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.