Roots of the “City of Neighborhoods”: Southwark and the Northern Liberties

by Melissa M. Mandell

Oscar Hankinson, a lifelong South Philadelphian born in 1933 recalls: “I was born on 5th & Ellsworth…We moved to Carpenter Street, which is about a block and a half away, when I was twelve years old…that block and a half was like moving a world away.” Hankinson’s movement between two “worlds” suggests how Philadelphia’s neighborhoods—rich in history and culture, recognizable and distinct—are more complex than they may appear at first glance. Three centuries of history is written in the landscape itself; in the streets, in the vernacular buildings, the churches, in the things made here, and in the visible and in the invisible boundaries between neighborhoods. These boundaries are defined as much by internal perceptions as by official geography, and the use of public space is both formal and improvised. Buildings old and new, ornate and ordinary, tell the story of change over time.

Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhoods, outside of William Penn’s original city plan (which roughly corresponds to today’s Center City), started out as rough-and-tumble waterfront communities. Clustering along the Delaware River’s edge to the north and south of the city limits, these neighborhoods were literally off the grid and not part of Penn’s orderly, Quaker, “Greene Countrie Towne.” The City of Philadelphia proper lay within the blocks between Front Street and the Schuylkill River, and Vine and South Streets until the mid-nineteenth century. By the time the County of Philadelphia incorporated its outlying industrial districts and townships into the City of Philadelphia in 1854, districts like the Northern Liberties and Kensington, to the north of the city limits, and Southwark and Moyamensing, to the south, were already magnets for migrant African Americans, immigrants, and industry. Industrialization and immigration were dual forces that shaped Philadelphia’s population and boundaries and literally made the city work. Unlike Manhattan, which rose vertically, Philadelphia grew outward. Laborers, artisans, and skilled industrial workers, usually immigrants or migrants, settled block upon block of low-rise row homes in these urban outskirts.

The places and people once considered marginal to Philadelphia’s geography and its history are in fact integral to understanding the real, whole, city. Although not defined by the actions and declarations of the founding fathers, the histories of these neighborhoods are essential for understanding the development of Philadelphia and its people. As industrial engines and immigrant enclaves, these neighborhoods provide a lens through which to view the Philadelphia working-class and ethnic experience. The streetscapes of Northern Liberties and Southwark tell stories of American life that are both complementary and contradictory to the ideals enshrined at Independence Mall.

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"A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia": Alderman Hugh and Patrick Clark's Houses. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania "A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia": Burning of St. Michael's Church, on Wednesday afternoon, May 8. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania "A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia": Burning of the Nunnery or School House, on Wednesday afternoon, May 8. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania "A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia": cover. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania "A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia": Detachment of Volunteers and the Boarders attached to the Princeton. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania "A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia": Fight between the Rioters in Kensington. 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Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Can Collector. Image provided by Jennifer Baker The Chancel of the Church of St. Maron, with Father Corkemas at the Altar. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Girls you left behind you. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Home of Six Modified Milk Babies. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Hospital Building at Sanitarium Playground The Housewife Bargaining with the Push Cart Man The Interior of St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia, Pa.. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Interior of St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia, Pa.. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Kindergarten (St. Martha's House). Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Library. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Lighthouse Building. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania The Lighthouse Lantern cover, October 1930. 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Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Ukrainian Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Ukrainian Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception exterior. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Verdi Band. Image provided by Maria Petrone Verdi Band. Image provided by Maria Petrone Verdi Hall. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Vicarious Motherhood. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Vietnamese dancer at Saigon Maxim Restaurant. Image provided by City of Philadelphia Department of Records Vietnamese dancer in Saigon Maxim. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Vietnamese dancers in Saigon Maxim. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Vietnamese Hung Vuong Association. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania View from Our Roof View of Gloria Dei church from burial ground. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania View of Octavia Hill tenements from Mario Lanza Park. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania View of Schmidt's Brewery neighborhood. Image provided by Temple University Urban Archives View Toward Steamboat Landing Vincent Maurelli with his sister, father, and paternal grandmother. Image provided by Vincent Maurelli W.E.B. Du Bois at Paris Exposition, 1900. Image provided by W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois historical marker. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania W.E.B. Du Bois portrait. Image provided by W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois portrait. Image provided by W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois' data card. Image provided by Univ. of Pennsylvania Archives W.E.B. Du Bois' receipt for printing. Image provided by Univ. of Pennsylvania Archives W.E.B. Du Bois' receipt for printing. Image provided by Univ. of Pennsylvania Archives Wallace/Lynd Street (Originally Paschall's Alley), Race/Ethnicity 1880. Image provided by University of Pennsylvania School of Design Wallace/Lynd Street (Originally Paschall's Alley), Race/Ethnicity 1900. Image provided by University of Pennsylvania School of Design Wallace/Lynd Street (Originally Paschall's Alley), Race/Ethnicity 1910. Image provided by University of Pennsylvania School of Design Wallace/Lynd Street (Originally Paschall's Alley), Race/Ethnicity 1920. Image provided by University of Pennsylvania School of Design Wallace/Lynd Street (Originally Paschall's Alley), Race/Ethnicity 1930. Image provided by University of Pennsylvania School of Design Waste pipe discharging beside wall of frame house. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Watching the Fire, American Street. Image provided by Jennifer Baker We play in a crack on Christian Street, 435 play yard. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania We slide in a corner of the crack. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Weathered sign for Young Men's home. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Weccacoe Engine Co.'s House, and Reception of United Fire Co. of Baltimore. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Weccacoe Fire Company. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Wedding Party, Saint Andrew’s Orthodox Church. Image provided by Jennifer Baker Where old Europe meets new America. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania William Bleshman, President of the Congregation Knesas Israel Anshe S'fard. Image provided by Elaine Ellison Window of Fante's, 1956. Image provided by Mariella Esposito Women at Public Baths Association laundry. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania Women operating box assembling machines. Image provided by Library Company of Philadelphia Women who worked in stores on 900 Marshall Street. Image provided by Elaine Ellison [Penn Treaty Elm Tree]. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Pennsylvania Sugar Company]. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Pennsylvania Sugar Company]. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania
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