About five miles north of Philadelphia City Hall, and the increasingly prosperous center city, a stretch of vacant land divides a neighborhood called Nicetown. It lies beneath the Roosevelt Extension, an elevated highway, which keeps the space dim and damp. The parcel is large, roughly the size of two football fields, and irregularly-shaped, like a funnel with a curved spout. It’s littered with old tires, discarded food wrappers, and chunks of broken concrete. But worst of all is the location. This plot of public land sits smack in the middle of Germantown Avenue, Nicetown’s once thriving commercial corridor.
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Mention Nicetown to a Philadelphian and they often say, “I hear it’s not so nice.” Unemployment and crime rates are high and the schools are poor. But Nicetown is close-knit, and the community mobilizes on behalf of local kids. In 2014, three years after losing a long battle to retain public control of their high school, residents won the right to keep control of their elementary school. And for more than a decade, the Nicetown Community Development Corporation (NTCDC), a nonprofit dedicated to economic revitalization, has been trying to repair the two-and-a-half-acre gash running through its commercial center by transforming the underpass into a public recreation space. “Kids are running up and down the streets. We don’t even have a basketball court,” Quenton Bowman, a longtime resident who volunteers with the NTCDC, told me one recent morning.
Mention Nicetown to a Philadelphian and they often say, ‘I hear it’s not so nice.’
Bowman and I were walking along Germantown Avenue towards the highway, passing small storefronts, including a day care center and a home health care company. We also passed the neighborhood’s sole park, Nicetown Park, which contains a jungle gym for little kids but nothing for teens or adults. When Bowman was growing up in Nicetown, in the 1980s and ’90s, he and his friends called it the “mini-park.” Back then, they fashioned basketball courts on the streets by nailing crates on to telephone poles. Bowman, who’s in his early forties, has a high, charismatic energy. He began volunteering with the NTCDC in 2013, when he returned to Nicetown, where his mother and grandmother still live, after nearly a decade with the Marines, based out of Camp Pendleton, in California. He found work with a local tire company and sought ways to help neighborhood children; homicide rates were rising and schools were closing, and he worried that teens lacked adult role models. “I saw a particular need in the community to create more of a buffer between the kids and the police,” he said.
The city’s increasing racial and economic segregation also concerned Bowman. Philadelphia is a so-called majority-minority city, with a population that’s 41 percent black, 35 percent white, 16 percent Latinx, and 8 percent Asian. In the years when Bowman was away, some of the city’s most affluent and centrally located neighborhoods were expanding their footprints south and north, turning working-class neighborhoods like Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Pointe Breeze into middle-class and upper-middle-class ones. Significantly, they also became whiter. Today, the wealthiest neighborhoods of center city — including Rittenhouse Square, Fitler Square, Old City, and Society Hill — are 70 to 90 percent white.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia retains the dubious distinction of being the poorest of America’s ten most populous cities, with more than 25 percent of its 1.6 million residents living in poverty. According to a recent report on the “State of the City,” from the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Poverty in Philadelphia is widespread, with the highest concentrations found primarily in parts of North and West Philadelphia.In some areas, including much of North Philadelphia, the poverty rate is over 45 percent; in most of the city’s residential ZIP codes, it is over 20 percent.” 1 Many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including Nicetown, are upwards of 90 percent black. To Bowman these transformations are a kind of loss. “You have to go to the heart of North Philly, the heart of West Philly, the heart of South Philly, to find black people now,” he said. “People are actually going to wonder what I am talking to you about, because you are white and I am black,” he added. We were both dressed casually in jeans and tee-shirts. “They’re probably going to think you’re a cop.”
Philadelphia is the poorest of America’s ten most populous cities, and many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including Nicetown, are upwards of 90 percent black.
Like Bowman, I had also recently returned to Philadelphia after nearly a decade away. In 2007, when I left, I lived just south of the South Street Bridge, which crosses the Schuylkill River and connects the cluster of historic neighborhoods known as center city to west Philadelphia. At the time, my block marked center city’s southern edge and was best known for its popular beer distributor. But back then construction was beginning on the Schuylkill Banks Park, an eight-mile set of trails that intersects with the South Street Bridge and runs alongside the river. By 2016, when I moved back, the central sections of the $60-million park were complete, the beer distributor was gone (replaced by a 21-story office tower and expansion of Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania), and my old block was suddenly part of the city’s wealthiest neighborhood, now called Graduate Hospital. 2 Other center city neighborhoods were receiving new, splashy public spaces, too. And as these parks arose, so did center city’s wealth and status. In 2018, GQ declared Philadelphia the “City of the Year.” 3
Bowman believes that a new recreation space under the highway has the potential to remake his neighborhood, too — but not because he hopes it will spur development. “Nothing wrong with making money, but that’s not what this is about,” he said. For Bowman, it’s about community; it’s about equity. But the park’s future is uncertain. Its most recent milestone dates back six years; that’s when the Nicetown CDC, after a long period of brainstorming and talking to city officials and nonprofits, won a grant from the Community Design Collaborative, a local organization that provides underserved communities with pro bono design services. The collaborative paired the NTCDC with Friday Architects, one of Philly’s storied firms, and for several months residents met with Friday’s team as it developed a master plan for an ambitious recreation area under the highway. More than 500 volunteer hours later, at the end of 2013, the firm produced the Nicetown Sports Court: Conceptual Design for an Outdoor Recreation Sports Complex.
Bowman knows the master plan well. He attended every meeting with Friday Architects, and a PDF of the master plan is downloaded on his phone. But no work has started on the Sports Court. Like other poor neighborhoods in the city, Nicetown lacks the revenue streams and rising property values to draw the necessary private investors to fund such a big, new space. In Philly these days, nice parks are about making money; which is why Bowman’s vision is more radical and idyllic than it appears — and why the land under the highway continues to provide a window into Philadelphia’s inequity and segregation decades after the bulldozers first rolled in to clear the parcel to make way for the elevated road.
Center city neighborhoods are benefiting from splashy new parks, but Nicetown lacks the revenue streams and property values to fund such amenities.
When we arrived at the underpass, Bowman gave me a virtual guided tour of Friday’s master plan. The four basketball courts will go over there, he said, pointing to the large, wedge-shaped section near the western edge of Germantown Avenue, where the roadway is at its highest point. Next to the courts, on a sunny patch on the outer edge of the wedge, there will be a community garden. We crossed Germantown Avenue, where the underpass narrows and the highway slopes closer toward the ground, and Bowman showed me the area set aside for a skatepark and a small BMX bike zone. Bowman imagines amateur and maybe even professional players offering free basketball clinics, and the community’s experienced gardeners teaching teenagers how to grow flowers and food. He imagines the kids putting down their screens and coming outside to play. “This,” Bowman said, gesturing behind us and visualizing the future park, “represents the middle class.”
Seventy years ago, the site that is now the underpass was home to a cobbler and a hardware store as well as several dozen brick rowhouses, some of which had been owned by the same families for a quarter century or more. Nicetown’s population was a robust 14,000 — mostly first- and second-generation immigrants from Germany, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, drawn to the area by the local factories that provided steady work. To the northwest was Midvale Steel, which had been in operation since the mid-19th century (it was where Frederick Winslow Taylor first developed his theory of scientific management); a cluster of nearby factories made everything from pencils to textiles to auto parts to Tastykake snacks. 4
But Nicetown was on the cusp of profound change. In the 1930s, it had been redlined by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the New Deal agency that used color-coded maps to indicate the “residential security” — the credit-worthiness for investment — of a neighborhood; the red-colored areas were judged to be “hazardous.” Nicetown was not declining in the 1930s and ’40s; however, because it abutted industrial zones and was home to many working-class immigrants, the federal government considered it a risk and would not insure mortgage loans. Just as ominously, in those years government planners also determined that Nicetown lay right in the middle of a path that constituted the shortest distance between two busy thoroughfares.
Like redlining, urban renewal is a grim and familiar chapter in our national history. Starting in the postwar era, public agencies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to construct arterial roads and high-speed expressways to support the development of countless suburbs filled with houses bought with government-backed loans that were available almost exclusively to white home buyers. 5 The road building was guided by a technocratic confidence in engineering expertise, “a technical and economic efficiency mindset,” the historian Francesca Russello Ammon, author of Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape, told me during an interview. “Civil engineers really thought that the shortest distance between A and B determined the best route,” she said. But cost was also crucial. “The most vulnerable areas were the cheapest to build through.” 6
In Philadelphia, the chief road builder was the powerful and ambitious Edmund Bacon, who in 1949 was appointed director of the City Planning Commission (CPC). Over the next twenty years, Bacon would transform the city. An architect by training, he envisioned a complex network of roads looping around and through the center of Philadelphia that would connect shoppers in the affluent Main Line suburbs to premier downtown destinations. The Roosevelt Extension would connect Roosevelt Boulevard on the west side, which was part of U.S. Route 1, to the Schuylkill Expressway, which was soon to be constructed on the east and which would then intersect with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Bacon’s City Planning Commission determined the routes for these new roads, while the Pennsylvania Department of Highways constructed them; funding came from President Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act. 7
The Department of Highways was also in charge of condemning homes under eminent domain and compensating the displaced residents based upon an appraiser’s assessment of their worth. In April 1949, when Bacon announced plans for the 3.5-mile Roosevelt Extension, he acknowledged that the elevated road would cause the destruction of nearly 400 homes in Nicetown and the displacement of almost 1,750 residents. “The taking of a person’s home is not an action to be treated lightly,” Bacon said during the announcement. “But with adequate notice and fair compensation it is believed that readjustments can be made to make way for progress in the development of our city.” 8
Nicetown residents rejected the proposition that any dollar amount could compensate for the loss of a longtime home and neighborhood.
It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which officials failed to grasp the harm that their “readjustments” would soon inflict upon families and neighborhoods. Ammon describes this harm as the “enduring trauma of lost community.” 9 Right away many Nicetown residents rejected the proposition that an appraiser could adequately calculate the value of their properties; or more precisely, that any dollar amount could compensate for the loss of a longtime home and neighborhood. Caroline Rose was a widow who had lived in her home for more than three decades when the highway route was unveiled; she had paid off her mortgage and couldn’t afford a comparable home without taking on another, which was a difficult prospect “at her age,” she told a reporter. “My house is worth many times to me what it is actually worth,” she said. 10
Within days of Bacon’s announcement, Nicetowners had organized under the leadership of a local realtor named Emil Schurgot. 11 A few weeks later, in May 1949, 800 residents filled the auditorium of the Gillespie Junior High School to protest the planned highway. Over the following year, residents petitioned city council representatives and state senators, held marches, and generated proposals for alternative routes. A railroad north of Nicetown already charted a path across the city, they said, and the adjacent area was sparsely populated; Schurgot’s group argued that the highway should parallel the train tracks. In response, engineers declared this route “not feasible” because it would cost $4 million more.
A year later, in 1951, the group proposed a second alternative: bypass Philadelphia entirely and widen existing roads north of the city that led to King of Prussia, a northwest suburb. But this proposal reflected the community’s misunderstanding of the urban development logic that was fueling the highway-building campaign. In those years cities all across the country, from Chicago and Detroit to New York and Boston, were unveiling major expressway projects. The focus of the project was the city — it was designed to smooth gnarly traffic, to entice suburbanites to patronize downtown stores, and to signal to investors and businesspeople that Philadelphia was keeping pace with its metropolitan peers. In response to the Nicetowners’ second proposal, Philadelphia city councilperson John Kelley put it bluntly:
The highway will benefit all of the citizens. Unfortunately, some must be hurt. In modernizing the city that is usually the case. To by-pass the city would defeat the purpose of the highway. 13
Bacon did not completely ignore Nicetown’s resistance. In the winter of 1949, the CPC and the Department of Highways developed a plan to narrow a section of the extension from six lanes to four, which preserved roughly 100 homes. It was a meaningful concession which officials hoped would soften the bigger defeat: the destruction of almost 300 homes and a highway through the heart of the neighborhood. It did not. “I was here before the automobiles came. Why should I have to move to make room for them?” asked Hugh Grimes, who operated a shoe repair shop in Nicetown, in an interview with a reporter. “What right do those big shots in Harrisburg have to buy their big cars and then drive them through my home?” 14 Grimes noted that he had been paid $12,000 by the state for his property and then spent $15,000 to purchase a comparable house one block away; relocating his shop cost an additional $5,000.
The Federal Aid Highway Act, which was passed by Congress in 1956 and would ultimately fund the Roosevelt Extension, did not mandate documentation of how many buildings were taken by eminent domain and demolished to make way for roads, or how much money displaced residents were paid. But the numbers we do have are revealing. According to the U.S. Census, between 1949, when the highway project was made public, and 1961, when it was completed, Nicetown lost more than one-third of its population, shrinking from 14,000 to 9,000 residents. 15 Now Nicetown was in decline.
In a cruel turn of events, this decline prompted the City Planning Commission to undertake a second major displacement, this time as part of an urban renewal program intended to help the neighborhood redevelop. In a 1965 report, the commission identified “three fundamental problems” in Nicetown: inadequate retail; lack of recreational space; and — topping the list — the “division of the neighborhood into isolated quarters by major traffic arteries,” a.k.a., the Roosevelt Extension. The city’s solution was a $15-million conservation project, supported by $10 million from the federal government. The project funded small homeowner grants of $1,500 to rehabilitate worn properties; renovations to the Nicetown Boys and Girls Club; and a new building for the local elementary school. But the “conservation” project also authorized the razing of six residential blocks around the highway that the City Planning Commission had certified — in the notorious euphemism of the period — as “blighted.” 16
By this time, the demographics of the neighborhood had undergone a major change. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, as part of the second wave of the Great Migration, thousands of black families had moved to Philadelphia, and many had moved to North Philly’s redlined neighborhoods — one of the few areas where they could obtain leases and mortgages. By the late ’60s, Nicetown was roughly 30 percent black — and it was this population that was disproportionately targeted by the eminent domain takings. This time around, blacks were twice as likely as whites to lose their homes, and comprised more than half of those forced to move. 17
In the ’60s, blacks were twice as likely as whites to lose their homes to urban renewal, and comprised more than half of those forced to move.
Most of the homes on the six condemned blocks around the highway were cleared for new housing, but about one-quarter of the area — or 45 houses — was razed to make way for the Link-Belt Engineering Company, a private corporation located on the edge of Nicetown. Link-Belt had pressured the city to include its expansion in Nicetown’s urban renewal program, threatening to relocate if the city didn’t agree to its demands. This sort of corporate profiteering from public programs has long been a major part of the business playbook; in his forthcoming Illusions of Progress: Business, Poverty, and Liberalism in the American Century, the historian Brent Cebul examines the degree to which liberal governments throughout the 20th century blurred the boundaries between social programs and economic development. As Cebul told me, in a recent conversation, public officials have all too often conflated the goals of “redeveloping a neighborhood” and “courting the white-collar and service sector.” 18
Once again, the displacement plans provoked protests. When Nicetowners learned that their residences were being removed for an area business, they circulated petitions and crowded the offices of municipal officials. At a meeting at the City Planning Commission, in June 1966, a group of 40 homeowners, including elderly women, presented a slideshow of their cared-for but now-condemned rowhomes. They wanted those who’d made the decision to raze their houses to see that their properties were not at all blighted. “Occasionally, quiet weeping was heard,” the Philadelphia Bulletin reported. Edmund Bacon was at the meeting. “I’ve been touched very, very deeply by what I’ve been shown here,” he told the group. “I assure you I will present your petition and your request to the Planning Commission.” 19 But this time, the plans went forward as originally conceived. Between 1967 to 1970, another 218 Nicetown families were displaced.
When it rains, in Nicetown, stormwater flows down from the elevated highway to the non-absorbent asphalt below, where it sits and pools and gradually runs into the city’s sewer system. Sometimes, Majeedah Rashid, the chief operating officer of the Nicetown CDC, sees the water sheeting off the expressway as she works in her second-story office in a refurbished rowhouse on Germantown Avenue, a block from the underpass. Rashid knows well Nicetown’s history of displacement and redlining, and our early conversations about the Sports Court and the vacant land under the highway dwelled on these events. But one afternoon, she framed it differently. “You know, this really is a stormwater management project,” she said.
For six years now Rashid has been trying to figure out how to pay for the Sports Court. Her experience recalls the experience of fighting the highway decades ago. The work is piecemeal and erratic, frustrating and fluid; unfavorable financial calculations abound. In its report, Friday Architects estimated that the Sports Court will cost upwards of $9 million to construct. In the sphere of downtown civic parks, this is a quotidian sum. In 2014, Dilworth Plaza, in front of City Hall, was redesigned at a cost of $55 million. LOVE Park — the setting for Robert Indiana’s famous sculpture — was refurbished for $16 million in 2018, the same year that the first quarter-mile of Rail Park — a greenway on an abandoned railroad viaduct, inspired by the High Line — opened at a cost of $10.3 million. 20 But for Nicetown, the figure is significant, and so far, the NTCDC hasn’t been able to raise the money.
Rashid is soft-spoken and quietly political. She grew up in North Philadelphia and started working at the NTCDC in 2002, after her kids were grown. Quenton Bowman and others in Nicetown call her “Miss Majeedah.” Her office is in the CDC’s community center, and residents often drop in to use the copier or one of the public computers. When I visited Rashid in March, her assistant was sick, and as we spoke she helped one resident fax a resume and job application while also answering the phones.
There is no city agency or pool of municipal money dedicated to repairing Nicetown’s physical and social scars, no business improvement district hosting fundraisers or soliciting sponsors, as in center city.
Like all community development corporations, the NTCDC depends upon public and private grants, primarily to develop housing and sponsor neighborhood improvements. Started in New York City in the 1960s, CDCs gained momentum in the ’80s as part of the movement to shrink the size of government: local nonprofit organizations would give residents more control over their neighborhoods, the thinking went. Not surprisingly, these organizations tend to view property values as crucial to neighborhood success. Under Rashid’s leadership, the NTCDC has successfully developed two affordable housing complexes on Germantown Avenue, just north of the overpass, called Nicetown Court I and II, where monthly rents range from $500 to $800. Heidi Segall Levy, director of the Community Design Collaborative, calls the NTCDC a “high-capacity organization.” 21 But the Sports Court is a more daunting challenge than any housing complex. There is no city agency or pool of municipal money dedicated to repairing Nicetown’s physical and social scars. There is no business improvement district hosting fundraisers or soliciting sponsors, as in center city. Rashid has to be creative.
Rashid planted the conceptual seed of the Sports Court more than a decade ago, when she slipped the idea of an underpass skatepark into a masterplan for Germantown Avenue that she was then developing with her first grant from the Community Design Collaborative. A teenager in Nicetown, Byron Martin, who liked to skateboard, had asked Rashid a simple question: Why doesn’t Nicetown have a skatepark like so many other Philly neighborhoods?
At the time, Rashid was working with a young planner at the City Planning Commission, Jenn Barr, who was executing a grant to renovate train stations and spur transit-oriented development. In 2008, Barr helped shuttle through a $30-million renovation of the historic Wayne Junction station, which sits at the end of the commercial strip of Germantown Avenue. After the renovation, Rashid urged Barr to study the avenue and the space under the highway, which is just a few blocks from the station. “Due to its location under the Roosevelt Extension and the stormwater management issues that this creates, this land is unlikely to be developed,” Barr wrote. Meanwhile, as all this work progressed, Rashid connected with Josh Nims, who heads the nonprofit Skate Philly and has been creating skate parks under highways and elevated rail tracks since the mid ’90s. 22 In 2008, Nims sketched a plan for a Nicetown skatepark along the eastern edge of the underpass, where it narrows and slopes toward the ground.
For a few years, nothing more happened. Then, in 2013, Rashid used Barr’s report and Nims’s design to secure a second grant from the Community Design Collaborative to explore ideas for the entire two-and-a-half acres under the highway. Rashid was paired with Tony Bracali, at Friday Architects, who had just worked with Nims to design the city’s biggest and most expensive skatepark: Paine’s Park, a $4.5-million, quarter-acre space that is part of the new Schuylkill Banks Park. This was the moment when the idea of the skatepark under the highway bloomed into the larger project of the Sports Court. Bracali met with Nicetown residents who told him that they didn’t just want a skatepark. Young kids loved to play basketball, they said; older residents wanted a plot to garden. With this feedback, Bracali drafted a master plan for a recreation space that contained four basketball courts, a skate park, a bike park, a raised pavilion for a farmer’s market and special events, a community garden, and newfangled green infrastructure, including rain gardens and planters, that would catch and absorb the stormwater.
Ever since those meetings six years ago, Rashid and her staff have been talking up the project to potential sponsors — she may have an in with the Philadelphia 76ers, she told me — communicating with a half-dozen city and state agencies, including the three city departments that own parts of the parcel, and looking for pockets of public funding to inch pieces of the project forward. 23 Right now she is working mostly with the Water Department and its stormwater management team. Several years ago, the department launched a project called Green City, Clean Waters, a 25-year plan to invest $2.4 billion in green infrastructure within parks, near schools, and around highways to reduce stormwater pollution and cleanse the city’s sewers, rivers, and creeks. The department decides where to install the new infrastructure based partly upon an engineering calculus (where the most stormwater can be collected, most cost effectively) and partly upon community input. It’s a question of “who raises their hand the highest,” department planner Nicole Hostettler told me. Since Rashid knows how to raise her hand very high, the Water Department is constructing a series of rain gardens and planters on the eastern edge of the Roosevelt Extension; by 2021, part of the stormwater management system that Bracali drafted in 2013 will be realized in Nicetown.
But that’s not quite all. It turns out that some planners at the Water Department know Skate Philly’s Josh Nims, and thanks to this coincidence, they will construct the new rain gardens to be compatible with the small skatepark Nims imagined more than a decade ago. Nims told me that he hopes to raise about $100,000 to construct a 2,500-square-foot project sometime in the early 2020s.
For Nicetown, the ad hoc delivery of a skatepark alongside a stormwater management project is how the system works. Indeed, it’s an instance of the system working. For some, the devolution of the underpass project — from a three-acre “outdoor recreational sports complex” estimated to cost $9 million to a modest skatepark with a meager budget — has come to seem like a “win.” Multiple city staffers told me that a series of rain gardens and a small skatepark would be a pretty good outcome for Nicetown. (They would only speak frankly off-the-record.) Add some lighting, one said, a couple of cool murals, perhaps a few other DIY features, and the underpass might be nice. Rashid does not share this perspective. As we talked in her office, she estimated that she has raised a little over $2 million, or about one-quarter of the Sports Court projected cost. Rashid holds out hope that the gardens and planters — the stormwater management project — will help her raise additional funds for the basketball courts and community garden. When I mentioned the possibility of a more modest project, she looked at me squarely. “We don’t want DIY,” she said.
Nicetown’s underpass is more than a plot of vacant, inconveniently located land. It is also the underside of progress; in this case its literal flipside. And the view today isn’t very different from the view 70 years ago. That is, Nicetown is failing to build its Sport Court for much the same reason that it failed to stop the highway: it’s that “economic-efficiency mindset,” as Francesca Ammon put it. In a very real sense, today’s marquee recreational amenities are like the postwar state-of-the-art highways — the urban infrastructure every city aspires to build to compete for revenue and be considered modern. And cities are still building their new infrastructures for wealthy, primarily white homeowners.
Today’s marquee recreational amenities are like the postwar highways — the infrastructure every city aspires to build to compete for revenue and be considered modern.
It’s tempting to imagine the new parks as the antithesis of highways, maybe even the solution to them. Boston spent two decades and $24 billion on the “Big Dig,” which tore down an elevated highway, replaced it with a tunnel, and then capped the tunnel with fifteen acres of parks. In 2012, Dallas completed construction on the $100-million, five-acre Klyde Warren Park, which sits atop the Woodall Rodgers Freeway; it has proved so popular, and so lucrative, that the city is gearing up for a $76-million, 1.2-mile expansion. This past February, Seattle commissioned an engineering firm to investigate putting a “lid” of parks and retail on top of Interstate 5, which winds through and breaks up downtown. 24 And cities are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to overhaul expressways for the same reason they built them in the first place: to court businesses downtown, increase tourism, and boost the property values of sought-after real estate, which today is often in cities rather than in their suburbs. “Cities are investing in different things, but the logic hasn’t changed,” says Francesca Ammon. And in the pursuit of this logic, cities are reinforcing historic structural inequities.
Ammon is researching the history of Society Hill, a Philadelphia neighborhood that today can be fairly described as the diametrical opposite of Nicetown — an expensive enclave of cobblestone sidewalks, wrought-iron street lamps, and well-preserved historic townhouses, many dating to the colonial era. Before the mid-20th century, however, Society Hill was a rundown district, home to many African Americans and European immigrants who worked on the nearby Delaware River waterfront. In the ’50s, city planners designated the area as ripe for urban renewal, and over two decades they remade the neighborhood. But here the public funding didn’t bring in bulldozers; as historian Steven Conn argues, Society Hill became a national model for “how to revive city neighborhoods not through demolition but though preservation.” 25
It also became a national model, or cautionary tale, of postwar gentrification. The revival of the neighborhood would not benefit its earlier working-class residents, most of whom were forced to move; instead it attracted well-educated, middle-class, mostly white professionals who, as Ammon notes, “were able to afford the costs of single-family home rehabilitation.” 26 These new demographics would prove significant when, in the mid-’60s, Society Hill confronted highway battles on two simultaneous fronts, and won both.
Society Hill can be fairly described as the diametrical opposite of Nicetown — an expensive enclave of cobblestone sidewalks, wrought-iron street lamps, and well-preserved historic townhouses.
To the west, the neighborhood waged an intensive battle against the Crosstown Expressway — the City Planning Commission’s vision for a throughway that would be constructed across the commercial corridor of South Street and connect suburbanites to the city. Edmund Bacon unveiled plans for the 2.5-mile Crosstown in 1962, just as construction was being completed on the Schuylkill Expressway and the Roosevelt Extension. The neighborhoods along the proposed Crosstown route were densely populated; the commission estimated that at least 6,500 residents would be displaced. The response was rapid; within days citizens throughout South Philly mobilized under the leadership of Alice Lipscomb, a black housing activist from Hawthorne, a low-income community near the major thoroughfare of Broad Street. Over the following months and years, Lipscomb organized immigrant and black communities on the west and east sides of Broad Street as well as wealthier Society Hill residents along the river. Soon, black and white residents were picketing City Hall together, holding signs declaring that the expressway would become “Philadelphia’s Mason-Dixon Line.”
Lipscomb also secured the help of architect and planner Denise Scott Brown, who worked in Philadelphia, taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and knew Edmund Bacon and other powerful municipal officials. Scott Brown’s understanding of South Street was personal as well as professional: she and her husband, architect Robert Venturi, then lived in Society Hill, and her father-in-law had once owned a nearby fruit and vegetable stand. Like many activists, Scott Brown could see that highways were decimating neighborhoods — the South Philly protestors had the advantage of not fighting the first fight — but she also brought to the battle her knowledge of urban planning. Back then Scott Brown was starting the research that would lead to the ground-breaking Learning from Las Vegas, with its then radical argument about the meaning and value of ordinary commercial strips. Scott Brown devised a plan illustrating the ways in which a restored and revitalized South Street could contribute to the city’s economic growth. She didn’t belabor the highway’s traumatic consequences; rather, she spoke the language of “progress.” In 1972, officials declared the Crosstown Expressway dead. 27
As Lipscomb was leading the charge against the Crosstown Expressway, Society Hill residents spearheaded a second fight, to the east, against I-95, the major north-south federal interstate that connects Florida to Maine. In 1964, Bacon’s department proposed that I-95 in Philadelphia would travel not through neighborhoods but instead alongside them, in an elevated roadway that would double as a barrier between the city and the Delaware River, which marks its eastern edge. Society Hill residents would not lose their homes, but they would lose their access to the riverfront and their pleasant views; when the proposed road was built, they would gaze out upon a twenty-foot-high barrier wall. As with Crosstown, counter-action was swift, and for several years the well-connected and increasingly affluent residents of Society Hill waged a sophisticated, multifaceted campaign against the I-95 proposal. They did not fight the highway itself, perhaps because that would have seemed an impossible win, and also because their homes were never at stake. Rather, they fought the elevated design.
The activists relied upon their varied professional expertise and training to advance their cause. Frank Weise, an architect, believed that a depressed roadway, below grade, would allow the interstate to be built and at the same time maintain the neighborhood’s visual connection to the Delaware River. He drew a design of this alternative solution and helped form the Philadelphia Architects Committee. Soon, neighborhood graphic designers and public relations professionals created brochures depicting Weise’s new design, which the committee circulated to journalists and state officials. (The committee presumed, correctly, that city officials were largely in favor of the original plan, and didn’t bother with them.) The activists also emphasized the area’s historic importance; Society Hill is a few blocks from Old City and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed.
The counter-proposal was persuasive. Soon Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton and the state’s Congressional delegation were all supporting the below-grade design. This option was significantly more expensive — about $25 million more than the elevated highway — but here the additional cost would not prove a serious obstacle. Pennsylvania Senator Joseph Clark appealed to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who in turn asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to study the likely economic impacts of the proposed roadways. HUD recommended the below-grade route. 28
The battles to stop Crosstown Expressway and an elevated I-95 required resources, expertise, and connections.
The battles to stop the Crosstown Expressway and an elevated I-95 required immense resources, expertise, and connections. Still, the victories were neither clean nor absolute. On South Street, the mere threat of the expressway devastated the area; from the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, businesses shuttered, residents moved, and crime increased. For a while South Street did become a kind of Mason-Dixon line. Likewise, after the construction of the interstate, many Society Hill residents realized that the depressed roadway still served as a formidable barrier between the city and the river. Yet today, the continuing development of center city has largely ameliorated these damages.
A few years ago, the City Planning Commission undertook an extensive master planning study with the goal of revitalizing the waterfront along the Delaware River near Society Hill; that is, of repairing the gash that was created by the below-grade interstate. The plan’s recommendations include an eleven-acre park that will sit atop the highway, reconnecting Society Hill and Old City with the river. In the schematic design, the proposed park features playgrounds, spray pools, an ice-skating rink, and lush greenery. The park is estimated to cost $225 million, and so far the funding is flowing, with commitments from the city ($90 million), PennDoT ($100 million), and the William Penn Foundation ($15 million). 29 City and state officials justify the investment because the area is one of Philadelphia’s biggest tourist destinations. “It’s tied into economic development,” Leslie Richards, the head of PennDoT, told me. “Imagine standing in Old City and actually seeing the river,” she said. 30 Residents of Society Hill and Old City will enjoy not only the view but also the concomitant increase in their property values.
Over on South Street, tourists and residents also mingle. The east side of the thoroughfare is now one of the city’s thriving retail and entertainment strips, and the west side is home to the upscale Graduate Hospital neighborhood, which offers access to the new Schuylkill Banks Park — amenities and developments that would never have happened had a multi-lane expressway loomed above the street. But the new growth has meant that the low-income black families that maintained these neighborhoods during lean times are not among those enjoying the good times. In recent years, the median income in Graduate Hospital has roughly doubled, the white population more than tripled, and more than half of the black population left. 31 Repairing the damage, even from a highway that did not get built, has meant reproducing the social and economic inequalities that the original projects underscored and exacerbated more than half a century ago.
Two years ago, Philadelphia unveiled a program called Rebuild that’s intended to rectify the extreme inequities in its recreational landscapes and civic buildings. Rebuild aims to invest $500 million over seven years to renovate the city’s most neglected recreation centers, libraries, playgrounds, and parks, with funding for everything from courts and fields to buildings and boilers. 32 Last August, the city designated 64 sites that will receive capital investments ranging from $500,000 to $13 million. Rebuild is an essential program — but its scope is limited. The Nicetown underpass and the Sports Court are not eligible for Rebuild funding because the site doesn’t already contain a park or rec center.
Quenton Bowman, like others in Nicetown I talked with, hadn’t heard about Rebuild before I mentioned it. The city only broke ground on its first projects this past winter. But Bowman had heard about the city’s mechanism to fund the initiative — a controversial soda tax 33 — which he dislikes. “Where do they consume the most soda? In the ghetto, in the hood,” he said. When I pointed out that we tax other unhealthy habits like cigarettes and alcohol, Bowman had a ready rejoinder. Why do the city’s biggest corporations and nonprofit institutions, like Comcast and the University of Pennsylvania, receive tax abatements or enjoy tax-exempt status, he asked, while the city nickel-and-dimes poor folks to renovate unmaintained public facilities? “Why aren’t they paying taxes to go toward parks, toward the schools?” Bowman asked.
I put this question to Brian Abernathy, managing director of the City of Philadelphia and former executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Abernathy responds to questions carefully; he disarms and anticipates. Abernathy agreed that one of the city’s longstanding development-friendly policies, a ten-year tax abatement on new construction, is “unfair,” and that it hasn’t made the city more equitable; it should be “tweaked,” he said. 34 But he also defended the abatement as a tool to generate economic growth. “I don’t think equity and economic development are mutually exclusive,” he said. It’s an appealing theory, particularly in Philly, where center city’s property values are rising faster than they have in decades. But when I asked Abernathy to name some U.S. cities that have successfully combined economic growth and social equity, he conceded that he couldn’t think of any. The cities that Abernathy characterized as having “working markets” — New York, San Francisco, and Seattle — were the same places that Abernathy cited as examples of what Philadelphia does not want to become.
Could Philadelphia chart a new course that would allow economic growth and social equity to co-exist? Maybe; but to do so the city will need to pursue bold new ideas, not settle for tweaks or remixes of established mechanisms. It’s an enormous challenge that begs fundamental questions about the stories we tell to guide city-making: why do we continue to romanticize “progress,” when it segregates our cities? What if we demoted “progress” and told a new story instead, one that envisions different governing ideals?
Why do we continues to romanticize ‘progress’? What if we told a new story instead, one that envisions different governing ideals?
In his seminal essay, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates situates government-sponsored redlining and housing segregation, and black families’ subsequent inability to generate wealth through property, at the center of his argument. “Discriminatory laws joined the equal burden of citizenship to unequal distribution of its bounty,” he writes. “These laws reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government — through housing policies — engineered the wealth gap, which remains with us to this day.” 35 Coates argues that undoing the inequity at the heart of American society and capitalism requires both a public debate about reparations as well as payments to black families. 36
The historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor also argues that cities need a new governing logic, one that emphasizes stability and justice rather than economic utility. In her forthcoming Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, Taylor investigates the failures of the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act, which was financed by the real estate industry to promote black homeownership; she documents how private real estate companies influenced HUD’s oversight to benefit their profit margins at the expense of working-class and middle-class black families. In an interview, Taylor told me that her research has convinced her that public-private partnerships are problematic because public works and private enterprise have fundamentally different goals. “In housing, there’s an opposing relationship between public welfare and profitability,” Taylor said, “the outcome of which is a never-ending housing crisis.” Taylor believes that housing should be understood as a human right, like clean air and potable water. Her research accords with recent comments by Coates in an interview with New York magazine: “The point of reparations is to destroy white supremacy, not displace its emphasis. Not integrate black people into its most acquisitive functions,” he said. “It’s to question and assault the entire paradigm.” 37
Nicetown’s struggle to raise money to build its Sports Court underscores the tension between public works and private enterprise.
Nicetown’s struggle to raise money to build its Sports Court underscores this persistent tension between public works and private enterprise. Because Nicetown is a poor neighborhood, it’s all too likely that Majeedah Rashid will continue to struggle to find the funding. After all, there doesn’t appear to be a means by which investors could make money from recreational amenities and community gardens in the underpass. But it’s also likely that if she does raise those funds, it will only happen because neighborhood property values have increased and investors see opportunities for profit. Which is to say that the Nicetown CDC will be able to build the Sports Court at the point when the neighborhood is becoming unaffordable for the poor and mostly black residents who live there now.
That day may not be so far off. After the City Planning Commission completed its renovation of the Wayne Junction train station, in 2008, the surrounding area began to attract the attention of real estate developers. A year and a half ago, the local developer Ken Weinstein unveiled plans for a $12-million mixed-use project near the station, on the northern edge of Nicetown; according to Plan Philly, the project comprises “32 apartment units at the old Max Levy Autograph Co. building, a pocket park on a vacant lot across the street, a 1950s diner, an office building, an artisanal manufacturing site, and a barbecue and brewery.” 38 Because Weinstein will renovate existing buildings, the new development is partly supported by the government’s Historic Tax Credit program.
Quenton Bowman is wary about the prospect of new businesses and housing around the refurbished train station. “This is our neighborhood,” he told me when I asked about the new development. “Whatever is done should be done to benefit us, not someone else.” These days Bowman is working to start his own business. In April, he applied for a Targeted Community Investment Grant, part of a new city program that awards micro-grants of $500 to $20,000 dollars for violence prevention projects. Bowman’s proposal builds upon his neighborhood volunteer work. Every August, when Nicetown holds its annual Give Back to the Community Festival, Bowman organizes a basketball clinic and tournament that he calls “Sons of Streetball.” During his years in the military, on the west coast, he had met the organizers of Ballin’ for Peace, a Los Angeles anti-violence nonprofit that teaches sports to black youths; it’s his model for the Philadelphia event. Through sponsorships that he secures in the months leading up to the festival, Bowman leases temporary basketball flooring and assembles courts on closed-off streets with the help of local kids, parents, and grandparents. Every year a few hundred people work together to build the courts and, in the process, build community. “But that’s once a year,” he says. If he receives the grant, Bowman will purchase the basketball flooring and repair his truck so that he can build mobile courts around the city all year round. 39 Bowman sees the same opportunity with the Sports Court. “If people in the community have a stake in the park,” he said, “it will be for us.”
Meanwhile, Bowman worries that many local residents, including his own family members, don’t have the wherewithal to protect themselves if eager developers come calling. In Nicetown, it’s a worry with a long history. “My grandmother lives near here and I tell her all the time, Nana, don’t sell that house,” Bowman said. “I don’t care if they knock everything down and your house is the only one standing in the middle of the block. You don’t sell that house.”