Historic Neighborhoods of Philadelphia
One of America’s great cities, Philadelphia is ready to show how a vibrant, 21st-century urban center can use its historic assets to attract people, industry, and opportunity. Moving toward tomorrow, the city’s goal is to build a more inclusive, sustainable future on the best of Philadelphia’s rich past.
Philadelphia’s centuries-old red brick rowhouses, cobbled alleyways, and crowded open-air markets are supporting the city’s first sustained population growth in decades. To manage the city’s resulting building boom, Mayor James Kenney has created a task force with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to explore preservation tools that encourage growth without compromising each neighborhood’s authentic character. The city is breaking down barriers to encourage rehab and reuse, demonstrating that historic buildings can improve the way we live in the 21st century.
A City of Neighborhoods
From the cobblestone charm of Old City to the industrial heritage of Kensington, from the legacy of freedom in Germantown to the arts scene of Manayunk, Philadelphia’s tapestry of historic neighborhoods is the heart and soul of a city that gave birth to a nation and still has independence, pride, and a spirit of brotherly love running through its veins.
Compared to areas in Philadelphia with large, new structures, the city’s character-rich blocks of older, smaller, mixed-aged buildings contain more than twice the population density and twice the number of jobs in small and new businesses. These historic neighborhoods and districts have attracted nearly two billion dollars in private investment dollars through the federal historic tax credit.
The most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods in Philadelphia contain a mix of older, small-scale buildings of varying ages. These areas tend to have more small, local, and women- and minority-owned businesses, more diversity in housing types and costs, and more activity at all times of the day.
Almanac of American History
Philadelphia is home to a wealth of architectural and historic resources from the 17th century through the 21st. The city is considered a veritable almanac of American history in its wide architectural spectrum and in its diverse range of stories. Historic neighborhoods Old City, Germantown, Manayunk, and Kensington present just a few examples of the unique story Philadelphia has to tell.
Encapsulating more than 350 years of history, Old City got its start in the 17th century as a highly trafficked port city. While many early European settlers lived in caves by the banks of the Delaware River during the early 1600s, others erected churches, homes, and more permanent structures to create what is now known as Old City. Old City’s architecture quickly developed into a maze of side streets and tiny alleys, designed to help transport goods to and from the waterfront.
The Lenape people, who had settled in Philadelphia thousands of years before Dutch and Swedish colonists came to the area, greeted William Penn when he arrived on the shores of the Delaware River. Penn purchased Old City from the Lenape Tribe and founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682.
Old City is also home to some of the most famous landmarks of American independence during the 18th century. Independence Hall, known famously as the site where the Founding Fathers drafted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, was constructed as Philadelphia began to evolve into a large-scale city with oil lamp-lined, paved streets in the mid-1700s. And before it was a symbol of freedom for abolitionists, civil rights leaders, and the suffragist movement, the hall’s iconic Liberty Bell was originally used to call the Pennsylvania State Assembly to meetings.
Today, Old City is a residential and cultural hub as artists continue to turn the neighborhood’s 19th-century factories and warehouses into lofts. Its streets, full of significant reminders of the nation’s revolutionary history, now also boast galleries, studios, new architectural works, and performing artists.
Founded by German, Quaker, and Mennonite settlers in 1683, Germantown became the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in the United States and has long considered itself independent from the rest of Philadelphia. The 1688 Germantown Petition Against Quaker Slavery presented a forceful, effective argument of shared religious values to help convince the Society of Friends and the state of Pennsylvania to eventually outlaw slavery in the late 18th century. Germantown’s anti-slavery legacy didn’t end in the 1700s. The Johnson House, one of the few Underground Railroad houses that still stands today, was a nationally significant site for freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and William Still to help African-Americans travel safely to freedom in the north.
In addition to its anti-slavery roots, Germantown was a bloody landmark for American independence and freedom. In 1777, the Battle of Germantown became one of the Revolutionary War’s most sprawling engagements. Most the battle took place in and around Cliveden, a summer home constructed by Pennsylvania Chief Justice Benjamin Chew in 1767 that is now a Historic Site of the National Trust. Although American troops were defeated by the British—whose soldiers were occupying Germantown at the time—some historians consider the battle a victory, as it proved American sovereignty to the French.
Once a quiet village resting along the banks of the Schuylkill River, Manayunk’s industrial boom began when the Schuylkill Navigation Company completed the Manayunk Canal in 1818. Just one year later, Captain John Towers opened the first mill to use the canal’s water power. Soon after, factories, textile mills, and neighborhoods full of immigrants and workers of German, Italian, Polish, and Irish descent sprang up. The area quickly gained a lucrative reputation as a textile industry hub and was incorporated as a borough in 1840 with the name “Manayunk,” closely related to the Lenape tribe’s word for “river.”
A vital player in the Industrial Revolution, Manayunk differed from other textile mills and manufacturing hubs in the United States. Rather than operating under large corporations, Manayunk’s mills were often family-owned, allowing for greater flexibility in production and investment. Additionally, immigrants who moved to the neighborhood often found upward mobility from laboring in the mills to working in their offices. Manayunk’s labor conditions, however, were subpar for most workers who came to the area, and the neighborhood faced strikes and worker uprisings throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
After many of its factories shuttered during the Great Depression, Manayunk suffered a period of steep economic decline. In the 1990s, upscale restaurants opened on Main Street, bringing much-needed retail and less-desirable development to the neighborhood. Today, residents strive to retain Manayunk’s original charm—along with its iconic row homes, cobblestone paving, and hilly streets.
The original hub of Philadelphia’s working-class population, Kensington’s boundaries have fluctuated since Anthony Palmer purchased it from private landowners in the 1730s. Palmer came to Philadelphia from Barbados and sold parcels of land to shipbuilders who were outgrowing their riverfront lots in Old City and other neighborhoods.
As a large Irish immigrant population moved to Kensington in the 19th century, its industries shifted focus from fishermen and ship-builders to textile mills, making it a national and international leader in manufacturing. The neighborhood was not just limited to the production of textile products, however. Kensington facilitated a comprehensive manufacturing process by housing waste mills, dye works, foundries, machine shops, bolt shops, and box factories, independent from external supply chains.
Child labor was a prominent issue during the 19th and 20th centuries in Kensington and at other textile mills in the United States. In response, progressive activists such as Mary Harris Jones (aka Mother Jones) protested unfair labor conditions through marches, strikes, and other actions. She also organized a “Children’s Crusade” from Kensington to Oyster Bay, New York, where children working in textile mills carried signs bearing slogans like “We want to go to school and not the mines!”
After industry declined in the 1950s, Kensington suffered from high unemployment rates and an eventual economic downturn. The neighborhood has since begun its revitalization, turning once-abandoned factories and warehouses into spaces for artisans and small shops—but also increasing housing prices and pushing Kensington’s working-class residents toward other low-income areas of Philadelphia.
Preservation Growing Pains
While each of these districts speak for key aspects of Philadelphia’s legacy—a Revolutionary landmark, the Workshop of the World, and the home of an artistic renaissance—they’re just a taste of the diversity the city represents today. Every district and neighborhood in Philadelphia has something unique to offer, from expansive warehouses to iconic historic sites to architecturally defining rowhouses.
Every area also presents its own significant challenges in preservation, reuse, and conservation. Fishtown and Pennsport, once working-class districts of modest rowhouses, now face gentrification and significant development pressure. Early suburbs such as Spruce Hill and Powelton Village are facing displacement and demand for student housing. Nineteenth-century garden suburbs such as Tulpehocken, Overbrook Farms, Pelham, and Oak Lane retain their impressive architecture, but the large houses present reuse challenges. Villages such as Ridge, Germantown, Oxford, and Frankford suffer from sprawl, and in many cases disinvestment. Commercial districts such as Jewelers Row and the Italian Market have deep social and cultural significance, yet lack any level of protection.
These and other largely undesignated neighborhoods make up Philadelphia’s extraordinary collection of historic and old housing stock and significant structures. Without improved preservation methods contributing to a healthier and more sustainable city, large sectors of Philadelphia will remain vulnerable in the future.
Regrowth, Reuse, and Revitalization
Despite significant preservation challenges, Philadelphia continues to be a city that is not only worth saving, but that should be protected for the future. The National Trust is partnering with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and the City of Philadelphia to give the city access to a unique set of preservation tools, policies, and resources to foster growth, innovation, sustainability, and inclusivity. Together with partners—including Philadelphia’s government, preservation societies, and residents—the National Trust will help ensure that the benefits of revitalization extends to all Philadelphia residents and neighborhoods.
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