1888-1974) faced staunch opposition from white residents in both the Near and Far Northeast after the school board, working in conjunction with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, released its 1968 desegregation plan for the city’s public schools. In their effort to achieve racial equilibrium and enhance educational standards across Philadelphia’s public school system, Dilworth and the school board encountered massive resistance to the busing of black students into the Northeast’s overwhelmingly white schools, and “reverse” busing, which entailed busing white children into predominantly black city schools.

Rizzo's Mandate

Repeated attempts to implement full-blown school desegregation waned during the mayoral tenure of Frank Rizzo, as he appeased many white residents’ anxieties, especially after receiving an electoral mandate from Northeast whites in 1971, by curtailing liberal demands for racial parity within Philadelphia’s public schools. Public support for mandatory school desegregation in the city’s public schools eventually faded in the mid-1970s, at which point city officials and residents agreed to institute a voluntary school-desegregation plan commencing in 1978, which experienced less popular resistance in the Northeast. 

As deindustrialization and white flight threatened Philadelphia’s already shaky fiscal foundations and deteriorating municipal services during the 1970s and early 1980s, some Northeast residents, including Republican State Senator Hank Salvatore (b. 1922), questioned the logic of remaining wedded to the “City of Brotherly Love.” After W. Wilson Goode (b. 1938), the first African American elected mayor of Philadelphia, made repeated calls in the 1983 mayoral election to erect a “mini-City Hall” in Northeast Philadelphia in order to offset Northeast residents’ fears about declining city services, Senator Salvatore, unmoved by Goode’s proposal, declared his intention to introduce legislation in the state legislature that would permit Northeast Philadelphia to secede from the city and become formally known as “Liberty County.” Goode, living up to his promise, opened the mini-City Hall in the Northeast Center Shopping Center along Roosevelt Boulevard in 1985, severely undercutting the legitimacy of Salvatore’s secession agenda, which lost its popular appeal by the late 1980s. 

Over the subsequent two decades, Northeast Philadelphia underwent significant demographic and racial changes to become an increasingly diverse, urban community. Starting in the 1990s, white families and individuals relocated, principally because of their economic mobility and aging households, to the surrounding suburban counties and outside the Philadelphia metropolitan region in increasing numbers. In 2011, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a citywide population study that documented the dramatic racial and ethnic transformations that had occurred throughout Philadelphia during the previous twenty years. It found that Northeast Philadelphia’s white population had fallen precipitously, from 92 percent in 1990 to 58.3 percent in 2010. As middle-class whites migrated outside the city’s limits, racial minorities began the process of inhabiting the once predominantly white corridors of Northeast Philadelphia and relied on affordable mass transportation links, such as the Frankford El, for their daily work commutes into the city. Indian families and ethnic Russians moved into the Far Northeast neighborhoods of Bustleton and Somerton, respectively, while African Americans, various Asian groups, and Hispanics relocated from North Philadelphia into the lower Northeast neighborhoods of Mayfair, Frankford, and Oxford Circle. Once a bastion of racial defiance and material affluence, Northeast Philadelphia evolved into a dynamic, cosmopolitan atmosphere in the early twenty-first century to embrace economic, cultural and racial diversity in its private and public spaces. 


Matthew Smalarz, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Rochester who teaches at Manor College.  His dissertation examines middle-class whiteness in the making of private and public space in Northeast Philadelphia following World War II.

Shopping Centers

Shopping centers, which bound retailers together into one physically convenient and accessible commercial venue for suburban consumers, profoundly altered Greater Philadelphia, redefining the region’s socioeconomic dimensions and destabilizing the city’s old, commercial core, the Central Business District.  Commercial retailing also underwent significant changes, as the location, planning, and physical proportions of shopping facilities dramatically transformed the identity of the modern metropolis. 

[caption id="attachment_6291" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Strawbridge and Clothier in Ardmore The Strawbridge and Clothier in Ardmore opened to the public in 1930 and was one of the first department stores to open a branch in the suburbs of Philadelphia. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

 In the decade immediately following World War I, commercial real estate developers and department store owners devised new strategies to make retail shopping accessible to the area’s growing suburban communities.  Some developers, along with Sears Roebuck, a national retail chain, designed nascent strip malls in lower Northeast Philadelphia, Camden, and Upper Darby’s 69th Street shopping district, directly appealing to working-class consumers in these urban communities.  Other developers targeted affluent streetcar suburbs, especially along the Main Line.  The Suburban Company, which designed Suburban Square, constructed an automobile-friendly shopping district that appealed to area shoppers’ commercial tastes and interests. 

Fearing escalating prices for downtown real estate and competition from suburban commercial centers, Philadelphia’s department stores gradually embraced the decentralized retailing formula unfolding around the metropolitan area in the 1920s. In 1929, Strawbridge and Clothier focused its retail strategy on established and emerging upscale suburban communities, building two branch stores in planned suburban shopping facilities, with one opening on the Main Line in 1930 and the other in Jenkintown in 1931.  It thus became the first of the “Big Five” Philadelphia department stores to join the planned shopping center endeavor. 

Although the Great Depression presented investment and financial hurdles to further suburban retail expansion, both Philadelphia department store owners and suburban developers laid plans for expansion outward during the downturn. Real estate developer John McClatchy, for instance, approached Lits’ executives to open a branch store at Sixty-Ninth Street in the late 1930s, but delayed the project until 1947 because of lingering financial fears stemming from the Depression.  As the war drew to its conclusion, other “Big Six” stores, namely Gimbels and Wanamaker’s, entertained the possibility of building branch stores in anticipation of further shopping center development in the suburbs.

Auto-Friendly Marketplaces

Accelerated residential decentralization after World War II hastened the central business district’s decline and inspired Philadelphia area retailers and developers to expand their commercial footprint outside the city’s borders. Together retailers and developers collaborated to carve out auto-friendly commercial marketplaces, with department stores functioning as anchor facilities. To attract middle class consumers, they constructed outdoor pedestrian and strip malls, which often included ample parking, various specialty stores aimed especially at women, supermarkets, banks, and restaurants, creating sumptuous commercial conditions to meet emerging consumer demand. 

Philadelphia’s major department chains and shopping center developers built or planned for fourteen branch stores between 1947 and 1955 in what they deemed competitive retail locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. In 1953, for instance, real estate developers planned to build a $15 million shopping center in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, reaching agreement with Gimbels to construct a 250,000 square foot facility to anchor the site. Gimbels constructed two additional branch facilities, in the Sixty-Ninth Street Upper Darby commercial district and Northeast Philadelphia’s Bustleton-Cottman shopping center.

Wanamaker’s, on the other hand, targeted more affluent suburban communities with its branch initiative, building stores in the Wynnewood shopping center in 1954 and the Jenkintown shopping center in 1958.  Lit Brothers, meanwhile, principally focused on Northeast Philadelphia and Lower Bucks County, opening branch stores in the Castor-Cottman shopping complex in 1954, and the Morrisville shopping center in 1957. In Philadelphia’s western suburbs, the Kravitz Company undertook a $20 million open-air shopping center project in King of Prussia, which partnered with national retail chains (J. C. Penney and F. W. Woolworth) and local department stores (John Wanamaker and Gimels). 

Aside from strip mall development, prominent commercial developers designed and erected enclosed shopping malls, which served as regional commercial hubs.  In the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s, the aesthetic of shopping centers underwent a dramatic change, as mall architects and developers envisioned consumption spaces intended to mitigate the negative implications associated with suburban sprawl. They constructed enclosed malls, which incorporated garden courts, fountains, and air-conditioning to enhance the social and aesthetic features of mass consumption.  Opened in 1956, Southdale Center, located in Edina, Minnesota, served as the archetype for enclosed malls around the nation, especially the Cherry Hill Mall.

Cherry Hill Mall

Victor Gruen, the esteemed shopping center architect who conceived Southdale, was hired to plan what would become the Cherry Hill Mall, which opened in 1961, in Delaware Township, New Jersey.  He sought to recreate a town square atmosphere, which would promote social order in an age of sprawling suburban development. Embracing Gruen’s design, the mall’s developer, James Rouse, collaborated with Strawbridge and Clothier president G. Stockton Strawbridge to forge an idyllic shopping complex for middle-class consumers.  

Civic-oriented events also legitimized the communal stature of newly erected shopping complexes, as they employed marketing tactics, constructed large parking lots, and excluded “unsavory” social constituencies – namely racial minorities, vagrants, and the impoverished – to entice potential shoppers. In 1955 Gimbels executives, for instance, celebrated the opening of their branch store in the Cheltenham Square Mall by calling upon Montgomery County civic and business leaders to attend their facility’s opening ceremonies in an effort to equate civic participation with commercial progress.

Shopping centers made special efforts to appeal to female shoppers, who became the primary target audience of suburban mass consumption.  To enhance their shopping experiences, local developers built spacious, well-lighted parking lots and established carefully monitored “public” spaces and activities, such as baby-sitting services and fashion shows, to attract female shoppers and their children. Consumer questionnaires, often sent to suburban households in the 1950s to gauge shopping sentiments and preferences, also found that white, middle-class women preferred to shop in suburban malls and department stores, especially Strawbridge and Clothier’s in Jenkintown, Lits Northeast, and Snellenburgs in Willow Grove, instead of venturing downtown to Philadelphia’s central business district.  

By the 1970s and 1980s, the commercial landscape of metropolitan Philadelphia had undergone a radical transformation.  The development of major regional shopping centers, such as Cherry Hill and King of Prussia – which would become an enclosed shopping facility over multiple development phases during the 1970s and early 1980s – in the 1960s, spurred further commercial real estate expansion in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, and Deptford and Moorestown, New Jersey, during the 1970s.

[caption id="attachment_6292" align="alignright" width="268"]photograph of the Gallery at Market East under construction The Gallery at Market East under construction in early 1977. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]


James Rouse: Gallery at Market East

Although suburban shopping centers continued to flourish, James Rouse, the well-regarded shopping center developer, collaborated with Philadelphia’s Urban Redevelopment Authority to resuscitate Market Street’s long-suffering central business district during the 1970s. Under his direction, he designed the Gallery at Market East, which marked a critical turning point in downtown Philadelphia’s commercial fortunes. Upon its opening in 1977, it became the first regional shopping facility constructed in a major American downtown after World War II, reviving the city’s commercial stature and serving as a major regional shopping destination. 

In the 1990s, however, shopping centers in the Philadelphia region and around the nation confronted new commercial rivals, making economic and spatial modifications to remain competitive. As discount retail chains, specialty shops, and “Big Box” stores appeared in near proximity to traditional shopping centers, established shopping centers responded by undergoing structural upgrades.  Cherry Hill Mall officials, for instance, installed “retail neighborhoods,” which catered to specific social lifestyles and economic niches, and a social services’ station, which addressed family-related concerns and medical emergencies. The Willingboro Plaza in New Jersey, which had been mired in perpetual economic decline since the 1970s, also became a target for redevelopment in the late 1980s. Developers reconfigured the Plaza’s physical dimensions to create a refurbished “town center,” which included a public library, townhouses, and community college classrooms. In making such adjustments, Philadelphia’s shopping centers adapted to the evolving commercial model unfolding around them, redefining their commercial spaces to ensure continued social and economic relevance in the twenty-first century.

Matthew Smalarz is a  Ph.D candidate at the University of Rochester who teaches history at Manor College.  His dissertation examines middle-class whiteness and public space in Northeast Philadelphia following World War II.

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