Society Hill is Closed
Dozens of little distress signals call out from the front windows of historic brick houses on the quiet streets of one of Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhoods. SOS, the stickers say.
Save Our Society Hill.
They began appearing after word spread that a developer was casting a lustful eye on the supermarket on 5th Street between Pine and Spruce — that maybe the developer wanted to replace the grocery store or build some apartments on top of it. The prospect of losing a supermarket galvanized the neighborhood the same way the threat of a new highway cleaving their town in two might scandalize other communities.
By careful design, Society Hill has virtually no other commercial space to call its own — hardly a bar, restaurant or corner store, just high-priced houses as far as you can see. If the community has a core, the 5th Street shopping village is it. So the threat, to many, seemed existential.
Coming into Society Hill from any direction is a quieting experience. Standing in Lawrence Court on a warm night, you can hear nothing but the swell of cicadas, and seeing another human being on one of the greenways after dark can feel like crossing paths with a ghost.
The sensation is a peculiar one for a Center City neighborhood. Historic buildings line the streets of Old City, Washington Square West and Queen Village, but those places tolerate and even encourage a certain amount of bustle, as downtown neighborhoods usually do.
Downtown neighborhoods usually change as well. In recent years, virtually the whole of Center City has grown denser and more varied. Streetscapes have transformed overnight. The long-dead blocks of Chestnut Street east of Broad are rapidly being built out, apartments are springing from vacant lots, and young people are crowding in as though the whole city is advertising half-priced mimosas at Sunday brunch.
Not Society Hill, though. The biggest building boom in recent history has left the neighborhood virtually untouched, except for a few ultra-luxury condos on the outskirts. Culturally and demographically, too, Society Hill has become a place apart from the rest of Center City, despite its position close to its heart. Since 1990, while the city as a whole has gotten younger, the retirement-age population in Society Hill has doubled. Its ratio of homeowners to renters is roughly twice that of Center City as a whole. If Center City is a tape playing in fast-forward, Society Hill is stuck on pause.
But as somnolent as Society Hill has been in recent years, the neighborhood in past eras was dynamic, diverse, and alive with activity. In the city’s earliest days, Society Hill was given by William Penn to a group of traders — the “Society” of the name — who began developing it as a commercial center. Over the next few centuries, it became a miscellaneous sort of place, occupied by rich and poor, residents and merchants, white, black and foreign-born.
Now, Society Hill is calcified, closed off, lifeless after sundown and exclusive in every sense of the word. It’s tempting to say the neighborhood is preserved in amber, but there’s nothing natural about the process that has made Society Hill so inert.
WALT D’ALESSIO IS 82 now, but he vividly recalls the pioneering attitude of the urban-renewal heyday of more than half a century ago, when he was hired to direct the revitalization of Society Hill.
The plan was in place before he came along — drawn up many years before by celebrated city planner Ed Bacon, with restored houses and modern apartments connected by an intricate web of walkways weaving through the sober street grid. The goal of urban renewal was nothing less than the salvation of American cities, which the upper crust had been fleeing in droves ever since trolley cars and railways and automobiles made the outlying areas a viable commute in the first half of the 20th century. Urban renewal meant bringing those people back, and in many cases it meant the wholesale demolition of slums.
Mid-century Society Hill was considered a slum by the people who made those determinations. But Bacon, recognizing the exquisite patchwork of Colonial architecture the neighborhood showcased, decided to go a more delicate route. With an infusion of federal money, the city would take possession of every structure in Society Hill and level most everything built after, say, 1850. The buildings still standing would be restored, creating a dawn-of-America environment worthy of its proximity to Independence National Historical Park, which itself was newly established.
“In those days, you could do a blanket condemnation,” D’Alessio told me in his downtown office, where he still works as a principal at NorthMarq Advisors, a real estate development consultancy. “They just said, ‘Okay, from 2nd Street to 6th Street and from Walnut to — zoom! It’s yours.’ A judge signed an order, and I said, ‘You mean we own all this stuff? Those people in those properties are gonna be a little surprised.’”
Just like that, the city, in the guise of Old Philadelphia Development Corp., owned the whole neighborhood. And in order to restore the earliest buildings, the ones deemed worthy of salvaging, it enacted a complicated scheme. Property owners who couldn’t afford to carry out the rigorous and expensive historic-restoration plans the city had put together would be paid fair-market value — “plus a little bit for inconvenience,” D’Alessio said — and sent packing, their renters included. But if owners could show they had enough steady income to restore their historic property, the city would not only deed it back; it would lend those owners the money to complete the restoration at a bargain-basement one percent interest rate. The restoration-worthy houses that had been vacated were sold to others who could afford the upgrades.
It was pure Robin Hood in reverse, a transfer of property from the poor to the rich. Bacon later admitted to his biographer, Greg Heller, who’s now the executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, that he knew the program was “cruel,” but he didn’t see any other way of revitalizing Center City.
At the same time, in order to develop the character of the neighborhood, the city began installing brick sidewalks and replicas of 18th-century street lamps. Society Hill hadn’t stopped developing in 1850, of course, but the city was determined to refashion it as a new Colonial neighborhood, so it demolished a century’s worth of buildings that would no doubt be considered historic today.
The casualties included virtually all the small storefronts, delis, markets and taverns common to other downtown Philly neighborhoods. In 2016, liberal mixing of residential buildings and small-scale businesses is considered commonsense urbanism, a prerequisite for dynamic, lively, safe urban neighborhoods. But in the urban-renewal days, when the city was losing residents to the suburbs and their vast parking lots, planners thought of the corner bar as a nuisance, not an amenity. So the city replaced those scattered retail uses with the 5th Street shopping village: a dry cleaner, a liquor store, a little deli, and a supermarket with a parking lot.
When the engineering was completed, with mid-century modern apartments built into the gaps where the post-Colonial buildings had been torn down, Society Hill would be an almost entirely residential neighborhood. It would compete with the suburbs for well-off residents. And it would succeed.
All it took was a few bigwigs making the leap to get the whole thing rolling, D’Alessio said. Big-name executives and financiers moved in. Then-mayor Richardson Dilworth announced he wanted to have his house built on the east side of Washington Square. “That was sort of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” D’Alessio said. “You had those key, I guess you could call them business and society kind of leaders making decisions, and then the mayor. And it doesn’t get much better than that.”
I GOT MY FIRST real taste of how successful Bacon’s bid to lure the elite to Society Hill has been when I went on a home-and-garden tour coordinated by the civic association last May. The annual tour is self-guided, and it’s meant to showcase the neighborhood’s carefully preserved collection of 18th- and early-19th-century homes.
There are standouts like the Physick House on South 4th Street, a huge, elegant mansion built by a Revolutionary War colonel and wine importer in the years following the war. It’s the kind of place where you can imagine being entertained by a precocious toddler banging away at the harpsichord.
Other places are more modest, at least on the outside. I walked into one traditional-looking rowhouse and found myself in an upstairs bathroom so opulently appointed — with an oil painting, a sculpted bust, a chandelier, a bathtub set at an angle and a little upholstered love seat for, I guess, resting — that I was compelled to post a mirror-selfie on Instagram.
The home-and-garden tour goes all the way back, in an informal way, to the urban-renewal days. Bacon himself, always a salesman, led private tours, trying to convince individual families to buy into the redevelopment project by taking on a little restoration of their own. “I knew that the idea of anybody who was respectable actually living in this area was totally unknown,” Bacon told the Inquirer in 2004, the year before his death. “I commenced a campaign with the rich and the powerful that it had to be revived and could be revived.”
Before urban renewal, the area had been one of Center City’s most integrated neighborhoods. Early on, it was home to a thriving black community around 7th and Lombard streets. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded at Mother Bethel, on South 6th Street, which is still the oldest continuously black-owned property in the United States. The neighborhood was home to an early black mutual-aid society, the first African Lodge of Free Masons, and the first school in the city for black students. Russian Jews founded a congregation in the neighborhood in the late 1870s.
The nomination that won Society Hill its protection as a historic district boasted of that heritage: “The buildings of Society Hill reflect the history of the heterogeneous mix of class, ethnicity and faith — wealthy, poor, middling, European, African, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish — all within walking distance of each other, that characterized Philadelphia for at least the first two centuries of its history.”
And it stayed integrated through the middle of the 20th century, except with fewer and fewer wealthy people. In 1960, Mayor Dilworth said the Society Hill renewal project was about keeping the city’s population in “balance,” preventing Philadelphia from becoming a “dumping ground” for poor people and minorities. And the people who began moving in were called “pioneers” in the press, a fraught word sometimes used today to describe gentrifiers buying into neighborhoods on the expanding Center City periphery.
But of course, the Society Hill of the ’60s wasn’t a frontier; people lived there. And some of them didn’t want to leave. In August, I paid a visit to Dorothy Miller and Theodore Hayes, who are almost certainly among the last lower-class people to call Society Hill home in my lifetime. Miller first made headlines in the 1970s, when she and a fellow crossing guard named Florence Hayes, another black woman who had lived in Society Hill since childhood, joined a lawsuit for the right to stay in the neighborhood after their landlords sought to evict them in connection with the urban- renewal project.
The dispute took almost a decade to resolve, thanks in no small part to the growing clout and tenacity of the Society Hill Civic Association. The association fought to block the development of 14 low-income units, including six at the corner of 6th and Pine, that the government had eventually agreed to build. “It is exceedingly difficult for those who have less to live harmoniously with those who have a great deal,” the civic association’s lawyer wrote in a 1981 court filing. “Their vacations cannot be taken in the same place. The same type of automobiles and clothing cannot be worn or utilized. The same furnishings are not available.” The civic association lost that fight.
As it happens, the units where Hayes and Miller were placed, and where they had lived, with subsidized rent, since the early 1980s, were sold to a new owner for $1.2 million in 2010. Florence Hayes died last February, and two weeks later, the new landlord told her son, Theodore, that the lease, which was in his name, too, wouldn’t be renewed. (The new owner told me he isn’t intending to remove Miller, who is in her mid-80s.)
Theodore Hayes isn’t mad, really, that his landlord is trying to kick him out. He had prayed, earlier, that his mother would be able to die in the neighborhood where she grew up, and that happened. Now he was just praying he could stay. His neighbors are good people, he told me, despite the confused looks he sometimes gets when he walks out of his apartment. “They look at you, right?” he said. “And then they take a look back at the house, and then look back at you: ‘Wow. Really?’ I can almost see the bubble and the words in the bubble, you know?”
In the urban-renewal years, Dilworth and others promised that despite the name, the newly renovated neighborhood wasn’t meant to be an exclusive, blue-bloods-only, high society kind of Society Hill. And in fact, it wasn’t all captains of industry who bought in. News reports of the era described the newcomers as “rich hippies” and “off-beatniks.”
But the very process that lured those people to Society Hill made the neighborhood Center City’s most homogenous. At the last census, Society Hill was nearly 90 percent white — whiter even than Chestnut Hill. According to Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative, the zip code including Society Hill has the highest median income in the city. And that’s just income, which doesn’t account for accumulated wealth, the kind that accrues when you buy a house from the government for $10,000 and a few decades later it’s worth a hundred
Yet demographics alone don’t explain how disconnected the neighborhood is from the rest of Center City. Rittenhouse may be nearly as exclusive a zip code, but it’s also the social and retail heart of downtown. Old City has as much claim to historic importance as any neighborhood in the city — and, like Society Hill, a population of powerful, change-averse homeowners — but along with the rest of Center City, it’s been forced to evolve in the past few decades. Not Society Hill.
Residents are concerned most of all with the size of the buildings, and their character, and with tranquility and green space. “The thing about Society Hill is that for the most part, it’s pretty built-out,” Rosanne Loesch, president of the civic association, told me. “There isn’t a lot of room for development except if you’re going to go to height. So that’s kind of where I would say the rubber meets the road, because to us, scale is essential to preserving the character of the neighborhood.”
Last year, City Council passed legislation meant to encourage slightly denser development at key commercial corners in Center City. After a coalition of neighborhood groups reached a consensus with the developers who were pushing the legislation, Society Hill residents concerned about the 5th Street proposal convinced Councilman Mark Squilla to exempt their neighborhood from a key provision. Earlier this year, Squilla introduced another bill, one that carves out Society Hill from a law giving developers in the rest of the city the right to pack smaller units onto lots as a reward for building green roofs.
You get the sense, talking to Society Hill residents, that maybe this quiet residential neighborhood has stubbornly persisted since the birth of Philadelphia. Quite the opposite. It was created all at once, not that long ago. And while cities around the country try to refashion neighborhoods into what this area used to be — diverse and dynamic, with a variety of uses — the Society Hill of today is doubling down on suspended animation. That may make the neighborhood fundamentally anti-urban as well as ahistorical, but that’s what its residents want.
It’s their Society Hill now, and it needs to be saved.
Published as “Society Hill is Closed” in the November 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.