The Rowhouse Boom: Populist Victory or Philadelphia Noir?

Looking West on McKean Street from Front Street, July 20, 1901. (PhillyHistory.org)

The proudest moment for the Philadelphia rowhouse was in Chicago, of all places.

A two-story “Workingman’s House” was “put up at the Columbian Exposition,” reported Talcott Williams in 1893. And “there’s nothing more wonderful in all that marvelous Exposition than this proof that the laws, the habits, and the business of a city of one million people can be so arranged that even the day labor earning only $8 or $10 a week can own the roof over his head and call no man landlord.”

Williams noted that Philadelphia’s 80,000 rowhouses of the previous six decades had dramatically refashioned the city. “Philadelphia is not a city of palaces for the few, but a city of homes for the many—which is better,” he wrote. “It may not be “magnificent, but it is comfortable.”

Seven out of eight families in Philadelphia lived in “separate houses.” By comparison, in New York “only one family in six lives in a separate house…”

More than a matter of a family enjoying the “daily blessings” of “its own bath-tub, its own yard, its own staircase, and its own door step,” according to Williams, this was nothing less than “one of the world’s great industrial miracles.” He imagined the modest Philadelphia rowhouse as a declaration of independence in brick and mortar, a moral, populist victory that earned the city both domestic and civic superiority.

Philadelphia’s expanses of two-story rowhouses, claimed this oft-cited passage (also from 1893) “typify a higher civilization, as well as a truer idea of American home life, and are better, purer, sweeter than any tenement house systems that ever existed. They are what make Philadelphia a city of homes, and command the attention of visitors from every quarter of the globe.”

Looking East on McKean Street from 2nd Street, July 20, 1901. (PhillyHistory.org)

Southeast Corner, 25th and Kimball Streets, May 11, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

But for all the praise, there was a definite downside. Even Williams admitted that “street after street of small-two story brick houses looks rather mean and dingy,” noting that cobblestone pavements were bound to appear “rough and dirty.” But, he concluded, it’s “better to have bath-rooms by the ten thousand in small homes, than to have brilliant fountains playing in beautiful squares.”

No denying the “monotonous architectural effect” caused by endless miles of rowhouses. According to city planning pioneer Andrew Wright Crawford in 1905, the real estate developers were to blame. “In order to build the greatest number of houses on a street, they “want it straight and rectangular. They don’t care for the persons who are to live in these houses afterwards, and still less to they care for the good of the city as a whole.”

“This idea has been carried out with unremitting perseverance,” stated Crawford. All natural undulations had been leveled “throwing [a] severe mantle of unloviness” over the city’s many neighborhoods. “It is too late for Philadelphia to profit much by the broader intelligence of the present time,” admitted Crawford, “but it is possible that other cities and towns may learn something from her misfortune.”

2400 North Bancroft Street, November 12, 1959. (PhillyHistory,org)

It wasn’t as if Philadelphians hadn’t been warned early and often.

Visiting from industrial London in the 1840s, Charles Dickens described Philadelphia as “a handsome city, but distractingly regular. “After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street.”

In the 1830s, Thomas Hamilton visited and noted “the traveler is at first delighted with this Quaker paradise,” but “every street that presents itself seems an exact copy of those which he has left behind.” Hamilton’s patience wore thin and he soon felt “an unusual tendency to relaxation about the region of the mouth, which alternately terminates in a silent but prolonged yawn.”

“Philadelphia is mediocrity personified in brick and mortar,” he wrote. “It is a city laid down by square and rule, a sort of habitable problem,—a mathematical infringement on the rights of individual eccentricity, —a rigid and prosaic despotism of right angles and parallelograms.”

As early as 1790, none other than Thomas Jefferson advised those contemplating designs for the nation’s next and permanent capital to avoid Philadelphia’s “disgusting monotony”—a complaint that Jefferson claimed was shared by “all persons.”

By the 1940s, when novelist Jack Dunphy set his tale of the unpleasant life and desperate death of John Fury in working-class South Philadelphia, he employed the city’s endless rows with their familiar, expressive, depressing power. As Fury walked home from yet another hard day on the job as a coal-wagon driver, he crossed “Washington Avenue and walked down Nineteenth Street past Mifflin Street and Snyder Avenue until he came to a narrow side street. The street crushed between bigger streets was a poor affair, similar in width, to an alley. Its houses smothered close together, jammed two stories high, and with small wooden porches hung on their fronts, looked like stony red-faced criminals serving a life sentence. Stuck together and dependent one upon the other, they seemed to live in constant fear that someday and somehow one would be pardoned and leave and so jeopardize the rest of them. They stood then, these square red bricked houses, and there were many of them in Philadelphia, tortured row upon row of them, doing penitence and allowing life with its worn semblance of freedom to crowd within them.”

No coincidence that “Philadelphia noir” became a thing in the 20th century.

Actually, it always was a thing.

[For more posts on the Philadelphia rowhouse, see “The Quintessential Object of Industrial Philadelphia;” “How Philly Got Flat: Piling it on at the Logan Triangle;” and “The Philadelphia Rowhouse: American Dream Revisited.”]

 

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5 Comments

  1. philly 19147
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I happen to like the city of neighborhoods which was usually very close neighborhoods where everyone knew each other. Recently Philly has become a city of transients where people keep to themselves, new comers look down their noses at long term residents and are not vested in the areas they live in

    • lou
      Posted June 2, 2017 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      It’s like this wherever gentrification and “…the young people moved to cities, because their close to shops and restaurants…” occurs.
      They largely grew up in affluence, sometimes suburban, some rural; but they don’t understand the complex behavior that is needed to fit into a row house neighborhood. I feel your pain.

    • Carmen
      Posted December 29, 2017 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      Very true. The city has for a number of years now tried to lure people from not only the suburbs but other parts of the country to take up residence in Philly. This has resulted in re-defining what it is to be a Philadelphian. I, for one don’t like it.

  2. LA Enck
    Posted December 27, 2017 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    As with every generation, young people need to be taught. Many of these communities have changed much more than just “old people giving way to young people” with plenty of immigrant communities who might speak limited English, so it’s not like these young people are being inserted into fully integrated communities where they see the rules on full display. When you see people at the store, walking their dog, or taking their kids to the store, take some time to introduce yourself and tell them how things used to be—teach them the way of the stoop. Some will care, some won’t, and some will carry on the traditions because that’s what Philly does.

  3. Herb Moskovitz
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    You only chose photographs where there were little or no trees. Trees can turn desolate block of rowhouses into delightful avenues.

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