South Street


Along its east-west course, South Street has been a space where different types of Philadelphians—white and Black, poor and wealthy, parochial and urbane, straight and gay—have met and mingled. From its early days as a theater district, it evolved through various incarnations: from a locus for African American life to a center for immigrant-owned garment shops; from a depopulating backwater slated for destruction to a booming destination for hip consumers. Throughout its rich history, South Street’s diversity and vibrancy have been its main attractions.

South Street (then known as Cedar Street) formed the original southern boundary of William Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia. In the eighteenth century, it was a liminal space between an increasingly cosmopolitan central city and rural townships to the south. Farmers came to hawk their wares at the New Market, which stood on today’s Headhouse Square at Second and South Streets. Southwark Theatre—Philadelphia’s first—was built on the southern side of the street, since Quaker doctrine forbade live performances within Philadelphia proper. Indeed, over the next three hundred years, South Street would continue to attract those who sought to live beyond the reach of Quaker-influenced city governance.

map of part of the seventh ward, showing broad and south streets in the center
South Street served as the Seventh Ward’s southern border (and Spruce Street its north) when W.E.B. Du Bois conducted his sociological study The Philadelphia Negro, examining the Seventh, which was a neighborhood predominantly populated by free African Americans in the late nineteenth century. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

By the early 1800s, South Street was becoming the epicenter of the city’s Black community. Freed slaves clustered near the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church—the first AME church in America—just north of South Street. After emancipation, Philadelphia’s Black community grew steadily as migrants came north, boosting its numbers from 31,699 in 1870 to 84,459 by 1910. With that growth, Black settlement extended westward to the Schuylkill River along the South Street corridor. Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) documented life in this densely packed neighborhood in his seminal 1899 study, The Philadelphia Negro. Meanwhile, the western blocks of South Street became a bustling African American shopping and entertainment strip. Black-owned restaurants were especially numerous. Walking down South Street, a recently arrived migrant from North Carolina remembered being met with strange and wonderful odors, the smell of coffee mingling with “spices and the strange, dank odor of the river.”

Wave of European Immigration

Beginning in the 1830s, African Americans were joined by an increasing number of European immigrants. Droves of Irish came to the area in search of work on the waterfront. In the 1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad built the Washington Avenue Immigration Station on a pier just south of South Street. Over the next forty-five years, hundreds of thousands of Italians, Poles, and eastern European Jews streamed through the station. Between 1870 and 1910, the number of Philadelphia’s Russian-born Jews rose from fewer than 100 to nearly 91,000. Arrivals listing Italian origins skyrocketed from 500 to 45,000. Many of those immigrants settled just north of the Immigration Station in row houses on or near South Street itself.

By the early twentieth century, South Street had evolved into a commercial corridor with multiple identities. The Shambles, an open-air food market, bustled just north of Second and South Streets. Garment workshops, warehouses, and stores dominated South Street’s eastern stretch, from the Delaware River to Sixth Street, along with adjacent Fabric Row on Fourth Street. These Jewish-owned shops were a less-expensive alternative to Center City’s department stores, and South Street bustled with shoppers looking for bargains. West of Broad Street, the area around South Street was populated by African Americans—some pushed westward by waves of European immigration, others recent migrants from the South. From 1900 to 1920, the number of Blacks living on the blocks around western South Street rose from 9,000 to 12,241. In this area, African American restaurants, churches, and cabarets thrived. In the 1910s, several Black-owned theaters opened on the western stretch of South Street. In the 1920s, Gibson’s Standard Theater hosted famous performers like the vaudeville entertainer Billy Higgins (1888-1937).

Photograph of the exterior of the Royal Theater, showing the marquee for the last show, as well as a for sale sign
When the Royal Theater opened its doors in 1920 it quickly became a center for African American arts and culture in Philadelphia. Patrons at the 1,200-seat theater could see performances by Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, and other prominent Black artists and entertainers. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In the decades that followed, South Street’s reputation for commerce and entertainment only grew. In 1963, the R&B group The Orlons christened South Street the “hippest street in town,” an homage to the Black hipsters who flocked to South Street’s nightclubs and cruised their cars up and down the strip. Throughout this era, popular novels like William Gardner Smith’s South Street (1954) depicted it as a contact zone—a place where different ethnicities and social classes interacted. South Street was the space where the black community rubbed up against white ethnics and where the working and middle classes met. All of that intermingling translated into excitement. As one of Smith’s characters remarked, “There was life in the air of South Street.”

The Expressway Threat

At the same time, however, South Street was beginning to experience the forces that contributed to its mid-century decline. The biggest blow came with the city’s announcement in the 1950s that it planned to bulldoze South Street and neighboring Bainbridge Street to make way for the eight-lane Crosstown Expressway. Real estate values along South Street plummeted. Vacancy rates soared as businesses and homeowners fled to other commercial districts. After years of traffic studies and funding delays, in 1966 the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation notified South Street’s remaining residents—many of whom were Black and impoverished—that their houses would finally be razed. In response, African American neighborhood leaders George T. Dukes (1931-2008) and Alice Liscomb (1916-2003) mobilized to oppose the planned highway, forming the Citizens Committee to Preserve and Develop the Crosstown Community.

Meanwhile, South Street’s eastern blocks were undergoing a limited revival. In 1964, the avant-garde Theatre of the Living Arts (TLA) opened on the 300 block of South Street. The TLA was an immediate hit. From 1964 to 1969, it sold over 250,000 tickets. The TLA also became a magnet for artists and elements of a burgeoning counterculture as they settled on nearby blocks to give South Street a bohemian air. As galleries and cafes began to spring up around the TLA, South Street was once again becoming a locus of creative energy—an entertainment destination for consumers from all over the region.

In the late 1960s, new residents joined with the existing community to continue fighting the planned Crosstown Expressway. In 1968, this coalition asked the architectural firm of Venturi and Rauch to conduct a study that would demonstrate South Street’s enduring vitality. Denise Scott Brown (b. 1931), the study’s lead author, argued that the city should preserve South Street’s valuable mix of low-cost shops and vernacular architecture. In 1970, a city-hired consultant agreed: The expressway no longer made fiscal or architectural sense. While various planners tried to revive the expressway during the 1970s, it met continued (and ultimately successful) resistance from neighborhood residents.

The Residents Prevail

As the threat of the expressway faded during the 1970s, South Street’s eastern half grew into a lively commercial district. Hip restaurants like the Black Banana and Lickety Split joined feminist bookstores, natural foods stores, and a growing number of galleries. South Street also began to attract many gays and lesbians. In 1973, Giovanni’s Room bookstore opened at 232 South Street. The shop became a center for Philadelphia’s gay community, hosting poetry readings and community meetings.

Color photograph of a crowd gatehred on South Street, celebrating around a maypole with colorful streamers on top
In the twenty-first century South Street is both a commercial and residential area where Philadelphians and visitors gather to eat, drink, and see and be seen. (Visit Philadelphia)

South Street’s resurgence accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s as newspapers and magazines broadcast the allure of the South Street scene to a broader metropolitan readership. Weekend arts festivals and outdoor concerts drew visitors from all over Greater Philadelphia. The Odunde Festival, a celebration of African and African American culture, was held yearly on the western blocks of South Street. Upscale businesses that catered to increasingly wealthy residents of Bella Vista and Queen Village (neighborhoods to the immediate south of South Street) sprung up. They were joined by edgier storefronts—tattoo parlors, punk-themed record stores, and sex shops—that catered to a youth market. As in decades past, South Street emerged as a heterogeneous commercial corridor, its sidewalks thronged with a diverse range of shoppers.

In the early 2010s, however, the tenuous racial peace that had reigned on South Street was threatened. Hundreds of teenagers, many of them Black, massed on South Street in what city officials called “flash mobs.” There were reports of violence and vandalism; police arrested a handful of youths and enacted a strict curfew. Some media outlets blamed the incidents on social networking, others on poverty and disaffection. Still others claimed that they were simply organized dance parties. Whatever the case, the so-called “flash mobs” demonstrated that racialized fears lurked under South Street’s veneer of diversity. As the western strip of South Street rapidly gentrified in the 2010s—transitioning from majority-Black to majority-white in just a few years—it remained to be seen if the street could retain the peaceable cosmopolitanism that had been its hallmark.

Dylan Gottlieb is a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, where he works on recent American urban history. His latest publication is “ ‘Closer to Heaven’: Race and Diversity in Suburban America,” which was published in the Journal of Urban History. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Seventh Ward Map

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

South Street has long functioned as a dividing line between many different groups in Philadelphia’s history. The area displayed here is part of the city’s old Seventh Ward, which extended from Twenty-Third Street in the west to Sixth Street in the east. South Street was the Seventh Ward’s southern border, Spruce Street its north. W.E.B. Du Bois conducted his sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, in the Seventh Ward, which was a neighborhood predominantly populated by free African Americans in the late nineteenth century. Part of the ward is shown here, on a map made and printed for DuBois’ study.

Alexander Young Grain Distillery

Library Company of Philadelphia

This trade card from 1865 shows an image of the Alexander Young Grain Distillery, which was located along the 400 block of South Street. Before becoming a rye whiskey factory, the building was home to the Southwark Theater, which closed its doors in 1817. Proximity to the Delaware River allowed many businesses at the eastern end of South Street to easily move their goods to the pier and onto ships for distribution.

At the Foot of South Street

Library Company of Philadelphia

Drawn in 1922, this is artist Frank H. Taylor’s depiction of the South Street Pier in the early twentieth century. Describing the image, Taylor wrote, “Old-timers of the river wards yet recall the days when the Delaware River front was fringed with a forest of loft spars and intricate cordage; when the jib-booms and bow hamper of ships-of-sail projected far inshore from every wharf. This scene, drawn at the foot of South Street, hints of the survival, in the battle with steam, of the hardy schooner type of sea-going craft, a fine example of which has poked its nose in among iron freighters, demanding a share of the business with which fussy locomotives, drays and motors constantly clutter piers.”

Taylor has captured a chaotic scene, as carriages and an automobile vie for space on the busy road and try to avoid trolley tracks. A handful of ships, the schooner most prominent, crowd the background. Steam billows from both a ship and a locomotive.

South Street, 1940

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

By the 1940s horse-drawn carriages had mostly disappeared from South Street, though the electric trolley tracks had not. The southern limit of Center City was a busy commercial corridor at this time, as evidenced by the many storefronts and scarce parking. The trolley would have run west to east along the bustling one-way street and provided easy, hassle-free transportation for tourists and Philadelphians alike.

The Royal Theater

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

When the Royal Theater opened its doors in 1920 it quickly became a center for African American arts and culture in Philadelphia. Patrons in the 1,200-seat theater could see performances by Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, and other prominent black artists and entertainers. When plans for the Crosstown Expressway were announced in the 1960s, the Royal and its surrounding neighborhood began to suffer, and as many of Philadelphia’s segregation laws were removed, black Philadelphians moved to and patronized other parts of the city and surrounding areas. The Royal Theater closed in 1970 and though the building in 2015 continued to stand on the 1500 block of South Street, its infrastructure needed repairs and its future was uncertain.

South Street West of Broad

The western blocks of South Street between Broad Street and the Schuylkill River changed dramatically as gentrification took hold in the early twenty-first century. Besides an increase in new housing and a surge in trendy restaurants and bars, the blocks just west of Broad Street are occasionally closed to traffic for street festivals that attract thousands. This photograph from May 2015 shows a Food Trust Night Market in which food trucks and other vendors lined the street, drawing dense crowds from 6 to 10 p.m. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

300 Block of South Street

Visit Philadelphia

Though the Royal Theater closed its doors in 1970, South Street’s vibrant artistic community persisted, even during the city’s economic downturns and demographic shifts. The Theater of Living Arts, commonly called the TLA, is shown here in the early twenty-first century. The building opened in 1908 under the name “Crystal Palace,” a nickelodeon with over 500 seats. Over the century the building served as a concert hall, movie theater, and playhouse, and closed or nearly closed multiple times, only to be bought and reopened by investors or dedicated theater lovers and former employees. In its most recent incarnation, the building in 1988 was converted into a live concert venue and has been operating as the Theater of Living Arts. The TLA attracts large audiences to its wide variety of shows, and the performances often sell out.

(Photograph by Kevin Gilpen for South Street Headhouse District)

South Street Bridge

Visit Philadelphia

The original South Street Bridge opened in 1920 and connected the city via South Street to West Philadelphia, passing over the Schuylkill River. By the early 2000s the bridge’s infrastructure was crumbling and in April 2003 a large piece of the bridge fell onto Interstate 76, which passes underneath. This accident, among others, prompted Philadelphia to close the bridge and fix its structural problems. In July 2009, the bridge reopened and now is the most-biked-across bridge in Pennsylvania, owing partly to its proximity to the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and other schools. The South Street Bridge is often considered an iconic part of the Philadelphia skyline, seen here in 2010, newly rebuilt and embellished with artistically lighted stanchions. (Photograph by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia)

South Street Spring Festival

Visit Philadelphia

In the twenty-first century South Street is both a commercial and residential area where Philadelphians and visitors gather to eat, drink, and be merry. The South Street Spring Festival, shown here in 2014, is held annually in early May. Vendors, craftspeople, and residents celebrate May Day together on a closed-off section of the street as musicians provide free entertainment. The South Street Spring Festival often kicks off the street-fair season. (Photograph by South Street Headhouse District)

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Adams, Carolyn et al. Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Postindustrial City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Hunter, Marcus A. Black Citymakers: How The Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Klemek, Christopher. The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Rotella, Carlo. October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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