Before “Center City” Won Out

The start of a long-simmering naming debate for Center City can be traced to the waning years of the 19th century.

“Barber, first-class, wants situation in center city,” reads a classified ad in the Inquirer from 1898. But the next year, another ad reads “Errand boy, about 14 years old, strong, active; center of city. And then in 1900 we see; “Bartender, age 30, good mixer; capable of taking charge: 7 years central city reference.”

Which would it be? For the next half century, any of the three would suffice.

Center City – Aerial View June 6, 1966 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Central City” seemed to dominate for a few years. “Housework –an honest and respectable girl wants general housework in small, private family. Central city reference” and “Barber, first-class, wants situation in 10-cent shop. Married, young man, speaks German and English, central city” and “Licensed Saloon (Central City) – Handsomely equipped; running $800 weekly; sickness cause: great sacrifice; $17,000.”

But then “center of city” seemed to make a comeback. In May 1906 we find a headline: “How Realty Rises In Center Of City.” In 1910 we see another: “1000 New Lamps Flood Center of City with Light / Mayor Turns Switch Inaugurating System of Illumination / Brilliance Extends River to River.”

In Our Philadelphia of 1914, Elizabeth Robbins Pennell likes the relatively clunky “centre of the town.” One example: “with the Law Courts now in the centre of the town and the new Stock Exchange at Broad and Walnut, and stores everywhere, nobody could live in town; the noise of the trolleys is unbearable; the dirt of the city is unhealthy; soft coal has made Philadelphia grimier than London…”

Classifieds support the usage of “of.” “Bartender – Young German for centre of city” or “Shisler Built Homes $1900 to $3800” only “20 minutes to center of city.” Or one of a dozen appearances, for houses in the Olney neighborhood promoting “One Fare to Center of City.”

A Philadelphia Tribune headline from 1932 reads: “Maniac Slays 1, Wound Pair, Ends Own Life: Hundreds Dodge in Center of City As Bullets Sizzle By.” (“Death and Destruction barked from a maniac’s gun last Thursday night near Ninth and Market streets and hundreds of Philadelphia’s citizens escaped death by dodging while sizzling hot lead whizzed through the air.”)

If Christopher Morley had been inclined, his Travels in Philadelphia, published in 1920 would have mentioned Center City at least once. He was not so inclined.

That’s not to say the usage of “Center City” was nonexistent. We find one from 1916: “Saloon Saloon – Near center city / Bar averages $450 weekly; old established. Selling account sickness.” And in 1920 we see a mention of the” YMCA building, 1421 Arch, “in the Center City Building.” In 1926, there are two more appearances: An ad for Greenwood Terrace near the Jenkintown Station: “Suburban Charm with Center City Convenience” and an ad for ”C.T. Electric Trucks. … which delivers the Inquirer “to the newsdealers of the center city area.” And in 1929, the Philadelphia Gas Works put out the word for its “Center City Dump” at 22nd and Market Streets. (“Save time and expense by dumping conveniently instead of hauling to outskirts of the city. 50 cents per load…”

In 1937, “Center City” gave way to “Central City” in the Federal Writers’ Project’s Philadelphia, a Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace“There was a time when the central city was dotted with abattoirs. Now, however, excepting two large slaughterhouses on Gray’s Ferry Avenue, and one at Third Street and Girard Avenue, all are far from the city center.” And: “The central city section had already begun to take on the appearance of a metropolis. The main streets, such as Market, Chestnut, and Broad, were crowded with buildings and shops of substantial size.” And “By 7:30 there is a lull in the central city as the sphere of activity shifts to the home.”

Aerial View of Center City, ca. 1991 (PhillyHistory.org)

Newspapers of 1930 put forth the headline: “$50,000 in Jewels Stolen at Door of Central City Hotel” and “Boy Boot Blacks Banished From Mid-City Streets.” The article suggests that the proposition, “Shine Mister?” by “hundreds of juvenile bootblacks on central city streets, will be heard with diminishing frequency…” And a page-one headline: “Federal padlocks for central city hotels, cafes and clubs may follow as a result of “wet” New Year’s Eve and other parties staged on their premises…”

“Central City” appeared to be an almost uncontested choice in 1930. “3 Central City Blazes Quelled Within Hour” read a headline. When Strawbridge and Clothier opened its new store in Ardmore, an ad promised that its location “will offer special allurement to the motorists who do not wish to run the gauntlet of central-city traffic.”

Headline in February 1940: “Parking Meters Backed for Six Months’ Tryout – Experts Favor Them for Central City.”

“Street Widening Called Key to Mid-City Traffic” read another headline that Spring.  “The ultimate solution of central city traffic congestion and its resulting high-accident rate must be major reconstruction of its traffic arteries…” And in December of the same year, “Yule Traffic Control Urged by Businessmen – Tow Squad Busy in Central City.”

And the Cushman’s Sons bakery had many locations. “There’s a store near you” promised the ad, citing the Main Line as well as Logan, Tioga, West Philadelphia, Germantown, Chestnut Hill and no less than four shops in “Central City.”

As recently as 1969, the Inquirer criticized “Stop-Gap Airport Transportation” suggesting “SEPTA’s proposed bus line from central city to the airport” was only a stop-gap measure.

We know one thing for sure: “Center City” would win out. In 1940, “Center City” appeared in the Inquirer less than 200 times compared with more than 1,200 for “Central City.” In 1950, the imbalance grew even greater. More than 1,700 appearances of “Center City” and more than 2,400 for “Central City.” By 1960 the score would flip to more than 3,400 impressions of “Center City” and less than 900 for “Central City.” By 1980, “Center City” would appear more than 10,000 times. By then, “Central City” faded to just over 500 impressions.

“Center City” had prevailed.

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