[vc_row][vc_column width="1/4"][vc_wp_custommenu nav_menu="37"][/vc_column][vc_column width="3/4"][vc_single_image image="1506" img_size="full" alignment="center"][vc_empty_space][vc_custom_heading text="Our Neighborhood History" font_container="tag:h1|text_align:left" google_fonts="font_family:Oswald%3A300%2Cregular%2C700|font_style:400%20regular%3A400%3Anormal"][vc_column_text]
The Southwest Center City (SWCC) neighborhood 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 until the erection of the Schuylkill Arsenal (1799), the U.S. Naval Asylum and Academy (1833), and the Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore Railroad (1838). While each helped set the stage for the further development of the neighborhood, only the Naval Asylum (now known as Naval Square) remains.
It was until after the Civil War that the neighborhood we now recognize today began to take shape. Development included blocks of dense two and three-story row home developments as well as industrial activity along the then newly-completed railroad that ran down Washington Avenue (then called Prime Street). Many of the residents of the time lived and worked in the neighborhood, specifically in the factories on Washington Avenue and 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. As time passed, many white families began to move out of the city, welcoming many blacks relocating from the South as part of the Great Migration. By the turn of 20th century, the neighborhood was a true hub of Philadelphia’s black community, home to doctors, architects, lawyers, and caterers. It also was home to many bars, jazz clubs, concert venues, and community institutions to support the growing population. Many Baptist and 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.
Unfortunately, the area suffered a series of setbacks, including financial disinvestment. Additionally, plans to build the Crosstown Expressway destroyed the vibrant corridor that was South Street, as business owners and residents fearful of its impacts fled the neighborhood. As residents and businesses slowly left the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, drugs and crime activity spiked. In spite of all this, the families that stayed behind maintained a strong community 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, with a steady stream of new development projects.
Today, the SWCC community is diverse in its demographics, building stock, and history. It is home to new and old families, students, and seniors of all ethnicities and backgrounds. The rich history that has brought us to this point is alive today, in every brick and resident, paving the way for a bright future in the years to come.
Interested in learning more about our neighborhood’s rich history? For a $20 donation, you can obtain a copy of Evergreens: A Neighborhood History, a narrative history of our neighborhood’s development from its beginnings in 1682. We are grateful for the grants from the Claneil Foundation and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which financed this comprehensive historical record.