The Old Swedes Public Housing Plan, 1939-40: City Politics Sink a Federal Project

by Amanda Zellner

In 1939, the Philadelphia Housing Authority proposed to build Old Swedes, a low-rent housing project in South Philadelphia. The project pitted a conservative city council against proponents of federally-funded housing redevelopment, dividing neighbors and engulfing the community in heated debate. After a difficult year, the city council cancelled the Old Swedes project, but not without protest from housing project advocates like Bella Iveson and her family.

A typical day in 1939 started at 7 a.m. for 30-year-old Bella Iveson, a Southwark resident of 111 Washington Avenue, where she shared the only bedroom in the house with her three children and her elderly mother. As she prepared her children for school, Bella used a tin tub and a gas stove to heat the water. Emblematic of many working class families struggling in the Great Depression, the Ivesons lived in an urban neighborhood where her house lacked both a bathroom and hot water. Many other houses lacked even plumbing, heat, and electricity. Then, in May 1939, Bella learned that the Philadelphia Housing Authority planned to demolish her house.

Bella and her neighboring family members celebrated the news. They hoped for a better home because their tiny, rundown, bandbox house fell within the boundaries of the proposed Old Swedes Housing Project. The project’s proponents sought to clean up the notorious slum district of Southwark by building low-rent homes for families that earned less than $1000 annually. Old Swedes fit a larger national agenda of slum clearance. Hidden amid the city’s alleyways, the decrepit houses posed such safety hazards that the media regularly reported deaths from collapsed buildings. Overcrowded residences without modern plumbing harbored disease that could spread rampantly in tight quarters. Above all, reformers believed city slums spawned mischief and crime.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority received just over $5,500,000 in federal funding for the Old Swedes Project, planned for the blocks bounded by Catharine Street, Delaware Avenue, Washington Avenue, and 2nd Street. Covered by the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal economic agenda, the project required the demolition of 335 houses in an 18-acre area; officials designated 245 of those homes “unsafe and unsanitary.” In return, the Philadelphia Housing Authority would construct modern housing to provide homes to over 950 families, essentially doubling housing. To educate the Southwark residents about the proposed project, the Philadelphia Housing Authority printed information packets in English and Polish, a recognition of the ethnic majority in the area. Only three buildings on the entire plot would be left standing: the Polish Bethel Church, the Old Sparks Shot Tower, and the Old Swedes Church, from which the project received its name.

Unlike the Ivesons, the Merchels of 123 Queen Street didn’t celebrate the planned demolition of their home. Although living in a “tar-paper dwelling” with no electricity and on a mere $7.50 per week in relief money, the family of three told the Philadelphia Record that “We’ve been here eight years, and we like it.”

Southwark’s residents disagreed about whether to support the Old Swedes Project. The debate became so controversial that 600 people attended the public hearing held in April 1940 when the Philadelphia Housing Authority took testimony. During the meeting one man reported that he was physically threatened for supporting the project. Others called each other names like “rats” and “liars.” The crowd became so rowdy that police officers were forced to throw people out of the building, including one man who shouted, “Howard doesn’t even own a house on the housing site,” about Douglas Howard, Bella’s brother-in-law and a renter.

Others voiced their opinion more quietly, sometimes through their religious organizations, which also split over the housing project. Father John Diamond of St. Philip Neri’s Roman Catholic Church argued that “As a good American citizen I am opposed to the un-American methods of depriving people of their right to own homes in the place of their choosing…You are being handed a luscious peach but in reality it is a lemon. This thing is communistic. It makes for restrictive families, birth control.” Father Casimir Lawniczaki and the predominately Polish members of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church also opposed the housing project. Meanwhile, Rev. John Craig Roak and his Old Swedes’ Church congregation spoke in favor of the project, claiming, “The area was one suffering from utter neglect by the City Administration.”

City politics lay at the heart of the dispute. The Republican Party politicians in Philadelphia, including Mayor Robert Lamberton, outspokenly opposed public housing, even if the federal government paid for it. He claimed that proposals like Old Swedes were “highly experimental” and would cost the city valuable tax dollars. “Slum areas exist because some people are so utterly shiftless that any place they live becomes a slum, and others are so poor that they can afford to live no place else,” he said in a statement about the project. “[T]he home owner is the backbone of our people. Is it wise to wipe out these proud, self-reliant home owners, few though they be, and substitute a one hundred per cent subsidized tenantry? Experience will tell, but it is an old saying that no one ever laid down his life in defense of his apartment.”

On May 7, 1940, less than a month after the public hearing, the city sent fourteen city council members to inspect for themselves the homes targeted for removal in the Old Swedes plan. The city council, not the Philadelphia Housing Authority, determined the project's fate. That day, accompanied throughout the inspection by Fathers Diamond and Lawniczaki, all but two of the touring councilmen were Republicans.

At 109 Washington Avenue, Douglas Howard was outraged when the councilmen walked past his house, avoiding the properties in poorest shape. He told reporters, “I asked Councilman Pommer to follow me for a few minutes, but he told me to ‘get out of the picture’ and that they would look for themselves. They didn’t visit my block, which is in bad condition.” During their inspection, the councilman only entered the nicest homes, identified with signs reading: “My home is open for your inspection.”

By June 20, 1940, the city council officially cancelled the project with a 12 to 10 vote, rejecting over $19,000,000 in federal funding for Old Swedes and two other housing projects. At the Republican National Convention, held in Philadelphia that June, thousands of people crowded the streets, holding picket signs and protesting in favor of public housing and slum clearance.

Among the protesters were laborers who had expected to build the three projects and earn the $6.5 million budgeted for wages. Carl Bersing, president of C.I.O’s Industrial Union Council, told the New York Times that “Mayor Lamberton’s decision with the full sanction of the Republican majority in City Council has again ridden roughshod over the citizens and has turned a deaf ear to thousands of Philadelphians to protect the selfish interest of an unscrupulous real estate clique that apparently dominates our city government.”

In a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Record, a woman wrote that “Mayor Lamberton’s effort to destroy Philadelphia’s low-rent public housing program is one of the most ill-advised steps ever taken by a responsible public officer…His abrupt reversal leads everyone to believe that there is something very peculiar transpiring; something not to the best interests of this city."

But World War II quickly overshadowed the Old Swedes Housing project, its cancellation, and its controversy. Ironically, the demand for war housing led the Philadelphia Housing Authority to undertake new housing projects in the area for war workers. Eventually, the city built I-95 straight through what would have been the now forgotten Old Swedes Housing Project.

Amanda Zellner is a student historian from Drexel University completing a research co-op on PhilaPlace.


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