In the Heart of Philadelphia’s “Lead Belt”

Caption (PhillyHistory)

Southeast Corner – 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (

It didn’t make sense.

In the mid-1960s, several public schools in Kensington and North Philadelphia were performing dramatically below both national and local standards. In reading and arithmetic, fourth graders in these schools (all in Philadelphia’s District 5) were, according to Peter Binzen, “a year and two months behind national norms and three months behind the Philadelphia city average.” Of all the city’s 195 elementary schools, “the one with the lowest fourth-grade reading score was located dead in the middle of District 5,” wrote Binzen. “The total performance of children in this school was abysmal.”

Was it something in the air? Maybe in the water? Or in the street grit?

Herbert Needleman, a public health physician at Penn, had a hunch that might be the case. About the same time as Binzen was conducting research for Whitetown, U.S.A., Needleman set out to measure the lead levels of inner city children, and targeted those of District 5. Ideally, Needleman would have wanted bone biopsies to obtain the most reliable data, but that wasn’t possible. So he adopted a method employed by environmental scientist and peace activist Barry Commoner who raised public awareness about cancer-causing strontium-90 from nuclear tests. Commoner obtained his data by analyzing children’s teeth. Needleman collected 69 baby teeth in District 5 and compared their lead levels to those of a control group from District 8, in the Northeast section of the city.

Detail: Southeast Corner - 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (

Detail: Southeast Corner – 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (

Results of the “tooth fairy project,” as it became known, were published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “Urban children had nearly five times the concentration observed in their suburban counterparts.” Lead poisoning in District 5, manifested in psychological and neurological symptoms, including permanent developmental delays, would be described as “stark and startling.” The contrast with data collected in District 8? Cases of lead poisoning in the Northeast were “vanishingly rare.” See this map by Miad Ahmed Alfaqih.

The “tooth fairy project” became a watershed public health moment. District 5 would gain notoriety as Philadelphia’s “lead belt,” and lead would be considered a severe, national, public health problem—one not entirely understood and very much out of control.

Continuing his research, Needleman reported on what he found in District 5’s schools identified only by their initials. “PT” is Potter-Thomas at 6th and Indiana, “PLD” is Paul Laurence Dunbar at 12th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore); “JRL” is James R. Ludlow, at 6th and Master; “GC” is George Clymer at 12th and Rush; “JE” as James Elverson at 13th and Susquehanna; and “JF” is Joseph Ferguson at 7th and Norris. In these schools, and others, Needleman’s team collected and tested “interior dust,” “playground dirt” and “gutter dirt.” They tested 219 children for lead and confirmed their earlier, grim findings.

Children growing up in Philadelphia’s “lead belt” were seriously at risk.

Lead-laden industrial Philadelphia had left a toxic legacy behind. The area known as Philadelphia’s “lead belt” had long been home to the Philadelphia Lead Works, Standard White Lead, Color and Putty Works, Western White Lead Co., as well as other 19th-century and 20th-century manufacturers upwind from the tested schools. They spewed pollution, tainted the water, soil and dust. More: the very houses citizens called home had been painted, again and again, with “pure white lead” paint. Thousands of deteriorating, 19th-century homes coated with layers of chipping and peeling paint were poisoning their occupants. In an environment this compromised, with lead embedded in everything and everywhere, researchers found startling levels in their samples collected inside the schools, from playgrounds, from the streets. Lead had made its way into the teeth, into the blood and into the brains of growing, learning children.

They didn’t have a chance.

Lead paint would be banned in 1978. But according to the 2014 Childhood Lead Surveillance Annual Report, Philadelphia still ranks as Pennsylvania’s “top county for children under 7 years of age tested for lead.” Experts believe 10 percent of Philadelphia’s children have “elevated blood lead levels”—maybe higher—they don’t really know. Even today, decades later, the vast majority of children are not even tested.

It still doesn’t make sense.

[Sources include: Laura Benshoff, Eleanor Klibanoff, Marielle Segarra and Irina Zhorov, The Legacy of Lead in Pennsylvania Cities, Keystone Crossroads (2016); America’s ‘Lead Wars’ Go Beyond Flint, Mich.: ‘It’s Now Really Everywhere,’ Fresh Air, NPR, March 3, 2016; Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (California/Milbank Books: 2014); Herbert Needleman, et al. “Lead Levels in Deciduous Teeth of Urban and Suburban American Children,” Nature, January 1972, Vol. 235, Issue 5333; “Subclinical Lead Exposure in Philadelphia Schoolchildren — Identification by Dentine Lead Analysis,The New England Journal of Medicine, 1974, 290: 245-248; and “Dentine Lead Levels in Asymptomatic Philadelphia School Children: Subclinical Exposure in High and Low Risk Groups,” Environmental Health Perspectives, May 1974, Vol. 7; Peter Binzen, Whitetown U.S.A. (Random House, 1970); 1976 Bulletin Almanac (The Evening and Sunday Bulletin, 1976).]

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Philadelphia’s Central High School in Perspective

The original Central High School building, Juniper and Market Streets, c.1850.

The original Central High School building, Juniper and Market Streets, c.1850.

The effort of a free people to provide for the education of their children as a necessity for the maintenance of the their political institutions makes a story of interest and importance. Especially is this true when the movement meets with criticism and opposition, when its leaders are hampered by the absence of any general appreciation of the value of the issue, and when violent prejudice of race, religion, and class is aroused and must be overcome. 

-Franklin Spencer Edmonds, 1902

For some perspective about the dismal state of today’s Philadelphia public school system: a century ago, a high school education was a luxury, not a necessity.  According to a recent article in The Atlantic: “Teens didn’t create ‘high school.’ High schools created teenagers.'”  In the 1920s, only 28 percent of American children attended high school.    For the rest of America’s teenagers, adulthood began at 14. This meant getting a job to help make ends meet: helping their parents out on the family farm, stocking the shelves at the mom-and-pop, or learning a trade such as carpentry, shipbuilding, or baking.  For the very poor, work began even younger than that: rolling cigars or sewing garments in dark, ill-ventilated sweatshops; picking stones out of coal on conveyor belts (breaker boys); collecting full spools of thread in a textile mill (bobbin boys); selling copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer on street corners (newsies), or shoveling coal into the boilers of a foundry. Child labor was not formally abolished by the Federal government until 1938, with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

During the first half of the twentieth century, those students lucky enough to attend public high school went to classes in grand buildings that looked more like castles than schools.  West Philadelphia High School, completed in 1910, had an auditorium equipped with a pipe organ. In those days, a public high school degree was generally sufficient enough to propel a graduate into the white collar middle class.  The city’s Roman Catholic population turned to an extensive network of parochial schools to provide reasonably priced education to its youth.  St. Joseph’s Preparatory in North Philadelphia was one such institution that traditionally gave working class Roman Catholics a chance at a better life than their Italian, Irish, German, or Polish immigrant parents.

Yet a college education, public or private, was out-of-the-question except for the rich or exceptionally hardworking student. If a public school graduate gained admission to Penn or Temple University, they typically commuted to and from their parents’ house by trolley or elevated rail, and had to juggle jobs and family obligations in addition to their studies.  My grandfather, a 1926 graduate of West Philadelphia High School, paid for his undergraduate studies at Penn’s Wharton School with money earned from dance band gigs.

The city’s expensive preparatory schools–which catered to the Rittenhouse Square/Chestnut Hill aristocracy–were all but closed to the city’s burgeoning immigrant and African-American populations.  They were also the surest feeders to the Ivy League, with few questions asked.

Then there was Central High School, a magnet high school that was arguably one of the most powerful engines of economic mobility in the city.  Founded in 1836, it is the second-oldest continuously operating public school in the United States. Its first home was at the intersection of 13th and Market Streets, and started holding classes only just after the Philadelphia city fathers rather grudgingly conceded to fund a public school system.  Much of the push for free education for Philadelphia’s children came from Quaker activists such as Roberts Vaux, who objected that parents had to declare shameful  “pauper status” in order to send their children to a charity school.

Central High School building at North Broad and Green Streets, March 8, 1910.

Central High School building at North Broad and Green Streets, March 8, 1910.

Once established, Central High School gained the financial support of several of Philadelphia’s richest families, including the Whartons and the Biddles. Central’s first president was Alexander Dallas Bache, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania and grandson of Benjamin Franklin.  Over the next century, Central was housed in a series of grand structures until the 1930s, when it settled in its current Art Deco campus in the Logan section of North Philadelphia.  Its counterparts in other cities include Boston Latin in Boston and Stuyvesant High School in New York. An applicant had to pass a grueling entrance examination, but once in, he (it remained all-boys until a 1975 Supreme Court ruling) found himself surrounded–and pushed to excel– by the best and brightest students from all over the city.  For many, it was their best shot at making it into a top college, and then onward to a successful career, in Philadelphia or beyond.  The school’s alumni roster reads like a who’s who of Philadelphia’s meritocracy: linguist Noam Chomsky, artists Thomas Eakins, architect Louis Kahn, mayor Wilson Goode, and industrialist Simon Guggenheim.

Yet students who had grown up in tightly-knit neighborhoods, rigidly segregated by ethnicity and class, the transition could be just as difficult as it was thrilling.

To be continued… 

Rendering for Central High School's Logan campus, August 1936.

Rendering for Central High School’s Logan campus, August 1936.


Derek Thompson, “America in 1915: Long Hours, Crowded Houses, Death by Trolley,” The Atlantic, February 11, 2016,, accessed March 14, 2016.

Franklin Spencer Edmonds, History of the Central High School of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1902), pp. 7, 13, 35.

“List of Alumni of Central High School,” Wikipedia,,_Pennsylvania), accessed March 14, 2016.

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A Trail of Abandoned Cars

East side of 9th St. Between Master & Jefferson Sts. July 12, 1954. (

East side of 9th St. Between Master & Jefferson Sts. July 12, 1954. (

Cars transformed America’s landscape and cityscape—and hardly for the better. In 1925, a million vehicles jammed the nation’s junkyards. Before the decade was out, nearly three million cars a year were stopping in their tracks. “A good number ended up working as stationary engines to run farm equipment,” tells Tom McCarthy in Auto Mania. Old cars ended up as landfill, pushed into abandoned quarries or into foundations for new buildings. Along the Mississippi River cars found an afterlife bulking up levees.

“Wrecking and scrapping” became big business. But abandoned cars soon hogged the majority of dump space. So, more and more often they were simply left where they stopped. Best guess: by the mid-1960s, the nation had 30,000,000 car carcasses littering the landscape. That’s a 47-square-mile problem, big enough to blanket more than a third of the entire city of Philadelphia.

Abandoned cars were thought to be “breeding places for rats and mosquitoes” and, worse than eyesores, curbside wrecks “provided a prominent visual index” for the “deteriorating quality of urban life.”

In Detroit, Motor City itself, the number of abandoned cars grew from 2,000 in 1964 to 13,000 two years later. New York’s count quintupled between 1960 and 1963 and again between 1964 and 1969, growing to 70,000. By the late 1980s, New York’s population of abandoned cars would double. But then the New Yorkers successfully cracked down, heading into the Millennium with less than 10,000.

Hmmm. If New York could do it, figured the campaigning candidate John Street as the mayoral election of 1999 approached, certainly Philadelphia could, too.

Philadelphia’s own formidable backlog of abandoned cars also seemed countless, and bottomless. More than 12,500 had been hauled off the streets in 1985. Three years later, authorities towed twice that number. A decade later, 23,000 replacements sat curbside. What better a campaign promise than to rid the city of its most visible and most unwanted?

Junk Car and Trash. 2329 N. 10th St., July 12, 1954. (

Junk Car and Trash. 2329 N. 10th St., July 12, 1954. (

Through the Millennium Winter, Philadelphians counted curbside carcasses. Forty thousand. Though the target wasn’t moving, it was expanding. Every week, citizens called in another thousand.

Removing all the wrecks would be a Herculean effort, but Street was committed to “blight removal.” In addition to towing cars, he aimed “to raze dangerous houses and commercial buildings around town in a $250 million program” to be named the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative—NTI.  And, as some liked to point out, it launched, in the Spring of 2000, a promise of “biblical” proportions, a gigantic 40,000-car disappearing act that would last for 40 days.

On the very first day 1,028 vehicles were hauled away from the streets of West and North Philadelphia. Authorities slapped large electric-green stickers onto “trashcars without vehicle identification numbers, those “valued at less than $500.” More than two dozen salvagers directing 127 tow-trucks targeted the stickered vehicles for immediate crushing. For every wreck removed and recycled, the city earned $25.

The whole operation depended on a healthy market for scrap steel, something that had been missing for many decades.

McCarthy writes: “The postwar scrap metal market peaked in 1956,” when 41,000,000 tons of scrap were sold “to domestic and foreign steel makers.” Soon after that, the scrap market collapsed. Steelmakers modernized, replacing open-hearth furnaces that could work with a higher proportion of scrap metal. “The new basic oxygen furnaces used just 20-25 percent scrap. This change alone effectively halved the steel industry’s demand for scrap metal. … When steelmakers began substantially to reduce their overall demand for scrap, the market…practically vanished.”

And American cities found themselves awash in abandoned cars.

Philadelphia salvagers sold their steel at the going rates, which plummeted from $80 to $55 a ton just before Mayor Street’s campaign got underway. The value of a “crushed Chevy” dropped by nearly a third.

So. Was Philly’s biblical-slash-millennial sweep the stuff of legend, or merely urban legend?

Depends who’s asking, who’s talking and how they’re framing the facts. In 2002, Mayor Street spoke of removing 100,000 cars. Before she left office, Councilwoman Marian Tasco reminisced NTI’s “removal of 224,886 abandoned cars.” Deborah Lynn Becher writes of a more modest, but still impressive, 60,000 disappearing cars. But Haverford College political scientist Stephen J. McGovern claimed the city towed 33,318 cars in forty days.

Not quite 40K in 40 days. But in its modest asymmetry, moving, crushing and recycling 33,318 abandoned cars has the makings of a good tale—and maybe even a believable one.

[Sources include: Tom McCarthy, Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007); “Fighting the Abandoned Car Problem,” by Bill Price, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 1989; “Street Plans Sweep of 40,000 Junk Cars Starting Monday,” by Cynthia Burton, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 2000; “Abandoned Car Crushes Man Trying To Tow It Away On The 2d Day of Phila.’s Cleanup,” by Monica Yant and Maria Panaritis, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 2000; “What’s Next For Street’s Towing Plan,” by Monica Yant, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 2000.]

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The PRT and the Upwardly-Mobile Bricker Family

The old "streetcar" shopping hub at 49th and Baltimore Avenue, April 20, 1955. The bank building now houses the Mariposa Food Co-op.

The old “streetcar” shopping hub at 49th and Baltimore Avenue, April 20, 1955. The bank building now houses the Mariposa Food Co-op.

My fiancee and I have just purchased a c.1905 twin house in the Cedar Park section of West Philadelphia.  It is a typical house for what was originally an upper-middle class streetcar neighborhood (according to the National Register of Historic Places, West Philadelphia contains America’s largest intact collection of Victorian housing stock): three stories (four including the finished attic), a front and back garden, polychrome brickwork on the front facade, and plenty of carved interior oak woodwork and leaded glass.  The work of those long-dead woodcarvers is truly outstanding– the baroque scrolled staircase and latticed screen in the front parlor made me wonder if these men also plied their craft in Cedar Park’s grand churches, such as Calvary United Methodist and St. Francis de Sales.

The main staircase, with baroque scrollwork. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The main staircase, with baroque-ish scrollwork. The door now leads to the basement staircase, but it originally led to the “telephone room.” In the early 1900s, having a telephone displayed in the parlor was considered quite improper. The servant staircase in the back has been replaced by a powder room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Cedar Park combined the walkability of the old city with the spaciousness of the country. In fact, before the rise of the mass-produced automobile, Cedar Park was considered a Philadelphia suburb. Unlike the ornate, turreted “Queen Anne” homes in the vicinity, our Cedar Park house is square and stolid, with minimal exterior ornamentation.  The use of space is very efficient. Although the house is almost 3,000 square feet, one wouldn’t guess it when looking at it from the street. Philadelphia architectural historian/photographer Joseph Minardi describes houses built in this idiom as “colonial revival,” but they actually don’t bear much resemblance to the “authentic” colonial models in Society Hill.  Perhaps a hybrid of Colonial Revival and Arts & Crafts would be a fairer description.  These big houses, Minardi states, were “far from fancy,” but still considered “comfortable for an upper-middle class worker and his growing family…spacious and modern with room for servants to assist the lady of the house.”

The intersection of 48th Street and Cedar Avenue, 1907 and 2016. These large "colonial revival/arts & crafts" style homes were built for white collar upper middle class workers and their families, and had every modern convenience for the era, including electric lighting and steam heat. Kitchen stoves and furnaces were still coal-fired and had to be stoked by hand. Upper photograph by Steven Ujifusa, lower photograph a period postcard from Robert Morris Skaler's book "West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street."

The intersection of 48th Street and Cedar Avenue, 1907 and 2016. These large “colonial revival/arts & crafts” style homes were built for white collar workers and their families, and had every modern convenience for the era, including electric lighting and steam heat. Some had telephones. Kitchen stoves and furnaces were still coal-fired and had to be stoked by hand. The first floor contained a formal front parlor, dining room, and kitchen. The second floor had a more informal family living room, illuminated by a bay window. Upper photograph by Steven Ujifusa, lower photograph a period postcard from Robert Morris Skaler’s book “West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street.”

4800 block of Hazel Avenue 5.16.27.ashx

The 4800 block of Hazel Avenue, looking west. May 16, 1927. These large houses were only 30 years old or so when this photograph was taken.  Note that there is only one car parked on the block.

The 4800 block of Cedar Avenue, looking west. February 15, 1954. Note the third floor balconies.

The 4800 block of Cedar Avenue, looking west. February 15, 1954. Note the third floor balconies.

One of the first things I did after we decided to buy the Cedar Park house was learn more about its history.  It appears that its first owners were members of the Bricker family. William Elmer Bricker, a “transitman” at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (headquartered at 730 Market Street) and a 1907 alumnus of Lehigh University, is listed as living at the house in the 1908-1909 proceedings of his alma mater’s alumni association.  According to the mayor of Philadelphia’s annual report, Bricker earned $70 per month, or about $1,700 in today’s money, a solid wage in the early 1900s, and was a son of a veteran of the “War of Rebellion.” As an undergraduate, he belonged to Delta Upsilon fraternity. No spouse or children are listed.  In 1917, he is listed as still working at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, with an office at 820 Dauphin Street.

It appears that the PRT was a family affair for the Brickers.  On March 20, 1913, the Transit Journal noted the death of James E. Bricker, 70, superintendent of the PRT and Civil War veteran.  A native of Cumberland County, he had started his career as a conductor on the West Philadelphia Street Railway during its “horse car days” and rose to become superintendent of the Union Traction Company until its takeover by Widener’s Philadelphia Traction Company, and then the PRT.  It appears that William Bricker shared the house with his parents, as the Harrisburg Daily Independent notes that Miss Emma Stewart was spending the month of February, 1910 with her sister Mrs. James Bricker on Cedar Avenue.

Carved latticework in the "courting nook." Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Carved latticework in the “courting nook.” Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

To borrow Minardi’s phrase, the PRT was one of many prosperous businesses that employed West Philadelphia’s  “upwardly mobile meritocracy.”   It was chartered on May 1, 1902, with John S. Parsons as its first president.  Its board included Peter Arrell Brown Widener–the richest man in Philadelphia–who had created his $100 million fortune by building electrified trolley lines and developing land around them.  Also on the PRT board was his son George Dunton Widener, who would perish in the RMS Titanic disaster in 1912.   PRT’s purpose was to construct an electrified, high speed rail line that would run from Frankford in North Philadelphia all the way to 69th Street in Upper Darby.  The PRT needed bright young men like Bricker to manage the complicated logistics of constructing an elevated railroad along Market Street: in Center City, where the railroad went underground, the tracks were was built using the “cut-and-cover” technique previously employed in the construction of New York and Boston’s underground system.  In West Philadelphia, the line ran above ground, through what was then largely undeveloped farmland.


By choosing to buy a house in Cedar Park, William Bricker had the best of both worlds when it came to commuting into Center City.  He was only two blocks north from the electric trolley line that ran along Baltimore Avenue, and seven blocks south of the 52nd Street stop on the Market Street Elevated, which opened for business in 1907.  Travel time from West Philadelphia to the Center City business district was cut to a mere 10 minutes. Between 1910 and 1920, West Philadelphia’s population skyrocketed by 110,000 residents, its greatest increase ever, to hit a peak population of 410,000.  Within a few years, the rowhouses and apartment buildings of the Garden Court development filled up the sylvan landscape separating the Bricker house from the elevated line.

Considering the number of Philadelphia transit-related articles I have written over the past several years, I found the purchase of this particular house to be quite a fortunate coincidence. To the readership: if anyone has additional information on the Bricker family, please let me know!

Note: to read about the creation of the Center City Commuter Connection, click here to read my PlanPhilly article from 2008. 

52nd and Market Street, looking south from the PRT elevated railroad stop, November 20, 1914.

52nd and Market Streets, looking south from the PRT elevated railroad stop, November 20, 1914. Note the trolley line that connects the older “trolley suburb” of Cedar Park with the denser, rapidly-growing commercial/residential hub around the 52nd street PRT stop.


Music from the period of our “ragtime” house: the “Top Liner” rag, composed by Joseph Lamb in 1916.


Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930s (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2011), p.94.

Samuel Bass Warner Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Growth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), p.194.

Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, February 18, 1910.

Catalogue of Delta Upsilon (New York: The Arthur Crist Company, 1917) p.479.

Annual Report of the Bureau of Railways, Department for Internal Affairs, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Part IV: Railroad, Canal, Telephone, and Telegrah Companies (Harrisburg: C.E. Aughinbaugh, 1910), p.507.



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Hypersegregation + Redlining + Time = Persistent Decline

Geographical Distribution of Negro Population - Philadelphia 1932. City Plans Division. Bureau of Engineering and Surveys. (

Geographical Distribution of Negro Population – Philadelphia 1932. City Plans Division. Bureau of Engineering and Surveys. (

More than 85,000 mostly rural Southerners arrived in Philadelphia in the 1920s seeking opportunity. What they encountered was discrimination, segregation and poverty. The Great Migration, followed by the Great Depression, added up to a double disadvantage for Philadelphia’s African American population. The city founded on principles of tolerance, mercy and justice had managed to modify its original DNA. Hypersegregation had taken hold.

Between 1920 and 1930, the largest increases in the city’s African-American population were seen in only 10 out of 48 Wards. These 10 Wards absorbed more than 57,000 of the newcomers, more than two-thirds of the citywide increase. North, West and South Philadelphia saw the largest rises, as maps created in 1932 by the City Plans Division, Bureau of Engineering and Surveys graphically illustrate. Previously, we examined Distribution of Negro Population By Ward, from 1920 to 1930. This time, we examine a newly-discovered map with even more precision, a block-by-block display of the newly ghettoized and overcrowded neighborhoods immediately to the North, South and West of Center City. The Geographical Distribution of Negro Population from 1932 is a rare, illuminating snapshot of life in Philadelphia.

1934 Appraisal Map, by J. M. Brewer identifying Percy Street as "Decadent." (Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network)

1934 Appraisal Map, by J. M. Brewer identifying Percy Street Real Estate as “Decadent.” (Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network)

In many of the city’s other neighborhoods—the nearer and farther stretches of the Northeast, the Northwest beyond Nicetown and Germantown and deep South Philadelphia the African-American population didn’t grow at all.. And where it did, it became more geographically concentrated. No fewer than eight Wards saw declines in African American population, including Center City’s historically Black Seventh Ward (the subject  of W. E. B. DuBois’ classic The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, published in 1899). Between 1920 and 1930, this neighborhood stretching west from 7th Street, between Spruce and South Streets, saw a once robust African-American population diminish from 12,241 to 8,430.

Philadelphia’s demographic narrative in the 1920s, when its African-American population became uneven, isolated, clustered, concentrated and centralized—can be summarized in a word: hypersegregated.  How would that narrative play out in the 1930s?

926-924 Percy Street, July 13, 1951. (

926-924 Percy Street, July 13, 1951. (

Without adequate supports to address overcrowding and poverty, without mechanisms to guide the transition from rural to urban life, tens of thousands of new Philadelphians found themselves without survival strategies on the eve of the Great Depression. And when the Depression arrived, it hit the hypersegregated, African-American neighborhoods the hardest. In 1931, unemployment among Philadelphia’s African Americans exceeded 40 percent; two years later it rose to 50 percent.

By mid 1930s, the collision of place, time and people was presented in another set of powerful graphics: Philadelphia’s redlining maps. Taken with the newly-uncovered maps from the Philadelphia’s Department of Records, we see a progression of unfortunate evidence. Neighborhoods identified as having dramatic increases in African American populations in the 1920s; neighborhoods with concentrations of African-American in the early 1930s, those same blocks—hundreds and hundreds of them—would be systematically designated as occupied by “Colored” and in nothing less “decadent” and “hazardous” condition.

That was in the depths of the Depression. Recovery would take the rest of the 20th century—and then some.

[Listen to the full interview with WHYY’s Dave Heller recorded March 18,2016 and aired on Newsworks.]

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Roots of Hypersegregation in Philadelphia, 1920-1930

Distribution of Negro Population By Wards 1920-1930. William A. Gee, photographer, April 27, 1932. (

Distribution of Negro Population By Wards 1920-1930. William A. Gee, photographer, April 27, 1932. (


Philadelphia’s 48 Wards: Changes in African-American Population, 1920 to 1930.

For the first couple of centuries, Philadelphians of different races co-existed in close proximity. Near rows of mansions and shops on Chestnut, Walnut and Spruce stood clusters of modest houses tucked into sidestreets, courts and alleys. The city seemed designed—destined, even—for social, economic and racial integration. Philadelphia’s original DNA wasn’t programmed for the 20th century urban ghetto.

Then came the transformative convergence of the city’s Great Expansion and the nation’s Great Migration.

“The nation’s black people had been overwhelmingly rural and predominantly southern,” wrote Frederic Miller. Seventy three percent lived in rural areas and 89% were Southerners. By 1920, “the outmigration of blacks from the eleven states of the Southeast was about 554,000, nearly 7% of the area’s total black population.” Between 1920 and 1930, about 902,000 more African Americans left the rural South.

This would transform many Northern cities, especially Philadelphia, which had dramatically expanded in cycle after cycle of construction from the Civil War to World War I.

With World War came the collapse of European immigration and the stream of labor it provided. Then the boll weevil devastated agriculture in the American South. Cities in the urban, industrial North seemed like destinations with promise. By 1930, more than two million African Americans had relocated.

Here’s a few snapshots of Philadelphia’s demographic shift: 1910: 84,459 African-American Philadelphians made up 5.5% of the population. 1920: 134,224, made up 7.4% of the total. 1930: 219,599, made up 11.3%. 1940: 250,000, represented 12.94% of the total.At the start of the Great Depression, seven out of ten African Americans living in Philadelphia had come from the American South.

Transformations throughout the 20th century played out on social, economic, education and spacial fronts. According to Robert Gregg: “Not only were there difficulties assimilating such a large number into the community at once, but the racism already evident in the city was heightened. White Philadelphians began to separate themselves from their black neighbors in all spheres, segregating not only housing, but accommodations, services, education, and religion. Black people were barred from all center-city restaurants, hotels, lunch counters, dime-store counters; and theaters. At the same time, attempts were made to segregate Philadelphia’s schools.”

From 1908 to 1935, the city’s expanding African-American neighborhoods found footing with increased homeownership (802 to 9,855); African American owned stores (281 to 787); physicians (28 to 200); clergymen (73 to 250); schoolteachers (54 to 553) and policemen (70 to 219). But at a price, writes Gregg: “African Americans also became more concentrated and more segregated from the white community.” As the city absorbed newcomers in seemingly endless miles of relatively rowhouses stretching to the north, south and west of Center City, Philadelphia’s expanding African-American population settled unevenly in isolated, concentrated and centralized clusters. Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey gave this a name: hypersegregation.

And in Philadelphia, hypersegregation took root in the 1920s, when North Philadelphia’s African-American population about doubled. The western side of North Philadelphia (from Poplar to Lehigh), approximately 3.4 square miles, saw an increase of the African-American population from 16,666 to 41,270. By 1940, according to Gregg, “more than fifteen thousand families, or more than sixty thousand individuals” occupied the three-quarter square mile area from 7th to Broad, Fairmount to Susquehanna.

Similar concentration, and isolation, was seen south of South Street to Washington Avenue, Broad Street to the Schuylkill. In 1910, this half square mile area was 16% African American. By 1920, that population stood at 15,481, just over half of the total. By 1930, the number increased to 19,537. And by 1940, this small swath of South Philadelphia was 80% African American.

In West Philadelphia, the number of African Americans living in a two-square mile expanse north of Market more than doubled from 15,304 to 39,609.

Meanwhile, the African American presence in Center City and the lower Northeast was shrinking. In the 1920s, while Philadelphia’s total African American population increased by more than 85,000, Center City increased by only 61.

Twentieth-century Philadelphia had modified its founding DNA and enabled hypersegregation to take hold.

[Sources include: Robert Gregg, Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression: Philadelphia’s African Methodists and Southern Migrants, 1890-1940 (Temple University Press: 1993); Douglas S. Massey & Jonathan Tannen, “A Research Note on Trends in Black Hypersegregation,” Demography (2015) 52:1025–1034; Frederic Miller, “The Black Migration to Philadelphia, A 1924 Profile,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, July 1984, pp. 315-350; James Wolfinger, “African American Migration,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2013.]

[Listen to the full interview with WHYY’s Dave Heller recorded March 18,2016 and aired on Newsworks.]

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The Gangs of Philadelphia

Caption (

In Southwark – Front Street at Christian. Photograph by John Moran, 1869. (Free Library of Philadelphia/

“Armed to the teeth” with “pocket pistols, knives, or those horrible inventions known as ‘slung-shot,'” Philadelphia’s gangs dominated the streets of Southwark and Moyamensing in the 1840s, raining bricks and reigning terror.

How had it gotten so out of control? The lack of police beyond the city’s southern border – then South Street. And the give-and-take of street warfare. The cycle of violence begins when a gang member “escapes barely with his life, and mangled, wounded, and bleeding, makes his appearance among his confederates and companions, details a vivid account of the manner in which he was assailed…  A spirit of vengeance is kindled… threats of retaliation are uttered, and an early opportunity is sought, to pay back in the same coin, with bricks, bludgeons and knives, the attack upon their brother. When the fight is once commenced under these circumstances, the feelings become inflamed, the mind is maddened, the blood heated, and the scene is often of the most fearful character. This, we believe, is the whole story with regard to most of the collisions which have recently taken place.”

“What is the remedy?” asked the Inquirer in desperation during the the hot summer of 1849.

Meanwhile, all hell had broken loose. “We are told there are no less than five gangs of organized ruffians, either in the county, or on the outskirts of the city.” Seasoned columnist George Foster identified eleven “squads or clubs” in Southwark and Moyamensing populated by “loafers” who give themselves “outlandish titles.” The fiercer the better. Marauding the streets were Killers, Bouncers, Rats, Stingers, Nighthawks, Buffers, Skinners, Gumballs, Smashers, Whelps, Flayers “and other appropriate and verminous designations.” They marked their territories by fighting, rioting, and writing “in chalk or charcoal on every dead-wall, fence and stable-door.” They held their “nightly conclaves on the corners of by-streets or in unoccupied building-lots, sneaking about behind the rubbish-heaps, and perhaps now and then venturing out to assault an unprotected female or knock down a lonely passenger.”

Two of the Killers. ca. 1848. Lithograph by J. Childs. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

And worse. On Election Day, 1849, the Killers and the Stingers corralled a few hundred of their allies and attacked the California House at Sixth and St. Mary Street (now Naudain), a tavern operated by an interracial couple. The battle “raged for a night and a day” before causalities were counted . “Dreadful Riot,” read one of several headlines,” Houses Burned, and Several Persons Killed and Wounded.”

For years, the newspapers had been crying out for “the law efficiently and vigorously administered” no matter what the cost. “Is it not possible for the authorities of the immediate districts concerned, to secure one or two of the ringleaders?” they demanded. “Are the citizens of that district content to live in such a state of anarchy?”

Apparently, the citizens had little choice in the matter. According to David R. Johnson in The Peoples of Philadelphia, The Public Ledger reported on the doings of no less than 51 gangs. In an effort to be even more comprehensive—from sources listed below as well as the Inquirer—we located an additional 14.

Here are the gangs, the Philadelphia 65, listed in alphabetical order:

American Guards; Bleeders; Blood Tubs; Blossoms; Bouncers; Buffers; Bugs; Bulldogs; Centre Street Boys; Chesapeakes; Crockets; Darts; Deathfetchers; Dogs; Dog-Towners; Flayers; Fly-By-Nights; Garroters; Gumballs; Hyenas; Jack of Clubs; Jumpers; Juniatta Club; Kensington Blackhawks; Kerryonians; Keystone No. 2; Killers; Lancers; Molly Maguires; Neckers; Nighthawks; Orangemen; Pickwick Club; Pluckers; Pots No. 2; Privateer Club No. 1; Rangers; Rats; Reading Hose Club; Rebels; Red Roses; Reed Birds; Schuylkill Rangers; Shifflers; Skinners; Smashers; Snakers; Snappers; Spiggots; Spitfires; Sporters; Springers; Stingers; Stockholders; The Forty Thieves; The Vesper Social; Tormentors; Turks; Vampyres; Waynetowners; Weecys; Whelps; Wild Cats; Wreckers.

If these boys and men had heroes, these were the toughest of Philadelphia’s volunteer firemen who, according to Bruce Laurie, they “gazed upon and followed in awe and reverence.” But unlike the gangs, which more often than not served as firefighting farm teams, the city’s volunteer fire companies chose names without bite, or even growl. Fact was, the fire companies found resonance in their choices of civic-sounding names: Assistance, Diligent, Friendship, Good Intent, Good Will, Hand-In-Hand, Harmony, Hope, Humane, Perseverance, Reliance and Vigilant.

Ah, branding.

Sources include: The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Bouncers and Killers,” August 11, 1846; “Fireman’s Triennial Parade,” March 27, 1849; [News/Opinion, page 2, column 1] August 7, 1849; “Dreadful Riot,” October, 10, 1849; George Rogers Taylor and George G. Foster, “Philadelphia in Slices,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1969), pp. 23-72; David R. Johnson “Crime Patterns in Philadelphia, 1840-70,” pp. 89-110 and Bruce Laurie, “Fire Companies and Gangs in Southwark: The 1840s,” in Allen F. Davis, Mark H. Haller The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790-1940. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Peter McCaffery, When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine, 1867–1933. (Penn State University Press: 1993).

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Tony Drexel Goes for a Walk (Part II)

Church of the Savior 1969.ashx

The Church of the Savior, built in 1889, restored after a fire in 1906 The Davis mansion on the left (designed by Willis Hale, also responsible for Peter A.B. Widener’s castle on North Broad Street) was demolished soon after this picture was taken. June 8, 1969.

Although born a Roman Catholic, Drexel migrated to the Episcopal church and helped fund the construction of the Church of the Savior at 38th and Ludlow, today’s Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral.  To honor his patronage, a stained glass window was installed in his honor. He purchased and developed vacant land with homes as the streetcar lines spread ever westward.

Finally, he built up his father’s bank to be one of the leading investment firms in the nation.  In London, he worked closely with older leading financiers, most notably the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts, to replace the standard 5-20 call bonds with 4 per cents.  He also made successful deals with the Philadelphia & Reading and New York Central railroads. Among Drexel’s proteges was a brilliant but temperamental young man from Connectict named John Pierpont Morgan, who would go on to found the firm Drexel, Morgan & Company in New York, the ancestor of today’s J.P. Morgan Chase.  J.P. Morgan himself did not share Drexel’s retiring, gentle demeanor: one observer said that Morgan’s eyes were like the headlights of an onrushing train.

Drexel himself didn’t take the street car to work, even after electrification allowed it to reach the-then dizzying speed of 15 miles per hour.  Nor did he take a coach.  Rather, he walked to his office at 16th and Walnut Street every day, almost always with his good friend, the Philadelphia Public Ledger publisher George William Childs.  “Year in and year out,” noted historian Robert Morris Skaler, “they walked the same round, making themselves well-known personalities in their day.”

In 1891, shortly before his death, he bequeathed $2 million of his fortune (equivalent to over $40 million today) to establish the Drexel Institute of Technology. Located in a terra cotta-encrusted structure at 32nd and Chestnut  Street, the Institute’s goal was provide affordable and practical education to the children of families of modest means.  It may have been Drexel’s retort to the Gilded Age elitism at his longtime neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania.

Anthony Drexel died on June 30, 1893 while on a European vacation, aged 66.  When asked to comment on the death of his friend, George William Childs could barely stop from choking up: “It is a great shock and a great blow to me and us all. We were so far from expecting anything of this kind.  I would rather it have been myself that had died–much better I had died than Mr. Drexel.”

Although Anthony had built two other houses on “the Drexel Block” for his son George William Childs Drexel and daughter Frances Katherine Drexel Paul, his descendants rapidly abandoned West Philadelphia for Rittenhouse Square, the Main Line, and Chestnut Hill.

The Drexel mansion itself is long gone, replaced by Penn dormitories. The Wharton School, which has trained generations of Drexel and later Morgan bankers, is located just across 38th Street.  Drexel University, his greatest and most long-lasting legacy, continues to thrive north of Market Street.

Drexel University 1963.ashx

The Drexel Institute, later Drexel University, at 32nd and Chestnut Street. The main building, designed by the Wilson brothers, as photographed in 1963.


“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.

Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930 (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), pp.39, 70, 74, 77.

Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.13.

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Nuclear Apocalypse at 12th & Arch

Civil Defense Sign - Roosevelt Boulevard, August 29, 1951. (PhillyHistory,org)

Civil Defense Sign – Roosevelt Boulevard, August 29, 1951. (PhillyHistory,org)

As the 10th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings approached in 1955, horrors of nuclear war seemed closer, not farther away. Millions of American viewers were rattled to see the disfigured “Hiroshima Maidens” on reality TV (This Is Your Life), victims visiting the United States for reconstructive surgery. Even more frightening—if such a thing was possible—the arms race with the Soviet Union turned out ever larger and more destructive weapons.

The Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in August 1949. Four years later, they claimed to have the hydrogen bomb. In November 1955, they detonated it. Americans also had also been developing larger and more powerful warheads. In 1952, the U.S. detonated “Mike,” a 10.4 megaton hydrogen bomb with twice the explosive power of World War II. Two years after that, the Americans tested “Bravo,” a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb resulting in an explosion more powerful than anticipated. Bravo contaminated 7,000 square miles of the Pacific and blanketed the globe with fallout.

The possibilities of deploying nuclear weapons were very real. In 1950, President Truman admitted A-bombs were being considered in the Korean War. Five years later, President Eisenhower wouldn’t rule them out in the Formosa Straits Crisis. Americans grew increasingly distraught about the possibility, the probability, it seemed, that the United States would attack—or come under attack. And if this were to happen, when this happened, society as known would be over, replaced by a decimated, fragmented version managed by a government hidden deep underground.

The transition to this new, post-apocalyptic world would begin a few minutes before the bombs hit America’s soon-to-be-obsolete cities. If all went well, apocalypse management would begin with the wail of air-raid sirens signaling a mass exodus from the targets. And Civil Defense authorities figured that any city with a population of over 50,000 would be a target.

Reading Terminal: The Would-Be Soviet Target (

Reading Terminal: A Cold War target (

Operation Alert took place on June 15, 1955, a day that otherwise seemed like any other Wednesday. “Imaginary atom bombs ‘blasted’ Washington and 60 other American cities to theoretical rubble,” reported the Inquirer. “Thousands of officials, led by President Eisenhower, fled the capital and set up a scattered, skeleton government at sites up to 300 miles away.”  A Secret Service motorcade escorted the president and his entourage from the White House to “an undisclosed hideaway in a ‘mountainous, wooded area.’”

“Philadelphia was brought face-to-face with the grim realities of atomic war. A ‘surprise bomb’ hit the city at 2:11PM, “striking at 12th and Arch Sts. and theoretically making a wasteland of many square miles…” Operation Alert “brought traffic to a standstill throughout the Philadelphia area. … Sidewalks were emptied of pedestrians and the city’s full complement of Civil Defense personnel and equipment went into action.”

“Mayor Joseph S. Clark and members of his Cabinet left City Hall…to take command at the secret central control station set up in the Northeast. … Philadelphia ‘evacuees’ were moved out of the city…to previously prepared reception centers in Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery counties.” Police led convoys from Bridesburg to Council Rock High School in Newtown and from Germantown to Abington High School. More than 1,600 evacuated West Philadelphia in 300 cars and buses.

12th and Arch Street from Reading Railroad Bridge, February 5, 1959. (PhillyHistory,org)

Evidence of life at 12th and Arch Streets in 1959, four years after Operation Alert. (PhillyHistory,org)

Casualties would be devastating. Officials “counted” 760,340 “dead” in Philadelphia and 363,860 “injured” reported The New York Times. More than three quarter of a million would be “homeless.” Across the nation, according to the Civil Defense Administration, “a partial presumed toll of more than 5,000,000” had died; nearly as many were injured. Other officials projected even more: 8.5 million Americans dead, 8 million injured and 10 million displaced. Best guesses had 25 million without food or water.

“Staggering,” said Eisenhower, who had previously admitted “if war comes, it will be horrible. Atomic war will destroy our civilization. It will destroy our cities. …[it] would not save democracy. Civilization would be ruined… No one was going to be the winner. … The destruction might be such that we…go back to bows and arrows.”

Even so, the Eisenhower Administration supported the policy known as MAD—mutually assured destruction—and the idea that Americans were “Better dead than red.”

Not everyone bought into Operation Alert, and not everything worked as planned on June 15, 1955. Schoolchildren spotted Eisenhower’s “secret” caravan and shouted, “Hey Ike!” as it sped by. In New York, resisters occupied park benches across from City Hall. One official in the District of Columbia declared: “the test will teach us nothing.” Another in Peoria, Illinois refused to cooperate, adding “I can’t see a lot of people running around with armbands on.” And in Flint, Michigan the siren system was broken. Everyone in Flint “died” without ever hearing the Cold War’s piercing, futile wail.

[Sources: “President Leads Flight of Officials To Hideaway Capital in Atom Test,” and “202,000 ‘Casualties’ Listed In City in Mock A-Bombing” in The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1955; Anthony Leviero, “’H-Bombs’ Test U.S. Civil Defense: 61 Cities ‘Ruined,’” New York Times, June 16, 1955; and Dee Garrison, Bracing for Armageddon: Why Civil Defense Never Worked ((Oxford University Press, 2006).]

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Tony Drexel Goes for a Walk (Part I)

The Anthony J. Drexel mansion at 39th and Walnut streets.

The Anthony J. Drexel mansion at 39th and Walnut streets. Source: The Free Library of Philadelphia/Joseph Minardi

Anthony J. Drexel was one of the wizards of late 19th century finance.  He also had big shoes to fill. His Austrian-born father Francis Martin Drexel emigrated to America at the dawn of the 19th century to seek his fortune as a portrait painter.  The elder Drexel found that he was more skilled at bond trading than portraiture–although talented, he was no Thomas Eakins.  Like many immigrant fathers, Francis put his three sons (Francis Jr., Joseph, and Anthony) to work at the family business, running errands and sweeping floors in their office at 2nd and Chestnut.  He also went on more than his share of adventures: at the age of 13, he guarded a gold shipment as it traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia to New Orleans.  In this pre-Federal Reserve era, paper money was untrustworthy. Gold was king.

Although Anthony (born in 1826) would eventually inherit one of the nation’s great banking fortunes, the lack of a formal education plagued him all of his life.  Despite his wealth, he felt awkward in Philadelphia society, and preferred the privacy and love of family life.  Although he and his wife Ellen lived there briefly, he had little interest in the gaiety of the Rittenhouse Square set. The titans of Wall Street didn’t know him that well, either.  As The New York Times wrote of him: “For a man of such financial importance, Mr. Drexel did not have a wide personal acquaintance here in this city.”

Soon after this father’s death in 1863, Anthony Drexel purchased a large plot of land centered at the intersection of 39th and Walnut streets, far out in West Philadelphia. He then commissioned an unknown architect (possibly Samuel Sloan, designer of nearby Woodland Terrace) to design a sprawling Italianate villa, where he, his wife Ellen, and their nine children could live away from the noise and dirt of Center City.   He was also generous to his extended family, frequently looking after his niece Katharine Drexel, whose father Francis Jr. raised his children as strict Roman Catholics. His brother Anthony however crossed the Reformation aisle, raising his family as Episcopalians. As an adult, Katharine renounced her privileged upbringing altogether and became a nun, donating her time and vast inheritance to Native American and African-American civil rights causes.


St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955). Source: Wikipedia.

The A.J. Drexel compound in West Philadelphia took up the entire 3900 block of Walnut Street, and was separated from the street by a hedges and a high iron fence.  Not that there was much traffic in those days: the horse-drawn street car ran as far west as 41st and Chestnut.  West of 42nd Street, the city melted away into a pastoral landscape of rolling fields and babbling creeks.

Drexel has a few other high-profile neighbors, namely the Clarks–who lived at Chestnutwold, 42nd and Locust–and the Pottses–who lived in a Ruskinian Gothic pile at 3905 Spruce Street.  To the east and north were several less idyllic neighbors, most notably the Blockley Almshouse, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Pennsylvania Home for Blind Women.

Pennsylvania Home for Blind women.ashx

The Pennsylvania Home for Blind Women, 39th and Powelton, September 11, 1931.

The area was pretty but not exactly fashionable.  Promoters wrote of West Philadelphia that “the ground in general is elevated, and remarkably healthy; the streets are wide, and many of them bordered with rows of handsome shade trees.” For their part, the denizens of Rittenhouse Square claimed that residents of West Philadelphia spoke with a distinctly unpleasant accent. Drexel didn’t particularly care.  Nonetheless, he spent much the next three decades of his life investing in and improving the blocks around his home, especially after the University of Pennsylvania’s move to the site of the Blockley Almshouse in 1873.


Anthony Joseph Drexel (1826-1893). Source: Wikipedia.

To be continued…


“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.

“The Founder’s Vision,” Drexel University,, accessed January 24, 2016.

Alissa Falcone, “The Story of the World’s Wealthiest Nun,” DrexelNow, December, 2, 2014.

Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930 (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), pp.39, 70, 74, 77.

Robert Morris Skaler, West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p.13.

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