From Weccacoe to South Philadelphia: The Changing Face of a Neighborhood

by Stephen M. Sitarski

Long before William Penn and the founding of the city of Philadelphia, or even the arrival of Swedish settlers, the Lenni Lenape Indians claimed the land they called Weccacoe (pleasant place), now known as South Philadelphia. For generations, small communities of Lenape had gathered, hunted, and fished along the banks of the lower Delaware River. In 1638, Weccacoe became part of New Sweden when the early Swedes established Fort Christina (now Wilmington, Delaware) and settled along the Delaware River as far north as present day Trenton, New Jersey. Compared with the volatile relationship between the Dutch and the Lenape in New Jersey, these early Swedish colonists maintained good relations with their Indian trading partners. Although cultural misunderstandings abounded and violent clashes sometimes erupted, the Swedes and the Lenni Lenape signed a Friendship Compact in 1654 at Tinicum, down river from Philadelphia.

In the 17th century, the Delaware riverfront was lined with an impressive grove of large beech, elm, and buttonwood trees. Elk, deer, and beaver populated the nearby lowland meadows and provided the Swedes with pelts for their booming fur trade. The Swedish family of Sven settled the area now known as Queen Village. Their log house stood on a knoll overlooking the river at what is now the northwest corner of Beck and Swanson streets. The one-and-a-half-story wooden structure had a large garden with various fruit trees behind it. An inlet of water from the Delaware River allowed small boats to dock in front of their house. The old log structure stood for more than a century until the British army used the wood as fuel during the Revolutionary War.

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Weccacoe changed little during the 17th century. The original Swedish settlement had few homes and much of its land remained a wilderness, except for a couple of small farms. One notable exception was the construction of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church in 1698, which replaced a small wooden log structure. When completed in 1700, the impressive new brick church was deemed a great edifice by local citizens. Now located between Christian Street and Washington Avenue, the recently restored church is constructed in the Flemish-bond style with alternating red and black header bricks. The oldest church in Pennsylvania, Gloria Dei served as the Swedish Lutheran Church for more than 150 years and has been a part of the Episcopal Church since 1845. Because of its unique historical significance, the U.S. Congress, prompted by a devastating fire at a neighboring paint factory that nearly destroyed the old church, designated Gloria Dei Church as a National Historic Site in 1942. The National Park Service purchased the land bordering the church property, creating a green oasis between Interstate 95 and busy Columbus Boulevard. The congregation still owns the church and a cluster of related buildings.

The Dutch briefly claimed control of what is now southeastern Pennsylvania from the Swedes in 1655, but the land was quickly ceded to the British, and in 1682 the king of England granted a land charter for what is now Pennsylvania to William Penn. Penn renamed Weccacoe Southwark, after a neighborhood in London, England. Penn's new city of Philadelphia quickly grew along the Delaware River waterfront and spilled over its original southern boundary of Cedar Street (now South Street) by the early 18th century. By 1687, the Southwark District (now south Philadelphia) was divided into two townships, which retained their original American Indian names, Moyamensing (pigeon droppings) and Passyunk (in the valley).

By the mid-18th century, a building boom transformed Southwark from a village into a residential and commercial neighborhood, especially along the waterfront. Even before the mass immigration of the 19th century, the side streets and alleys of Southwark had housed residents of diverse backgrounds and cultures, including a mix of African Americans, immigrants, and native whites who were tavern keepers, mariners, shopkeepers, ship builders, artisans, blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers, laborers, and even farmers. Several original mid-18th-century homes survive along Front Street between South and Christian streets. Two notable examples are the Nathanial Irish House at 704 South Front Street and the George Mifflin House on the 100 block of Pemberton Street. Mifflin's initials and the 1748 house construction date can still be seen on the brick wall facing that street.

Provincial secretary Richard Peters noted the dramatic changes in Southwark's appearance as early as 1743, when he wrote to Governor Thomas Penn,"Southwark is getting greatly disfigured by erecting irregular and mean houses; thereby so marring its beauty that, when he shall return, he will lose his usual pretty walk to Wiccaco." Peters may have been referring to the wood-framed buildings that were common throughout Southwark. Whole blocks developed seemingly overnight; wooden houses were cheaper to construct, but harder to maintain. In predominantly brick Philadelphia, wooden houses were associated with devastating fires. Today, only a few wood-plank-front homes survive in South Philadelphia, and some good examples can still be seen along the blocks of 800 South Hancock Street and 100 League Street. Some still bear the fire marks of various local insurance companies. These plaques denoted which homes were insured and should be saved in the event of a fire.

Southwark's development continued to be strongly influenced by that of neighboring Philadelphia. At the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia was the political and cultural capital of the United States and the largest city in North America. The adjacent townships of Northern Liberties and Southwark grew rapidly along with the Quaker City. In 1766 Southwark saw the construction of America's first permanent playhouse on Fourth Street, just outside the Philadelphia city limits. The Southwark Theatre and other entertainment venues thereby circumvented the Quaker ban on theater in their city. In 1796 President John Adams established the U.S. Navy and ordered several frigates be built at the new federal navy yard along the Delaware River in Southwark. A huge complex of shipbuilding warehouses, supporting buildings, and shops developed along the waterfront just south of Washington Avenue. Hundreds of new government-contracted jobs drew skilled craftsmen and merchants just south of the city limits.

Thus Southwark began the 18th century as a rural village dominated by the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church bell tower and ended it transformed with the establishment of the federal navy yard, just across the street from the old church on Washington Avenue. Both local landmarks would have a significant impact on Philadelphia's oldest neighborhood throughout the next century.

By the 1820s, Moyamensing Township, still a pastoral countryside, attracted new social institutions, which built impressive facilities in this pleasant setting, including the United States Naval Asylum for retired naval personnel at Grays Ferry Avenue and 24th Street. The social theory that a pastoral setting would help rehabilitate criminals determined the site of the Moyamensing Prison, built in 1831 and since demolished, at the present-day intersection of 10th and Reed streets.

The political center of the District of Southwark was Commissioner's Hall, which once stood at the intersection of Beck and Second streets. After Southwark was consolidated into the City of Philadelphia in 1854, Commissioner's Hall became the Second District Police Headquarters until it was demolished in the early 20th century. Nearby, residents built and lived in homes that became Philadelphia's signature architectural form, the brick row house. The 100 block of Beck Street (formally known as Beck Place) is an early example of an entire row-house block, now common throughout the city. In an effort to preserve these houses, the Philadelphia Historical Commission has designated the 1840s' brick row houses as historic.

It was not only the landscape, however, that changed. Beginning in the mid-19th century, thousands of mostly Irish immigrants arrived in Philadelphia, and many settled in Southwark, where they came into conflict with the district's native American Protestants, who were both suspicious of their Catholic religion and fearful of their competition for jobs. Years of tension finally led to a series of nativist and anti-Catholic riots that swept the region in 1844. In July, rioters attacked St. Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church on Queen Street between Second and Third. Three days of rioting resulted in many deaths and injuries, though volunteer fire companies protected the church from destruction, including the Democratically aligned Weccacoe Hose Company at Front and Catharine, which had recently broken off from the nativist and Republican Weccacoe Engine Company, whose impressive firehouse dominated on the 100 block of Queen Street.

The South Street (formerly Cedar Street) area was the historic heart of Philadelphia's free black community in the 18th and mid-19th centuries. Anchored by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Sixth and Lombard, the "Cedar Street Corridor" (currently the area around South and Lombard streets from Fifth to Seventh) was a magnet for black settlement. The presence of free black churches and the cheap tenements of the Cedar and Locust ward encouraged African American settlement of Southwark. By 1820 the Cedar Street corridor contained nearly two-thirds of all of Philadelphia's black families.

The Civil War ushered in further changes, as Washington Avenue hosted tens of thousands of Union soldiers at "Welcome Centers" staffed by neighborhood volunteers who provided soldiers with a warm meal and the thanks of a grateful nation. A seemingly constant parade of blue uniforms marched through Southwark, many ferried across the Delaware from New Jersey on their way to Philadelphia's Broad Street railroad terminal and to battlefields throughout the South. Troops used Jefferson Square for marching drills and encampments.

After the Civil War, immigrants continued to pour into Philadelphia, and to accommodate the influx, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened the Washington Avenue Immigration Station on the banks of the Delaware. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly from southern and eastern Europe, passed through from the 1870s until its demolition in 1915. Once immigrants passed through U.S. Customs, they either stayed in the city or boarded trains to jobs and homes elsewhere in the state and beyond.

An influx of mostly Russian Jews firmly established both South Street and Fourth Street as busy commercial districts by the early 1900s. For more than a century, historic Fabric Row (along S. Fourth Street) has offered a wide range of textiles for fine clothing, drapery, upholsterers, and interior designers. Generations of Philadelphians purchased their new suits and wedding gowns there. Poles settled along the waterfront as dockworkers. Jews and Italians established their now famous open-air market along Ninth Street, and Italians created a commercial corridor to serve their thriving community along Passyunk Avenue. Meanwhile, working-class African Americans migrated from the southern United States in large numbers to settle just west of Broad Street around Christian Street, joining other African Americans who had been displaced from Southwark by new immigrants. Several historical black churches and social institutions still survive. Growing demand for new housing dramatically altered the once semirural landscape of what was formally known as the District of Southwark. New housing developments rapidly spread along either side of South Broad Street.

By the 20th century, Philadelphia had become one of the world's largest industrial centers. But pollution, disease, and inadequate housing alarmed city officials. Unlike the high-rise tenements of New York, Southwark's alleys and courtyards of ramshackle, three-story bandbox houses (or "trinities") were often hidden from street view. Local government was slow to react, so philanthropic groups like the Octavia Hill Association, founded in 1896 and named for a British social reformer, provided the poor and working-class immigrants and African Americans with clean and affordable housing. The association still maintains rental properties in South Philadelphia, including Workman Place (Front Street between Fitzwater and Pemberton) and several homes on the 200 blocks of Beck and Queen streets.

By 1920 most of south Philadelphia was filled with block after block of row and twin houses. A few public squares and playgrounds provided off-street recreation and open green space. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, formally known as League Island Park, became the site of the nation's sesquicentennial anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence in 1926. The fair featured a huge replica of the Liberty Bell at the base of Broad Street, Municipal (later known as JFK) Stadium, and a building now occupied by the American Swedish Historical Museum.

After World War II, many of South Philadelphia's ethnic enclaves began a long and steady decline as the children of new immigrants left the neighborhood for other parts of the city and nearby suburbs. For the first time in the area's 300-year history, the local population actually began to shrink.

In the 1960s, two major urban development projects dramatically altered the historic fabric of these neighborhoods. In an ambitious effort to provide the city's growing poor population with decent housing, the government built thousands of new housing units throughout the city, including the Southwark and Hawthorne projects in South Philadelphia. Initially a model for urban renewal, these large public housing projects quickly fell into disrepair and became a haven for drugs and crime. Within just 40 years, most city public housing projects were demolished and rebuilt under new management.

Meanwhile, construction of a new interstate highway along the Delaware River began in 1959 after decades of planning. Countless homes and businesses in the path of I-95 were condemned, and many of the city's oldest homes, including more than 300 18th-century homes, were torn down to create the highway. The harsh severance of the neighborhood from the river affirmed the decline of the industrial economy and accelerated the flight to the Northeast and the suburbs. Further neighborhood destruction was halted when local residents successfully defeated plans for a South Street crosstown expressway. The abandoned South Street commercial strip soon attracted young artists and new businesses, including boutique shops, restaurants, and bars.

Despite major changes to the neighborhood during the 20th century, many old buildings remain. The nationally recognized restoration of the historic Society Hill neighborhood preserved old structures but displaced many longtime, working-class residents. But the new Society Hill's success encouraged urban pioneers to buy south of South Street. Rows of restored historic homes, coupled with new residential construction, generated renewed interest in South Philadelphia beginning in the 1980s. As new professionals moved in, local real estate agents renamed Weccacoe Queen Village, in honor of the Swedish settlers and their Queen Christina. The area around the Ninth Street Market, where many Italians had settled, became Bella Vista (beautiful view).

In 2002, the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation redefined the official southern boundary of Center City to include most of Queen Village and Bella Vista. After more than three centuries, downtown Philadelphia now included portions of South Philadelphia. These neighborhoods have experienced more rebuilding since 2000 than had occurred there for decades—rebuilding that has changed these traditional working-class enclaves into some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. What does the future hold for South Philadelphia? The past actually holds some important clues.

Two unique advantages will determine the future development of South Philadelphia: location and history. South Philadelphia is ideally situated adjacent to internationally famous historic sites (e.g. Independence Hall) and the region's business center, and it sits between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Neighborhood development has always been tied to these rivers, and it figures prominently in its future. Demand for residential riverfront development will accelerate as new high-rise residential towers, townhouses, boat marinas, and landscaped public walkways transform both waterfronts. Local commercial districts, including South Street, the Ninth Street Market, and Passyunk Avenue will continue to evolve into more fashionable shopping and dining destinations. South Philadelphians take great pride in their neighborhood, and that strong sense of community will continue to attract new residents in the future. And just like a century earlier, as the 21st century commenced, an influx of new residents—a mix of young professionals and Southeast Asian and Mexican immigrants—has begun to transform these old neighborhoods, once again.

Steve Sitartski is a native Philadelphian who currently resides in Society Hill and is chief of interpretation and visitor services at Independence National Historical Park.


  • This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Pennsylvania Legacies, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's illustrated public history magazine.
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