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News > Context Spring 2024 > Feature: Historic Preservation and Gentrification

Feature: Historic Preservation and Gentrification

Exceptional cases in the history of Society Hill show they don’t have to go hand-in-hand
Acquisition, clearance, and rehabilitation plan for Washington Square East, Unit 2
Acquisition, clearance, and rehabilitation plan for Washington Square East, Unit 2

By Francesca Russello Ammon 

Philadelphia is home to one of the nation’s landmark urban renewal projects — and this one was grounded in historic preservation, not clearance. In Society Hill, planner Edmund Bacon, and architect and architectural historian Charles Peterson (considered one of the fathers of historic preservation) guided the modernization of a postwar neighborhood by building upon, rather than just wiping away, its physical past.1 To be sure, demolition still played a large role in the neighborhood’s remaking [Figure 1]. But clearance was not the city’s singular tool. Observers like Architectural Record called this approach the “Philadelphia Cure,” in which planners approached the city “with penicillin, not surgery.”2  

While the Society Hill project took a different approach than conventional urban renewal, its social impacts were not wholly dissimilar from those realized by clearance-based projects. As a result, scholars, including geographer Neil Smith, have criticized the endeavor as an example of gentrification: the process of middle- and upper-class investment in a neighborhood that drives up real estate prices while driving out pre-existing residents.3 The percentage of adults who completed college grew from 4% to 64%, owner occupancy more than doubled, and median house prices grew from three-quarters to seven times the city average.4 

Although historic preservation and gentrification sometimes go hand-in-hand, the first does not necessarily prompt the other.5 The lived example of Society Hill bolsters this distinction. Since Society Hill was not a clearance project that displaced all residents by design, existing residents were able to adopt two major strategies to remain in the neighborhood. The first was investing in restoration work required by the Redevelopment Authority, at a level that was more modest for those who wanted to maintain ownership of their properties. The second was leveraging alternative funding sources and activating the legal system to create new low-income rental properties that were compatible with the neighborhood’s aesthetic guidelines. Although much of the neighborhood did gentrify, these exceptions disprove the claim of an inevitable causal linkage between preservation and gentrification, while also suggesting some mechanisms for proactively dissociating the two in the future. 

Owner-Occupant Investments in Restoration 

Several factors drove Philadelphia to its more conservation approach. The Housing Act of 1949, which initiated federal urban renewal by providing redevelopment grants covering two-thirds of the costs of acquiring and clearing land, was critically amended by the Housing Act of 1954; this later act expanded project eligibility to include rehabilitation and restoration, in addition to clearance. Philadelphia applied this second approach. Moreover, planners appreciated Philadelphia’s distinctive historic fabric, as already demonstrated by the colonial-centric preservation approach that created Independence National Historical Park, immediately north of Society Hill. If trafficked in historical currency for tourists, its nearby neighbor would do so, too, but for residents, and new pedestrian greenways helped seamlessly connect the two areas. Finally, the preservation approach avoided certain bureaucratic obstacles. Clearance-based renewal could be slow, expensive, and dependent on a few large developers. By contrast, smaller preservation projects held the promise of faster, cheaper progress, completed in partnership with a multitude of individual property owners.6  

In 1959, Philadelphia joined other contemporary pioneers, including Providence, Rhode Island, and the Wooster Square neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut, in using a preservation-based approach to urban renewal to remake the 116-acre, 4-block by 7-block area that was officially designated Washington Square East.7 When Charles Peterson rebranded the neighborhood as “Society Hill,” he resurrected a historical name for the area, dating back to the Free Society of Traders business venture, which was located there during Philadelphia’s early days. 

At the outset of Society Hill’s renewal, the Redevelopment Authority identified only certain properties for clearance and redevelopment. These included sites slated for future greenways; the expansion of churches, schools, or Pennsylvania Hospital; or the construction of large-scale housing projects (like Society Hill Towers). But they also designated buildings for residential rehabilitation (Fig. 1).8 Owners could retain those properties if they agreed to make the physical changes mandated by the Authority. But if they lacked the financial means and/or willingness to take on such work, their only option was to sell the property to the Authority for fair market value. Notably, the standards for rehabilitation by existing owners were less strict than those imposed on the new owners who purchased houses that had been acquired by the Authority.9 

While most Society Hill property owners did choose to sell, a sizeable number did not. Among those who stayed was Anthony Gogolski, who had purchased the house at 242 Delancey Street in 1928.10 Gogolski immigrated from Poland to Philadelphia, where he became a construction foreman. The 1950 census documented him living at 242 Delancey Street with his wife, son, two daughters, granddaughter, and two roomers — plus a family of three residing in a rear apartment.11 In August 1959, he wrote to the Redevelopment Authority about the restoration work he was completing. In removing the artificial stone facing of the building, he had discovered Flemish bond brickwork beneath, which he preserved. This façade restoration also revealed that the original windows were wider, and he was restoring those as well. In addition, Gogolski was preparing to remove the non-original mansard roof and replace it with a new pitched roof with a single dormer.12 The city issued him a permit for this work in 1961.13 Four years later, he sold the house to new owners for $22,000, a price that reflected the property’s upgrades. Unrestored properties nearby were selling for one-third of that amount [Figures 2 and 3].14 

Two doors down, at 246 Delancey Street, Michael and Catherine (Schmidt) Smith would go on to spend an even longer time in their home. Michael was the son of Russian immigrants. He and his wife purchased the rowhouse for $5,300 in 1948 and soon moved in with their three young sons, a sister and brother-in-law, and a roomer.15 The Redevelopment Authority required work similar to that at their neighbors’ house, including altering the roof and restoring the front windows. In January 1960, the Historical Commission certified their property as a successful restoration.16 Nearly half a century later, Catherine, already widowed, died. In 2017, the couple’s son sold the house to a new owner for $623,000.17 Here was another family who used the opportunity of urban renewal to restore an existing property, maintain a residence there, and then sell at an increased property value. 

Not everyone could choose to rehabilitate and remain in the neighborhood, even if the building they owned was not targeted for demolition. Although pre-renewal Society Hill had been a largely mixed-use neighborhood with many first-floors shops, postwar planners largely zoned out such commercial uses. Thus, the changes required of the owners of commercial properties were more than just aesthetic. Such was the case at the storefront laundry drop-off that had operated at the corner of South Fourth and Spruce Streets for a quarter century. Owner Harry Altman proposed to restore the exterior to its colonial appearance if he could maintain his business. Numerous neighbors signed a petition in support, including leading preservationist Charles Peterson, who lived just three doors down. But city planners ultimately doomed Altman’s hopes. They argued that any zoning exceptions put the whole plan at risk. Since Altman resided above the store, he lost both his livelihood and his residence as a result — displaced not by historic preservation, but rather by prevailing wisdom about zoning.18 

Advocating for Low-Income Rental Housing 

Clearance-based urban renewal uniformly displaced both owners and renters. For owners, the historic preservation approach taken in Society Hill did not necessarily require even their temporary relocation, and they had a choice that those faced with clearance did not. Renters, by contrast, had little control over whether they would stay or go. While former rental residents could potentially move into the new housing constructed in the wake of demolition, in practice, they could rarely afford to do so. And if their landlord opted to sell a building not slated for demolition, as many did, renters had to relocate, albeit with relocation assistance and the payment of modest moving expenses by the Redevelopment Authority. In 1950, fewer than 20% of all dwelling units in Society Hill were owner-occupied, making the plight of the renter a common one [Figures 4 and 5].19 

While the largest group of pre-renewal renters in Society Hill were Eastern European immigrants and their descendants (like Golgoski and Smith), a concentration of African Americans resided in the neighborhood’s southwest corner. This area overlapped with Philadelphia’s former Seventh Ward, the historic home of much of the city’s Black community. Roughly 20% of Society Hill’s pre-renewal residents were Black.20 On the north side of the 600 Block of Lombard Street, the Octavia Hill Association (OHA) owned and rented twelve rowhouses. The occupants were of various races and all were low-income. The OHA is a Philadelphia charitable organization that has provided low-cost housing, while earning only a modest dividend, since the late 19th century. In 1971, when the organization determined that it could not afford to meet the rehabilitation demands of the Redevelopment Authority while renting to low-income residents, it informed the roughly twenty households living on Lombard Street that they would have to leave. Within two years, these residents had been evicted.21 

Seven of the households, six of which were Black, protested displacement. One of their leaders was Dorothy Miller, a Black crossing guard for the neighborhood public school whose parents had grown up in the area. Following her eviction, she was relocated to Washington Square West. As she told a reporter from the Inquirer, “It’s nice here, but I want to go back. That’s home. That’s where my roots are.”22 Miller and her neighbors soon gained the support of members of the Society Hill Civic Association, whose then-leaders were urban-renewal era arrivals in the neighborhood who had purchased and restored their own rowhouses. This alliance created Benezet Court, Inc. (named for Anthony Benezet, an early Philadelphia abolitionist), which planned to use Section 236 financing to develop new low-income housing on vacant parcels in the immediate area. Opposition came in large part from longer-term residents of the neighborhood, who lived close to the proposed sites and feared that low-income housing would threaten their property values. But while neighbors argued at heated Civic Association meetings, Miller and her allies partnered with Community Legal Services to bring the dispute to court, where they eventually prevailed. In 1979, the city sold them three vacant lots for the purpose of constructing rowhouses containing 14 units of low-income housing. Miller moved into one of these units two years later, continuing her crossing guard duties into the early 1990s [Figures 4 and 5].23  

In all these examples, the number of affected residents was admittedly small. It was not typical for low-income owners to restore their properties and continue to reside in Society Hill after renewal. Neither were many low-income renters able to remain. But by studying these exceptions to the quantitative averages and examining the details of individual experiences, we can come to appreciate the variety of past practices and the potential for future solutions that they suggest.  

Historic preservation has not always been — and need not be — synonymous with displacement. Put differently, physical and social preservation can coexist. But scaling up such possibilities requires flexibility in the scope (and also, consequently, the cost) of acceptable restoration and rehabilitation work. Further, it requires other measures to counter gentrification, whatever its causes. These measures could include tax breaks for long-term residents, loan and grant programs for maintenance and rehabilitation, and incentives for developing lower-cost rental units. These strategies all merit further investigation. But historic preservation can be a partner with any of them. With greater appreciation today that the greenest building is an existing building, there are even more reasons for contemporary planners to consider preservation-based approaches to neighborhood revitalization. In so doing, they should be mindful of the past so that the exceptions made and lessons learned in Society Hill can become the norm. 

 

FRANCESCA RUSSELLO AMMON is associate professor of city & regional planning and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book, Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape, won the Lewis Mumford Prize for best book in American planning history. 

 

Photo Above: Acquisition, clearance, and rehabilitation plan for Washington Square East, Unit 2 (original version published in 1959).

Photo credit: Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia, Washington Square East Redevelopment Area, Unit No. 2, May 1, 1968 

CITATIONS 

1. See Ammon, Preserving Society Hill, 2021, https://preservingsocietyhill.org. 

2. “The Philadelphia Cure: Clearing Slums with Penicillin, Not Surgery,” Architectural Forum, April 1952. 

3. Neil Smith, “Market, State and Ideology: Society Hill,” in The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge, 1996), 116–35. 

4. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Population and Housing, 1950 and 1980, calculated based on tract and block group data. 

5. See David Stanek, “Socioeconomic Neighborhood Change in Local Historic Districts of Large American Cities, 1970-2010: A Mixed Methods Approach” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2020); Caroline Cheong and Kecia Fong, “Gentrification and Conservation,” Change Over Time, vol. 8, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 2-7. 

6. Stephanie R. Ryberg, “Historic Preservation’s Urban Renewal Roots: Preservation and Planning in Midcentury Philadelphia,” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 2 (March 2013): 193–213. 

7. Ammon, “Urban Renewal through Rehabilitation and Restoration,” in The Many Geographies of Urban Renewal: New Perspectives on the Housing Act of 1949, ed. Douglas R. Appler (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2023), 195-216. 

8. Wright, Andrade & Amenta, “Washington Square East Urban Renewal Area Technical Report, prepared for the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia,” May 1959. 

9. Wright, Andrade & Amenta, “Standards for Rehabilitation of Existing Buildings, Washington Square East, Urban Renewal Area, Unit I,” May 1, 1959, Athenaeum of Philadelphia. 

10. Ellen Crowley to Anthony F. Gogolske, Deed, August 8, 1928, book JMH 2824, page 367, City Archives of Philadelphia, accessed via Philadelphia Land Records. 

11. U.S. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Census of Housing, 1950, enumeration district 51-127, sheet 18, accessed via Ancestry.com. 

12. Anthony F. Gogolski to Clarence Alhart, August 10, 1959, Box: 200 Block of Delancey Street, south side, Folder: 242-244 Delancey Street, Philadelphia Historical Commission. 

13. Anthony Gogolski, 242 Delancey Street, Zoning Permit, March 10, 1961, Box: 200 Block of Delancey Street, south side, Folder: 242 Delancey Street, Philadelphia Historical Commission. 

14. Anthony F. Gogolske to Jay H. and Deen Kogan, Deed, November 5, 1965, Book CAD 586, page 454, City Archives of Philadelphia, accessed via Philadelphia Land Records. 

15. Salvatore and Paula Graziano to Michael and Catherine Smith, Deed, October 14, 1948, Book CJP 2171, page 314, City Archives of Philadelphia, accessed via Philadelphia Land Records; U.S. Census of Housing, 1950, enumeration district 51-127, sheet 19, accessed via Ancestry.com. 

16. Mrs. Charles J. Maurer to Mrs. Smith, January 8, 1960, Box: 200 Block of Delancey Street, south side, Folder: 246 Delancey Street, Philadelphia Historical Commission. 

17. Michael A. Schmidt to Michael DiPilla, Deed, May 8, 2017, City Archives of Philadelphia, accessed via Philadox. 

18. Ammon, “Picturing Preservation and Renewal: Photographs as Planning Knowledge in Society Hill, Philadelphia,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 42, no. 3 (September 2022), doi:10.1177/0739456X18815742. 

19. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Housing, 1950, calculated based on tract and block group data. 

20. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Housing, 1950, calculated based on tract and block group data. 

21. Ammon, “Resisting Gentrification Amid Historic Preservation: Society Hill, Philadelphia, and the Fight for Low-Income Housing,” Change Over Time 8, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 8-31, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/717926. 

22. Paul Taylor, “Moved Out: The Society Hill Suit,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1977, 7–A. 

23. Ammon, “Resisting Gentrification Amid Historic Preservattion;” “Obituary: Dorothy D. Miller, October 29, 1930 – April 23, 2023, ”https://www.mitchumwilsonfuneralhome.com/obituaries/dorothy-miller (accessed January 11, 2024).  

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