Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Stephen Nepa

Wilmington, Delaware

Located thirty miles southwest of Philadelphia, Wilmington is Delaware’s largest city and the New Castle County seat. It originated as a colonial trading area and ferry crossing and later became one of the country’s most vital industrial and chemical-producing centers. With the decline of manufacturing near the close of the twentieth century, the city emerged as America’s “corporate capital.” Despite the city’s industrial might and corporate wealth, its history also reflected the spatial, economic, and racial disparities seen in cities across Greater Philadelphia and the nation. Often overshadowed by the region’s larger cities, Wilmington remained modest in size yet ambitious in scope.

Prior to Swedish and Dutch colonization in the early 1600s, the area that became Wilmington contained a vast population of Lenni Lenape Indians scattered in villages along the Delaware River. Over time, the Indians and settlers engaged in trade, exchanging furs for European-made goods. New Castle, six miles to the south, initially served as the area’s primary trading center. But in 1638, Swedish colonists erected Fort Christina on a narrow stretch of land between the Brandywine and Christina Rivers, the latter of which fed into the larger Delaware. In 1669, Governor Francis Lovelace (1621-75) chartered the Christina’s first ferry service north of present-day Newport. Twenty years later, an additional crossing opened over the Brandywine, generating commerce on the peninsula between the rivers. In 1731, with the colony then under English rule, the humble settlement gained incorporation.

[caption id="attachment_34035" align="alignright" width="220"] Thomas Penn, shown here in a 1751 portrait, became the first proprietor of Wilmington in 1731. Penn, son of Pennsylvania founder William, named the borough in honor of Spencer Compton, the First Earl of Wilmington. (Digital Collections, New York Public Library)[/caption]

Thomas Penn (1702-75), son of Pennsylvania founder William Penn (1644-1718), served as the first proprietor of the Borough of Wilmington, which he named for Spencer Compton (1673-1743), the First Earl of Wilmington and close associate of King George II (1683-1760). With easy river access to the interior and the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington attracted craftsmen, merchants, millers, and artisans, who transformed the fledgling borough into a key producer of flour and grain; the city’s so-called “Brandywine Superfine” flour reached markets throughout the colonies and ports as far away as Europe and the West Indies. In 1771, after concluding a carpentry apprenticeship, Samuel Canby (1751-1832) established the borough’s first textile mill along the Brandywine near Orange Street. Later, his son James Canby (1781-1858) assumed control of the mills and eventually helped found the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, serving as its first chief executive. Although Wilmington witnessed no significant combat during the American Revolution, the borough provided shelter for American troops during the 1777-78 British occupation of nearby Philadelphia. Regiments from Maryland and Delaware remained in Wilmington to protect patriot supply lines along the Elk and Delaware Rivers.

Brandywine Village

Industrialization expanded in the Wilmington area during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Brandywine Village, a flour milling center, opened in 1753. Founded by prominent Quakers William Shipley (1693-1768), his wife Elizabeth Levis-Shipley (1690-1777), and their partner Thomas Canby Jr. (1702-1764), the complex contained twelve mills and more than sixty homes. In 1783, engineer Oliver Evans (1755-1819) introduced his automatic flour mill to the complex, a system that later revolutionized the industry. Working from his Newport, Delaware, and Philadelphia shops, Evans also experimented with steam and refrigeration technologies. With industry came growth; by the early 1800s, Wilmington’s population reached five thousand residents and its papermaking, grain, and flour processing operations were complemented by new technologies and industries. In 1802, French chemist E.I. du Pont (1771-1834) established a gunpowder mill along the Brandywine upstream from the city. Over the next century, his namesake company remained headquartered in Wilmington and grew into the world’s largest explosives manufacturer. Other prominent local families during the period included the Talleys, active in the timber business; the Bringhursts, who prospered in shipping and banking; and the Bancrofts, whose patriarch Joseph Bancroft (1803-1874) opened a textile mill along the Brandywine in 1831.

[caption id="attachment_34034" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white illustration of the Lobdell Car Wheel Company's facories as they appeared in the late nineteenth century. The factories has numerous smoke stacks with billowing smoke arising from several connected buildings. Railway cars travel through covered sheds in the foreground. Vignettes above show earlier factories owned by the company. Wilmington’s Lobdell Car Wheel Company led the nation in train wheel production by the mid-nineteenth century. Established in 1830 as a general foundry, the factory on the Christina River, seen in this illustration, grew to employ thousands and boasted the capacity to cast hundreds of train wheels per day. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Delaware legislature rechartered the borough as the city of Wilmington in 1832, and with the completion of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad five years later, the city’s riverfront advantages merged with the Northeast’s burgeoning rail network. Shipbuilding, carriage making, and iron founding flourished during the 1840s, generating demand for raw materials and skilled workers. Yet railroad cars and their related components generated much of the city’s nineteenth-century economic activity. Prior to the Civil War, companies including Harlan and Hollingsworth, Pusey and Jones, and Jackson and Sharp opened factories along the Christina, placing Wilmington at the forefront of U.S railcar production. The Lobdell Car Wheel Company led the nation in train wheel production while Jackson and Sharp exported cars and later electric trolleys to Europe, Latin America, and Asia. As Wilmington’s industrial base increased, so too did its population of foreign workers, many of whom arrived from Ireland and Germany during the 1840s and 1850s.

The population of New Castle County had included numerous enslaved Africans, primarily in its rural southern areas, since the 1700s, but by the early 1800s members of Wilmington’s free black community achieved considerable home and property ownership and established a number of schools and churches. In 1827, the Wilmington Union Colonization Society petitioned the state assembly for a resolution to manumit slaves, provided they return to Africa, a measure deeply at odds with the city’s free blacks, who argued colonization ran counter to the nation’s founding principles. Wilmington also harbored considerable abolitionist sentiment and with its location less than ten miles from the Pennsylvania border served as the northeastern terminus for the Underground Railroad. Hardware purveyor Thomas Garrett (1789-1871) assisted Harriet Tubman (?-1913) on eight of her missions. Garrett’s covert activities eventually landed him in federal court, where in 1848, he was fined $5,400 for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. Other notable Wilmington abolitionists included shoemaker Abraham Doras Shadd (1801-82) and his daughter Mary Ann Shadd (1823-93), who used their homes to aid escaped slaves, as well as Samuel Burris (1808-68), who coordinated escape routes north into Philadelphia and out of Kent and Sussex Counties to the south. Although a slave state in 1860, with its citizens polarized by Northern and Southern sympathies, Delaware remained in the Union following the outbreak of the Civil War. During the conflict, Wilmington’s industries provided the Union Army with much-needed clothing, blankets, riverboats, rail cars, and artillery.

A Key Industrial Contributor

[caption id="attachment_34036" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the wilmington train station showing a three story clock tower, covered railway on the second story, and entrances on the ground floor. The Pennsylvania Railroad selected Wilmington as the site of a regional headquarters due to its location between Philadelphia and Washington, DC. In 1908, the company commissioned architect Frank Furness to design a new station on French Street, shown in this photograph from the 1970s. It still served as the city’s commuter rail station in 2019. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Despite competition from larger cities in the Northeast and Midwest, Wilmington’s productive capacity and population rose after 1865, making the city a key element in greater Philadelphia’s industrial network. Its yards and factories churned out carriages and rail cars, and by 1870, produced more iron ships than the rest of the nation’s facilities combined, earning the city the nickname “the American Clyde.” With such activity, the city’s population, which stood at 21,258 people at the onset of the Civil War, grew steadily, reaching nearly 77,000 by 1900. Newly arrived immigrants from Italy, Hungary, and Poland settled in neighborhoods on the edges of downtown or in low-lying, flood-prone areas along the Christina. Most lived in two- or three-story brick row houses, similar to those in Philadelphia and Camden, and found work in textiles or constructing the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad. However, fierce competition for jobs prompted the Wilmington City Council in the 1880s to temporarily prohibit Italian or Hungarian immigrants from employment on public works projects.

In the late nineteenth century, Wilmington confronted side effects from decades of industrial activity. The Brandywine River, the city’s main source of municipal water, became heavily polluted. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever occurred regularly in the 1870s and 1880s, prompting city officials to build reservoirs, a modern sewer system in 1890, and in 1909, Wilmington’s first water purification plant. In recognizing the ills of the industrial city, Wilmington’s elite removed to the suburbs, constructing mansions in areas such as Kentmere, Westover Hills, and Montchanin. Yet many prominent citizens such as U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Bayard (1828-98), William Poole Bancroft (1835-1928), Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), businessman John Jacob Raskob (1879-1950), and U.S. Sen. T. Coleman du Pont (1863-1930) donated influence, land, funding, or ingenuity to beautify Wilmington’s public spaces and improve its infrastructure. Bancroft, known as the godfather of Wilmington’s park system, at Bayard’s urging in 1889 bequeathed to the city acreage for both Rockford Park and Brandywine River Park; the former’s observation tower, built in 1901, became one of Wilmington’s most beloved landmarks. Pierre S. du Pont personally financed road improvements of Kennett Pike (State Route 52), and enlisted Raskob to redesign Rodney Square, the city’s main public square. In 1905, the Pennsylvania Railroad elevated its street-level tracks through Wilmington and retained architect Frank Furness (1839-1912) to design a new station.

[caption id="attachment_34027" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of the dupont building in Wilmington with a crowd of people standing in front. A banner in the foreground reads "St. Patricks Day" The Dupont Building, completed in 1923, occupies an entire block of downtown Wilmington. The multi-use tower houses the offices of Chemours Company—a DuPont derivative company— as well as the Hotel DuPont and the Playhouse on Rodney Square. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The Du Pont family also left an indelible architectural legacy in the city, opening the twelve-story Du Pont Building on Rodney Square in 1906 and the luxurious Hotel Du Pont in 1913. The hotel and its restaurant, the Green Room, remain two of Wilmington’s finest establishments. In 1924 the Du Pont Highway (US 13), personally financed by Pierre Du Pont, opened to vehicular traffic, allowing easier travel between the city and Delaware’s southern counties. Following the death of Wilmington-based artist Howard Pyle (1853-1911), friends, patrons, and former students honored his legacy by establishing the Wilmington Society for Fine Arts. The society later received the art collection of William’s brother Samuel Bancroft Jr. (1840-1915), who also donated eleven acres in Kentmere for the site of the Delaware Art Museum, which opened to the public in 1938. Decades later, artist Helen Farr Sloan (1911-2005) donated to the museum hundreds of paintings and prints executed by her husband John French Sloan (1871-1951), a member of the Philadelphia-founded Ashcan School; over time, her contributions amounted to the largest collection of his works held by a museum.

A Boost From World War I

In the 1910s, Pierre S. du Pont foresaw conflict in Europe, and in 1915 his company began supplying the Allies with armaments. By World War I’s conclusion, Du Pont had provided 40 percent of Allied explosives and seen its labor force increase dramatically, from 5,300 in 1914 to 48,000 four years later. The company’s regional footprint grew as well, as its facility in Carney’s Point, New Jersey, expanded and handled the bulk of wartime production. Hundreds of soldiers from Wilmington fought in the Battle of Argonne while thousands more at home participated in roadbuilding and maintenance work. The city’s shipyards supplied hundreds of submarine-chaser yachts and patrol craft. After the war, Du Pont reduced its munitions production and, aided by confiscated German research and patents, greatly expanded its production of chemicals, dyes, and cinematic film. Over time, this growth led Wilmingtonians to call Du Pont simply “the company.” Aiding the city’s postwar boom, in 1920 the Lobdell Car Wheel Company sold 101 acres of land to the city for the construction of modern port facilities. Two years later, the Port of Wilmington opened for commerce, exporting lumber, cork, burlap, lead, iron ore, fertilizer, and petroleum. As the 1920s drew to a close, Wilmington’s 110,000 residents enjoyed the prosperity seen elsewhere around the country, evident in its movie theaters, clothing stores, hotels and restaurants, sporting venues, and growing use of automobiles.

[caption id="attachment_34033" align="alignright" width="246"]A black and white photograph of Rockford tower, a tall cylindrical stone tower with a pyramidal roof. The upper floors are lined with arched windows. There is a sundial embedded in the stone below the windows. The tower stands in a park surrounded on two sides by trees, with a walking path leading towards it. Quaker industrialist William Bancroft, concerned with the disappearing green space in the city, bequeathed a large plot of land to the city which became Rockford Park. The park’s stone tower, shown in this photograph, became one of the city’s most beloved landmarks after its completion in 1901. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

During the Great Depression, Wilmington benefited from several New Deal projects overseen by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA). These included new public schools; road, sidewalk, and bridge improvements; upgraded dikes along the Christina River; and new buildings for the Wilmington Waterworks and the United States Postal Service. Located on Rodney Square, the Classical Revival-style post office opened in 1937 and contained murals designed by Albert Pels (1910-98) and Herman Zimmerman. As the nation plunged into World War II, Wilmington’s citizens and industries rushed to meet Allied demands. Thousands enlisted for military service. The New Castle County Airport shifted solely to military use. Iron founding, textile, and shipbuilding activity all increased dramatically as did the chemical and munitions output of the Du Pont, Hercules, and Atlas companies. Additionally, Du Pont engineers, working in Wilmington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington, played key roles in the Manhattan Project, the secret program to develop the atomic bomb.

Wilmington prospered after World War II. Du Pont increased its workforce by ten thousand in the early 1950s and over the next three decades pioneered advances in plastics, nylon, rayon, Kevlar, Tyvek, and several other chemicals and products that helped fuel the nation’s postwar consumption; the company even advertised its famous “nylon suites” at the Hotel du Pont. With thousands of new jobs in the area, housing developments appeared in suburbs such as Sherwood Park, Pike Creek, Duncan Woods, Talleyville, and Forest Hills Park. While railcar production declined sharply, automobile production emerged as the state’s largest industry, second only to Du Pont. Shifting to peacetime operations, General Motors opened its Wilmington plant in 1947 on Boxwood Road while Chrysler opened a plant in Newark in 1952. In 1957, construction commenced on Interstate 95, which passed directly through downtown Wilmington between Jackson and Adams Streets. The highway, which many neighborhood residents opposed, was completed in 1968 and over time, ferried commuters away from downtown businesses. To relieve traffic congestion, the Interstate 495 bypass, along the city’s eastern edge, opened in 1977. With suburbanization came new recreational opportunities such as the Concord Mall (1965), the Delcastle Sports Complex (1970), and the Christiana Mall (1978).

Rioting of 1968

Despite Wilmington’s prosperity, race relations remained fraught in the postwar decades. While local institutions such as Salesianum High School, the YMCA, and the Hotel Du Pont began integrating in the early 1950s, the fight to desegregate the city’s public schools did not end until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Wilmington’s schools complied with the decision later that year. In July 1967, civil disturbances in the city’s black neighborhoods prompted Mayor John E. Babiarz (1915-2004) to establish an evening curfew and temporary bans on liquor sales. Following the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68), three thousand National Guard troops arrived to quell ten days of widespread rioting and looting of downtown stores. Though Babiarz requested the troops be withdrawn after twenty-four days, Governor Charles L. Terry, Jr. (1900-70), a southern-style Democrat who won office on a platform of law and order, refused on the grounds of maintaining security and protecting property. The troops remained for nine months, leading to Terry’s reelection loss in November and marking the longest military occupation of an American city since the Civil War.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of Wilmington’s industrial interests contracted or relocated out of state. Its population dwindled. But the city entered a new phase. Du Pont, Hercules, and BASF continued to grow. Hercules, which spun off from Du Pont decades earlier, completed a 680,000-square-foot headquarters at the edge of the Midtown-Brandywine neighborhood—the state’s largest office building erected during the 1980s. Although Du Pont continued as the city’s largest employer, in September 2017 the storied company completed a $130 billion merger with Dow Chemical; by mid-2019, the newly formed conglomerate planned to break into three independent, publicly traded units. Beyond chemicals, Wilmington continued to diversify. In 1981, with the passage of the Financial Center Development Act, the state’s banking and tax laws were liberalized to attract outside investment. Banking giants such as Chase Manhattan, Bank of America, ING, MBNA, and Barclays opened offices as did pharmaceutical and telecommunications companies. By the 1990s, the city gained a somewhat dubious reputation as a base for “shell companies” suspected of avoiding government regulations and laundering foreign sources of income. These developments earned Wilmington yet another nickname, “corporate capital.”

Even with the influx of corporate investment, Wilmington faced other challenges in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the environmental cleanup of dozens of industrial sites, the disappearance of automobile manufacturing, and persistent inequality between the city and its suburbs. Decades of manufacturing led to a high concentration of Superfund and brownfield locations, with New Castle County alone containing more than several U.S. states. Many of the most contaminated, such as the Tybout’s Corner landfill, saw remediation completed by the early 2000s. One of the most successful brownfield projects, Justison Landing, was completed in 2005; once home to tanneries and shipyards, the thirty-three-acre site transformed into apartments, offices, restaurants, and a stadium for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a minor league baseball affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. In 2009, the last active car factory in the eastern U.S, Wilmington’s Boxwood Road GM plant, closed. As of 2019, with the plant demolished, plans included a new e-commerce facility on the site.

Demographic Shifts

Demographics in Wilmington shifted after 1990. The proportion of white residents fell from 40 to 28 percent by 2010, a period of steady gains in the African American population (which reached 58 percent) and Latino residents (12 percent). After the 2010 census, projections estimated Wilmington’s population growing by 0.4 per cent, far below the gains of Philadelphia. Although surrounded by affluent areas on its northern and western edges, in 2018 Wilmington had one of the nation’s highest murder rates and nearly half of its residents under age eighteen lived below the federal poverty line.

Throughout its nearly 350-year existence, Wilmington has mirrored the aspirations, tensions, and historical changes of the United States as a whole. Although never achieving the prominence of nearby Philadelphia or Baltimore to its south, the city at times exerted enormous influence for one of its comparatively smaller size. And despite the many challenges that Wilmington faced in the early twenty-first century, it still strived to be, as welcome signs at the city limits proclaimed, “a place to be somebody.”

Stephen Nepa teaches history at Temple University, Pennsylvania State University-Abington, Rowan University, and Moore College of Art and Design. He is a contributing author to numerous books and journals, and regularly appears in the Emmy Award-winning documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. He received his B.A and M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple. A native of Wilmington, he lives in Philadelphia.

Market Street

Market Street, one of Philadelphia’s primary east-west thoroughfares, originated in the 1682 city plan devised by William Penn (1644-1718) and Thomas Holme (1624-95) as High Street, one hundred feet wide and located at the longitudinal center of the city. Penn’s knowledge of plague and a devastating conflagration in 1660s London prompted the width of the street, which was intended to minimize the spread of disease and fire but also predetermined its central roles in Philadelphia’s geography, economy, and social fabric. Once called “America’s most historic highway,” over time Market Street extended nearly seven miles from Front Street to the city’s western boundary at Cobbs Creek. From there, it continued westward as Route 3 into Delaware and Chester Counties.

[caption id="attachment_29698" align="alignright" width="300"]A color illustration of market street as it appeared in the late eighteenth century. The old Court House and Christ Church are seen on the left. Market Street was the site of some of the city's earliest civic institutions. This illustration by William Birch shows the first city court house and, to the north on Second Street, Christ Church. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In eighteenth-century Philadelphia, the blocks of High Street closest to the busy Delaware River waterfront developed into the city’s business and civic center. Early institutions such as the Town Hall and Courthouse (built 1707), Christ Church (1744), London Coffeehouse (1754), and the Quakers’ Great Meetinghouse (1755), were built on or near High Street between Front and Second. By 1722, the city added a jail consisting of two stone buildings at Third and High Street, replacing the city’s original log-house jail on Second north of High. At a time of growing calls for law and order, as Philadelphia attracted people from around the world, the new buildings housed criminals and debtors separately and remained the city’s jail until the late 1770s.

Notable Philadelphians resided on High Street, including Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) between Third and Fourth Streets; financier Robert Morris (1734-1806) between Fifth and Sixth, and builder Jacob Graff (1727-80) at Seventh Street. Newspapers, such as the Pennsylvania Herald and Pennsylvania Gazette, operated west of Third Street. Publishers and engravers, such as William Bradford (1719-91), John Dunlap (1747-1812), and Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816), who first published the Declaration of Independence with all signatories’ names, also opened businesses on High Street. Taverns complimented this burgeoning business district; the Indian King attracted Franklin’s “Junto,” a group of intellectuals dedicated to improving Philadelphia’s civic life. In 1729, Franklin’s close friend and Junto member Joseph Breintnall (?-1746) celebrated Market Street’s bustle in his poem “A plain description of one single street in this city.”

[caption id="attachment_29691" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of sheds running down the median in Market Street. Streetcar tracks are visible on either side. The market sheds that gave Market Street its name are visible in this photograph taken in the 1850s. The street was initially called High Street, but it became known colloquially as Market Street after the High Street Market, opened in 1745. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

In 1745, construction began on the feature that gave the street a new name, first informally and then officially after 1854. The High Street Market, a headhouse with vendors’ stalls, initially stretched from Front to Second Streets, expanding to Third Street in 1759. Selling a variety of goods, the market, located in the street’s center, became the largest in the American colonies.

Revolutionary Hub

As tensions with the British monarchy and Parliament grew in the late eighteenth century, Market Street became a hub of revolutionary activity. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) rented the top two floors of Jacob Graff’s house at Seventh Street, where in June 1776 he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Once hostilities erupted, the former prison at Third Street served as a military headquarters for the Continental Army and jail for British sympathizers. During the British occupation of the city during the winter of 1777-78, General William Howe (1729-1814), along with his mistress Elizabeth Loring (1752-1831), established quarters in the Governor’s Mansion (the Masters-Penn House, built in 1767) at Sixth Street. Following the British withdrawal in 1778, General Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), while living in the house, began plotting his notorious defection to the British Army. After the war, Robert Morris purchased and enlarged the property. In December 1783, George Washington (1732-99), en route from New York to Annapolis to resign his generalship, passed through Philadelphia to the sounds of church bells, cannon fire, and cheering crowds as his procession headed east along Market.

Market Street’s residential and commercial importance increased with Philadelphia’s designation as the nation’s capital. In 1790, Morris offered the use of his home to the new government’s executive branch, with President Washington residing there until 1797. John Adams (1735-1826) succeeded him, living in the house until the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800. Following Adams’ departure, the home was acquired and converted into the Union Hotel by John Francis, who also owned the Indian Queen Hotel at Fourth and Market. A newer president’s mansion, built in 1792 at Ninth and Market’s southwest corner, never housed a sitting chief executive. Instead, the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) occupied the building until 1829.

To entertain Philadelphians, in April 1793 John Bill Ricketts (1769-99) opened the country’s first circus on the city’s western edge of development, at Twelfth Street. With equestrian performances and acrobats, its amphitheater also served as a quarantine facility during that summer’s yellow fever epidemic.

[caption id="attachment_29687" align="alignright" width="300"]a color illustration of the Centre Square water works. The building is modeled after a Greek temple and surrounded on either side by a row of trees. A large fountain in front of the building gives off jets of water. In the foreground, a horse carriage and a dog traverse a road. At the intersection of Market Street with Broad Street, Philadelphia’s first water works were built on Center Square, later the site of City Hall, in 1801. The Centre Square Pump House provided city residents with access to clean water. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Commercial activities along Market Street diversified after 1800. These included apothecaries, shipping firms, new hotels, booksellers, silk purveyors, jewelers, and umbrella manufacturers. Noted chef M. Latouche operated a restaurant and oyster cellar at Fifth Street in the 1810s and appealed to the refined palettes of the city. Despite Penn’s hopes for Philadelphia’s westward expansion based on his city plan, little meaningful development occurred west of Twelfth Street as Philadelphians carved alleys into the streets nearest to the Delaware River. An exception occurred beginning in 1801, when architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) oversaw construction of a Greek Revival-style pump house for the Philadelphia Waterworks in Centre Square, the ten-acre space originally conceived by Penn and Holme as the city’s administrative center. The Columbian Garden, a “pleasure garden” offering food and stage performances, opened in 1813 east of the pump house further making the square a popular gathering site and presaging its future as Philadelphia’s civic core.

Bridges Spur Development

With Philadelphia growing westward in the early nineteenth century, bridges replaced ferry crossings. Lobbying by Mantua resident Judge Richard Peters (1744-1828) led to Market Street’s first permanent bridge over the Schuylkill River, which opened in 1805. Designed by Timothy Palmer (1751-1821), the new connection—then the world’s largest covered bridge—spurred development in the rural areas west of the Schuylkill, previously the site of farms and potter’s fields. A number of lodging facilities, such as the Golden Fish and the William Penn Inn, opened along Market near the bridge, eager to capitalize on the increased traffic between the city and its western hinterlands. By the 1840s, this area of Market Street also contained numerous engineering and manufacturing concerns.

[caption id="attachment_29689" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Broad Street Station, a gothic revival building with a church-like steeple. Attached to the rear is a large train shed and a viaduct that stretches into the distance. Residential and commercial development runs along either side of the viaduct. Market Street’s role as a transportation artery was cemented by the construction of the massive Gothic Revival Broad Street Station in 1881. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Philadelphia County’s twenty-nine townships consolidated in 1854, making the city by territory the fourth-largest in the western world. In 1858, an act of City Council officially changed the name of High Street to Market Street, which extended to the western boundary of the newly expanded city. As industry and population grew, so too did Market Street’s role as a transportation artery. Between 1859 and 1860, the High Street Market, which had expanded to Eighth Street and included additional sheds between Fifteenth and Seventeenth Streets, was demolished to make way for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s (PRR) trolley lines. The growing company, the largest transporter of Union supplies during the Civil War, opened Market Street streetcar terminals at Eighth and Eleventh Streets. In 1864, the PRR opened a terminal at Thirty-First and Market for its locomotives, which were banned from the city center. After the war, the PRR constructed its main Broad Street Station at Fifteenth and Market. Designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness (1839-1912), the Gothic-style station with its elaborate train shed (the world’s largest) opened in December 1881. To facilitate rail traffic and address capacity issues, a massive viaduct, later called the “Chinese Wall,” extended along Market from Broad Street Station west to the Schuylkill River.

Along with its increasing role in transportation, Market Street continued to mature as Philadelphia’s governmental and commercial hub. Following a voter referendum, work began in 1871 on a new city hall at Centre Square. Designed by John McArthur Jr. (1823-1890), the French Second Empire structure opened in 1901, standing as the world’s largest municipal building. Occupying the entirety of Centre Square, City Hall necessitated rerouting traffic around Market Street. Market Street was also emerging as the city’s primary retail corridor. In the same year as the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, clothier John Wanamaker (1838-1922) opened his first department store at Thirteenth Street. Catering to an upscale clientele and hosting seventy thousand customers its first day, Wanamaker’s Grand Depot also contained a restaurant, electric lighting, and elevators. Philadelphia’s “merchant prince” opened a larger, twelve-story store on the site in 1910, best known for its giant organ and bronze eagle statue. In 1893, Lit Brothers’ department store debuted at Eighth and Market and the following year, Indiana-based Gimbel’s arrived at Ninth and Market. In 1920, Gimbel’s sponsored the city’s first Thanksgiving Day parade, running from City Hall east to Ninth and Market. Strawbridge and Clothier, which started as a dry goods business at Eighth and Market in 1861, moved into its flagship building on the site in 1932. These stores, along with Snellenburg’s and Frank and Seder (both located on Market at Eleventh Street) offered the residents of greater Philadelphia exceptional shopping variety.

[caption id="attachment_29690" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a group of people waiting to board a street car. The street car is stopped under the elevated tracks of the Market Frankford Line In 1907, increased demand for access to new “streetcar suburbs” in West Philadelphia led to the expansion of the Market Street Elevated (“El”) from the Schuylkill River to Sixty-Ninth Street in Upper Darby. Stations became transit hubs and linked the El to suburban, north- and south-running streetcar lines. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

At the turn of the twentieth century, Market Street’s prosperity created congestion as pedestrians, bicyclists, horse-drawn vehicles, and electrified trolleys vied for passage. In 1905, service commenced on the Market Street Elevated (“El”) between Fifteenth Street and the Schuylkill River. The line was extended west to Sixty-Ninth Street in 1907 and east to Second Street in 1908 to complement the PRR’s Delaware River ferry terminal. These transit options both above and below ground reduced congestion on Market Street while allowing suburban residents speedier access to its theaters, stores, and offices. With connections to the north- and south-running trolley lines in West Philadelphia, the opening of the Market Street lines encouraged further residential growth between the Schuylkill River and Cobbs Creek. As the Great Migration commenced during World War I, the African American population of West Philadelphia grew considerably. By 1920, the population of West Philadelphia more than doubled from its 1900 levels and businesses clustering near train stations at Fifty-Second and Fifty-Sixth Streets pulled commercial activity away from Center City. In 1872, the University of Pennsylvania established its campus just south of Market Street; by 1900, the campus included over thirty buildings designed by some of the country’s most notable architects. In 1891, the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry (renamed Drexel University in 1970) opened two blocks south of Market at Thirty-First Street.

The High-Rise Arrives

Prior to 1890, few of Market Street’s buildings exceeded six stories. But with the arrival of the skyscraper, the corridor reached new heights. In 1892 the fourteen-story Betz Building, designed by William H. Decker (1856-1908), opened on the southeast corner of Centre Square. Later additions on Centre Square included the West End Trust Building (built 1898) and the Market Street National Bank (1929). Although the Great Depression stalled construction projects throughout Philadelphia, an exception was 1932’s Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS) tower, which opened on the former Ricketts’ Circus site. Designed by George Howe (1886-1955) and William Lescaze (1896-1969), it was the country’s first International-style tower and one of the most modern office buildings of its time.

[caption id="attachment_29694" align="alignright" width="241"]A black and white photograph of the Betz Building, a fourteen story stone building standing on the corner of Center Square. Most construction in Philadelphia was less than six stories until the construction of the Betz Building on the southeast corner of Center Square in 1892. The fourteen-story office building was demolished in 1926 for the construction of the PNB building. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Market Street transformed again in the years after World War II, especially west of City Hall. In the spirit of optimism that followed the Allies’ victory in World War II, optimistic Democratic reformers and urban planners conceived of a new image for the postwar city. In 1953, demolition of Broad Street Station and the Chinese Wall prepared the way for Penn Center, a series of office buildings with retail spaces and open-air plazas. The first project of its kind in a generation, it presaged the growth of the Market West corridor, which over the next sixty years saw the addition of dozens of office towers, hotels, and residential buildings. In 1985, real estate developer Willard G. Rouse III (1942-2003) brokered a deal with the mayoral administration of W. Wilson Goode (b.1938), allowing him to construct Liberty Place at Sixteenth and Market Streets. Completed in 1987, the office tower famously surpassed the city’s long-standing height restriction specifying that no building exceed William Penn’s statue atop City Hall. Transit development continued as well with the 1984 opening of the Center City Connector, a tunnel combining the former Reading and Pennsylvania Railroad lines and allowing more fluid access to retail and offices along Market Street.

In 1952, the Bandstand (later American Bandstand) television program debuted at Studio B at Forty-Sixth Street and Market. The show, hosted by Dick Clark (1929-2012) and featuring teenagers dancing to the latest popular music, went out to an estimated six million viewers before its national syndication in 1957. From then until the show’s 1964 relocation to Los Angeles, Bandstand placed Market Street (and Philadelphia) high in the nation’s cultural firmament. The campuses of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania continued to expand greatly around Market Street in the 1990s and early 2000s, while much of Market between Forty-Sixth Street and Cobbs Creek contained homes and small businesses such as cafes, laundries, discount retailers, and bodegas.

After World War II, Market Street’s retail offerings in Center City contracted sharply. Snellenburg’s, Frank and Seder, and Lit Brothers folded by the late 1960s. Gimbel’s left its Ninth Street store in 1977 to anchor the new Gallery Mall; its original building was demolished in 1979. Wanamaker’s was acquired in 1978 by a California company while Strawbridge & Clothier remained open until 1996. During the 1970s, many of Old City’s manufacturing interests also ceased operations, leading a wave of artists and creative professionals to transform factory spaces near Market Street into loft apartments. By the early 1990s, dozens of restaurants, bars, and clubs opened and challenged South Street for Philadelphia’s nightlife district. In the mid-2010s, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News left their longtime quarters on North Broad Street and moved into Strawbridge’s building, the ground floors of which reopened in 2014 as discount merchant Century 21.

In the 2010s, Market Street continued to attract new construction projects, serve as the city’s main thoroughfare for parades and marches, and mark the official boundary between the northern and southern portions of Philadelphia’s numerical streets. Despite centuries of population shifts, commercial trends, and the rise and decline of many industries, Market Street’s importance to Philadelphia’s economy, social life, and mobility endured.

Stephen Nepa teaches history at Temple University, Rowan University, Moore College of Art and Design, and the Pennsylvania State University-Abington. A contributor to numerous books, journals, and documentary films, he received his M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple University. He lives in Philadelphia.

Design of Cities

Published in 1967, Design of Cities assessed urban development from the ancient through the modern periods while highlighting many redevelopment projects in postwar Philadelphia. Written by urban planner Edmund Bacon (1910-2005) and replete with photographs, sketches, maps, and his insights, the book appeared during a time when urban renewal, historic preservation battles, racial tensions, and suburban flight afflicted many American metropolises. Although not as widely known as The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) or The City in History by Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), Design of Cities allowed Bacon, one of the most admired planners of his generation, a forum in which to advance his ideas about urban development.

[caption id="attachment_27199" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Earle Barber, Edmund Bacon, and Vincent Kling looking over a model of Penn Center. In 1950, planners (from left) Earle Barber and Edmund Bacon and architect Vincent Kling ponder a model of the revitalization project that came to be known as Penn Center. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Bacon called cities “one of man’s greatest achievements.” Challenging the notion that they resulted from “grand accidents,” he instead suggested that “human will,” consciously applied to elements of “mass and space” shaped ancient cities such as Rome and Athens and modern city building projects in Brasilia and Stockholm. Drawing lessons from various figures such as Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590), James Oglethorpe (1696-1785), Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and David Helldén (1905-90), he examined how over centuries, the form of various cities reflected both the aspirations of citizens and the “state of their civilizations.” Representing a new era in urban planning after World War II, Bacon then set forth his own principles, concluding that by balancing old and new structures, pedestrian and vehicle flows, and work and leisure activities, postwar Philadelphia could be made vibrant and pleasant.

Bacon served as director of the City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970 and played significant roles in designing projects such as Society Hill, Penn Center, and Market East, some of which garnered him international praise. Upon Design of Cities’ publication, many of those works were finished or nearing completion. As he showed in the book, his overarching goal was to unite them as a “total organism” in a city “laboriously built up, part by part, over time.” Further, he imagined a redesigned Philadelphia as a crucial center in the larger “megalopolitan” corridor stretching from Boston south to Washington, D.C. Ultimately, Bacon hoped through his book to maintain Philadelphia’s regional preeminence even as its industries declined, residents fled, and levels of poverty rose.

[caption id="attachment_27118" align="alignright" width="269"]A black and white photograph of the Gimbel's department store under construction at The Gallery at Market East. The Gallery at Market East, with Market Street roadwork wrapping up in 1971, was part of Edmund Bacon's plan for the revival of the area's retail center. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Bacon’s most celebrated work was the redevelopment of Society Hill, one given considerable attention in the book. Largely based on his Better Philadelphia Exhibition (1947) model and with assistance from architects Robert Geddes (b.1923), Roy Larson (1893-1973), Vincent Kling (1916-2013), and Oskar Stonorov (1905-70) and developer William Zeckendorf (1905-76), Society Hill was planned as a “sweeping continuous design.” Stretching from Washington Square to the Delaware River waterfront, it contained restored colonial homes, new town houses and apartment towers, garden footpaths, and “pocket parks,” all linked through a “Greenway System.” The area would then be integrated into the redeveloped Independence Mall immediately north, providing “organic capability for growth.” Bordered on three sides by the planned I-95, I-676, and Crosstown (never built) expressways, the area would upon completion have offered convenient linkages to Center City and surrounding suburbs. For pedestrians and vehicles alike, roads and paths connected the area’s eastern edge to Geddes’ redesigned Delaware River waterfront.

Regarding Philadelphia’s “civic core,” Bacon surveyed the design of Penn Center, Philadelphia’s first office building project since the 1920s. Completed in the mid-1960s and relying on the demolition of the “Chinese Wall” rail viaduct and Broad Street Station, his Penn Center diagrams, renderings, and color photographs displayed how train lines, shopping concourses, and open-air plazas (the “interweaving of public and private spaces”) coalesced above and below ground just west of City Hall. Through an “outward thrust of design” Penn Center would, along the Market Street axis of William Penn (1644-1718) and Thomas Holme’s (1624-95) original 1682 grid, blend with Society Hill to the east. Between Society Hill and Penn Center, Bacon proposed the revitalization of Market East, specifically its “rundown” retail stores. He unveiled in the book a new, light-filled Market East corridor, containing submerged walkways and rail lines to facilitate vehicular traffic on surrounding streets, and anchored by a glass-walled pedestrian mall. Eventually called “The Gallery,” the mall debuted in the mid-1970s. Other projects undertaken by Bacon, such as the suburban developments of Eastwick and the Far Northeast, did not appear in Design of Cities. While they did not readily fit with Design of Cities’ focus on downtown areas, they were key pieces in his larger organic concept of urban planning.

To close his book, Bacon argued that it would be through dialogue among leaders and citizens that sound planning and design—a “strongly articulated nuclei” surrounded by landmarks, institutions, and residential fabric—would materialize. The resulting “imagery and rhythms” would then generate “loyalty and pride” among residents and visitors. Such ideas resonated in the early twenty-first century as evidenced by the redevelopment of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River waterfront and the 2017 proposals for building new park spaces over the I-95 freeway in Queen Village and Society Hill. Yet despite Bacon’s optimistic tone, Design of Cities failed to mention the economic and racial turmoil that put such ideas to the test in the late 1960s. By the time a second edition of the book appeared in 1974, the Nixon administration had significantly cut federal aid for urban renewal in favor of revenue sharing with the states, and the era of federal largesse towards cities with the kind of ambition Bacon epitomized was over. 

Stephen Nepa teaches history and American studies at Temple University, Moore College of Art and Design, and the Pennsylvania State University-Abington. A contributor to numerous books, journals, and documentary films, he received his M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple University. He lives in Philadelphia. (Information current at date of publication.)

Edge Cities

Edge cities, as they came to be called, emerged on the peripheries of older urban centers in the last part of the twentieth century. As defined by journalist Joel Garreau (b. 1948), they contained at least five million square feet of leasable office space, 600,000 (or more) square feet of leasable retail space, “more jobs than bedrooms,” and a wide offering of occupational and recreational opportunities. Whether a singular municipality or a group of intermingling towns (at times spanning more than one state), they appeared nationwide, including several within Greater Philadelphia. By the 2010s, however, many undeveloped areas between the region’s older and edge cities themselves also clustered residents, jobs, and places for leisure, thereby challenging Garreau’s widely cited definition.

Garreau popularized the term “edge city” in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. He argued that the phenomenon grew out of postwar suburbanization, the building of interstate highways, and “new towns” conceived by planners including Ray Watson (1926-2012) and Robert E. Simon (1914-2015). Their proliferation accelerated urban decentralization while at the same time reflecting the shift from manufacturing to service- and information-based economies. In some cases, they developed in rural areas or near existing transportation infrastructure (rail lines and secondary highways) while others resulted from new roadways, shopping malls, and the embrace of “car culture.”

[caption id="attachment_26834" align="alignright" width="237"]color photo of pedestrian walking past shops in downtown Ardmore, PA Ardmore, Pennsylvania, is an example of a city that has prospered on the periphery of Philadelphia, with a robust shopping and dining scene. (Photograph by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Following World War II, population and job losses severely damaged Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania; Camden and Trenton, New Jersey; and Wilmington, Delaware. At the same time, early postwar suburbs, such as Levittown and Springfield, Pennsylvania; Duncan Woods and Sherwood Park, Delaware; and Willingboro, New Jersey, accommodated a growing middle-class in communities that later included their own shopping centers, churches, and schools. Yet many residents still commuted to central cities for work and leisure activities. By the early 1960s, following the opening of new interstate highways, edge cities formed in rural portions of Burlington and Camden County, New Jersey; New Castle County, Delaware; and in Chester, Bucks, and Montgomery Counties to the north and west of Philadelphia. In the process, Greater Philadelphia’s older cities struggled to remain relevant.

[caption id="attachment_26388" align="alignright" width="300"]an artists' conception of the Cherry Hill Mall. It is drawn from an aerial perspective. In the center is a cluster of large, flat white buildings. The buildings are surrounded by extensive surface parking lots full of parked cars. The Cherry Hill Mall was one of the major factors in the rapid, edge city-style development of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Cherry Hill became home to corporate parks, retail chains, suburban developments, and thoroughfares as people were enticed to live and work there. This image is an artists' rendering of the mall prior to its construction. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Along with expressways, many edge cities owed their founding to the modern shopping mall. In 1961, the Cherry Hill Mall, then the nation’s largest enclosed shopping facility, opened in Delaware Township, Camden County. Designed by Victor Gruen (1903-80), it included dozens of stores, a food court, tropical atrium, art exhibits, a four-hundred-seat auditorium, and acres of free parking. Located four miles from the interchange of US Route 30, US Route 130, and New Jersey Route 38, the mall grew into one of South Jersey’s main commercial centers and over time drained economic activity from nearby Camden and Philadelphia’s aging department stores. The town of Cherry Hill, renamed from Delaware Township the same year, emerged as a prosperous edge city, luring pharmaceutical firms, auto dealerships, corporations such as Subaru of North America, and an NJ Transit rail stop. In 2003, demolition of its sixty-year-old horse track commenced to make way for Garden State Park, a mixed-use complex of condominiums, restaurants, and upscale stores totaling more than one million square feet. The building of the New Jersey Turnpike in the 1950s and the opening of the Moorestown Mall in 1963 boosted the Moorestown-Mt. Laurel area to the east in Burlington County. Bisected by I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike, the affluent edge city attracted college campuses, waterparks, corporate tenants, and upscale restaurants.

Chester and Montgomery Counties

Upon completion of the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76), edge cities developed in Chester and Montgomery Counties. In 1963, the King of Prussia Mall opened near Valley Forge. Expanded over the years, the shopping complex located at the junction of I-76, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and US Routes 202 and 422, ranked in 2017 as the nation’s second-largest mall. In addition King of Prussia hosted more than sixteen thousand jobs, in health care, utilities, and energy, among others. To suit convention traffic, the 240,000-square foot Greater Philadelphia Exposition Center opened in 2009. For entertainment and gaming, the Valley Forge Casino Resort opened in 2012 five miles away.

Conshohocken, a former factory city eight miles east, by the late 1990s had attracted chain hotels, apartments and restaurants, and the headquarters of design firms and security companies. Combined with nearby Norristown (the Montgomery County seat) the three cities formed a metropolitan area in its own right, with links to central Philadelphia by trains, bus lines, and several roads. In nearby Malvern, Pennsylvania, the Great Valley Corporate Center opened in 1974. Touted by then-president Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) in 1985 as the “workplace of the future,” the expanded complex employed more than twenty thousand and was home to biotech, financial, and medical firms. In 2015, plans unfolded to redesign the area into a walkable, mixed-use community with over one million square feet of stores, offices, and condominiums. Located just north of US Route 202 and US Route 30 and serviced by SEPTA regional rail, the Malvern area also included Paoli and Exton. Elsewhere in southeastern Pennsylvania, the Warminster-Willow Grove and the Bensalem-Levittown-Langhorne areas experienced edge city-style growth.

Adjacent to I-95 between Wilmington and Newark, Delaware, the Christiana Mall opened in 1978. Beginning in the 1980s, after much of Wilmington’s industry disappeared, the unincorporated Christiana-Churchman’s Crossing area attracted firms such as Astra-Zeneca, Christiana Hospital, shopping centers University Plaza and Centre Point Plaza, hotels catering to business travelers, and a SEPTA regional rail station. North of downtown Wilmington, the Concord Mall opened in 1965 along US Route 202; by 2016, the US 202-US 1 axis, extending north into Talleyville, Delaware, and Chadds Ford and Concordville, Pennsylvania, contained office parks, shopping centers, and thousands of single-family homes. Reflecting the area’s commercial importance, in 2014 Chester County officials proposed a feasibility study for resuming rail service to central Philadelphia, which had been eliminated in the mid-1980s.

[caption id="attachment_26381" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of the front entrance of Parx Casino in Bensalem The Bensalem-Levittown-Langhorne area has experienced edge city-style growth due to a number of popular attractions in the vicinity, including Sesame Place, the Oxford Valley Mall, and the Parx Casino, which opened in 2009. The area is supported by two SEPTA Regional Rail lines. (Photograph by G. Widman for VisitPhilly.com)[/caption]

In the nearly three decades following Edge City’s publication, Garreau’s definition faced criticism. Edge cities had grown significantly, ultimately blurring the lines between them and older cities. Philadelphia experienced an economic resurgence in the 1990s and early 2000s that attracted “millennials” and “empty nesters,” while older towns such as Haddonfield, New Jersey; Ardmore, Pennsylvania; and Newark, Delaware, saw revitalization of their downtown areas. In 2016 Camden, long beleaguered by job loss and high crime, heralded a $1 billion waterfront development proposal by Liberty Property Trust. Urban planner Robert Lang (b.1959), charting the amount of office space in the region, reasoned in 2006 that while King of Prussia and Paoli, Pennsylvania, still retained edge city characteristics, other towns, including Christiana, Warminster, and Cherry Hill also witnessed high rates of occupational dispersal and outward growth. Along the I-295 corridor in South Jersey, the US 202-US 1 corridor in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and US Route13 in New Castle County, Delaware, clusters of office parks, retail stores, and housing appeared to form large conurbations, or what Lang termed “edgeless cities.” They not only competed with Greater Philadelphia’s traditional urban centers for population and revenue but refuted Garreau’s contention that edge cities were bound to outpace other suburban concentrations, even to the point of rendering them obsolete.

Stephen Nepa teaches history at Temple University, Moore College of Art and Design, and the Pennsylvania State University-Abington. A contributor to numerous books, journals, and documentary films, he is currently working on a project about urban ruins. He received his M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple University.

City Beautiful Movement

[caption id="attachment_24004" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Black and white illustration of a park along a body of water with trees and wide walkways. Inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, the City Parks Association commissioned a landscape design firm to create League Island Park in South Philadelphia in 1912. Today it is called FDR Park. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Grounded in landscape and European architecture and shaped by the politics of the Progressive Era, the City Beautiful Movement emerged in reaction to the physical decay and social congestion that burdened America’s industrial centers at the turn of the twentieth century. Considered the “mother” of urban planning, its promoters and practitioners sought to reorder the built environment in the cause of “civic uplift.” While expressions of City Beautiful appeared nationwide, cities in Greater Philadelphia also were shaped by the movement. From Camden and Trenton, New Jersey, to Wilmington, Delaware, and especially Philadelphia, from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s the region’s urban areas were graced with new civic spaces and associated monumental buildings designed to improve in public consciousness the very idea of the city.

In the 1880s, rising rates of immigration and industrialization brought high levels of congestion and pollution to urban areas. While early park planners brought some physical relief to city dwellers, a new generation of reformers sought further to instill a sense of pride and belonging to residents, especially immigrants with only tenuous ties to established institutions, by creating wide boulevards, ennobling buildings, and manicured parklands to allow people of all backgrounds spaces for reflection and recreation. Such inspiring spaces, they argued, could uplift city dwellers weighed down by low pay, long hours, and inadequate housing. Influenced by projects in Europe such as Vienna’s Ringstrasse, Baron Haussmann’s (1809-91) redesign of Paris, and Ildefons Cerdá’s (1815-76) work in Barcelona as well as American figures such as landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52), Central Park creator Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), and architect Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), dozens of examples, from museums and municipal buildings to new street grids, were proposed and completed. The movement got its initial boost from Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Laid out by Olmsted, Burnham, and other leading designers, the fair’s “White City,” a model (comprised of plaster of Paris) of lagoons, fountains, promenades, statues, and neoclassical buildings showcased how comprehensive planning might relieve urban problems. Subsequent fairs at Buffalo (1901), St. Louis (1904), San Francisco (1915), and Philadelphia (1926) similarly formed as grand civic spaces under the influence of the White City.

In the region, Philadelphia contained the most significant projects aligned with City Beautiful. After the Civil War, the city’s population neared seven hundred thousand and its industrial base of factories, refineries, and shipyards polluted the environment. In response, calls emerged for beautification plans and civic improvements. Emerging environmental groups including the City Parks Association, the Fairmount Park Art Association, and the women’s Garden Club of Philadelphia as well as reform-minded citizens such as Peter A.B. Widener (1834-1915) and financier Edward T. Stotesbury (1849-1938) pushed for grand Beaux-Arts architecture, boulevards in North Philadelphia, a citywide playground system, a park along the Schuylkill River’s western bank, and a new plan for South Philadelphia mimicking Washington, D.C’s planned system of radial boulevards. During WWI, local architects Albert Kelsey (1870-1950) and David K. Boyd (1872-1944) proposed the clearing of two square blocks from Chestnut Street north to Ludlow Street so as to increase the visibility of Independence Hall, one of Philadelphia’s most iconic and patriotic structures, though it was not until after WWII when their vision, known as Independence Mall, came to fruition.

[caption id="attachment_24008" align="alignright" width="225"]Black and white aerial photograph of the Fairmount Parkway under construction. When this photograph was taken in 1919 the new parkway linking Center City to Fairmount Park was still under construction. (Photo courtesy of the Association for Public Art)[/caption]

Most prominently, a number of Philadelphia’s art and civic groups championed a grand parkway to connect Center City to Fairmount Park. Based on a plan by Jacques Gréber (1882-1962) and Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945), work on the Parisian-style project commenced in 1907. Ten years later, Gréber proposed a system of diagonal parkways radiating outward from central Philadelphia’s five squares. While this plan never fully materialized, by 1930 much of the Fairmount Parkway (renamed Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1937), including the Free Library, Rodin Museum, the Municipal Court, Logan Circle, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art was completed or under construction. Across town, Washington Square, graced with new statuary, refurbished fountains (care of the Philadelphia Fountain Society), and two high-rises designed by Edgar Seeler (1867-1929) (the Penn Mutual and Curtis Buildings), reflected City Beautiful sensibilities. In 1933 architect Alfred P. Shaw’s (1895-1970) 30th Street Station, the city’s last “grand depot,” opened for service as a monumental gateway to the city. The Neoclassical/Art Deco station, commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, replaced the company’s Gothic Broad Street Station, which was demolished in 1952.

In 1913, Cret received a commission to redesign Rittenhouse Square. Influenced by Paris’ Parc Monceau, his Beaux-Arts plan for Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhood included diagonal walkways, new sculptures and fountains, and tree plantings. Prior to the completion of Cret’s Delaware River (renamed Benjamin Franklin) Bridge, which linked Philadelphia with Camden, New Jersey, architect Charles Wellford Leavitt (1871-1928) conceived in 1925 a system of parklands and thoroughfares to remake central Camden as the gateway to South Jersey. Echoing Gréber’s Philadelphia street plan, much of Leavitt’s blueprint was never built. Yet the city’s Admiral Wilson Boulevard, running from the bridge into the suburbs to the east, opened in 1926 and became Camden’s main traffic artery, later attracting the Sears and Roebuck Company to erect a new store in the neoclassical tradition.    

In 1888 the city of Trenton, New Jersey, began accumulating land for a grand park, a process aided considerably three years later through a donation of seven additional acres from lawyer John L. Cadwalader (1836-1914). With Olmsted as chief designer, Cadwalader Park (Trenton’s largest and Olmsted’s only one in New Jersey) included a restaurant, amusement midway, concert gazebo, and a zoological garden with lions, deer, monkeys, and black bears. Gracing the park were circular foot paths, picnic areas, ornate entryways, and statues of George Washington (1732-99) and John A. Roebling (1806-69). To offer a counterweight to urban congestion, the city submerged the Pennsylvania Railroad’s track along the park’s eastern edge. John H. Duncan (1855-1929) designed the Trenton Battle Monument, a towering Roman-Doric column graced with bas-reliefs and a surrounding plaza, which opened in 1893 and commemorating the Continental Army’s 1776 victory.  

[caption id="attachment_24016" align="alignright" width="241"]A color photo taken inside one of the Longwood Gardens greenhouses showing a small pond and tropical plants Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square was nearly sold to a lumber mill in 1906. It was purchased by Pierre du Pont, who expanded the gardens and left much of his fortune to their preservation. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

To the south, Wilmington, Delaware, also initiated projects shaped by the City Beautiful Movement. With the city growing into a mercantile and chemical manufacturing center, the DuPont Company in 1905 began construction of its new twelve-story downtown headquarters. To complement the building, in 1917 vice president Pierre S. DuPont (1870-1954), who had personally financed road improvements between Wilmington and Chester County, retained architect John Jacob Raskob (1879-1950) to redesign the one-and-a-half-acre green space across the street. Completed in 1921, the new Rodney Square included paved walkways, cast stone stairs and balustrades, and a gleaming bronze statue of Caesar Rodney (1728-84), the state’s signer of the Declaration of Independence. Further committed to the Progressive ethos of the City Beautiful, DuPont in the late 1920s opened to the public the gardens and grounds of his Longwood estate in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Amidst changes brought by industrialization, population growth, and environmental concerns, the City Beautiful Movement provided for greater Philadelphia’s residents and visitors new spaces for work, recreation, and reflection. From industrial riverfronts to cramped older neighborhoods, many urban areas were demolished to promote arts and culture as well as entertainment and consumption. Yet the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s spelled the end of the movement as the regional economy adapted to financial collapse and high rates of unemployment. And while many local cities underwent large-scale renewal programs in the decades after World War II, nearly all of the projects shaped by the City Beautiful Movement remained intact well into the twenty-first century, attesting to their enduring importance.

Stephen Nepa teaches history at Temple University, Moore College of Art and Design, and the Pennsylvania State University-Abington. A contributor to numerous books and journals, he is currently at work on a project about the history of Puerto Rico’s Levittown community. He received his M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple University.


With its origins in late-nineteenth-century street vending and transient “quick lunch” operations such as horse-drawn food carts, the diner emerged as one of the most popular and successful restaurant genres in the United States. Although diners entered a period of protracted decline after World War II with the arrival of fast food restaurants, changing consumer tastes, and patterns of suburbanization, they also experienced later periods of rebirth and cultural nostalgia in both cities and suburbs. Many of the Philadelphia area’s diners, which once numbered several dozen, survived into the early twenty-first century or were refurbished with new concepts.

[caption id="attachment_21828" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photo of the Elgin Diner, Camden, NJ, The Elgin Diner, a 1958 Kullman model, stands empty in Camden in 2013, a year before it was demolished. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The birth of the diner is traced to Rhode Island, where in the 1870s, a vendor named Walter Scott parked his food cart in front of the offices of the Providence Journal. Noticing that night shift workers had few dining options (the city’s restaurants closed by 8 p.m.), Scott initially sold sandwiches, pies, and coffee from his “pioneer wagon” and later added hot dogs, oyster stew, and egg dishes. By the late 1880s, other operators expanded the concept throughout New England and as far west as Denver, Colorado. To accommodate more customers and comply with health and zoning regulations, by the 1890s quick-lunch operations became permanent, around-the-clock establishments, with many shaped like railroad dining cars. “White House Cafés,” with their frosted glass and artistic embellishments, made by T.H. Buckley Co. in Worcester, Massachusetts, set new standards for cleanliness and efficiency. By 1900, the firm had built and shipped more than 275 units around the country.

[caption id="attachment_21561" align="alignright" width="300"]A photograph of the Melrose Diner on 1501 Snyder Avenue. First opened in 1935, the Melrose Diner is an example of 1930s diners that were far larger than past diners and were equipped with stainless steel counters and tiled floors and walls to promote cleanliness. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Diners continued to thrive during the 1920s as the nation basked in postwar economic prosperity. In 1924 a T.H. Buckley competitor, the Jerry O’Mahony Company based in Bayonne, New Jersey, became the first manufacturer to employ the term “diner,” shortened from “dining car,” in its sales catalog. Over time, New Jersey hosted several diner manufacturers, including the Silk City Co., the Mountain View Co., the Paramount Co., and the Fodero Co. Though located mainly in the northern portion of the state, these builders assembled many of the diners that appeared in greater Philadelphia by the end of the 1920s. In 1927, the Philadelphia-based J.G. Brill Co., then the world’s largest streetcar builder, opened a diner manufacturing division; its “Brill Steel Diners” rolled off the assembly line at one unit per week. Diners in this period were far larger than those built by the industry’s pioneers and contained stainless steel counters and tiled floors and walls to promote cleanliness. Most, such as the Mayfair (established 1926), the Melrose (1935), and the Ace (1936) operated in close proximity to factories and other industries in Philadelphia and Camden. Others, including Kennett Square’s O’Mahony-built Creekside Diner (c.1928), opened in small rural towns. During the Great Depression, as more expensive restaurants suffered declines in business, diners thrived due to their affordable fare and wide variety of menu items. Attempting to match diners’ appeal, in the 1930s a number of Philadelphia’s opulent hotels, including the Bellevue-Stratford and the Stenton, closed their luxury dining rooms and opted for cheaper “lunch counter” fare.  

[caption id="attachment_21562" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the Salem Oak diner in Salem, New Jersey. One of a new wave of diners to come to southern New Jersey, the Salem Oak Diner opened in 1955 in Salem. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

After World War II, with the onset of the Baby Boom and a healthy economy, the diner industry experienced impressive growth. Into the 1960s, companies such as Fodero continued to manufacture new units, including Philadelphia’s Broad Street Diner, the Red Robin Diner in Mayfair, and Old City’s Continental. Some, including the Mayfair, enlarged their spaces and exchanged their stainless steel aesthetic for stone, stucco, or brick. With increases in car ownership and large-scale suburbanization, diners appeared in areas beyond the region’s urban centers. Nowhere was the postwar diner more ubiquitous than in New Jersey, which contained not only the nation’s highest concentration of diner builders but also more diners and highways, per capita, than any other state. From the 1950s through the mid-1960s, dozens of new diners opened in South Jersey, including the Salem Oak in Salem (established 1955), Olga’s in Marlton (1959), Angelo’s in Glassboro (1964), the USA Country Diner in Windsor (1964), and Ponzio’s in Cherry Hill (1964). Philadelphia’s suburban towns saw several new diners, including Hank’s Place in Chadds Ford (1948), which became a favorite haunt of artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009); Downingtown’s Cadillac Diner (1954), where scenes for 1958’s The Blob were filmed; Upper Darby’s Llanerch Diner (1968), which appeared in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook; and the Sun Gate Diner (1959) in Marcus Hook. Wilmington, Delaware, and its environs also became home to many postwar diners such as The Charcoal Pit (1962) and Lucky’s Coffee Shop (1965), both located on the heavily trafficked Concord Pike (U.S. 202).

[caption id="attachment_21838" align="alignright" width="300"]postcard showing Town Diner of Coatesville, PA, from collection of boston public library. The Town Diner and its dining room in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, are depicted in this postcard from 1930-1945. The diner was located at 823 East Lincoln Highway, also known as U.S. Route 30. (Boston Public Library via DigitalCommonwealth.org)[/caption]

By the 1970s, many of the region’s diners closed due to declining business and the retirement of owners. Others survived but felt shopworn when compared with national chains, fast food outlets, and shopping mall food courts. Yet during the 1980s and 1990s, diners enjoyed a nostalgia- and kitsch-fueled revival as consumers rediscovered them. In 1987, the original Melrose, after having moved in 1959 from south Philadelphia to Robbinsville, New Jersey, was selected by the Smithsonian as representative of the American diner; due to exorbitant costs, the museum’s proposal to move the structure to Washington as an exhibit was shelved the following year. Influenced by the success of San Francisco’s upscale Fog City Diner (established 1985) and the Empire Diner in Manhattan, entrepreneur Stephen Starr (b.1956) in 1995 purchased and reopened the Continental Diner in Philadelphia’s Old City as a global tapas restaurant and cocktail lounge. Three years later, Starr opened his successful Jones near Jewelers Row, a diner-inspired comfort food establishment with retro-1970s décor.

In the early 2000s, as some neighborhoods declined or changed demographically, their long-operating diners closed. Several were owned by Greek immigrants who arrived in the region after World War II. Olga’s, owned by the Stavros family since 1959 and once hailed by the Newark Star-Ledger as the “queen of south Jersey diners,” closed in 2008 due to redevelopment plans while the Country Club Diner in Voorhees, New Jersey, owned and operated for fifty years by the Kokolis family, shuttered in 2011. Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane Diner closed in 2011 after a fire, the Aramingo Diner in Port Richmond reopened as an urgent care clinic, and the American Diner in West Philadelphia was renovated in the 2010s as Kabobeesh, an Indian-Pakistani eatery. Other area diners adapted to changing tastes, such as Geet’s in Williamstown, New Jersey, which expanded to include a sports bar with flat-screen TVs.

While Greater Philadelphia’s diners changed significantly since their introduction in the 1920s, their transformations over several decades demonstrated a certain flexibility that reflected customers’ cultural, culinary, and residential preferences. Having evolved from the food cart and rail-car styles, diners by the 2010s catered to urban, suburban, and shore town residents while still maintaining elements of affordability, efficiency, and popularity.

Stephen Nepa teaches history at Temple University, Moore College of Art and Design, and the Pennsylvania State University-Abington. A contributor to numerous books and journals, he is currently at work on a project about the history of Puerto Rico’s Levittown community. He received his M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple University. (Information current at date of publication.)

Better Philadelphia Exhibition (1947)

The Better Philadelphia Exhibition, which ran from September 8 to October 15, 1947, at Gimbels department store in Center City, showcased new ideas for revitalizing Philadelphia after decades of depression and war. Conceived by young architects and planners and funded by prominent citizens, the exhibition introduced more than 350,000 people in the metropolitan area, free of charge, to a vision of the city of the future.

[caption id="attachment_20176" align="alignright" width="245"]black and white photo with two silhouettes in left foreground looking at an exhibit using transparent maps of the city to illustrate the city's growth from 1782 to 1947. This exhibit at the Better Philadelphia Exhibition in 1947 illustrated the city's growth using layers of transparent maps depicting progress from the eighteenth century into the twentieth century. (City of Philadelphia, Department of Records, City Archives: City Planning Commission Records)[/caption]

By 1945, American cities suffered from neglect, aging infrastructure, and overcrowding. Yet victory in World War II fostered a sense that cities could be improved with new spaces for living, working, and recreation. Urban redevelopment programs introduced by national housing acts in 1949 and 1954 remade the landscapes of cities such as New York, Boston, and New Haven, Connecticut. In many cases, redevelopment relied on clearing slums and other blighted structures to make way for parks, commercial structures, and expressways as well as new apartment blocks. While Greater Philadelphia adhered to certain aspects of a clearance approach to renewal, the organizers of the Better Philadelphia Exhibition also incorporated historic preservation, concern for pedestrians, and the use of existing structures to complement new projects.

Along with sculpture, light shows, information about the urban planning profession, and a history of the city’s growth, an elaborate thirty-by-fourteen-foot diorama of Philadelphia served as the centerpiece of the exhibition. Spotlights focused on specific areas of the city, and portions of the diorama then mechanically flipped over to reveal their imagined future. In the years that followed, many of the diorama’s notable features became reality, including removal of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s viaduct, popularly referred to as a “Chinese Wall”; a new, three-block-long mall north of Independence Hall; a Delaware riverfront yacht basin and promenade; and new housing in the Far Northeast.

[caption id="attachment_17415" align="alignright" width="238"]Portrait of a young Edmund Bacon As executive Director of Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Edmund Bacon implemented strategies to bring more middle-class residents into the center of Philadelphia. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Urban planner Edmund Bacon (1910-2005) often receives credit for the exhibit’s design, but modernist architect Oskar Stonorov (1905-70) first conceived the idea and recruited Bacon’s help. Stonorov’s business partner, the famed architect Louis I. Kahn (1901-71), also contributed to the exhibition’s design as did Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) members Robert Leonard and Robert B. Mitchell (1906-93). Their model found inspiration in General Motors’ Futurama display, an attraction of New York’s 1939 World’s Fair that showed a city of modern skyscrapers, high-speed expressways, and pedestrian skyways devoid of congestion and obsolete structures. Better Philadelphia’s creators similarly hoped to stir citizens’ imaginations while overcoming public objections to urban planning.

To assure adequate funding, Stonorov enlisted prominent Philadelphians, many of whom later held posts on the exhibition committee. These included Mayor Bernard Samuel (1880-1954) as honorary president; businessman Benjamin Rush, Jr. (corporation president); Gimbels executive Arthur Kauffman (1901-86), who donated two floors of his store for the event (vice president); Allan G. Mitchell, president of the Philadelphia Electric Company (secretary); and Philadelphia Bulletin publisher George T. Eager (committee chairman). Together, they raised more than $325,000 in public and private funds for the event.

Planners wanted to enlist public support for their vision by presenting their concepts in accessible terms, as indicated by the exhibition theme, “What City Planning Means to You and Your Children.” Taking cues from architect Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), whose 1909 Chicago plan was distributed to schoolchildren, Bacon and Stonorov visited elementary schools prior to the opening and asked students to draw their own plans for the future city; the drawings were later displayed at the exhibition.

Following the event, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission asked the 365,000 visitors their opinion about the exhibit’s proposals; nearly sixty-five per cent responded that they would pay higher city taxes to see the envisioned features come to fruition. By the time Bacon left as Planning Commission executive director in 1970, nearly all of the features, except for a crosstown expressway at South Street and a new ring highway system circling the city, had materialized or were under construction. Despite its short run, the Better Philadelphia Exhibition allowed planners to build consensus for reenvisioning central city functions for a new era.

Stephen Nepa received his M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple University and has appeared in the Emmy Award-winning documentary series Philadelphia: the Great Experiment. He wrote this essay while an associate historian at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden in 2015.


[caption id="attachment_19763" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Postcard depicting bus on Roosevelt Boulevard. Traveling on a still-rural portion of Roosevelt Boulevard in about 1926, a No. 206 bus carries passengers toward the Margaret-Orthodox station of the Market-Frankford El. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Beginning in the 1920s, the Philadelphia region’s independent transit companies added motorized buses (autobuses) to their networks. Superior in comfort to the horse-drawn omnibuses of the nineteenth century and with more range and versatility than electric trolleys, autobuses offered passengers easier means to traverse the metropolitan area.

Prior to the internal combustion engine, mass transit relied on horse-drawn omnibuses (introduced in Philadelphia in 1833) and then streetcars, also called trolleys (introduced in the 1850s and electrified in the 1890s). With the automobile’s rising prominence following World War I, many of the private companies then serving the region’s commuters purchased gasoline-powered autobuses as a less-expensive alternative to maintaining the costly infrastructure necessary for streetcars. Free from the constraints of rails, motorized autobuses achieved wider geographic scope on the new or expanded roads and highways built for the region’s automobiles.

[caption id="attachment_19627" align="alignright" width="263"]A black and white photo depicting children with disabilities boarding a school bus in 1923. By the 1930s, Philadelphia students were driven to school in motorized buses like the one shown here, which was in use even earlier—this photograph is from 1923—for children with disabilities. The familiar yellow school bus did not appear until the 1940s. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Autobus service within Philadelphia began in 1923, with the Philadelphia Transportation Company's (PTC) first service running along Northeast Boulevard (later renamed Roosevelt Boulevard) between Erie and Broad Streets. By the late 1930s, buses operated on most major streets of Greater Philadelphia. The Delaware Coach Company (DCC) introduced autobuses in Wilmington in 1925, and the Trenton Transit Company added bus service in 1929. In 1936 the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company extended autobus routes between Center City and the Main Line suburbs. The region’s school districts instituted their first wood-framed, steel-paneled motorized school buses by the 1930s to improve safety and to phase out “kid hacks” (horse-drawn carriages) from driving students in rural areas. In 1939, following a recommendation by Columbia University education professor Frank W. Cyr (1900-95), school buses nationwide adopted the color yellow for safety purposes.

Interstate Bus Service Begins

Interstate bus services also came to the region. In 1925, after a series of regional bus line mergers, the Mesaba Transportation Company (renamed the Greyhound Bus Company and incorporated in Wilmington) initiated interstate service in Greater Philadelphia. As a response to Greyhound’s growth, National Trailways launched regional interstate service in 1936. To accommodate the transit needs of South Jersey residents commuting to Philadelphia, New York, and other points, Trailways in 1964 initiated service from Mount Laurel, New Jersey; Greyhound commenced service there in the mid-1980s. After the legalization of casino gaming in Atlantic City in 1978, bus companies eager to capture gamblers began daily service, often with discounted fares, from Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Trenton to the resort city.

[caption id="attachment_19630" align="alignright" width="262"]A black and white photo of a Philadelphia city bus from 1956. When this city bus was plying Philadelphia streets in 1956, the growth of suburbs and private car ownership had begun to undermine demand for mass transportation. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the decades after World War II, increased car ownership and suburbanization led many bus companies to consolidate, often under larger public agencies. In 1968, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) assumed and expanded the autobus lines run by the indebted PTC. The following year, the Delaware Assembly created the Delaware Authority for Regional Transit (DART) to oversee bus lines formerly operated by the DCC. New Jersey Transit (NJT), created in 1979, acquired bus lines serving Camden, Trenton, and other points in South Jersey.

Buses put an end to many of the region’s trolley lines. By the late 1940s, both Camden and Wilmington had replaced nearly all their trolleys in favor of autobuses. Many of Philadelphia’s trolley lines were replaced with buses starting in the late 1980s. In 1992, the city’s Route 23 trolley, once the world’s longest and running from South Philadelphia to Germantown, was suspended and replaced with diesel-powered buses. By 2015, the Route 23 bus ranked as the city’s third-busiest transit line, prompting SEPTA to split the route in two. With these mergers and upgrades, autobus lines ultimately provided transportation within and between nearly every area municipality.

Low-Cost Competitors

[caption id="attachment_19744" align="alignright" width="300"]color photograph of one of SEPTA's Diesel Hybrid-Electric buses rolling up Market Street past the Lit Bros building. SEPTA's diesel-electric hybrid buses emit fewer greenhouse gases and deliver greater fuel efficiency. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

With ridership increasing and mounting concerns over fuel costs and emissions, in the early 2000s SEPTA and NJ Transit introduced hybrid autobuses intended to eventually replace their gasoline-powered fleets. Private companies including BoltBus and Megabus began in the 2000s offering low-fare service (with Wi-Fi connectivity) between Philadelphia and other points along the Northeast Corridor. The city’s “Chinatown bus,” connecting Philadelphia’s and New York’s Chinese neighborhoods, also offered inexpensive service. Interstate bus companies, such as Greyhound and Trailways, continued to serve the metropolitan area; in 2013, Philadelphia’s Greyhound Terminal (1001 Filbert Street) ranked as the nation’s fourth-busiest bus-only terminal, served by regional carriers including Bieber Tourways, Susquehanna Trailways, and Peter Pan Bus Lines.

Though lacking the romance of trolleys and the individual freedoms of the automobile, public and private autobuses provided many in the Greater Philadelphia area with affordable and accessible transportation.

Stephen Nepa teaches history at Temple University, Rowan University, and Moore College of Art and Design and appears in the Emmy Award-winning series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. He received his M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple University.


From colonial-era taverns to the celebrity chef establishments of the early twenty-first century, Greater Philadelphia’s restaurants illuminated the region’s socioeconomic, cultural, and culinary trends while also providing sustenance for millions, employing thousands, and in some cases emerging as historic and nostalgic treasures.

[caption id="attachment_19113" align="alignright" width="235"]A color engraving of Parkinson's Ice Cream and Cafe dated 1859 James W. Parkinson's Café became a Philadelphia legend when it bested New York City's famous Delmonico's in a cooking challenge known as "the thousand-dollar dinner." (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Taverns and public houses (“pubs”) represented the area’s earliest food-serving establishments; many operated in private residences, catered to diverse clienteles, and provided ample alcohol. The area’s oldest surviving taverns include the Broad Axe Tavern (est. 1681) in Ambler, Pennsylvania; the Barnsboro Tavern (est. 1720) in Sewell, New Jersey; and Jessop’s Tavern (est. 1724) in New Castle, Delaware. William Penn (1644-1718) noted in the 1680s that Philadelphia contained a handful of taverns with “a good meal to be had for sixpence,” but it was not until the 1750s that taverns began serving table d’hôte (“ordinary food”) with locally obtained produce, meats, and grains. Funded by subscriptions, Pennsylvania Journal editor William Bradford (1719-91) in 1754 opened the Old London Coffeehouse (Front and High Streets), which contained separate floors for drinking alcohol and coffee and minimal food offerings.

As Philadelphia developed into colonial America’s primary urban center, fancier restaurants appeared. The exclusive City Tavern (Second and Walnut Streets) opened in 1773 and gained a reputation for opulent banquets. Recalling dining there during the First Continental Congress, John Adams (1735-1826) praised the tavern’s “thousand delicacies” and fine wines. Hoping to appeal to non-elite customers, in 1780 Vincent Pelosi opened the Pennsylvania Coffeehouse (Front and High Streets) and later a second location in Camden, New Jersey. In 1791, James Oeller opened his eponymous hotel, Philadelphia’s first, at Sixth and Chestnut Streets. Oeller’s assembly room, decorated with French wallpaper and antique illustrations, challenged the City Tavern as Philadelphia’s finest banquet space. In addition to these establishments, Philadelphians satisfied their hunger by preparing meals at home or patronizing street vendors selling products ranging from fruits and vegetables to pepper pot soup and oysters. Oyster purveyors, centered on Philadelphia’s Dock Street, supplied vendors and restaurants alike. They proved so popular that discarded shells were used for ship ballast and street paving. Shad, plentiful in the Delaware River and later celebrated by local artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), was especially popular.

International Ingredients

In the early 1800s, Philadelphia became more cosmopolitan as its merchants traded with the Caribbean, China, and Europe, leaving the area awash in foreign foodstuffs. Philadelphia’s hotels, including the United States (Chestnut Street), the Merchants’ (38 N. Fourth Street), Mansion House (Third and Spruce Streets), and the La Pierre (Broad and Chestnut Streets) offered French cuisine and Parisian-style coffee. The Continental Hotel (Ninth and Chestnut), the city’s most opulent, contained a main dining room and “gentlemen’s café.” In the Washington Hotel’s kitchen (20 S. Sixth Street), co-owner Elizabeth Rubicam prepared what was considered the best terrapin (marsh turtle) dishes in the region.

Confectioners and chefs also opened restaurants. James W. Parkinson, the son of a tavernkeeper, operated not only a famous restaurant at 180 Chestnut Street and produced Philadelphia’s most popular ice cream (Parkinson’s), but also in 1851 bested New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant in a seventeen-course cook-off dinner (later called the “thousand-dollar dinner”) that earned him a standing ovation. M. Latouche, a French chef once employed by the Russian minister in Washington, emerged as a popular restaurateur. His Market Street establishment, complete with an oyster cellar, offered quail, beef, mutton chops, and oyster pies. Prominent Philadelphians, such as bank president Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), retained Latouche for private banquets.

[caption id="attachment_19111" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white engraving of Lauber's German Restaurant on the Centennial grounds Lauber's German Restaurant was the most popular restaurant of the Centennial Exhibition. It was capable of serving 1,200 guests simultaneously and introduced crowds to the "Hamburg steak," or hamburger. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Following the Civil War, increases in transportation, immigration, and industrialization altered dining practices and restaurant offerings. When millions of visitors attended the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, they found not just the latest industrial and technological developments but also cuisine from around the globe. In addition to Brazilian, Japanese, Spanish, and Hawaiian delicacies, the Centennial featured Philadelphian Phillip J. Lauber’s (1830-81) German restaurant, able to accommodate 1,200 customers at once, which became the fair’s most successful largely due to the “Hamburg steak” (hamburger) on its menu. Though Philadelphians did not embrace the decadent “lobster palace” trend of the 1880s pioneered in New York City by Café Martin, the city’s finer establishments served dishes such as Lobster Thermidor and Lobster Newburgh.

Mirroring the region’s economic disparities as thousands of immigrants arrived during the Gilded Age, Philadelphia and the area’s larger cities (Wilmington, Camden, and Trenton) developed ethnic and working-class neighborhoods with tiny eateries serving Italian, Polish, German, and Irish food. In some cases, people operated restaurants out of their homes, catering to friends and neighbors. By 1900, Philadelphia contained a thriving Chinatown with “chop suey joints” along Race Street, east of Broad. Around the city, many former oyster stalls became full restaurants, including Snockey’s (Second Street and Washington Avenue.), Boothby’s (Thirteenth and Chestnut Streets), and Bookbinders (moved to Second and Walnut Streets in 1898). Bookbinders became one of Philadelphia’s most famous restaurants until its closing in 2009.

Department Store Dining Rooms

In the early twentieth century, department stores and “grand hotels” allowed diners higher degrees of luxury in their restaurant choices. Among Philadelphia’s Market Street department stores, Gimbels by 1902 contained a full-service restaurant as well as a deli and soda fountain/lunch counter. By 1912 Strawbridge’s boasted one of the finest restaurants in the city, but Wanamakers Grand Crystal Tea Room was Philadelphia’s largest; on average, the restaurant served 3,000 patrons per day and offered items such as caviar and sweetbreads. The majority of department store diners were middle- to upper-class women while lower- to middle-class men patronized lunch counters inside Broad Street Station and the Reading Terminal. Upper-class men dined at Green’s Restaurant (Eighth and Chestnut Streets), the New Bingham Café (Eleventh and Market Streets), and Boothby’s (Thirteenth and Chestnut Streets).

[caption id="attachment_19110" align="alignright" width="300"]A color postcard of the dining room at Green's Hotel Green's Hotel on Chestnut Street offered a luxurious dining room for upper-class Philadelphians, but fell victim to the Great Depression. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Perpetuating Gilded Age opulence, the region’s “grand hotels” offered the finest restaurants of the period. Establishments such as the Stenton, the Lafayette, the Walton, the Warwick, and the Bellevue-Stratford provided guests not only banquet-style meals but also richly decorated spaces in which to dine; the Walton’s Palm Room and Pierrot Roof Garden hosted lavish meals while the Bellevue-Stratford offered the South Garden Room (the place to be seen among the city’s elite), the Hunt Room (where power brokers lunched) and a separate Ladies’ Dining Room. North along Broad Street, the Lorraine Hotel’s Café Lorraine could accommodate three hundred people for dinner. Grand hotels also opened in 1913 in Wilmington (the Hotel DuPont) and in 1925 in Camden (the Walt Whitman). The Green Room in the Hotel DuPont stood as Delaware’s most refined dining establishment.

Independent restaurant operators also thrived. In 1915, Fritz Pflug opened the Arcadia restaurant in Penn Square’s Widener Building; by the 1930s, the renamed Arcadia International Restaurant and Club hosted the top musical acts of the time. In 1922, hoping to capture motorist traffic between Philadelphia and New York, Pflug opened Evergreen Farms on Roosevelt Boulevard, a “suburban café” advertised as “most beautiful restaurant in the country.” For those lacking the means or time to patronize department store or hotel restaurants, the region offered dairies, rathskellers, ice cream parlors, lunch wagons, cafeterias, automats, and “quick lunches” (luncheonettes). The first automat, opened in 1902 at 818 Chestnut Street by Joseph Horn (1861-1941) and Frank Hardart (1850-1918), set the standard for quick restaurant meals for people on the go. In the midst of the Great Depression, Pat Olivieri (1907-74) created the cheesesteak at his South Philadelphia hot dog stand in 1932, ultimately making that sandwich synonymous with the city. Small, family-owned Italian restaurants remained numerous in South Philadelphia and along Wilmington’s Union Street; Philadelphia’s Dante and Luigi’s (est.1899), Ralph’s (est.1900), and Wilmington’s Mrs. Robino’s (est.1940) all survived into the first decades of the twenty-first century.

Rise of the Diners

[caption id="attachment_19109" align="alignright" width="300"]Automats like Horn and Hardart became popular during the Great Depression. The self-serve cafeterias offered a wide array of affordable food choices and catered to a working-class crowd. (Library Company of Philadelphia) Automats like Horn and Hardart became popular during the Great Depression. The self-serve cafeterias offered a wide array of affordable food choices and catered to a working-class crowd. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

After World War II, increasingly propelled by cars and expressways, residents of the Philadelphia region patronized diners and drive-throughs. Although the diner first appeared in the 1870s in Rhode Island, Greater Philadelphia eventually contained dozens of the beloved institutions. Many of Philadelphia’s diners, including the Melrose, the South Street, the Oregon, the Broad Street, and the West Oak Lane, became neighborhood landmarks. Yet New Jersey, with key transportation routes between New York and Philadelphia as well as hundreds of suburban communities, contained more diners, per capita, than any other U.S. state. Famous South Jersey diners included the Deepwater (Carney’s Point), Olga’s (Marlton), the Club (Bellmawr), and Angelo’s (Glassboro). Chain restaurants also expanded in the postwar years. Companies such as Stouffer’s, Savarin, Ponderosa, Horn and Hardart, Gino’s Hamburgers, and McDonald's opened urban and suburban locations in the 1950s and 1960s. Private dining clubs, including the Vesper, the Bellevue Court, Union League, Embassy, Saxony East, and Quo Vadis continued to thrive in central Philadelphia. “Chop houses” served as the forerunner of modern steakhouses; in the 1960s and 1970s, Philadelphia’s Frankie Bradley’s, Arthur’s, Leibowitz’s, and Mitchell’s, as well as Wilmington’s Constantino’s House of Beef, appealed to those with a fondness for beef.

[caption id="attachment_19112" align="alignright" width="231"]Le Bec-Fin, owned by chef Georges Pierre, became a central factor in Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance in the 1970s. It was once considered the finest restaurant in the United States. (Library of Congress) Le Bec-Fin, owned by chef Georges Perrier, became a central factor in Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance in the 1970s. In its heyday it was considered the finest restaurant in the United States. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Philadelphia in the early 1970s underwent its first “restaurant renaissance.” Prior to that decade, many downtown workers and residents felt the city lacked a reputable dining-out scene; some joined one of Philadelphia’s many supper clubs to ensure a decent meal. While many new eateries in the 1970s, such as Alexander’s, Astral Plane, Broadway Eddie’s, Friday Saturday Sunday, Gilded Cage, Lickety Split, Knave of Hearts, and White Dog Café were casual and experimental, young, enterprising chefs such as Steve Poses (b.1947), Peter Frederick Von Starck (1942-84), and Georges Perrier (b.1944) introduced French nouvelle cuisine to local Baby Boomers eager to expand their palates. Several French restaurants appeared in the 1970s, including Le Pavillon, Lautrec, Les Amis, La Panetiere, Déjà vu, Frog, and the Bellevue-Stratford’s Versailles. Yet no other French restaurant in Greater Philadelphia received more accolades than Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin, which opened in 1970 on Spruce Street and later moved to larger quarters on Walnut Street. For several years Le Bec-Fin received the coveted Michelin three-star award and was considered among the finest restaurants in the United States. Besides French, northern Italian cuisine also defined the renaissance; following Gaetano’s (Seventh and Walnut) were the Monte Carlo Room (Second and South) and the Saloon (Seventh and Fitzwater).

Festival Marketplaces

As Philadelphia competed with suburban shopping malls and their food courts in the 1970s, the “festival marketplace” arrived with the Louis Sauer (b.1928)-designed New Market, a shopping-dining complex adjacent to Society Hill’s Headhouse Square. New Market’s restaurants ranged from the Dickens Inn (English pub fare) and Café Lisboa (Spanish-Portuguese) to Focolare (Italian) and the Rusty Scupper (seafood). In 1973, restaurateur Neil Stein (b.1941) opened the Fish Market at Eighteenth and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia. By the late 1990s, Stein’s restaurant empire included Marabella’s, Avenue B, the Striped Bass, and the city’s most popular sidewalk café, Rouge.

After Greater Philadelphia experienced capital flight, deindustrialization, and suburbanization through the 1980s, restaurants from the 1990s into the early decades of the twenty-first century played a major role in the region’s economy and signaled a second renaissance. New waves of immigration from Asia and Latin America remade the area’s restaurant scene by opening pho and dumpling houses, Korean BBQs, sushi bars, and taquerias in neighborhoods from East Passyunk Crossing to Cheltenham. By 1998, food service positions comprised nearly 12 percent of all employment in Philadelphia; in 2015, Pennsylvania had the country’s sixth-largest restaurant workforce. Towns in South Jersey, such as Collingswood and Haddonfield, also relied on restaurant growth for their economic vitality.

While mainstays such as Bookbinders and Le Bec-Fin lasted into the 2000s, a new generation of talented chefs challenged them by opening popular restaurants and catering to millennial tastes. They included Jose Garces (b.1971) (Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Rosa Blanca), Marc Vetri (b.1968) (Osteria, Amis, Vetri), Michael Solomonov (b.1978) (Zahav, Federal Donuts, Percy Street BBQ), and Chris Scarduzio (b.1965) (Brasserie Perrier, Table 31, Mia). By mid-decade, James Beard Foundation finalists and Top Chef contestants, including Marcie Turney (Lolita, Barbuzzo), Jennifer Carroll (b.1982) (10 Arts), Garces, and Masaharu Morimoto (b.1955) (Morimoto), further cemented Philadelphia’s national dining out profile with their acclaimed eateries.

Popularity of BYOBs

[caption id="attachment_19142" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photo of patrons eating outside of the Bufad pizzeria Bufad, a pizzeria, opened in 2013 in the Callowhill neighborhood. It is one of the city's many casual BYOB restaurants. (Photograph by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

With liquor licensing prohibitively expensive in Pennsylvania and New Jersey since Prohibition’s repeal, BYOBs thrived in both states; though Philadelphia contained more per capita than any other U.S. city, many towns in New Jersey, including Collingswood, Cherry Hill, and Haddonfield had thriving BYOB scenes. After 1995, with the debut of his revamped Continental diner in Old City, no other restaurateur in Greater Philadelphia was more recognized than Stephen Starr (b.1956). Using specific themes (French bistro, British pub) and echoing existing restaurants (New York’s Odeon, Hollywood’s Roscoe’s), Starr created popular eateries throughout Philadelphia (Buddakan, Pod, Talula’s Garden) and South Jersey (outposts of Continental and Buddakan in Atlantic City) that enlivened the region’s dining out scene. By 2012, his Rittenhouse Square bistro Parc was the highest-grossing among his more than twenty restaurants in four states.

Through centuries of urban growth, immigration, economic and cultural exchange, and changing culinary trends, the restaurants of Greater Philadelphia provided not only nourishment, employment, and entertainment but also allowed residents and visitors alike to experience and identify with the region.

Stephen Nepa teaches history and American studies at Temple University, Rowan University, and Moore College of Art and Design. A contributor to numerous books and journals, he also appears in the documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment and The Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic Philadelphia.

Superfund Sites

[caption id="attachment_18167" align="alignright" width="300"]The EPA superfund site sign at the site of the Quanta Resources in Edgewater, New Jersey. According to the EPA, Quanta Resources in Edgewater, New Jersey, contaminated the groundwater and soil of its site with arsenic, chromium, lead, and other chemicals that are harmful to human health. The remediation of the site remained in progress in 2015. (United States Environmental Protection Agency)[/caption]

As a region with a complex industrial history that generated numerous chemical, industrial, and landfill operations, by the late twentieth century Greater Philadelphia held some of the nation’s highest concentrations of environmentally hazardous “Superfund” sites. Named for the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), also known as “Superfund,” the designation of such sites led to penalties and cleanup enforcement, although some cases became mired in years (or decades) of costly litigation.

Congress and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Superfund following the discovery of 21,000 tons of buried toxic waste at Love Canal, New York, in 1978. The Superfund program imposed legal penalties on “potentially responsible parties” for generating pollution and forced those parties to pay (even retroactively) all or portions of a site’s remediation costs. After citizens, state agencies, or the EPA proposed sites for the Superfund registry, priority was determined by location (proximity to water, population, and/or wildlife), severity and level of contaminants, estimated cleanup costs, and the number or profiles of potentially responsible parties. If authorities found extreme environmental hazards, a site could be added to the National Priorities List and qualify for federal assistance.

Locally, chemical companies, manufacturing interests, oil refineries, and other industries had operated for many decades with few environmental regulations. The waste generated from those industries (and its disposal) created plumes of toxicity throughout Greater Philadelphia. When the Love Canal disaster occurred, its national profile alerted citizens and politicians to the potential for environmental dangers closer to home. Especially active in responding were congressmen and U.S. senators from New Jersey. U.S. Rep. James Florio (b.1937), a Democrat, authored the Superfund legislation and famously joked that cleaning all of his state’s sites would require “1,000 years.” (The EPA later estimated that cleaning New Jersey’s 235 trash dumps would require one-third of the $500 million initially allocated for the Superfund.) In 1983, Democratic Senators Bill Bradley (b.1943) and Frank Lautenberg (1924-2013) helped defeat a Republican-led proposal to eliminate the program after 1985. Bradley and Lautenberg, along with Pennsylvania Republican Senators Arlen Specter (1930-2012) and John Heinz (1938-91), helped to increase cleanup funds from $1.6 to $3.2 billion and extend the program through 1990.

More Than 200 Superfund Sites

Inventory of the toxic sites in the Philadelphia region began in the early 1980s, and by 2015 the region had more than two hundred designated Superfund sites in various stages of cleanup.  Philadelphia County had the most sites (forty-four), followed by Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (thirty-four), and New Castle County , Delaware (twenty-nine). In 2014, Philadelphia ranked as the nation’s second-most polluted county in the nation, and New Castle County contained more sites than many U.S. states. New Jersey ranked first among all U.S. states for Superfund (and National Priorities) sites. By 2015, the six New Jersey counties closest to Philadelphia (Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, and Mercer) contained sixty-five Superfund sites. Camden County, with fifteen known sites across 227 square miles, ranked as South Jersey’s most polluted per capita.  

Many of the region’s first sites to be placed on the National Priorities List were dormant landfills that posed immediate threats to soil and groundwater. In 1982, the Tybout’s Corner Landfill in New Castle, Delaware, judged as the nation’s second-most dangerous dumpsite, became that state’s first National Priority property. Tests of nearby Pigeon Creek and Red Lion Creek, which received municipal and Stauffer Chemical’s illegally deposited waste in the late 1960s and early 1970s, found more than twenty known carcinogens. With more than 100,000 people relying on nearby aquifers, the EPA in 1985 installed new water lines so that residents who had been dependent on contaminated wells could draw public water. After nine years of legal proceedings and cleanup, Tybout’s Corner came off the National Priorities registry in 1995.

[caption id="attachment_18168" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial view of Keasby and Mattison Company site in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The infamous “white mountains” of asbestos in Ambler, Pennsylvania, generated by Keasbey and Mattison Company into the 1970s and piled as high as ninety feet, can been seen in this aerial view from the 1930s. (United States Environmental Protection Agency)[/caption]

In a similar case, the former Lipari Landfill at Pitman, New Jersey, termed by a state environmental activist as “the nation’s number one toxic waste site,” received National Priorities List designation in 1983. From 1958 until 1971, trash and liquid waste had been placed in hastily dug pits without lining. By the late 1960s, toxic runoff was seeping into nearby Alcyon Lake, leading to its closure for recreational use. Worse, the landfill lay above the Cohansey Aquifer, which runs under a large portion of South Jersey. With the EPA monitoring cleanup (paid for by Lipari’s primary operator), the site came off the National Priorities List in 1995; a new Alcyon Lake Park, with athletic fields and picnic areas, opened in 1999. Several other former landfills, including Strasburg (Coatesville, Pennsylvania), Moyer’s (Eagleville, Pennsylvania), and Fort Dix (Pemberton, New Jersey) also were added to the list in the early 1980s.

Chemical Industry Sites

Several Superfund sites resulted from Greater Philadelphia’s chemical industry. In 1980, the EPA received an anonymous tip regarding several fifty-five gallon drums on a former dairy farm in Evesham, New Jersey. The later discovery of 300 illegally stored drums, many leaking trichloroethylene (TCE), prompted more than three decades of extraction, groundwater pumping, and soil remediation. In 2013, the EPA projected the site needed three additional years of cleanup before it could be deleted from the National Priorities List. In 1987, a multialarm fire at the vacant Publicker Industries site in Philadelphia beneath the Walt Whitman Bridge revealed 850,000 gallons of alcohol, antifreeze, cleansers, and PCB-contaminated oil. Later judged as the city’s worst Superfund site, cleanup of the thirty-seven acres was completed in the 1990s. The infamous “white mountains” of asbestos in Ambler, Pennsylvania (piled as high as ninety feet), generated by Keasbey and Mattison Company into the 1970s, once meant jobs and prosperity. A decade later, with high rates of mesothelioma in the suburban town, the piles made the National Priorities List. By 2015, with cleanup completed, regular soil testing continued on the undeveloped fifty-five-acre site. In Newport, Delaware, home to DuPont and other chemical firms for more than a century, a twenty-two-acre landfill bisected by the Christina River contained lead, cadmium, zinc, mercury, and other toxic substances. After the site’s placement on the National Priorities List in 1982, the EPA and DuPont completed remediation in 2002; in 2013, the rehabilitated site was converted  into a solar generating station.

[caption id="attachment_18169" align="alignright" width="300"]Image of firefighters at the Publicker Industries fire in 1992. Firefighters in 1992 move through a fire scene at the vacant Publicker Industries site in Philadelphia beneath the Walt Whitman Bridge—a return to the same place as a multi-alarm fire in 1987 that led to the discovery of 850,000 gallons of alcohol, antifreeze, cleansers, and PCB-contaminated oil. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In addition to the National Priorities Sites, dozens of others with less severe contamination were retrofitted under the Superfund program and continued to operate with periodic assessments by the EPA or state-level environmental agencies. These included shipyards, oil refineries, landfills, salvage yards, and rail facilities. In 1988, after removal of PCBs and more than 6,000 tons of debris, the Philadelphia Navy Yard was deleted from the Superfund list. By 2015, the fifty-seven-acre site hosted not only a naval maintenance facility but also new offices and green spaces. South Philadelphia’s Energy Solutions (formerly Sunoco) refinery, the largest on the East Coast, received citations in 2013 for violating air quality despite infrastructural updating. Camden’s Conrail-Pavonia Yard, South Jersey’s busiest for freight trains, remained an active Superfund site in 2015.    

Though several of the area’s most severe Superfund sites were remediated by the 2010s, others still required extensive sanitizing and monitoring. Many that remained active, such as Camden’s Harrison Avenue landfill and Marcus Hook’s East Tenth Street sludge lagoons, were located in poor, politically disadvantaged neighborhoods where cleanup procedures languished for years. Yet as Greater Philadelphia’s economy after the 1990s depended less on heavy industry and environmental regulations became stricter, the possibilities of future contamination decreased.  

Stephen Nepa received his M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple University. He teaches history at Temple University, Rowan University, and Moore College of Art and Design. He also has appeared in the Emmy Award-winning documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. 

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