Old City encapsules 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 presence of the Founders and the other authors of the incomparable Revolutionary events that occurred here.
But it would be an oversight to focus solely on the Revolutionary period 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, ahead of William Penn, 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 inhabitants, 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. Penn arrived a few years later, embarking from a barge at what is today Penn's Landing, now an arts and recreation area stretching from Vine to South Streets.
The vital importance of the river in those days is still evident today from Old City’s tiny side streets, which started as a network of paths to move goods to and from the waterfront; Cuthbert, Quarry and Bread Streets and Elfreth's Alley are surviving examples. One surviving staircase, the Wood Street Steps, is left of the dozen that Penn ordered constructed in 1684 to access the river; it lies between rowhouses, connecting Water and Front Streets, north of Old City.
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 old practice of combining a ground-floor business with a residence (or residences) above. And so the district flourished as a retail and wholesale marketplace for the next 200 years, centered by an enormous collection of market stalls that dominated the east end of what was first High Street (now Market Street).
The market dealt in more than retail and wholesale goods. At the southeast corner of Front and Market Streets stood the popular London Coffee House and, conveniently outside, the slaveblock, where Africans were auctioned right off the ships.
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. Bankers’ Row developed around the corner of 3rd and Chestnut Streets (the photo below shows 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.
When Old City residents began migrating to the suburbs, 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 lined miles of waterfront.
20th century impediments
By 1923, the construction of 12 municipal piers transformed today’s Delaware Avenue into one of the busiest shipping locations in the country. Large-scale commerce bypassed the neighborhood, though, because the ships and the railroads were directly linked. Small-scale wholesalers dominated Old City instead.
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 roots at the 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 gradually 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 “ “, “ “ and “ “. Race Street Pier (Race Street and the river) connects Old City and the Delaware once again, and a new plan to enhance the waterfront as a recreational and cultural resource will secure its future for future generations.
Adapted from “The Old City Historic District: A Guide for Property Owners”, by the Philadelphia Historical Commission