Novelty in 1954: a Vacant Lot in North Philadelphia

Vacant Lot on Arizona Street-West of 26th. May 12, 1954. John McWhorter, photographer.

Between 1890 and 1950, the city had more than doubled in population, from about one million to just over two. But in the second half of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s population dropped by more than 550,000—a loss, on average, of more than 110,000 residents every decade. It was a remarkable reversal that redefined the city in the second half of the 20th century.

From the Civil War to after World War II, construction and employment booms powered Philadelphia’s expansion. Mile after mile of meadow and farmland had been transformed into red brick neighborhoods. They stretched, as far as the eye could see, interspersed only by churches, factories and freight lines.

By 1890, a short hike from the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery, bordering the lower branch of Cohocksink Creek, surveyors extended Penn’s original grid up to North Penn Village. Speculators divided the grid which now extended northward from Center City, into more development-friendly rectangles. Between York and Dauphin were cut smaller streets: Arizona and Gordon. And along the 400 feet, from corner to corner, speculators put up one more block of two-story row houses. By 1895, thirty stood between York and Arizona, 26th and 27th.

Open space just about disappeared as North Philadelphia rose up. Until the middle of the 20th century, anyway. Then, not only did growth come to a screeching halt, it did an about face. In the Spring of 1954, when city photographer John McWhorter photographed a vacant lot on the 2600 block of West Arizona Street, vacant lots were still the exception. Over the next half century, many more of the original thirty houses on that rectangle between York and Arizona, 20th and 27th disappeared. Today, only half remain.

Detail of the 2600 Block of West Arizona Street, ca. 2013. (Google.)

We were reminded in a recent Inquirer story, accompanied by a useful map, that eight North Philadelphia census tracts each dropped by more than 10,000 residents from 1950 to 2010. What remains today at 26th and Arizona was at the heart of this precipitous decline. It’s census tract: 169.01 – Susquehanna to Lehigh, 25th to 31st– lost 10,780 residents, falling from 16,604 to 5,820. This 65% decline, more than double the citywide drop of 26.7%, outpaced even Detroit’s 61% decline in the same time period. Among Philadelphia’s 385 census tracts, 169.01 and five adjacent tracts lost more than 49,000 residents between 1950 and 2010—more than one-eleventh of the city’s total decline in population.

Are there any clues as to how this dramatic demographic shift played out? Any why this particular neighborhood was hit so hard?

Manufacturing, and manufacturing jobs, once thrived along the nearby Glenwood Avenue corridor. The 1910 Philadelphia Atlas shows coal yards, brick yards, lumber yards, planning mills, furniture factories, brass foundries, factories making pipes, pumps, processing tobacco, weaving textiles – plenty of places for employment. But when the Great Depression hit, and unemployment for the general population stood at 24.75%, unemployment among African Americans was as high as double that rate. And in the depth of the Depression, as we know from J. M. Brewer’s color-coded real estate map, 26th and Arizona was an African-American community.

J. M. Brewer’s Map of Philadelphia, 1934. Detail of the 2600 block of West Arizona Street and vicinity with red indicating “Colored” population and “location ratings” indicating “lower or working class” to “decadent.” (Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network)

As Amy Hillier tells us, the Brewer map and the subsequent Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps, “established highly racialized neighborhood standards” and were used by mortgage companies to inform their lending decisions. Red shading on the Brewer map shows 26th and Arizona as “Colored” and the quality of the housing there “lower of working class” to “decadent.”  Two years later, a data sheet accompanying the HOLC map describes the entire area west of Broad to Fairmount Park between Poplar and Cumberland as “solid town, two and three story, brick houses, forty years old or more,” a neighborhood that “originally housed a large part of the city’s more prosperous middle class” but “is now fast approaching obsolescence, with its population almost entirely Negro.” The neighborhood stood out in red, which signified “hazardous.”

By the 1950s, after two decades of disadvantage and disinvestment, conditions in North Philadelphia were about to get even worse with a steep decline of Philadelphia’s manufacturing economy. At its peak in 1953, a hearty 45 percent of the city’s entire labor force worked in industrial jobs. But by the start of the 21st century, this had fallen to an anemic 5 percent.  Once again, North Philly’s neighborhoods would be among the biggest losers.

Before long, vacant lots would become the rule in North Philadelphia, not the exception. For a time, some would say, the terms “vacant lot” and “North Philadelphia” were synonymous.