Chinatown at a Glance


Despite years of transition, Philadelphia is still a city of neighborhoods. South Philadelphia, Germantown, Brewerytown, Fishtown, Eastwick, and Strawberry Mansion are just a few of the neighborhoods that give the city its distinctive and diverse feel. One of its most unique areas lies within Center City. It stretches from Arch to Vine Street, and from 8th to 11th Street. Pass through the “Friendship Gate” at 10th and Arch Streets and you will find yourself in Chinatown.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown, like those in other American cities, has sad beginnings. Chinese immigrants came to America seeking refuge from political upheavals and economic woes. They encountered a veritable wall of racism in the form of the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, which severely restricted immigration. This act created a “bachelor society” of male laborers, many of whom gathered in small, ethnic enclaves. These men found limited job opportunities and suffered from money shortages because they often had to support families back home.

Chinese Americans’ social standing improved during World War II when the United States softened its anti-Chinese views. The country redirected its vilification of the Chinese onto the Japanese, although many Americans had difficulty differentiating between the two ethnic groups. In 1943, the U. S. government repealed the Chinese Exclusionary Act and began to allow the increased, but still restricted, entry of Chinese into the country.

Family and community life in Philadelphia’s Chinatown expanded after World War II. Numerous churches, businesses, and social and cultural institutions opened in the area, further reinforcing the presence of native traditions. Once decried as a red-light district, full of opium dens and other iniquities, Chinatown became a stable neighborhood. Beginning in the 1960s, a “Save Chinatown” campaign resisted proposed developments that would have demolished Holy Redeemer Church and School, as well as other buildings. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) was incorporated in 1969. Drawing on the support of neighborhood, the PCDC fought a successful two-decade battle to prevent the Vine Expressway from severely encroaching upon the community. More recently, the organization won a contentious battle to prevent the construction of the new Phillies stadium on the edge of Chinatown.

When walking in Chinatown, one feels a sense of being in a city within a city. Ten thousand Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese people now reside there. Asian-owned restaurants, markets, and other establishments abound. Chinatown began as a closed-off refuge for young, displaced immigrants. Today it retains its distinctive Far Eastern flavor while serving as an open, proud, and indispensable part of the Philadelphia landscape.


Urban Planning

The Convention City


The 2008 presidential election already looms on the horizon. In addition to selecting candidates, the two major parties must decide where to hold their nominating conventions. Although it is not in the running for 2008, Philadelphia has a strong history of welcoming presidential conventions, most recently in 2000, when the Republican Party nominated George W. Bush at the First Union Center (now the Wachovia Center). The Republicans have met in the city six times. They held their first presidential convention here in 1856.

Why this strong legacy? Because of Philadelphia’s overwhelming support for Democratic candidates today, it is easy to forget that Republicans dominated city politics from the mid-nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. The city voted for Herbert Hoover in 1932, and although Democratic support increased in response to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, voters continued to elect Republican mayors until 1952.

During this period of transition, the Republican, Democratic, and Progressive Parties held their 1948 conventions in Philadelphia. They met at Municipal Auditorium, or Convention Hall: the Republicans in June and the Democrats and the Progressives in July. The hall had last held a presidential convention in 1936, when the Democrats renominated FDR. The Art Deco-style building, located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, southwest of Franklin Field, was completed in 1931.

The City wooed both major parties in 1948 with donations of $200,000. The accommodations proved less than ideal; not enough hotel rooms were available, prompting approximately half of the attendees to seek lodging in college dorm rooms and private residences. Other participants had to stay as far away as Trenton and Atlantic City. Even worse, the summer of 1948 was a scorcher. One hundred eight people fell victim to heat exhaustion at the Democratic meeting.

Still, the delegates soldiered on. The active, unscripted nature of these conventions contrasts with the rubber-stamping of nominees that occurs today. Take civil rights, a major issue of contention within the Democratic Party. Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey pressed the delegation to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights” (quoted in Niemela). Southern Democrats resisted a plank calling for strong civil rights legislation and subsequently walked out. They formed the short-lived and staunchly segregationist States’ Rights Democratic, or Dixiecrat, Party. Their candidate Strom Thurmond went on to carry four Deep South states.

Demonstrating the political sea change wrought by the New Deal, the Republican platform included a variety of proposals involving government aid. Republicans called for civil rights legislation, including an anti-lynching law and a measure abolishing poll taxes. They also supported an extension of Social Security benefits and federal funding for slum clearance and low-cost housing. The party nominated Thomas E. Dewey for the second election in a row. In light of a divided Democratic Party, election watchers expected that Dewey would coast to an easy victory. The presence of the Progressive Party, which siphoned off some of the Democrats’ most left-leaning constituents, looked like more bad news for the Democratic nominee, Harry S. Truman.

The Progressives’ Philadelphia convention showcased their emphasis on major reforms. It was an enthusiastic affair attended by delegates from ordinary backgrounds. Many of them had no previous political experience. Observing the attendees at Convention Hall, CBS News correspondent Howard K. Smith noted, “The throng certainly was not affluent. It included hundreds who had hitch-hiked to the convention; scores who lived in tent-towns on the convention hall parking lot” (quoted in Epstein). The Progressive Party platform promoted a broad leftist agenda, including a women’s rights amendment to the Constitution, federal funding for education, the end of Jim Crow laws, and an expansive, nationwide system of Social Security, health, and unemployment insurance. Nominating Henry A. Wallace, former Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, and Vice-President, the Progressives also called for rapprochement with the Soviet Union, a policy that contradicted the prevailing Cold War mindset. Wallace received the endorsement of the Communist Party, prompting a smaller number of left-wing Democrats than expected to support his campaign.

The convention summer marked perhaps the most exciting period in Convention Hall’s history, although fans of the 76ers and the Warriors, who played in the building before the construction of the Spectrum, may disagree. American politics has rarely been more vital and rough-and-tumble. On Election Day, Truman lost Pennsylvania, but his “give ’em hell” candidacy carried 28 states, garnering 49 percent of the popular vote and 303 electoral votes.


Further Reading

  • Donaldson, Gary A. Truman Defeats Dewey. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999.
  • Gullan, Howard I. The Upset That Wasn’t: Harry S. Truman and the Crucial Election of 1948. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

Urban Planning

Views from Center City

As the geographic heart and Central Business District (CBD) of Philadelphia, Center City is busy hub of activity. It is bounded by South Street to the South, the Delaware River to the east, the Schuykill River to the West, and either Vine Street or Spring Garden Street (depending on whom you ask) at the North. While Center City continues to grow and transform, the following images from the past offer unique glimpses of the area’s physical continuities and changes.

The first markets were held at the corner of Front and High (Market) Streets during Philadelphia’s early years. The location of market houses shifted and expanded over time. One impressed traveler wrote in 1824, “The market house, which is nothing more than a roof supported by pillars and quite open to each side, begins on the banks of the Delaware, and runs more than one mile, that is eight squares in length!” (Alotta 150). This photograph, taken almost 90 years later, shows the inside of the market house at 2nd and Pine Streets.

At the City Archives, there are many photographs taken from the heights of City Hall. This spectacular shot demonstrates why, as it captures parts of Center City and Fairmount in gorgeous detail. Aside from its world-class collection, the Art Museum, of course, brings to mind Rocky, but this photo was taken many years before the first bad imitation of the fictional boxer’s run up the museum steps.

Heat indexes of over 100 degrees may leave us begging for cold weather. This 1914 image, which looks north from Broad and Walnut Streets, offers a reminder that Philadelphia winters can be as equally punishing. The caption says it all: “Snowing Like Hell.”

Here is a portrait of (controlled) chaos. The landscape around North Broad Street goes up in smoke in this 1913 photograph depicting a fire demonstration.

The Drake rises imposingly from its location on the 1500 block of Spruce. Built in 1929 as a luxury hotel, its 32-story structure is now restored to its former glory. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and operates today as an apartment building–with a great view.


  • Alotta, Robert I. Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees and Custer: The Stories behind Philadelphia Street Names. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1990.

Historic Sites

In League with Lincoln


A striking building in a city of arresting architecture, the Union League of Philadelphia building stands at 140 South Broad Street in the heart of Center City. It was completed in 1865 and features a French Renaissance design.

The story of the League began in December 1862 when two weeks after the crushing Federal defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, Dr. J. Forsythe Meigs held an organizational meeting for a “Union Club” at his Walnut Street home. Members dedicated themselves to upholding the Constitution and to supporting President Abraham Lincoln’s often unpopular policies. Lincoln’s vigorous measures to stifle disloyalty alienated many northerners already fatigued by a protracted war. Union Leagues (a.k.a. Loyal Leagues), including the Philadelphia chapter, lent their unwavering patriotism to a weary chief executive and to a grueling war effort. By the time of the Philadelphia Union Club’s founding, the pro-war enthusiasm of 1861 had dissipated. The peace wing of the Democratic Party enjoyed considerable strength in the city. Unconditional Unionists were disturbed. During the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in June-July 1863, lawyer and political essayist Sidney George Fisher wrote that in Philadelphia “the people looked careless & indifferent,” demoralized by popular rhetoric that portrayed the war as unwinnable (quoted in Weigley 408).

The Union Club sought to reinvigorate Unionist fervor. Originally limited to fifty members of Philadelphia’s aristocracy, the organization rechristened itself the Union League and expanded its membership to several thousand by the end of the Civil War. The League functioned as a society for the burgeoning business class being ushered in by rapid industrialization. Members supported many efforts on the home front, including the United States Sanitary Commission’s commitment to improving health conditions in military camps and hospitals. At the USSC Fair in 1864, the Philadelphia League raised money for wounded and disabled soldiers. Its Committee on Employment located jobs for thousands of veterans and widows.

Other Union Leagues sprouted up throughout the North and loyal areas of the South during the second half of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, ex-slaves and white Republicans in the former Confederate states formed leagues (although rarely together) in order to facilitate black voter registration and support for the Republican Party.

Today the Philadelphia Union League retains its philanthropic mission. Its 3,000 members are leaders in the realms of business, education, religion, the arts, healthcare, and technology.


  • “History/Foundations: Timeline.” 2006. The Union League of Philadelphia. (accessed 10 July 2006).
  • Weigley, Russell F., Ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.

Further Reading:

  • Lawson, Melinda. “The Civil War Union Leagues and the Construction of a New National Patriotism.” Civil War History. 48, no. 4 (2002): 338-364.


Does This Look Like a Stadium Yet?


The Stadium Complex in South Philadelphia is a mecca for area sports fans. How about a baseball game? Check. Football? Yep. Basketball? It’s covered. And eating contests? Oh, my . . . .

Philadelphia Municipal Stadium, renamed John F. Kennedy Stadium in 1964, stood here for over 65 years. It hosted a variety of sporting events and received notoriety as a venue for Army-Navy football games. Big touring bands often stopped by. The Beatles and Barbra Streisand both performed here in 1966. Live Aid occupied the venue in 1985, proving that nothing rocks like a good cause.

Designed by the Simon & Simon architect firm, workers still had their work cut out for them when this picture was taken. They labored hard to complete it in time for the 1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition. Over 10 million people participated in the event where they saw, among other things, an 80-foot replica of the Liberty Bell strung with 26,000 light bulbs.

That same year heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey faced challenger Gene Tunney in the first of their two fights. A record 120,557 people reportedly attended the event. Boxing proved especially appealing to an urban-industrial society in which the idea of rugged individualism appeared under attack. The sport allowed spectators to live vicariously–if only briefly–through two fighters duking it out in a display of manliness that would have made Theodore Roosevelt weep. Tunney established an early edge over Dempsey, landing a couple of hard punches. “Thereafter[,]” the challenger later recalled, “it was a methodical matter of outboxing him, foiling his rushes, piling up points, clipping him with repeated, damaging blows, [and] correct sparring.” Tunney’s diligence and careful training paid off; he won by decision after ten rounds.

In succeeding years, the city allowed the stadium to fall into disrepair. Mayor Wilson Goode condemned it in July 1989, shortly after a Grateful Dead concert (there is no apparent correlation between the two events). Demolition commenced three years later. The Wachovia Center, opened in 1996, now occupies the site.


  • “John F. Kennedy Stadium.” 28 June 2006. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. (accessed 7 July 2006).
  • Tunney, Gene. “My Fights with Jack Dempsey” in Emra, Bruce, ed. Sports in Literature: Experiencing Literature and Writing Through Poems, Stories, and Nonfiction. Lincolnwood, Illinois: National Textbook Company, 1991. Online at (accessed 7 July 2006).


See and Hear the World’s Greatest Entertainer!


In 1921, the Stanley Company opened the 1303-capacity Aldine Theatre at the southeast corner of 19th and Chestnut Streets. The theater played movies for some seventy years, with a few gaps during the 1950s-1970s. Over the years, it was rechristened the Viking Theatre, then the Cinema 19 Theatre, and finally, Sam’s Place Twin, after Sam Shapiro’s Sameric Company purchased the movie house and divided it into two smaller screening rooms in 1980. The building today houses a pharmacy.

This October 1928 photograph shows the lavish displays for director Lloyd Bacon’s The Singing Fool. The film marked singing sensation Al Jolson’s follow-up to the 1927 smash-hit The Jazz Singer. Like the earlier film, The Singing Fool was a “talkie.” It contributed to the popularity of musicals and the standardization of sound in motion pictures. One can imagine the excitement with which Philadelphians and other Americans greeted the new technology. Although Top 40 music charts did not exist in 1927, it is estimated that the film’s song “Sonny Boy” achieved the equivalent of number-one status.

During The Singing Fool’s finale, Jolson performed “Sonny Boy” in blackface. White working-class entertainers popularized this convention during the mid-1800s. They applied burnt cork to their faces in order to portray dimwitted “darky” or “coon” characters. Blackface remained popular during the vaudeville era. We rightfully find such overtly racist imagery repellent, but, at the time, many white theatergoers accepted and enjoyed these performances, as evidenced by the prominent displays of a “blacked up” Jolson on the theatre posters. Blackface’s popularity highlights the complicated nature of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century race relations. One recent historian argues that white society’s feelings toward blacks and their culture combined resentment, sympathy, and cooptation, or both “love and theft.” In the post-vaudeville era, more enlightened racial sensibilities emerged, leading to a decline in public tolerance for blackface. The practice serves as a painful reminder of America’s struggles with bigotry.



Signs, Signs. . .


Some people (the Five Man Electrical Band included) may call them eyesores, but billboards reveal much about the changing urban landscape during the modern era.

By the early twentieth century, advertisers, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, had progressed beyond pasting handbills onto walls. Drivers passing the intersection of Broad Street and Girard Avenue in 1917 saw a wealth of consumables foisted upon them. Razor blades, food, and wine ads foreshadowed the increasing importance of consumption in sustaining the American economy.

But we also see that billboards often included more patriotic messages. An ad for Liberty Bonds reminded Philadelphians to assist the war effort and to remember the boys fighting the Great War “over there” on the Allied side.

More Information:

  • Gudis, Catherine. Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape. New York: Routledge, 2004.


Catch a Movie and See a Teen Idol in South Philly


A bustling hub of the Philadelphia public transportation network, the intersection of Broad Street and Snyder Avenue is still a place where a person can get a hot meal and the latest news. The lavish, 2183-seat Broadway Theater (seen in the background) opened in 1913, originally featuring Keith Vaudeville productions. It had been converted into a full-time movie house by the time this photo was taken in 1949. The theatre no longer stands; it was demolished in 1971 and has been replaced by various commercial ventures.

The nearby subway stop may seem like an unlikely incubator for singing talent, but many popular artists honed their chops beneath its entrance. Nearby South Philadelphia High School for Boys graduated a veritable who’s who of mid-twentieth-century singers, including Eddie Fisher, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Chubby Checker. Dick Clark featured these and many other of the city’s performers on American Bandstand, which aired nationally from Philadelphia on ABC-TV between 1957 and 1964.


  • “Broadway Theater.” (accessed 16 May 2006).
  • Jackson, John A. American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.