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Sites and Stories of Urban Renewal in a Philadelphia Neighborhood

RDA map Unit 2Acquisition, Clearance, and Rehabilitation Plan for Washington Square East, Unit 2. Many parcels designated in grey or white were rehabilitated. Source: Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, Washington Square East Redevelopment Area, Unit No. 2, April 1959, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries.

Preserving Society Hill documents the history of Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood during the era immediately before, during, and after urban renewal. By focusing on individual residents and building sites, the project provides a ground-up view of a federal program that has been more commonly understood from a top-down perspective. Through the cultivation, aggregation, and spatialization of a variety of historical sources, the site aims to reconstruct the reconstruction of a neighborhood. Key sources include historical land use maps, photographs, architectural data, and personal histories—both oral and written. The documents and data currently contained on the site are just a start; we look forward to incorporating additional materials over time.

Society Hill, known as Washington Square East for postwar planning purposes, was one of hundreds of U.S. neighborhoods transformed by urban renewal. In three redevelopment units across a roughly 4-block by 7-block, 116-acre area, planners remade a previously mixed-use neighborhood of 18th through early 20th century row houses; churches and synagogues; multi-family buildings; and industrial structures. The result was a predominantly residential and institutional enclave, bordered by commercial uses, and consisting within of high-rise towers, contemporary in-fill housing, and restored structures that showcased a reimagined, largely Federal and Georgian row house past. While this transformation formally started with the introduction of redevelopment plans for three adjacent units beginning in 1958, these plans took decades to be realized. The effects of these renewal interventions endure today.

RDA map Unit 2This 1970 view of the corner of Spruce and Second Streets depicts the two primary approaches to urban renewal deployed in the neighborhood: clearance and restoration. Source: PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

Society Hill broke with the large-scale “culture of clearance” that typically characterized postwar renewal. As Architectural Forum noted, Philadelphia’s planners notably sought to “clear slums with penicillin, not surgery.” Thus, alongside a handful of other postwar cities, Philadelphia implemented an approach that combined selective demolition with historic preservation. Yet, while more of the neighborhood’s buildings were saved than was typical of urban renewal, most existing residents and businesses were still displaced. According to federal reports, this included nearly 600 families, 20% of whom were African American and many others of whom were of Eastern European descent. In their place developed a new community of residents relocating from within and beyond the city.

The documents included in Preserving Society Hill help address several key questions relevant to the history of both this particular neighborhood and urban renewal more broadly. For example, what was Society Hill like before renewal, and why was it targeted for transformation? Who were the new residents who moved there, and what drew them to do so? What were the relationships like between old and new residents in this transforming space? What did historic preservation mean—to architects, residents, and municipal officials—at this critical moment in the development of the preservation field? How and why did property owners renovate and restore individual sites during renewal? And, among the younger generation, what was it like to grow up in an urban renewal community?

As suggested by its title, Preserving Society Hill operates on two levels. First, it is a history of a neighborhood known for historic preservation. Society Hill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and as a Philadelphia Historic District in 1999. The site-level architectural data developed as part of that local designation serve as one of the inputs to this site. Second, the website is an act of preservation itself. By archiving the sites and stories of the changes in Society Hill across time, Preserving Society Hill preserves a multilayered history of the community.


Click HERE for more on the origins of the oral history portion of this project.


Sources for Homepage Images (previous page):

(Left) Elizabeth S. Browne, standing inside the house at 306 S 2nd Street, which she and Stanhope Browne purchased and would later renovate. Photograph by Irving Sachs. Private collection of Elizabeth S. Browne.

(Right) 308-310 S. 4th Street, January 23, 1957. Source: PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.