1964: The Year Everything in Philly and Atlantic City Broke
We don’t want to let the day pass without recommending that you take a look at Will Bunch’s Daily News cover story about the 1964 Philadelphia riots and how they changed the city. For those of us who are relative newcomers, it’s a useful piece of history to understand how the city we live in today became what it is.
It was a political and moral awakening – albeit a grim one – not just for Richard Watson but for much of the city, a giant tipping point. Amid the chaos of three days on Columbia Avenue, you can see the birth of the two social movements that would come to dominate Philadelphia for much of the next half-century.
One was the push for black political empowerment, as African-Americans abandoned timid cooperation with the white political machine and forged their own path, on the streets and later at the ballot box. The other was the quest from the white working class for “law and order,” as a deputy commissioner named Frank Rizzo took control of the riot squad, then the police department, then City Hall.
In 1987, the city even tossed out the name of Columbia Avenue, erasing a moniker now linked to looting and unrest, and renaming the street Cecil B. Moore Avenue, in honor of the local NAACP president who first tried and failed to stop the riot, and then tapped the energy of young radicalized blacks for the rest of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But the name change couldn’t paper over the flight of dozens of stores and small businesses — most white-owned — that boarded up in the weeks, months and years that followed, leaving holes that still remain.
Elsewhere in the Daily News, Chuck Darrow writes how the 1964 Democratic National Convention effectively killed Atlantic City as a destination for years afterward, until the casinos arrived:
The convention debacle not only applied the final nail, but lowered the box into the ground. For the next decade-plus, Atlantic City would be little more than Camden with a boardwalk – just another small, decaying northeastern city facing metastasizing poverty and all the ills that it brings: the flight of its middle class, high crime, blight and a palpable sense of despair.
It was a very bad year, apparently.