A History of Gentrification in Philadelphia

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia has a recent entry about the history of a phenomenon often in social justice and community dialog: Gentrification. The history in the Rutgers University online reference project includes photographs from the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University Libraries. It’s a very readable and fairly comprehensive explanation of what gentrifying is and how it has changed the city.

Society Hill Towers -  Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, via the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Society Hill Towers –
Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, via the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Even as Philadelphia experienced deindustrialization and decline in the 1970s, a handful of neighborhoods began to experience a phenomenon known as gentrification—a process where affluent individuals settled in lower-income areas. As middle-class residents returned, formerly moribund commercial corridors came alive with restaurants and shops catering to the well-heeled. Soon, real estate prices began to creep upwards. By spurring renovation and elevating housing values, gentrification broadened the city’s tax base. Yet such changes also came with a cost: the social disruption and displacement of existing residents.

As the article’s author Dylan Gottlieb explains,  gentrification was made possible by institutions already segregating Philadelphians along racial and economic lines. Suburbs that were seeded as escapes for Philly’s gentry of the late 1800’s and early 20th century exploded in population during the post World War 2 baby boom and the “White Flight” of the decades following:

“By 1960, the surrounding suburbs were more populous than Philadelphia itself. With the rapid loss of human and monetary resources in the central city and the expansion of wealthier, primarily white suburbs, the stage had been set for gentrification in Greater Philadelphia.”

The migration out of the city of its wealthiest residents meant lost tax income to Philadelphia, and local politicians and business leaders undertook various projects with agencies like the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the  Old Philadelphia Development Corporation to attract middle-class residents back to Center City.

This meant renovating entire neighborhoods for an aesthetic that could be advertised to prospective home-buyers, in communities that had become mostly low-income and largely African-American and other minorities, who could not afford to remodel their homes to new guidelines.

One of the first neighborhoods to be gentrified was Society Hill, which “had fallen into such disrepair and infamy” by the late 1940’s that it had earned the name “The Bloody Fifth Ward.”

According to the Encyclopedia:

“Homesteaders and developers were encouraged to renovate the neighborhood’s row houses themselves. Many hundreds of enterprising individuals did just that. Armed with generous mortgages, these gentrifiers were careful to heed OPDC’s stringent guidelines for historical verisimilitude. At the same time, other historical features were sacrificed in the name of development. The Dock Street Market, the city’s principal food market since the late eighteenth century, was razed to make way for three I.M. Pei-designed modernist residential towers”

“To achieve the transformation of the area, the City Planning Commission called for the elimination of blighted late nineteenth-century buildings and retail establishments. In doing so, it prompted the mass displacement of the neighborhood’s poorer residents. Unable to meet the costs of renovation, long-term residents—many African American—were forced to sell their historic properties. Even though black residents fought gentrification—forming an anti-displacement group that demanded low-income housing options—their efforts were largely unsuccessful. From 1960 to 1970, the neighborhood’s percentage of nonwhite residents fell from 20 percent to 7 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of college-educated adults in the neighborhood shot up from under four percent in 1950 to 64 percent by 1980. As anticipated, property values soared, rising nearly 250 percent during the 1960s.”

Society Hill, and Queen’s Village, are gentrification projects which the article notes were rare relative “successes.” Philly still gushed residents at the county lines:

“Indeed, the effect of these localized neighborhood transformations could not stem the continued exodus from the city. From 1970 to 1990, Philadelphia lost over 18 percent of its remaining residents, its population falling to nearly a half a million people below its postwar peak. As manufacturing jobs continued to decline—from 350,000 in 1950 to a meager 31,000 by 2005—white working-class residents fled to suburbs in Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey.”

Gottlieb goes on the describe the contributions of Universities to gentrification in the neighborhood surrounding their campuses, and the questionable benefit of projects that purport to “successfully” gentrify to any benefit to the City as a whole.

“Even as the city government struggled to balance the costs and benefits of neighborhood revival, many areas remained untouched by the effects of gentrification. Further from the booming downtown, neighborhoods continued to suffer from abandonment and decay. In 2013, there were still 4,000 buildings and over 10,000 lots sitting empty in Lower Northeast Philadelphia. For every new town house built in Graduate Hospital or Queen Village, scores of crumbling row houses were demolished in Nicetown and Kensington. Across the Delaware River, Camden, New Jersey, still awaited significant revitalization. Disinvestment only intensified after the financial crisis of 2008, as banks tightened up loan requirements and refused to extend credit to the most blighted areas.”  The full entry: Gentrification | Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

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