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News > Context Spring 2022 > Once The Black Bottom

Once The Black Bottom

Philadelphia is now re-centering itself to the west. Building on Penn's and Drexel's spectacular turn-of-the-Millennium commercial developments along Walnut and Chestnut streets...
Market Street, looking east from 38th Street in 2022.
Market Street, looking east from 38th Street in 2022.

By John L. Puckett

Philadelphia is now re-centering itself to the west. Building on Penn’s and Drexel’s spectacular turn-of-the-Millennium commercial developments along Walnut and Chestnut streets, the Market Street corridor between 34th and 38th streets is filling with the University City Science Center’s new, eye-catching buildings. Here are incubated small business startups in life sciences, clean technologies, IT, bioinformatics, nanotechnology, and diagnostics and devices.

Also under development is uCity Square (ZGF Architects), a megaproject undertaken by the Science Center and Wexford Science and Technology, which is constructing an enclave of postmodernist buildings that co-locate working, living, shopping, recreation, and fitness on a single site — all designed for young, workaholic high-tech entrepreneurs. On the north side of this site, the Drexel-Wexford Partnership has constructed a two-story, 87,000-square-foot building for the Samuel Powel Elementary School and the Science Leadership Academy Middle School (Rogers Partners), and on the south side they are now building the fourteen-story Drexel College of Nursing and Health Professions (Ballinger).

The University City Science Center

To understand fully the glittering West Philadelphia panorama of today, it is necessary to explore its complicated backstory, which includes the destruction of a viable African American neighborhood as well as the creation of the University City Science Center (UCSC), the nation’s first and largest urban research park. Beginning with its incorporation in 1963, the Science Center was part of the larger history of postwar urban renewal. It was the centerpiece of “Unit 3,” an urban renewal zone established by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (RDA) that extended south from Lancaster and Powelton Avenues to Chestnut Street and from 34th to 40th streets.

In creating Unit 3, the RDA acted in the interests of the School District of Philadelphia and the West Philadelphia Corporation (WPC). The latter was a non-profit consortium of higher education and medical institutions in which the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) was the dominant partner/majority shareholder and whose junior partners were the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University), the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (now the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia), Presbyterian Hospital (now Penn–Presbyterian Medical Center), and the Osteopathic Medical School (now the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine).

The University City Science Center was the brainchild of the WPC and city agencies looking to recruit gifted scientists and scholars to “University City,” to attract the research units of major industries to form a “city of knowledge,” and to establish Philadelphia as a national leader in high-tech research and design. University City High School, while it was to be built by the School District of Philadelphia, was planned by the WPC as a high school of science and technology to be affiliated with the UCSC.

The chain of events that led to the formation of the WPC in 1959 and, in turn, the UCSC, began with a spike in violent crime in an area of West Philadelphia known as the “Bottom,” a moniker derived from the area’s relative proximity to the Schuylkill River — north of Lancaster Avenue in Powelton Village, Mantua, and Fairmount. (This is not the “Black Bottom” that is discussed below.) Anxiety about crime peaked with the murder of In-Ho Oh, a Korean doctoral student at Penn who resided in Powelton Village. The crime was committed on an April evening in 1958 by a group of disaffected African American youth.

The historian Eric Schneider has documented the rise in youth-related crime in the Bottom in the late 1950s, which had Penn as well as the progressive-minded neighborhood of Powelton Village on tenterhooks. It is significant that the ten youths who were imprisoned for killing In-Ho Oh were not from the African American-majority blocks around Market Street that were known locally as the “Black Bottom,” but that neighborhood would be the primary target of urban renewal in Unit 3.

Unit 3 and the Fate of the Black Bottom

Oral history interviews undertaken in the last 25 years identify the Black Bottom as the blocks between 34th and 40th streets, bounded on the south by Ludlow Street (the first street below Market) and Lancaster and Powelton Avenues on the north. This was home to a predominately working class and working poor African American population. Roughly coterminous with Unit 3, these blocks were declared blighted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and the RDA. This determination was based on the technocratic conception of “urban community,” which the RDA narrowly defined in physical terms. The planners discounted the communal values, neighborly attachments, and cooperative activities of Black Bottom residents. (This is not to suggest that violence did not occasionally flare up in the Black Bottom, as it did in the city’s other low-income, segregated black neighborhoods — which were similarly written off by city officials as unworthy of investment, restoration, or improvement.) Residents were presented with a fait accompli in which they had no democratic voice. While outraged advocates in local and national Black organizations were able to stave off demolition in the Black Bottom for four years, their legal options ran out in 1967.

The Science Center and its projected affiliated high school were two of several WPC-supported projects in Unit 3, where 2,653 people were “known to have been displaced”; of this number an estimated 78 percent were black. A careful although convoluted analysis of the available data found that 666 people were displaced from the Science Center’s 26-acre site, and another 806 people were moved from the high school location. In total the Penn/WPC “science center” strategy removed 1,472 Black Bottomers — more than half of all Unit 3 displacements.1

Oral history sources point to the Kingsessing neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia as the primary locality of resettlement for the displaced. A belated protest and seizure of Penn’s College Hall, carried out in the winter of 1969 by Philadelphia-area college students and activists, compelled the Science Center to pledge to return its holdings in the corridor west of 39th Street to the city for low-income housing, which finally came to fruition as University City Townhouses in 1982–83 (Friday Architects/Planners and Richard Kline).

Since the incorporation of the Science Center in 1963, and especially following the Black Bottom removals in 1967 and 1968, a coterie of scholars and activists have identified the University of Pennsylvania as the primary instigator of the strategy to establish a cordon sanitaire in the Market Street corridor. This was designed to buffer Penn from the blight and crime that the white leadership of the WPC and city planners of that era associated with the low-income, Black-majority neighborhoods to the north and west of the campus. Archival research has documented Penn’s dominance in the WPC and its heavy hand in Unit 3 planning. The continuing hue and cry for reparations — in the form of college admissions and scholarships for the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the displaced residents — has always been directed at Penn, not Drexel or any other Science Center partner from the 1960s. This issue remains of great consequence for the University’s community relations.

In our 2015 book on the University of Pennsylvania’s postwar history, Becoming Penn, Mark Lloyd and the author proffered two possible interpretations of the Black Bottom as a place and space of community identity. The first, we wrote, was “that the concept of the ‘Black Bottom’ was an African American cultural construction to which white elites, prior to the clearances, were not privy.” The second possibility, we continued, was “that the concept acquired inflated significance after the removals as an identifier and rallying point for Unit 3’s black diaspora.” Edward Epstein, in his assiduously researched 2020 dissertation, adopts the former interpretation and persuasively cites oral history interviews with former residents, descendants of dispossessed families, and contemporary Black Bottom activists, to demonstrate that it was both a place and a space of communal identity extending back to the 1940s, if not earlier.2 Today a coalition called the Black Bottom Tribe, a number of whose members were Black Bottom youths in the 1960s, is calling for historical transparency from the institutions that engineered the displacements and for the erection of historical markers to honor the memory of the Black Bottom.

The Past Half-Century

The Science Center’s original headquarters was a converted industrial building at 3501 Market Street, purchased in 1965. It erected its first new buildings in 1969–1971. Between the 1960s and the Millennium, the Science Center evolved into a consortium of 31 educational and medical institutions from throughout the Delaware Valley. In the 1960s, Penn was the majority shareholder. Yet by the early 1980s, Penn’s involvement in the Science Center was desultory, its attention and resources narrowly focused on strengthening campus safety and security amidst escalating crime waves.

The first years of the Science Center were difficult. Beyond its successful recruitment of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in 1971, the Science Center Corporation was unable to attract other major corporations with research and design departments; to stay afloat, it leased office space to organizations that were not research oriented. The lots that had been cleared by urban renewal stood without buildings along Market between 36th and 38th streets. This district came to be defined by its crime-friendly surface parking lots.

Finally, in the early 1990s, the tide turned dramatically, and completion of the research park accelerated. The booming Clinton-era economy spurred building and investment along Market Street, which was sustained through the next quarter-century. The Science Center also benefited from a national Zeitgeist that favored the revitalization of so-called “legacy cities” by attracting a new generation of high-tech-minded, professional elites. Even more, the Science Center was the beneficiary of Penn’s and Drexel’s spectacular commercial developments and of the special services provided by the University City District, a partnership of the area’s anchor institutions, small businesses, and contributing residents that was inaugurated in 1997.

Amidst the prosperity and accomplishment of our time, reminders of history are few. But the destruction of the Black Bottom in the 1960s teaches lessons that are as important as the scientific advances being made in the towers that line Market Street today.

John Puckett is an emeritus professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught education history and urban studies. He currently manages the website “West Philadelphia Collaborative History.”

Citations:

1.          Reported in Karen Gaines’s to “all concerned” memorandum, 30 October 1968, University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center, UPA4, box 214, folder “SDS versus University City Science Center — Student Affairs 1965-1970.

2.          Edward M. Epstein, “Race, Real Estate and Education: The University of Pennsylvania’s
Interventions in West Philadelphia, 1960–1980” (Ed.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2020)

Sources: A longer discussion, with full citation of sources, is in chapters 3 and 4 of John L. Puckett and Mark Frazier Lloyd, Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950–2000 (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). Related discussions are in chapter 3 of Eric C. Schneider, The Ecology of Homicide: Race, Place, and Space in Postwar Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020); chapter 4 of Margaret Pugh O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Edward Epstein’s dissertation, cited in note 2. A history of the Science Center to the 2010s, based in part on Science Center records 1963–2004, is in John L. Puckett, “University City Science Center,” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, online 2014, https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/university-city-science-center/

Diana Lind is the author of Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing (Bold Type Books, 2020).

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