Snapshots of History

Looking back to find hope for the future of Philadelphia’s vacant land

A vacant property as seen in Society Hill in 1959.

By Yael Borofsky for the PhillyHistory Blog.

Even with recent forward inertia by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) and the City of Philadelphia to implement a Landbank of vacant lots and the PRA’s recent release of vacant parcel availability map, the problem can seem sometimes feel intractable considering that there’s an estimated 40,000 vacant parcels in the city.

PRA’s new mapping tool shows about 9,000 city-controlled parcels, which it hopes will help systematize development of those lands. Matched with Google Street View, similarly as we’ve explored in this article, PRA’s vacant parcels map offers a more concrete sense of the neighborhoods that are blighted by these sometimes overgrown, sometimes barren slabs of urban soil.

As a result, in a tangible way, the problem, though vast, doesn’t feel so hopeless. Looking back through time (and the Department of Records’ vast archive), the City and its residents have successfully turned vacant blemishes into thriving businesses, homey residences, historic landmarks, and public parks.

Pictured at top left is 508 South 4th Street in October of 1959.

In the historic photograph are what appears to be a vacant lot with two businesses beside it — one shuttered, the other seemingly alive.

The Historical Commission has ownership records for the lot dating back to 1808 that suggest a printer from Lancaster named William Hamilton and his wife, Juliana, owned a residential home there. It was sold in 1815 to a hatter named Sam Robinson for $1,400.

The lot changed hands a number of times between then and 1954. According to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places the lot — with or without a building in place  — was designated as a historic place on January 22, 1963, not long after the Historical Commission was founded, probably as part of a mass designation of the block or Society Hill neighborhood. But between 1954 and 1963 the Historic Commission contains no additional records on the lot.

To the left, that same property is pictured on Google Street View as of 2009 (508 is the residence on the right with the light brown door). As you can clearly tell, years later, the lot has been transformed into useful residential parking.

As part of the Society Hill Historic District, the property was re-designated to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in the 1990s. It is currently worth nearly $200,000 according to the Office of Property Assessment.

The vacant lot at 1017 Mount Vernon Street.

Or take this lot, pictured below left, as another example.

This vast tract of empty urban land — located roughly at 1017 Mount Vernon Street — was undoubtedly a source of consternation when this photo was taken. That same desolate space is now a colorful children’s public playground.

According to OPA records, the site is owned by the city and, as far as we can tell, is called the “10th and Lemon” park. The property was sold to the City in 1981 according to OPA.

A brief entry on the blog PhillyPlaygrounds tells us that this particular lot has “a very low playset with a single plastic slide and a chain of monkey bars,” some sort of climbing equipment, swings, a taller slide, and a shallow pool, presumably for summer water activities.

Here’s what 1017 Mount Vernon Street looks like today.

The playground is described as a fun spot for “toddlers and brave older kids” who undoubtedly prefer running around the brightly painted park to a lot full of dead crab grass.

While vacant land policy may continue to evolve over the coming months and years, these two repurposed vacant properties remind us of what we’re hoping to achieve, 40,000 times over.