History

Southwest Center City (SWCC) possesses a rich and diverse history that spans over four hundred years. In the middle 17th Century, Swedish colonists owned most of what is now South Philadelphia, with many of the familiar street names such as Catharine and Christian having Swedish royal origins. Later, English and Dutch settlers would also occupy estates in South Philadelphia.

After the founding of the Republic, the neighborhood remained mostly farmland, but the first decades of the 19th century would witness the completion of the Schuylkill Arsenal (1799), the U.S. Naval Asylum and Academy (1833), and the Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore Railroad (1838). Each would set the stage for the further development of the neighborhood. Only the Naval Asylum (now known as Naval Square) remains.

It was after the Civil War that the neighborhood we now recognize today began to take shape. Development included blocks of dense two and three-story rowhouse developments and industrial activity along the then newly-completed railroad down what is now Washington Avenue (then called Prime Street).

Those who lived here also worked here. They worked in the factories along Washington Avenue or the Schuylkill River, or in the building trades.

Demographically, the neighborhood was a mix of mostly Irish Catholics west of Grays Ferry Avenue, upper-middle class white Presbyterians and upper-middle class blacks. Many white families began to move farther out of the city and the neighborhood welcomed the many blacks relocating from the South as part of the Great Migration. By the turn of the twentieth century, the neighborhood was a true hub of Philadelphia’s black community, home to doctors, architects, lawyers and caterers, with bars, jazz clubs, concert venues, and community institutions to support the growing population. Many Baptist or African Methodist Episcopal congregations took over church buildings from white Episcopal or Presbyterian congregations that had left the neighborhood, or, in the case of Union Baptist, First African Baptist and Tindley Temple, financed and built their own sanctuaries.

The area suffered a series of setbacks including financial disinvestment. At the same time plans for the Crosstown Expressway, which would have been a mirror image of the current Vine Street Expressway down South and Bainbridge Streets, destroyed the vibrant commercial corridor that was South Street, as business owners and residents fearful of the impacts of the planned Expressway fled the neighborhood.

As residents and businesses slowly began to leave the neighborhood in the fifties and sixties, drugs and crime activity spiked. In spite of all this, the families that stayed behind maintained a strong community throughout and worked hard to keep their community safe and secure.

The 1990s and 2000s saw a reinvigoration of real estate investment and interest, transforming hundreds of vacant lots and houses into new single- and multi-family dwellings. To this day construction activity continues apace.

The SWCC community is a one-of-a-kind neighborhood, diverse in its demographics, building stock and long history. It is home to new and old families, students, and seniors of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Our businesses are locally owned and operated and patronized by all who live here. The rich history that has brought us to this point is alive today in every brick and in every resident, paving the way for a bright future in the years and decades to come. 

For more information about our neighborhood's rich history, check out Evergreens: A Neighborhood History.