Fifty Years Before the War on Poverty

531 Delancey Street Lodging House – 2nd Floor Front. February 27, 1912. (PhillyHistory.org)

Mayor J. Hampton Moore knew better when he remarked, in 1933, that “Philadelphia was too proud to have slums.” Indeed, the city had some of the worst housing conditions anywhere in America. Philadelphia’s labyrinth of courts and alleys were lined with tenements that went back a long, long time—despite the best efforts of those who didn’t deny their existence.

Ignoring slums had been just about impossible since 1909, thanks to a citizens’ action group that called itself the Philadelphia Housing Commission. The Commission (which later became the Philadelphia Housing Association) “recruited an army of volunteer housing inspectors” who “combed the city’s courts and alleys looking for noxious heaps of manure… fouled privies, structurally unsafe houses, and other threats to public health and safety.” They filed complaints by the thousands. And more: they spread the word about the city’s slum conditions, advocating for reform in lectures, leaflets, meetings and, maybe most effective of all – in photographs.

Then it should have come as some relief to the city’s thousands of slum tenants and their allies when, in 1913, the state legislature passed an act creating a Division of Housing and Sanitation in the Department of Health and Charities. But the signed bill would have no impact, thanks to the inaction of City Council. The city’s slums remained intact; housing reform in Philadelphia would have to wait.

“Better government in Philadelphia is being slowly strangled,” editorialized The Evening Public Ledger in October 1914. The “cold fingers” of “Philadelphia’s Tammany twisting dexterously through a pliable majority in Councils” are failing to require landlords “to keep their properties in such repair as to make them healthy places to live in. By refusing to appropriate funds necessary to put the law into effect the majority members completely nullified it. It is now as good as dead, killed by Councils.”

840 Lombard Street, September 4, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

Without funding, tenement occupants without water would continue to have no water; those without connections to sewers would have no sewers. Their unsafe stairways would continue to be unsafe; their broken plumbing, leaky roofs, flooded cellars and windowless rooms would remain intact.

Housing reform wasn’t only the right thing to do for the poor, largely immigrant families “caught on the treadwheel of life.” Removing slums was also about improving the overall health of the city. “Many of the future inmates of blind asylums, tubercular hospitals and prisons are made from a childhood spent amid defective living conditions,” argued The Evening Public Ledger. “Darkness, impure air, dampness, dirt and dilapidation are public enemies.”

If the lack of funding of hard-won legislation was killing reform, the Philadelphia Housing Commission would have to get back to work. No matter that the city’s slum conditions were out of sight and out of mind. Photographers documented them; and the Commission commandeered a storefront window on one of the city’s busiest streets to show how bad slum conditions were.

In November 1914, the Philadelphia Housing Commission’s sidewalk display in the window of the Sharswood Building, 931 Chestnut Street, opened eyes of those who would never otherwise see slums themselves. In the center of the window, the Commission mounted The Evening Public Ledger’s editorial demanding reform. Surrounding it, they hung pictures that attracted the attention of hundreds of “shoppers, merchants, ministers, physicians, lawyers, laborers and visitors” passing by. They were “surprised to see that conditions such as pictured… actually existed in the 20th century in this city;” they were disturbed that the conditions “told by the camera” were of homes lived-in only a few blocks away from the storefront exhibition.

Slums – 1225 Pine Street, August 14, 1914. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Welfare Workers Charge Councils with Responsibility for Evil Conditions” read The Evening Public Ledger headline about the display. And in 1915,the Philadelphia Housing Commission would prevail with the passage and the funding of the city’s first comprehensive housing code. But, as housing advocates knew so well, implementation would require monitoring: ongoing data collection, filing of complaints and vigilant public information campaigns.

Despite laws, agencies and advocacy, the rising number of poor residents in Philadelphia resulted in more, not less, one-room tenements. In 1922, the Philadelphia Housing Commission filed more than 8,000 complaints with the city and wrote of the ongoing problem: “The City knows that families, like rats, have taken to cellars to cook, eat and work… The City knows that the 4,837 tenements and the 2,465 rooming houses recorded are far below the actual number… The City knows there is a teeming population … in narrow alleys and courts and minor streets, approximating 60,000 persons…”

Philadelphia’s first housing code was not nearly enough. More powerful, comprehensive and systemic interventions would be needed to mount an effective war on poverty. Yet, the citizens campaign of 1914 had been a start. And in time, government would again follow their lead.

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