In “The Neck,” A History Of Stiff Resistance To Change

 

1926 photo of what is now 10th and Pattison, site of Citizen's Bank Park

1926 photo of what is now 10th and Pattison, site of Citizen’s Bank Park

On a bright May morning in 1917, a small army of police, firemen, and laborers descended on the farm of Patrick Short. They had come to shut down the last illegal pig farm in South Philadelphia, and violence was expected. Short and his two grown sons met them at the gate with shotguns, determined to defend their 185 pigs from seizure by the city. As the tension mounted, the police chief said, “Get your guns out, boys,” and the officers reached for their pistols.

Why were these men about to shoot each other over a bunch of pigs? Philadelphia’s war on pigs was part of a 60-year struggle by City Hall to fill, colonize, and develop “the Neck,” the low-lying, highly polluted swamp that hugged the east bank of the Schuylkill River below Oregon Avenue and curved like a goose’s neck all the way around to–and draining–if it ever would drain–into the Delaware River at the city’s southeastern edge. Indeed, for more than a century, planners and city officials have been trying to figure out how to wring economic value from the vast lowland. To the extent they have succeeded, we possess a sports complex, an obsolete wholesale food market, a sea of once vital but now economically fragile oil refineries, the Schuylkill Expressway, a few neighborhoods, and FDR Park.

With the long-term future of the of refineries in question and biotech and medical industries expanding downriver from University City, City economic development officials, designers, and planners, armed with case studies and land use analyses, are once more eying the Neck as a place of urban invention, job development, and recreation.

But the first taming of the Neck came at a terrible cost: the uprooting of entire communities and the destruction of a landscape and a rural way of life that had existed for centuries. The upheaval, long advocated by business and civic leaders, journalists, and prototype environmentalists who called for the river’s clean-up at the turn of the 20th century, would anticipate the even more ambitious and conflicted reclaiming of the swamps and farms of Eastwick immediately across the river into what would be the nation’s largest Urban Renewal project of the early 1960s (and one that fell far short of planners’ goals).

Perspective northeastward from Pattison and Penrose Avenues, 1915

Perspective northeastward from Pattison and Penrose Avenues, 1915

Turn Of The Century Dreams

Land values were on the rise in the early 20th century and South Philadelphia was swelling with immigrants. City planners envisioned the far south of the city as an oasis of tree-lined streets and row houses. City councilmen licked their chops at the prospect of more property taxes from the increased land value. The Philadelphia Bulletin columnist Christopher Morley dreamed of a city “in which the lower Schuylkill would be something more than a canal of oily ooze; in which the wonderful Dutch meadows of the Neck would be reclaimed into one of the world’s loveliest riverside parks.”

New neighborhoods were indeed to be anchored by two parks, Marconi Plaza and League Island Park. Broad Street was to be extended south to the Navy Yard, and a new road, Patison Avenue, would run east to west. As the land around these projects rose in value, it would be filled, raised, and built on.

Scribner

In 1912 much of the Neck still looked like the scene pictured here from “A Day in the Ma’ash,” in the July, 1881 issue of Scribner’s Monthly

Like many urban planning projects, this was all easier said than done. For one thing, much of this land was in use raising vegetables and livestock for the markets uptown. To realize their suburban fantasy, the city needed to destroy the backbone of the Neck’s traditional economy, especially pig farming, which was deeply-entrenched in the life of the Neck. In 1912, there were about 20,000 pigs living south of Oregon Avenue among the thousand or so humans. Generations of Neckers had made a living raising pigs, which were fed on garbage collected by the Necker’s children. Pigs were the Neck’s biggest “export,” followed by cabbage and clover sod.

Claiming that pig manure produced “harmful gasses” that caused disease, in 1911 City Council passed a ban on pigs within city limits. “The pigs will disappear so fast you can’t see them,” said Mayor John E. Reyburn. “The lands rented for piggeries will become so valuable that the raising of swine there will be abandoned.”

About the author

John Vidumsky has been exploring abandoned spaces for as long as he can remember. He recently received an MA in history from Temple University, where he studied 20th-century Russian history. Currently, he works for Hidden City as Head of Research and Client Services. In his spare time, John plays Celtic harp, runs a drum circle and does photography.



12 Comments


  1. Great Article!!!!

  2. Great article.

    The David Goodis novel Night Squad, which takes place in the Neck, provides a great view of life there in late 1950s. It was really interesting to read about a landscape that completely doesn’t exist anymore.

  3. Thanks, John, you just have to love the pig wars! In May of 1917, the city also shut down eleven piggeries in the other big Philadelphia pig farming section – Wheatsheaf Lane in upper Port Richmond. The Philadelphia Livestock Association on Eleventh and Shunk Streets took up the cause of the pig farmers, circulating petitions in South Philadelphia and publishing ads in the Inquirer with headlines that read “Pigs in the Crisis.” The Association claimed that allegations of odors and diseases caused by the piggeries were groundless. They also pointed out that, as the U.S. was now involved in the War in Europe, the pigs were not only an important source of meat but could be fed cheaply on garbage and waste, conserving scarce grain for human consumption. As they said, “we need all the pork we can get.”

    • Wow, how about that? Do you know where I might find the archives of the Livestock Association, or documents about them? I already checked the Horticultural Society, to no avail.

  4. Great research.

  5. I’m pretty sure there are no records or archives. Because of its location in S. Philly and the brief mention of it in 1917, I’d bet that the Livestock Association was just a short-lived ad hoc organization formed by the pig farmers themselves. Although there was a long campaign to drive piggeries out of the city, dating from the 1880s, the final push came in the 1910s with the desire to convince Congress and the Navy Department to sink money into expanding the League Island shipyard. Philadelphia had been competing with Norwalk, CT and Norfolk VA for federal funding since after the Civil War. The City Councils were afraid that the proximity of acres of “filthy, disease breeding piggeries” would hinder the shipyard’s chances. It all comes down to money. By the way, really great article and photos, John!

  6. What a fascinating story! Hidden City, indeed. No mention of the fact that pigs poop stinks, and probably stunk up Center City when the wind was wrong.

  7. What a strange piece of history. It really does look like sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. I’m really impressed with the quality of pictures from the early 1900′s.

  8. I’d heard of the Neck but never really understood where it was. Obviously not a native south philian. Very interesting article.

  9. Looking at the several photos in a row, the far right photo includes a neat row of utility poles. Might you want to check PECO archives and archives of the early telephone company in that area?
    Not just to confirm the presence of such utility service, but the names of customers? addresses of those customers?
    And, churches come and churches go. I gather that the little church in the other photo is no more. Yet when a church congregation or parish is folded up, it is merged into another. Such a merger might be documented in this case, and therefore there might be names of parishioners or congregants. Records of christenings (baptisms), marriages, deaths and burials (where?)….
    My family (various people who would later meet, marry and be our ancestors) arrived in Philly in the 1840s, and when horsecar lines were offered, moved a bit south. Not as far as the Neck, and when the Market St elevated opened, they went to various parts of Overbrook, met each other and married, and didn’t go into the suburbs until the 1950′s etc. They returned to South Philly for the Mummers Parade — into the 1980s.
    But one of those S Philly ancestors did some real estate investing in the 1890s, buying three places further down in S Philly, below St Agnes Hospital. Maybe in the Neck, just as it was being “improved”.
    Great article, you are a really into Local History!

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