Commercial Old City


Old City encapsulates more than 350 years of history, including the places that were part and parcel of the nation’s birth. Its streets and buildings knew the footsteps of the Founders and the other authors of the incomparable events that occurred here. 


But it would be an oversight to focus solely on the Revolutionary aspect of the neighborhood, because its history is richer and more complicated than that.


Life Was All About the River

European settlers arrived in the Delaware River Valley in the early 17th century and established permanent outposts in what would become Philadelphia in the second half of the century. Life centered on the west bank of the Delaware, where businesses and people, savory and unsavory alike, initially worked and lived in caves. The settlement’s first wharf was constructed at Walnut Street in 1685, and many others followed as people moved inland to more permanent structures.


The importance of the river in those days is still evident today from Old City’s tiny side streets (see photo below at Bread and Quarry Streets), which started as paths to move goods to and from the waterfront. Thus, the neighborhood developed quickly into a dense maze of alleys, passageways and courts lined with row houses on sub-divided lots. Incredibly, much of this character remains today – including the ancient practice of combining a ground-floor business with a residence above. And so the district flourished as a retail and wholesale marketplace for the next 200 years. 


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The 19th century

By the 19th century, Old City had become a highly regimented neighborhood, with warehousing and light manufacturing north of Market Street and financial and commercial establishments south of Market. Market Street itself was devoted to a market that stretched for blocks (see photo below).

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Bankers’ Row developed around the corner of 3rd and Chestnut Streets (the photo below is at 4th and Chestnut). Many buildings were designed and built in the Greek Revival and Italianate styles specifically for commercial purposes, but wholesalers tended to adapt older structures and construct whatever they could in the spaces between buildings.

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When Old City residents began migrating to other neighborhoods, a multitude of industries snapped up the space: garment producers, boot and shoe makers, bookbinders, paper box fabricators, glass manufacturers, coopers, brewers and cigar manufacturers. Significant factories and warehouses now crowded the waterfront. 


20th century impediments

By 1923, the construction of 12 municipal piers (see photo below) transformed today’s Delaware Avenue into one of the busiest shipping locations in the country. Large-scale commerce eventually bypassed the neighborhood, though, because new railroads went directly to the ships. Small-scale wholesalers soon dominated Old City instead.

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The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, completed in 1926, enabled travelers to bypass Old City, and the stock market crash signaled the end of significant investment and construction here. Route 95, running north-south along the district’s eastern edge, finally cut Old City off from its river in the 1970s.



Around the same time, though, pioneering artists began to turn the neighborhood’s factories and warehouses into lofts, and a thriving arts community eventually took root. The subsequent restoration and conversion of many spaces into residences coincided with an influx of galleries, studios, architects and performing artists during the 1980s and 1990s. 


Today, the “new” Old City is one of the most appealing residential neighborhoods in Philadelphia. It boasts many “Best of Philly” awards for its shops, services and other attractions. It’s been voted one of the most outstanding art districts in the nation. And a new plan to develop the Delaware waterfront as a recreational and cultural resource will connect the neighborhood with its river once again.


Adapted from “The Old City Historic District: A Guide for Property Owners”, by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Photos courtesy of the Free Library.



Small Streets


Long beloved of Old City tourists and residents alike, the neighborhood’s small streets provide a wealth of atmosphere. Many were originally foot- or cart paths to and from the Delaware River’s commercial area. Consequently, early Philadelphia residents, rich and poor, lived literally in a sea of mud, rubbish and worse.



Finally, a lottery allowed 2nd Street between Market and Vine to be paved with cobblestones. Cobblestones, the most common old cartway material, are medium-size, rounded stones, typically from rivers or streambeds. They were durable and cheap -- you just pulled them out of the water -- but walking over them was perilous, and riding in a wagon or carriage rattled the brain.


Still, it beat the mud, and by 1830, most city streets were cobblestones; 93% were still cobblestones in 1884. Then other paving materials became widely available, and by 1915, nearly all cobblestone streets had disappeared. Just seven cobblestone streets of varying ages are known to survive in the city.


The only example of original cobblestone in Philadelphia, believe some experts, is “Little Boys Way”, below, a small street off 2nd between Arch and Filbert in Old City, beside a parking lot on the south side of the street. The alley starts off as granite blocks at Arch Street, and then becomes real cobble for about 30 yards.


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    Old City District



Brick took cobblestone’s place,  with the first brick street paved in the city in 1887 and the last in 1910. When vitrified or heated, brick became  glass-like -- a good hard paving surface. Some neighborhoods chose bricks for a more upscale look and feel than cobblestones, because bricks were more expensive to lay and created more attractive and quieter streets. Chestnut Street between 2nd and 5th Streets, known as “Bankers Row” in the early decades of the republic, was paved with red brick, which could still be seen in 2012.


Wood Blocks

Square wood block paving also had a brief vogue. Market Street was once paved in wood blocks from river to river. Alas, horse urine made relatively short work of it. Some reproduction blocks can be seen on the 200 block of S. Camac Street, above, purported to be the last wood-surface street in America. Historian Harry Kyriakodis speculates that the wooden pavement was laid there to muffle the sound of horses’ hooves in this street of venerable artistic and literary clubs.

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    Old City District



By far the largest number of old small streets surviving today were paved in quarried, rectangular granite setts (also know as Belgian block) in the 1800s. (These streets are often mistakenly called “cobblestone”.) Setts were smoother to drive on than cobbles; even so, on some cartways, you can see smoother, parallel granite slabs placed apart for cart wheels. Examples in Old City exist in Independence Park, below, and elsewhere.

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    Old City Photo


Blue-glazed granite is much more unusual than gray; only nine examples are said to exist in the city. According to the Philadelphia History Museum’s Web site, the blue blocks originated in the courtyard of the Belgian Pavilion at the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Fairmount Park. When the exhibit was dismantled, Belgium gave the blue blocks to the city, which in turn gave them to several old neighborhoods.


Old City has what experts describe as the most intact stretch of blue brick paving, in the covered walkway of Filbert Street between 2nd and 3rd. Other examples are the trace of Bodine Street between Market and Chestnut Streets (below), Myrtle Street and Waverly Street one block from Broad and Lombard.

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The city allocates $200,000 annually for the repair of small streets, which have their champion in The Philadelphia Society of Small Streets, an independent consortium of neighbors dedicated to getting the byways properly repaired and maintained.


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The Society’s efforts are focussed on changing street repair techniques -- meaning no “plumbers’ patches”, above, concrete foundation or concrete mortar. To that end, the Streets Department has launched a pilot program to allow residents on historically designated streets (who have

hired a contractor to do plumbing, etc. in the street), to immediately have the bricks or stones put back into the street after repairs are done. Residents will save $450 on their permit fees if they do so.
Previously, contractors were directed by the Streets Department to make the hole safe, which meant to fill it with asphalt. After that, years would go by before the street was properly restored by the Streets Department, if ever.


The pilot provisions are practical as well as aesthetic. Original materials set into composite, rather than concrete, result in better drainage, fewer mosquitos and, in fact, a sturdier surface than the patches.


As a result of Society’s lobbying, the city’s contractor was required to drill holes in the concrete under brick restorations for better drainage, but the jury is out on whether that will work, says Lynn Landes, with her husband Cliff a co-founder of the Society.


“We’ve had better luck on plumbers’ patches,” Landes says. 


The Society’s Web site offers links and online applications to begin work on a given street or neighborhood of small streets.


And while the results of a beautifully restored street may not translate into guaranteed returns for homeowners, says realtor Mark Wade of Prudential Fox & Roach Real Estate, “ it does add to the overall charm and feeling. They are attractive and can really hit tug at emotions.”


Carol Moore

Photos: Old City District