Author Archives: Ken Finkel

Misty Eyed for Market Shambles

As early Philadelphia expanded, the city’s spine of market shambles kept up. “The market could…be conveniently extended in the same plan,” wrote an observer in 1809, almost giddy that Philadelphia might be able to maintain its century-old shopping traditions in the new century. But 19th-century growth would outpace everyone’s expectations, rendering the last remaining shambles […]
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The Food Market Bubble of 1859

“The completion of the market between the two rivers will probably take place in the present generation,” wrote an anonymous commentator in 1809, adding “a uniform, open arcade mathematically straight, two miles in length, perfect in its symmetry… will never be a contemptible object.” But the coming generation of Philadelphians wouldn’t be so patient, or […]
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Is “Gentrification” Going the Way of “Slum”?

When it comes to talking about urban change, words serve their purpose, until they are considered inadequate, wrong or just go out of style. “Slum” and “urban renewal” for instance. Usage of these terms peaked in the second half of the 1960s, but then faded. Could it be we’re beginning to see a similar downturn […]
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No Coal; No Peace – The Story of Philadelphia’s 1918 Coal Famine

Every day in the depths of winter, coal cars trundled down Washington Avenue supplying the city’s lifeblood. You wouldn’t know it looking at the trackless six lanes of blacktop today, but locomotives once hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of anthracite to at least thirty coal yards between 2nd and 25th Streets. Coal powered nearly […]
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Life Finds a Way On The Locust Strip

The Top Hat Cafe opened at 1235 Locust in the early 50s, and almost immediately slid off the rails. Outside the bar, on March 1, 1952, Nicholas Virgilio “was slapping around a 16-year old girl…when a sailor grabbed his hand to stop him.” Virgilio, 23, known as “Lothario of the taprooms” a/k/a “Nicky the Blade” […]
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Philadelphia and the American Infatuation with Tear Gas

“I rob banks,” Willie Sutton famously quipped, “because that’s where the money is.” Sutton didn’t realize that’s also where the tear gas was. Disguised as postal messengers early one morning in February 1933, Sutton and a partner in crime gained entrance to the Corn Exchange National Bank & Trust at 60th and Ludlow Streets. They […]
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Philadelphia’s Zombie Apocalypse? Lippard’s “Last Day of the Quaker City”

“The river became the scene of a strange and awful spectacle. “The waves were suddenly crowded by a fleet of coffins, tossed wildly to and fro, each coffin borne upon the surface of the waters like a boat, with the foam dashing over its dull dark outlines. And in each coffin sat a corpse, with […]
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Philadelphia’s Scarlet Streak

Even though he despised the color, as long as Frank Rizzo carried a badge the patrol cars of the Philadelphia Police were lipstick red. Rizzo snapped at officers who spoke of them as “red cars” and one can only imagine what he said when he heard them referred to as “rotten tomatoes” or “red devils.” […]
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Philadelphia Politics and the Presidential Campaign of 1932

Herbert Hoover wasn’t in Philadelphia long during his campaign swing for re-election in October 1932, and he didn’t have much to say. In fact, Hoover’s entire visit lasted only 30 minutes. Still, Philadelphians turned out in a major way for the Republican incumbent—an estimated 30,000—“the biggest assemblage massed in the central city district in years” […]
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The Walnut Lane Bridge: Poetry in Poured Concrete

Sauntering in the deep recesses of Fairmount Park a century ago, Christopher Morley and his know-everything guide were just about “to sentimentalize upon the beauty of nature and how it shames the crass work of man” when they came upon “what is perhaps the loveliest thing along the Wissahickon – the Walnut Lane Bridge.” “Leaping […]
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