West Philadelphia Explained

West Philadelphia is a section of the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Though there is no official definition of its boundaries, West Philly is generally considered to reach from the western shore of the Schuylkill River, to City Line Avenue to the northwest, Cobbs Creek to the southwest, and the SEPTA R3 Media-Elwyn line to the south.

An alternate definition includes all city land west of the Schuylkill; this would also include Southwest Philadelphia and its neighborhoods.

Topography

The topography of West Philadelphia is composed of rolling hills rising slowly from the Schuylkill River toward Cobbs Creek in the west and toward Belmont Plateau in the Northwest. This gradual elevation makes the skyline of Center City visible from many points in West Philadelphia. The view is particularly striking at the "Plateau" or "Plat" in what is now Fairmount Park in the Wynnefield neighborhood, a location frequently used by photographers and organizers of civic events.

History

West Philadelphia's population expanded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with many middle-class breadwinners commuting into the Central Business District a few miles to the east. The western portion of the neighborhood was once home to some of the most expensive real estate in the country, but over the last 50 years has declined in prominence. This is due to increasing crime, which led much of the city's middle and upper classes to migrate to the suburbs and other sections of the city. Striking Victorian architecture remains, recalling the area's past.

West Philadelphia drew national attention in 1978 and 1985 for violent clashes between police and an Afro-centric, back-to-nature group called MOVE. During the latter confrontation, police firebombed the group's headquarters, killing 11 and destroying an entire block of Osage Avenue and Pine Street.

In recent years, parts of West Philadelphia have undergone "Penntrification," a term that reflects the University of Pennsylvania's role in gentrification of the neighborhood; including a marketing campaign to rename part of the area University City. Many young professionals and families have moved into the area. Today, West Philadelphia is a predominantly African-American area with a population of 193,334 that is roughly 85% Black. http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/SAFFFacts?_event=ChangeGeoContext&geo_id=86000US19131&_geoContext=01000US%7C86000US19119&_street=&_county=&_cityTown=&_state=04000US42&_zip=19131&_lang=en&_sse=on&ActiveGeoDiv=geoSelect&_useEV=&pctxt=fph&pgsl=010&_submenuId=factsheet_1&ds_name=DEC_2000_SAFF&_ci_nbr=null&qr_name=null&reg=null%3Anull&_keyword=&_industry=

Housing

Most of the houses in West Philadelphia are rowhouses, although there are areas of semi-detached and detached houses. The earliest developments began in 1850 and the final period of mass construction ended in 1930. Development was enabled by the creation of the horsecar, which pushed development to about 43rd Street, and, after the arrival of the electrified streetcar in 1892, accelerated to the west and southwest.[1] (See West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District and the Market Street Line.)

Largely commissioned by speculative developers and designed by some of the city's most prolific architects, they were purchased by industrial managers and other professionals who led the first movement of upper and middle class from the more crowded city center. Developers found they could increase profits by catering to this emerging group, shrinking lot sizes, and building more compact, less ornate houses.

Initial development was divided into block lots and sold in 1852 with the condition that "substantial stone or brick buildings" be erected. The houses in this grouping are primarily three-story Italianate buildings, linked by material, decorative detail, and form. Located around Chester Avenue, an additional but smaller and less ornate 16 Italianate, brownstone, semi-detached houses, similar in form to the initial houses. The setback of these houses was 25 feet, allowing generous front yards.

Another development on Locust Street was composed of three-story, two-bay, brick, restrained Queen Anne rowhouses. The street was unified by front yards, and enclosed by decorative iron fences. The houses melded the suburban principles of front porches and greenspace with the urban rowhouse form, producing profitable, yet desirable, middle-class suburban housing. Other developments introduced urban density and architectural uniformity: the Queen Anne style with columned porches and decorative spindlework, brickwork and corbelling; steeply pitched gables with fishscale slate shingles; turrets; balconies; and windows with a single pane surrounded by small panes. These houses are typical of the early 20th-century developments in West Philadelphia, and are unified by rhythmic patterning of porch and gable features. The second story, projecting, semi-hexagonal bay is incorporated into this design, an element which defines the later rowhouses.

The western reaches of West Philadelphia included miles of two-story rowhouses with bay windows above classical columned front porches. What resulted was a collection of Colonial Revival houses with Arts and Crafts influences, which reflect the sophisticated tastes of post-World War I Philadelphians. For the first time in West Philadelphia, houses had garages. Later Tudor and Spanish Revival houses, and the Art Deco influenced apartment houses also filled in available lot spaces between developments and made it possible for more middle-class Philadelphians to move to the area.

Transportation

Elevated Rail

One of West Philadelphia's most prominent features is the "El", or SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line or Blue Line. Completed in 1907, this elevated subway line linked West Philadelphia, Millbourne and Upper Darby to Center City and then later to Frankford. Running above and for a portion, under Market Street, this transportation link is one of Philadelphia's two major transit lines that transport hundreds of thousands of students and workers daily into and around the city. The El once powered the economic engine of West Philadelphia.

Retail districts lined every street where there was a station as well as along Market Street. Most recently many of these retail districts with the exception of 52nd Street have been converted to largely residential areas. One of the aggravating factors in this change has been the recent reconstruction of the EL which due to detours of the "number streets" or numbered North-South thoroughfares and closure of large portions of Market Street, have led to many remaining businesses failing.

Light Rail

Another major transit link in West Philadelphia are the five Subway Surface Lines, often called the Green Lines for their representation on SEPTA route maps. These include five of Philadelphia's remaining six streetcar lines. Combined, these trolley routes convey more than 150,000 passengers daily, and operate 24-hour schedules, even in blizzards.

The Route 10 trolley runs along Lancaster Avenue from 63rd and Malvern Avenue through to 36th and Ludlow Streets where a portal allows access to the subway tunnel into Center City. The Route 34 trolley runs along Baltimore Avenue from Cobbs Creek at 61st Street to the transit tunnel at 40th Street in University City. The Route 13 trolley runs along Chester Avenue fron the transit tunnel at 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue to 67th Street where it turns off of Chester Avenue and continues along PA Route 13 into Yeadon, Township on to its terminus at Green Lane. The route 11 trolley runs long Woodland Avenue from the transit tunnel at 40th street through to the city line at Cobbs Creek and continues into Darby Borough. The final Green Line is the Route 36 trolley, the longest and furthest south. The 36 trolley leaves the transit tunnel, runs along Woodland Avenue to 49th Street, and turns south to continue along Lindbergh Boulevard until 55th Street when it splits off with Elmwood Avenue. It continues westbound on Elmwood until it turns south on Island Avenue west of 73rd Street, and continues south until its terminus in Penrose Plaza in Southwest Philadelphia, near the Philadelphia International Airport.

Initially, two other trolley lines, the Route 38 trolley which ran from Wynnefield to Center City via Belmont Avenue and Mantua, and the Route 31 trolley, which ran from the city line in Overbrook Park via Haverford Avenue and Market Street into Center City we to be diverted into the transit tunnel at Ludlow Street. But after National City Lines took over the Philadelphia Transit Company, those plans were scrapped and the routes converted to diesel buses. As well, Route 38 was expanded into newly developed neighborhoods in Bala Cynwyd, and the Route 31 diverted into a circuitous route through West Philadelphia and Mantua.

Regional Rail

West Philadelphia is also serviced by five of SEPTA's eight Regional Rail Lines. The R1 services University City at University City Station in the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the southern-most portion of Southwest Philadelphia and the Philadelphia International Airport. The R3 Media-Elwyn line also services University City and portions of Soutwest Philadelphia before continuing to Media and points beyond. The R5 line services Overbrook and Wynnefield before continuing to the "Main Line" communities and Paoli. Another line, the R6 Cynwyd line is an express line from Center City to the Bala Cynwyd neighborhood of Lower Merion Township.Combined, these lines transport thousands of commuters daily into an out of Center City and University City, as well as providing a quick and inexpensive link to the Airport. The majority of these passenger trips originate outside of the city limits, however due to SEPTA's recent initiatives to increase ridership system-wide, increasing numbers of West Philadelphia residents make use of the Regional Rail lines as a high-speed link to Center City by using the multi-ride "Transpass". The transpass allows unlimited rides on SEPTA vehicles within the city limits, including Regional Rail. Recently, community groups have called on SEPTA to reopen previously closed stations along its Regional Rail lines to offer increased access to communities further away from the Market-Frankford Line and the Broad Street Subway.

Streets

West Philadelphia's streets are laid out in a modified "grid" pattern. Market Street is the central main thoroughfare running East and West, with "tree" streets above and below, also running East to West. The North-South streets are numbered consecutively starting with 30th street at the Schuylkill River through to 68th street on the far Western edge near Cobbs Creek.

East-West Tree StreetsLanesDirection
Ludlow Street1 laneAlternates
Chestnut Street3 lanesEastbound
Sansom Street1 laneWestbound
Walnut Street3 lanesWestbound
Locust Street2 lanesTwo-way
Spruce Street2 lanesTwo-way
Pine Street2 lanesTwo-way
Osage Avenue1 laneOne-way/alternates
Larchwood Street1 or 2 lanesAlternates
Hazel Avenue2 lanesTwo-way
Cedar Avenue2 lanesTwo-way

Chestnut and Walnut Streets are wide three-lane thoroughfares that form Pennsylvania Route 3. These two streets constitute one of the major commuter routes into and out of Philadelphia from surrounding Delaware and Chester Counties. Thousands of cars, trucks and buses travel Chestnut and Walnut street daily. In the sixties and seventies these roads even boasted illuminated signs announcing the optimal speed to travel the 4.3 miles trip into Center City without stopping for a red light. Once lined with actual American Chestnut and Walnut trees that touched across the five lanes of roadway, due to Chestnut blight many of these trees were removed and replaced with a mix of Sycamore and Poplar trees. City officials found these species much more tolerant of the urban environment and disease resistant, although a handful of Chestnut trees remain near Cobbs Creek.

Another notable street is Lancaster Avenue which begins at 34th street near Drexel University and runs through to the city line at City Avenue, and continues on as U.S. Route 30 to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh and the West Virginia border. Lancaster Avenue is also one of the major retail strips in West Philadelphia. Shops and restaurants line the entirety of Lancaster Avenue through to 64th street in the Wynnefield neighborhood. In addition, one of Philadelphia's six remaining streetcar lines, the Route 10 Green Line, transports commuters and students daily along Lancaster Avenue from 36th and Ludlow streets to 63rd and Malvern Avenue in Wynnefield.

Crime

The intersection of 52nd Street and Market Street in West Philadelphia was listed number eight in a 2007 list of the city's top ten recreational drug corners according to an article by Philadelphia Weekly reporter Steve Volk.[2]

Schools

Primary and secondary schools

Public schools

The area's public schools are operated by the School District of Philadelphia.

West Philadelphia High School was one of the biggest and most diverse schools in state when it was opened in 1911. The students of "West" were the children of middle-class blacks, as well as of Irish, Jewish, Polish and other immigrant groups.

Other high schools include University City High School; William L. Sayre High School, formerly Sayre Middle School; Robert E. Lamberton High School; and Overbrook High School.

Elementary schools include Moton McMichael Elementary School.

Private schools

Blocks away from "West" were the West Philadelphia Catholic High Schools for Girls at 46th Street and Boys at 48th Street, now consolidated into West Philadelphia Catholic High School in the building at 46th Street. St. Thomas Moore High School for Boys at 47th and Wyalusing Avenue was closed in 1975 and now houses the Sr Clara Muhammad School.

Colleges and universities

West Philadelphia is the home to several universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and Saint Joseph's University.

Destinations

West Philadelphia boasts more attractions and destinations than many small cities. There are over 200 restaurants within its borders. Caribbean, Mexican, Soul Food, Halal, Indian, all manner of Asian cuisine, as well as traditional American fare can be found within blocks of one another. There are also many cheesesteaks and hoagies to be had prepared in every style and flavor. Quite a few of Philadelphia Magazine's 10 Best food dishes are to be found in West Philadelphia. Among these are Balal's Halal fish-cheesesteaks and fish-hoagies, the Fu-Wah Mini-Market and Deli's vegetarian hoagies, Zocalo's marinated Carne Bandera, among many, many others.

West Philadelphia has about 75 of Philadelphia's 196 blue historic markers, which note historically important birthplaces, homes, business and other places. Many guided tours use these markers for themed tours and activities for visitors.

The nation's oldest zoological garden, the Philadelphia Zoo is a perennial destination for area school students and families with world-class exhibitions and educational programs. Nestled in the center of Fairmount Park near ample parking and down from Memorial Hall, Kelly Pool, The Carousel House, and the new Microsoft partner high school, the "School of the Future".

There are also quite a few cultural venues. The Mann Music Center of the Performing Arts perched atop George's Hill is a covered amphitheater that also boasts a grand open-air lawn that has seen concerts by the Boston Pops, Luther Vandross, and many more acts. Concerts are frequently closed with fireworks. There is also the Bushfire Theater of the Performing Arts on 52nd Street, a longtime center for avant-garde and culturally introspective works by African American playwrights and choreographers

West Philadelphia in the media

The area gained some fame through the theme song to the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in which Wynnefield native Will Smith sings, "In West Philadelphia, born and raised . . ."

The NBC drama American Dreams is set in West Philadelphia in the mid-1960s.

West Philadelphia was also the home of American Bandstand. The popular dance show and career starter for host Dick Clark was produced at television station WFIL-TV (Channel 6, now WPVI-TV) in "Studio 'B'", which was located in their just-completed addition at 4548 Market Street. The show featured local high school students, turning some into teen idols. The former television station is now home to the West Philadelphia Enterprise Center, although the large satellite dish on the roof still remains.

External links

Notes and References

  1. Web site: Studio 34's Eponymous Trolley, or, A Short History of Route 34. Studio 34: Yoga Healing Arts. 2008. 2008-03-11.
  2. Volk, Steve. "Top 10 Drug Corners." Philadelphia Weekly. May 2, 2007. Retrieved on January 20, 2009.