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The Rise and Fall of Southwark

“When you enter the plaza,” reported the Inquirer in 1981, “Southwark surprises you with the makings of a nice community. The towers look into a community center, open squares and trees, and from these extend little streets of rowhouses with hedges and yards. It is a campus-like setting full of potential…”

That was the idea, anyway.

South 4th Street, Christian to Washington, 1964 (PhillyHistory.org)

Inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, architects including Louis I. Kahn and Oscar Stonorov designed three dozen high-rise housing projects for thousands of Philadelphia’s low-income families. Edmund Bacon at the city planning commission led the charge. Bacon, John F. Bauman put it, “viewed public housing as part of the process of excising away Philadelphia’s obsolescent industrial past and ushering in a modern and more physically attractive future for a ‘Better Philadelphia.’”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, according to Alexander van Hoffman, urban high-rise projects “rising out of vast expanses of grass and greenery” came to “dominate the image of American public housing.” The “movement for tall modernism…gained support from city officials and developers who saw sleek skyscrapers as a way of modernizing the aging urban landscapes of postwar America.”

A few designers worried they might be creating a new generation of “supertenements.” No matter. According to van Hoffman, officials “in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago, embraced high-rise design with an almost insane tenaciousness.” By 1960, Philadelphia had 22 low-income towers with another dozen, including three at Southwark Plaza, by Stonorov & Haws, on the drawing boards. By the late 1970s, 5,000 Philadelphia families occupied 36 high-rise projects, a social experiment that would soon become recognized as a profound city planning failure.

Built in 1963 for about $12 million (the equivalent of more than $100 million in today’s dollars) Southwark’s three 26-story towers, along with adjacent low-rise neighbors, housed more than 2,700 residents in 886 units. Cheek-by-jowl and steeped in poverty, everyone there lived with crime, drugs, unrepaired plumbing and perennially dysfunctional elevators. “It’s like living in hell, only worse,” one resident told a Bulletin reporter in 1977. “In hell, at least you are dead.”

Aerial View from Southwark Building, May 11, 1965 (PhillyHistory.org)

Southwark quickly became known as a “model of the misguided public housing policies of the day: Build cheap, then pack ’em in,” wrote the Inquirer’s Frank Lewis. This project was nothing short of “notorious for its failure in terms of people’s lives,” urban designer Jon Lang later wrote. “One of the city’s worst public housing sites,” confirmed John Kromer in Fixing Broken Cities.

The police “dreaded” Southwark. Responding to complaints, “they used the ‘three-car’ approach—three police vehicles dispatched to handle one complaint. One set of officers was needed to guard the cars. Bricks flew from the high-rises, pelting cops and their vehicles.”

If Southwark stood out at all,” wrote Buzz Bissinger in A Prayer for the City, “if there was anything that distinguished the complex, it was in the color of those…towers—a clammy, sickly yellow the human skin gets from chronic fever and stale air.”

“One didn’t have to be a social scientist or an expert in public housing to understand a place like Southwark… Any adult…or any child, for that matter—could look at those towers in their ugly incongruous setting … and know that they had been doomed to failure from the very beginning, casting a potentially fatal effect not only on those who were sentenced to live there but also those who lived anywhere close to them.”

“There were poor people in the city who desperately needed housing,” wrote Bissinger, “but not like this.”

“Around the same time,” reported the Inquirer, “everyone had seemed to come to the same conclusion … high-rises and low incomes just don’t mix.

The successful explosives felling of [Southwark Residential Towers] two, 331’ tall, 26-story, reinforced concrete apartment structures, 8:30 AM on Sunday, January 23, 2000. (Controlled Demolition, Inc.)
And so, early one frigid millennial morning [January 23, 2000], scores of police officers “cordoned off an area bordered by Sixth, Moyamensing, Queen and Wharton.” Traffic on I-95 was temporarily halted. Eighty-five pounds of explosives had been strategically affixed to 650 concrete uprights in each of two towers.

“At 8:31 a.m. as light snow fell and police, officials and hundreds of residents watched, the two 26-story towers at Washington and Fourth Streets were imploded into giant piles of rubble. Loud bangs rang out, and for an instant, the towers stood intact. Then another bang sounded and the buildings crumbled straight down.” Finally, “a giant ball of light-brown dust rose and spread” over a good part of South Philadelphia.

Southwark was hardly the only low-income, high rise to meet its fate with a bang and a cloud of dust. For two decades, starting in the mid-1990s, no fewer than 23 low-income high rises came down. And implosion was the method of choice. The 8-tower Raymond Rosen Apartments in 1995 was followed a year later by the Schuylkill Falls Apartments. The Martin Luther King Plaza came down in 1999, one year before Southwark, two years before Cambridge Plaza and three years before the Mill Creek Apartments.

Philadelphia, it seemed, had come to its senses as to what constitutes humane, low-income housing. And Philadelphians found themselves engaged in a newfound, post-modern spectator sport.

[Sources: From The Philadelphia Inquirer: Bob Frump, “Why ‘Projects” is a Dirty Word in Housing, April 16, 1978; Andrew Wallace, “Southwark: Trash,” April 16, 1978; Mark Randall, “At Southwark Plaza…” Our Town, Today Magazine, November 1, 1981; Laura Bunch, Vacant Towers Coming Down Amid Hope of Better Housing,” December 2, 1996; Thom Guarnieri, “Towers’ Rubble Clears the Way for a Fresh Start,” January 24, 2000; Larry Eichel, “Rising from Ruins,” December 4, 2005. From The Philadelphia Daily News:  Leon Taylor, “Project’s Towers go from Dream to Dust, April 18, 1995; Christine Bahls, MLK Towers Tumble Down, October 18, 1999. A Citizen’s Guide to Housing and Urban Renewal in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Housing Association, 1960); John F. Bauman, Public Housing, Race, and Urban Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920–1974 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); John F. Bauman, “Row Housing as Public Housing: The Philadelphia Story, 1957–2013,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol.138, no. 4 (2014): Buzz Bissinger, A Prayer for the City (Vintage, 1998); Ryan Briggs, “Bidding Farewell To Queen Lane, Looking Ahead For PHA,” Hidden City, September 12, 2014; Jon Lang, Urban Design: The American Experience (John Wiley & Sons, 1994); Frank Lewis, “The Philadelphia Experiment,” Philadelphia City Paper,  April 17–24, 1997; John L. Puckett, Public Housing’s Backstory, Part of Diverse Stories: Public Housing in West Philadelphia, (West Philadelphia Collaborative History); Alexander van Hoffman, “High Ambitions: The Past and the Future of American Low-Income Housing Policy,” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 8, no. 3, 1996.]

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