The Wrong Side of the Tracks

The Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct (the “Chinese Wall”) at 22nd Street, looking south. 1929.
The end of the “Chinese Wall” at 22nd and Commerce, 1929.
Broad Street Station, designed by Furness, Evans & Company, looking west from City Hall, 1889. The “Chinese Wall” was situated on what is today John F. Kennedy Boulevard.

by Steven B. Ujifusa

In the spring of 1921, a young man named John J. McCloy returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, eager to start his law career.  A poor boy who had grown up in a small house at 20th and Brown streets, he had just completed Harvard Law School, graduating at the top of his class.  His determined mother Anna, a widowed hairdresser of Pennsylvania Dutch origin, had scrimped and saved to send her beloved son to prep school and Amherst College.

McCloy called on one of the city’s most eminent lawyers, George Wharton Pepper, hoping to land a job at one of the city’s top law firms.

Pepper took the aspiring Philadelphia attorney aside.

“I know Philadelphians,” Pepper told McCloy. “It is a city of blood ties. You have good grades, but they don’t mean anything here. Family ties do. Even when I started out here it was difficult and slow. It would be impossible for you. You were born north of the Chinese Wall, and they’ll never take you seriously in this town. In New York, however, your grades will count for something.” *

A disappointed John took the older man’s advice.  He left Philadelphia for good.

Although most of Frank Furness’s buildings have sadly been lost to the wrecker’s ball, one of his Philadelphia monuments is happily gone: the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct, otherwise known as the “Chinese Wall.”  As part of his expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broad Street Station in the  1880s, Furness, Evans & Company designed a titanic, ten-track wide stone viaduct that ran from City Hall to the Schuylkill River.  Although adorned with a few token sculptures by Karl Bitter, it was by-and-large hideous. Much like the interstates that ripped through the hearts of American cities in the mid-twentieth century, the PRR viaduct severely hindered physical access from Center City to North Philadelphia.  Each one of its archways was a dark, stinking cavern, usually filled with refuse. At night, the prospect of crossing the wall, especially on foot, must have been terrifying. Surrounding real estate, especially on Market and Arch streets, suffered.  The steam trains belched black smoke at all hours of the day and night, soiling surrounding buildings with soot and choking the air with fumes.

Despite this massive stone wall blocking access to the city’s main commercial district, the blocks north of the viaduct blossomed into thriving middle and upper class neighborhoods.  Newly-wealthy industrialists built mansions on North Broad Street, while prosperous German Jews lived in substantial brownstones in Fairmount and Strawberry Mansion.  Artist Thomas Eakins lived and painted in his father’s big brick rowhouse at 17th and Mount Vernon. And then there were  families like the McCloys, who lived in small but well-kept homes on the side streets, making ends meet as best they could and hoping for a better future.

Yet the division on Market Street was more than physical: it was psychological and social, as well.  To the city’s insular, snobbish business and social elite, the only “proper” place to live in Center City was Rittenhouse Square. Not south of Pine Street. And definitely never north of Market Street.  In fact, “North of Market” was a pejorative expression.**  To men of George Wharton Pepper’s ilk, who sat on the boards of the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Railroad, it was used as a euphemism for nouveau riche, not part of the “in crowd,” not mattering. And in the case of John J. McCloy, the discrimination was very real, indeed.

Philadelphia’s “Chinese Wall” may also have given rise to an expression that has entered the American vernacular: the wrong side of the tracks.

After the rebuff from Pepper, McCloy went to New York and took a job with a law firm run by the hard-driving Paul D. Cravath. He would eventually become Assistant Secretary of War under President Franklin Roosevelt, president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, and earn the nickname of “Chairman of the Board of the American Establishment.”***

In 1953, Broad Street Station was demolished, and the “Chinese Wall” came tumbling down with it.  A new street, christened John F. Kennedy Boulevard replaced the viaduct.  New skyscrapers shot up on the site of the old barrier, forming a new commercial backbone to the city and soaring high above Billy Penn’s hat atop City Hall.  The Pennsylvania Railroad — once the biggest corporation on earth and the financial Gibraltar of Pepper’s Philadelphia elite  — declared bankruptcy in 1970 after a failed merger with the New York Central.

Ironically, a new barrier — sunken, rather than raised — was constructed just as the Chinese Wall came down: the Vine Street Expressway.

The viaduct at 22nd and Cuthbert, looking north, 1929.
Underneath the viaduct at 22nd and Cuthbert, 1955.

*Interview of John J. McCloy by Kai Bird, June 23, 1983.  Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 57.

** Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963), p. 529.

***As Assistant Secretary of War, McCloy clashed with Attorney General Francis Biddle (another Philadelphian, from the “right” side of the tracks) regarding the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.   Biddle protested the constitutionality of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, but ultimately McCloy and others in the administration prevailed.  The episode haunted Biddle to the end of his life, while McCloy vigorously defended internment to the end of his.

5 replies on “The Wrong Side of the Tracks”

Reminds me of the expression I’ve heard that goes something like… “In Boston they ask you where you went to school, in New York they ask you what you do, in Philadelphia they ask you who your family is.”

The house I own adjacent to the Thomas Eakins house was built by the Sellers family, upstanding in every way, but one of their descendants wrote a memory of their lives in Philadelphia entitled “North of Market”.

In the last years of the 40’s, until 1952, I used to wander around center city after my music lesson. To me the PRR was what made Philadelphia great. The railroad stations, and even the Chinese wall, were monuments to that greatness. I loved the catacombs east of Suburban Station and the shiny brass railing at the sweeping stairway in Broad St. Station. Amid the clouds of smoke from steam locomotives, my family would pick up visitors from that station, until the trains to and from the west started stopping at Paoli. It was all so exciting. Of course Philadelphia has benefited from the removal of the Chinese Wall and other structures, but a wonderful past is no more to be seen. I wish I could find material on the pre-1880 trackage and stations, but that history may be even more essentially lost.

For more information on the PRR in Phialdelphia, all you need to do is contact the PRR Technical & Historical Society, Philadelphia Chapter.

Comments are closed.