Throughout June, we will be highlighting neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia, the people and places that make our city unique and strong. By the close of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia was recognized as both the "Workshop of the World" and a "City of Neighborhoods." Since that time, waves of economic and social change have continually re-shaped the city into the metropolis we know today. We look forward to sharing the backstory of several of our city's neighborhoods in the weeks ahead.
South of South
Bounded by South Street to the north, Broad Street to the east, Washington Avenue to the south, and the Schuylkill River to the west.
1650 – 1800
In the middle of the 17th century, Swedish colonizers claimed most of what is now South Philadelphia. The names of both Catharine and Christian Streets originate from this era; “Catharine” was the daughter of the first Swedish overseer of the land, and “Christian” is named in honor of Queen Christina of Sweden, who ruled at the time. With the arrival of the first British colonists, the neighborhood housed the estates of numerous founding Philadelphia families.
Grays Ferry Avenue was Philadelphia’s main gateway to and from points south. It followed established paths of Native Americans to the Schuylkill River. A ferry crossing was first created in 1696 and the Gray family operated a ferry and floating bridge at the site. The ferry brought many founding fathers to Philadelphia from the South, including George Washington when he entered the city as the nation’s first president.

1800 – 1865
After the founding of the nation, the area remained mostly rural and agricultural, though the first decades of the nineteenth century also witnessed the completion of the Schuylkill Arsenal, the U.S. Naval Asylum and Academy, followed by the Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore Railroad in 1838. Each would set the stage for the further development of the area, though only the Naval Asylum (aka the Naval Home) remains. By the 1840s, industrial activity coalesced on what is now Washington Avenue then Prime Street, in tandem with the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, Dense rows of worker housing followed, mostly along Broad Street and in the west along the Schuylkill River. 

1865 – 1900
After the Civil War the neighborhood took the shape we largely recognize today, with block after block of two- and three-story row houses filling in the available land. For the most part, those who lived in the neighborhood worked in the neighborhood. Factories along Washington Avenue, the Schuylkill River and in present day Center City employed most of the residents.

Demographically, the neighborhood was a mix of mostly Irish Catholics, upper-middle class white Presbyterians and upper-middle-class African Americans. As the decades passed, the neighborhood grew more solidly African American as black families migrated from the South as part of the earliest waves of the Great Migration.
1900 – 1950
By the turn of the twentieth century, the neighborhood was a hub of Philadelphia’s upper professional Black community, home to doctors, architects, lawyers and caterers, with bars, jazz clubs, concert venues, and community institutions to support the growing population. Several Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal congregations took over church buildings from departing white Episcopal or Presbyterian congregations. Some congregations, as in the case of Union Baptist, First African Baptist and Tindley Temple, financed and built their own beautiful sanctuaries (all still extant, though First African has been deconsecrated and transitioned to private commercial use).
Among the neighborhood’s most notable residents is Marian Anderson, the celebrated African-American contralto singer and former congregant of Union Baptist Church. Anderson resided at 726 S. Martin St from 1924 to 1943 and maintained ownership of the house through the 1980s. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and today is operated as a house museum under the leadership of The Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society
1950 – 1990
A combination of a decline in industrial employment and the devastating effects of racist lending practices, known as redlining , resulted in disinvestment in the community. Additionally, proposed plans for the Crosstown Expressway on South and Bainbridge Streets undermined the once-vibrant South Street commercial corridor west of Broad St. Though the Crosstown Expressway was never built - in the face of strong community opposition - the two-decade saga led many businesses and residents to leave the area, and the effects are still felt today. As people and businesses departed the neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s, illicit drug use and crime activity spiked. In spite of all this, many families remained and worked to maintain a strong community throughout and worked hard to keep their community safe and secure.

The presence of Graduate Hospital along South Street resulted in the neighborhood taking on a new identity, the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. The name persists to this day, even though the hospital closed its doors in 2007 and more recent waves of gentrification have suggested alternative neighborhood markers.
1990 – Present
From the 1990s through the 2010s, a rise in real estate investment and residential demand transformed hundreds of vacant lots into new single- and multi-family dwellings. The strong demand for housing in the area was fueled by proximity to growing employment centers, particularly “Eds and Meds” in Center City and University City. As a result, the demographics of the neighborhood changed yet again, and in dramatic fashion. What was a 90% African American neighborhood in 1990 is now 30% African American today. Many of the African American congregations departed the area and sold their historic church buildings for new residential construction. Meanwhile, the 19146 zip code, which roughly corresponds to the South of South neighborhood boundaries, now has the highest average household income in the city. 

South of South is a one-of-a-kind neighborhood home to new and longtime families, graduate students and senior residences, elementary schools and many remaining historic churches. Storefront businesses remain mostly locally owned and operated and patronized by those who live there. Despite the dramatic changes the neighborhood has witnessed over time, the neighborhood’s rich history can still be experienced in the buildings and institutions standing tall today.

Additional resources on the South of South neighborhood:


These neighborhood descriptions are not meant to represent the comprehensive story of these neighborhoods and places. They are more so vignettes, intended to highlight and recognize the varied places across Philadelphia that contribute to our shared built environment. The places which have been intentionally or unintentionally preserved in the past and which deserve further preservation today.
NEW VIRTUAL LECTURES
Watch from the safety and
comfort of your own home! 
Tuesday, June 30, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM
Eastern State Penitentiary - Behind Walls!
Presented by Sally Elk, President and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary.

Have you been to Eastern State Penitentiary since 2014? Sally Elk will take you there via her illustrated talk about her tenure as President and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary. After 20 years of abandonment, Eastern State reopened for tours in 1994. Sally's challenge has been the stewardship of this National Historic Landmark and ensuring its future. Hear about contemporary programming and why people pay money to be scared in the dark. You won't want to miss a virtual tour of this amazing site, learn about its amazing success, and hear how it is poised for the future.  
Tuesday, July 7th, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM
What Just Happened? Twenty Years of Transformation in Philadelphia
Presented by Inga Saffron, Architecture Critic, Philadelphia Inquirer and author of  Becoming Philadelphia: How an Old American City Made Itself New Again . Rutgers University Press, 2020. 

Inga will discuss the policies and physical changes that have shaped Philadelphia over the past two decades.
Inga's lecture is included in the Building Philadelphia full speaker series pass. Email jrobinson@preservationalliance.com if you aren't sure if you need to purchase a ticket for this or not.