Let me just hit you with a little bit of history. Preceding the consolidation of Philadelphia in 1854, the area that stands as University City today was home to taverns and businesses predominantly for those involved within the stagecoach and cattle droving trades. (Obviously, let’s not forget about the Lenape, who were the original inhabitants in the area, and whose land was cheated and stolen from them… but that’s a conversation for a different time.) After the Civil War, the area turned into one of the affluent streetcar suburbs of Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania moved to the area from its original spot downtown in 1870.
Post-World War I, the wealthier residents of West Philadelphia moved further and further West, which in turned left cheaper housing up for grabs in the eastern parts of the neighborhood. This cheap housing was very attractive to a large number of African Americans – who, need I remind you, included migrants from the South who faced housing discrimination everywhere else they looked in the city. It was in this time that the area began to be referred to as Black Bottom.
In 1959, Penn, Drexel, University of the Sciences, and Presbyterian Hospital all sought to redevelop the neighborhood and eradicate blight without the community’s voice a part of this process. They hoped to develop a “University City” to house faculty, staff, students, and other necessary amenities, by creating the West Philadelphia Corporation.
But wait, this whole thing was actually really shady. The corporation bought houses from absentee landlords, usually white, and kicked the people who lived in the community out of their homes. They then would board up the houses or partially demolish them and declare the area “blighted”. Through the use of Eminent Domain, the city would reacquire much of this blighted land and attempt to redevelop it.
I would love to comment further on this history, but the next time you’re enjoying a sushiritto from Hai Street, or even your 24th floor apartment in Rodin, remember that this all exists because of the displacement of 5,000 previous residents of the neighborhood.
On the last Sunday of August every year Black Bottom Day is celebrated in Fairmount Park by the old residents of the community. Feel free to stop by in between NSO parties next year.