Publication Date

December 1, 2005

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting


State & Local (US)

Philadelphia is known as the “city of neighborhoods,” some well-known and some esoteric. A quick look at some of the city’s better known historic and ethnic neighborhoods reveals a rich history and contemporary cultural scene.

Philadelphia's Chinatown district.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown district. Photo by Jim McWilliams, courtesy the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau

One of the most identifiable and accessible ethnic neighborhoods in the city is a mere two blocks from the meeting hotels. Formed in the 1870s and 1880s, Philadelphia’s Chinatown grew throughout the 20th century from a very small society of bachelor sojourners to a thriving community of families, community organizations, churches, a housing complex for senior citizens, gift shops, beauty salons, travel agencies, bakeries, and, of course, restaurants. This small neighborhood (only four blocks square) was shaped by discrimination and threats from urban redevelopment. Holy Redeemer Church at 10th and Vine was the site of protests against proposed demolition for the Vine Street expressway in the 1970s. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, formed during that struggle, built the Friendship Gate at 10th and Arch Sts., which marks the entrance to the neighborhood.

From its founding in 1682, Philadelphia was an entry port and a city of immigrants, embodied by the historic neighborhood of Southwark, now known as Queen Village. First settled predominately by the Irish, the area became the site of the city’s first immigration station at the base of Washington Avenue in the 1880s. Italians, Poles, Greeks, eastern European Jews, Slovaks, Russians, and other migrants made Southwark Philadelphia’s “Lower East Side,” a rich tapestry of ethnic enclaves. South 4th Street, known as die Ferde by its Jewish residents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, retains the vestiges of that identity in a corner deli, the Famous 4th St. Delicatessen, and a smattering of fabric shops (remnants of the old garment district). Italians also settled in South Philadelphia, where the first Italian Catholic parish in the country, St. Magdalene de Pazzi, was formed in 1855. The 9th St. Market, still known as the “Italian Market,” embodies the changing demographics of the neighborhood in its Mexican and Southeast Asian businesses.

South Street, the northern boundary of the neighborhood, was the center of a prominent free black community during the colonial and antebellum periods, at one time the largest in the country. The area now identified tony colonial Society Hill is punctuated with landmarks of African American history, such as the homes of musician James Forten and band leader Frank Johnson. 7th St. at Lombard marks the eastern boundary of the famous “Seventh Ward” immortalized in The Philadelphia Negro by W.E.B. DuBois, who lived on 6th Street between Lombard and South Streets. Over time this community expanded west along the “South Street corridor” to the Schuykill River. South Street, known today for its funky shops and bars, was once dotted with jazz and blues clubs; the contemporary Philadelphia Clef Club on south Broad Street pays tribute to this heritage.

Northern Liberties, north of Spring Garden Street, was home first to German and Irish craft and textile workers, then Slovak, Russian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants, and now a growing population of Latinos. An up-and-coming area undergoing gentrification, the neighborhood is known for its breweries and pubs and wide variety of ethnic churches, like St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church on N 5th St., founded by Russian sailors in the 1890s. Like Northern Liberties, Kensington was a ship- and boat-building district that became a center of industrial production, particularly of textiles, iron, and steel. Many of its old-time inhabitants were fishermen; adjacent Fishtown took its name from their activities.

By the mid 1870s Philadelphia was known as “the workshop of the world,” its economy based on the textile, metal products, machine goods, printing, and chemical industries, particularly in these northern and northeastern neighborhoods. Port Richmond, on the Delaware Riverfront to the north and northeast of Old Kensington grew up around a terminus of the Reading Railroad. First the coal trade, then manufacturing, drew Polish immigrants who formed an enclave extending from Fishtown into Bridesburg. Today the Polish presence is still alive, represented by numerous businesses along Richmond Street and Allegheny Avenue, where you can grab an authentic lunch at the Syrenka Luncheonette, or sample the chrusciki and babka at one of several Polish bakeries.

North 5th Street at Lehigh Avenue is known as “El Corazon del Barrio.” The “golden block,” as it is called, is actually several blocks flush with Latino businesses, community organizations, restaurants, and botanicas. Taller Puertorriqueño, a Latino community arts center and bookstore, showcases the work of local artists, and Centro Musical, on Lehigh, is a one-stop shop for everything from salsa to bachata to reggaeton. Murals and community gardens scattered throughout this neighborhood reinforce its culturally specific character, as do recent community housing projects in the Spanish style.

Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill district.

Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill district. Photo by Edward Savaria Jr., courtesy the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau

To the northwest, Germantown, a German settlement in the 17th century, was the site of the country homes of famous Philadelphians such as James Logan (Stenton) and Benjamin Chew (Cliveden), which have been preserved as historic sites. The neighborhood played a role in the abolition movement. The first protest against slavery occurred here in 1688 and the Johnson House, a historic Underground Railroad site, is located here. Travel further northwest up Germantown Avenue to Mount Airy, a community that successfully combated residential segregation in the 1960s (and remains integrated today) and Chestnut Hill, where the avenue is lined with upscale shops and boutiques.

Over the Schuykill River in West Philadelphia lies University City. Named for the Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania campuses, University City originated as a series of streetcar suburbs built in the 1870s and 1880s. Today the influence of the universities has promoted a sense of international community, represented by cultural venues such as International House, the World Café Live, and the Institute for Contemporary Art. The neighborhood is also home to an enclave of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Fatou and Fama’s restaurant, at 40th and Chestnut Streets, is the perfect spot to sample chebujen, the national dish of Senegal. Baltimore Avenue between 43rd and 48th Streets is dotted with African businesses, restaurants such as Dahlak Restaurant (Eritrean), the Blue Nile (Sudanese), Benkady Fatima (Ivorian), and Nigerian, Ivorian, and Sudanese markets.

Kate Wilson (Historical Society of Pennsylvania) is co-chair of the Local Arrangements Committee.