Can We Undo 1954?

 

Castor Ave, looking N from Cottman, 1951

Castor Avenue, looking north from Cottman, in 1951.

After some research, I think I can finally pinpoint the moment when suburbia went off the rails.

It was February 1954. The City Stores Company, owner of Lit Brothers, opened the department store’s first-ever new-from-the-ground-up branch at Castor and Cottman Avenues in the central Northeast. Three years earlier, the streetcar line the city had built in the 1920s up Castor Avenue to Bustleton in the Far Northeast was removed and replaced with a trackless trolley line–a signal that the still largely empty land around the Castor and Cottman intersection would be developed to accommodate the car.

We live today with the consequences: the Northeast is burdened with formless, aggressively pedestrian unfriendly shopping streets, a factor that the City Planning Commission will attempt to mollify through the just beginning process of the Central Northeast District Plan.

Cottman Ave looking E from Castor, 1953

Cottman Avenue looking east from Castor, 1953. The new Lit Brothers store is under construction at left.

Even still, the new Lit Brothers shopping center accommodated both the car and the pedestrian. The Cottman and Bustleton shopping center was certainly geared to the car–it had plenty of free parking–but the parking lot was placed behind the stores, whose fronts hugged the street. Photos from the period of construction show that the area around Castor and Cottman was largely virgin territory then. And the first commercial development around the intersection respected the street and the sidewalk.

...as can be seen in this 1960 photo focusing on a newsstand on the corner in front of Lits.

The Castor and Cottman intersection, looking east on Cottman, in 1960.

As the photo above from 1960 shows, the commercial development that came along with Lit’s opening likewise respected the street, as did the buildings that sprang up across Castor from the center. Signs pointed to the emergence of a decent suburban crossroads that could be navigated by motorist and pedestrian alike–a center of low-scale commercial urbanity not unlike the intersection of Cottman and Frankford avenues a few miles east, the central intersection of Mayfair, anchored by a movie theater and neighborhood stores.

But look in the photograph’s distance, you can just make out the disintegration that had already begun. As the stretch of Cottman from Castor to Roosevelt Boulevard evolved into the Northeast’s “downtown,” it looked less like a real one than that nascent 1954 crossroads. Developers moved the parking from behind the stores to in front of them, exploding the street wall and discouraging the casual stroller from taking a walk down Cottman. (Never mind that few probably did so even before 1960.)

Cottman Ave, looking E from Castor, 2013

The same intersection today. The former Lits store is now vacant. | Photo: Sandy Smith

Cottman Avenue is not one of those wide quasi-highways that are so intimidating to cross, as the Boulevard is. But the formlessness of the streetscape has made it more intimidating than it ought to be, as the contemporary photos of Cottman and Bustleton avenues below shows.

...got trashed as development spread eastward down Cottman towards Roosevelt Boulevard. Today, the intersection of Cottman and Bustleton looks more intimidating than it is for walkers thanks to how the buildings surrounding it are sited.

Cottman and Bustleton, looking west towards Castor on Cottman. | Photo: Sandy Smith

The distance between this intersection and the Castor Avenue crossroads is barely a quarter mile. But it feels longer than that on foot, because the sorts of things that pull one along the street in a traditional retail district have been moved away from it.

Which is a shame, for this stretch of Cottman remains the closest thing the Northeast has to a downtown. After housing a Clover and a JC Penney, the 1954 Lit Brothers store is now empty. But the Northeast’s two remaining traditional department stores, Sears and Macy’s, remain in business on this stretch of Cottman, and there’s a Target and a supermarket close by along with a slew of smaller stores surrounding the big ones. All of them, and the Roosevelt Mall, are set well back from the street behind a sea of parking.

Bustleton and Cottman, 2013

Cottman and Bustleton, looking north on Bustleton from Cottman. The Northeast Sears is at left in the distance. | Photo: Sandy Smith

Walking around here could have been a very pleasant experience if only we had not forgotten what we knew in 1954. Is it possible to restore that sort of street environment now? The question has become a live one, especially as demographic change and economic decline have made many older shopping centers developed around the same time as Roosevelt Mall white elephants. While we have yet to see a typical autocentric shopping center turn itself inside out so it looks more like the early Castor-Cottman shopping center of 1954, the idea that this might be possible has begun to emerge, particularly at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. “Improving the design of shopping centers” is one of the key issues the commission wants to address in the upcoming Central Northeast District Plan. Work is to begin on the plan this spring.

About the author

Sandy Smith has been engaging in journalism and its hired-gun cousin, public relations, in Philadelphia for nearly 30 years. He started award-winning newspapers at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a team and at Widener University all by himself. He has a passionate interest in cities and urban development, which he gets to indulge as editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog, and in trains and mass transit, which he indulges wherever and whenever he gets the chance. (You may know him as "MarketStEl" if you lurk on Philadelphia Speaks.)

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10 Comments


  1. YES! THIS!

    Nothing irritates me more than designing our built environment for the automobile first. The placing of large, soul-less, life sucking, parking lots between buildings and the street qualifies as a grave urban sin.

    It’s time to reverse the foolishness of car-centric design in the Northeast. Bring back dense, walkable, pedestrian oriented design to this stretch of Cottman Avenue, and to the NE in general.

    Your quality of life depends on it.

  2. Indeed a difficult challenge. To be honest Sandy, I don’t know where to begin given that much of the NE was designed around the automobile, even the housing (alleys rather than rear yards). Perhaps a sustainable landscape, trees, etc., can infill where buildings don’t seem to want to be. But then the building signage will be obscured from the road. In a typical suburban strip, the signage helps to give some structure to the space.

  3. I totally agree about the Northeast’s potential. Unfortunately, I don’t live in Philadelphia anymore, but while there (and as a graduate planning student at Penn) I was part of a workshop that worked with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to develop recommendations for the Central Northeast District Plan (that is, recommendations for the recommendations the city will eventually make in their plan!)

    We saw Cottman Avenue between Castor and Roosevelt as the Northeast’s downtown and an excellent opportunity for transit-oriented development around a future BRT (or eventually subway) station at Cottman and Roosevelt. We specifically proposed redeveloping Roosevelt Mall as a town center, with a new street grid, a public square, and reenvisioning Cottman Avenue as the Main Street it deserves to be.

  4. seeing pictures of the area from the 1920 era up to today . amazing how it has changed over the years . the real trolley running up castor ave . and the real trolley up bustleton . yes folks there use to be a trolley running up bustleton back in the early 1900 s . all the way up to welsh rd . its a shame that planning back then could have avoided the mess of today and preserved more open space

  5. Unfortunately this is an area currently in decline. The original european-background immigrants who moved up to this area in the late forties and early fifties have seen their next two generations flee to suburbs and exurbs where no one walks anywhere. The new immigrants to the area, blacks, latinos, asians, south asians– haven’t been helped by the great recession of recent years; thus there’s no sense of anything thriving commercially.

    The assessment of the castor/cottman zone as contrasted to the Roosevelt Mall is insightful; what should also be mentioned is that those thousands of parking spaces at Cottman and Roosevelt are consistently empty. That aspect makes the street and pedestrian zone completely desolate. Sporadic car traffic visits the mall, most of which are downmarket discount venues, leaving the broad acres of open lot completely barren, intimidating at very least to pedestrians. Don’t look for Macy’s to stay on long if the situation persists.

    In terms of redevelopment, the entire expanse of streetscape along the Cottman avenue mall zone– Castor to the Boulevard– nearly begs for a small-scale, segmented plan that would put small merchants & services back along the sidewalk adjacent the street, while still having massive parking behind it. If it were kept to single-story groups, the mall behind it could still function in its larger scale presence, and the street might come back to life.

    But that could only be if the neighborhoods surrounding those blocks could be seen to recover from economic downturn. As it is, the discount and dollar stores are about what is sustainable.

  6. Thank you so much for this piece, and the lovely documentation.

  7. i still live in that area and i see a neighborhood with a lot of vitally due to the huge influx of immigrants.i worked at roosevelt mall in the 70’s and the stores then were pretty much the same as now…certainly not high end…bakers shoes,kresges and sam goody etc.i agree that the block of the mall itself with the huge parking lot could stand a redesign.thanks for at least mentioning the northeast…we are definitely the most ignored section of the city even though about 400,000 people live here

  8. Perceptive and well-argued piece. The photos are so telling.
    Nice work, Sandy.

  9. I have been up in the NE most of my life. It’s the “red headed stepchild” of Philly….no one ever wants to admit its there. But things are changing, I agree with other comments that the area is on the downward slope which it has been doing since the mid to late 80’s. But I also agree there is a lot of potential. The biggest issues is trying to change the orientation of an area. It was made for cars so trying to change that will be a real challenge….one I think can’t be change. But who says you have to change it? There is a possibility of making a happy medium. Just being able to cross the BLVD w/o worring about getting nailed by a car, bus, or truck will be a HUGE step in the right direction. The red light cameras in the area, (especially on the BLVD), did help the areas nascar population start driving close to the speed limit but even still trying to cross it can be a pain.

    More parks would help boost the area. There really is no meeting place for people in the area to go to to relax. Also the extension of the BSL would help a lot too but I am not sure if Philly and Septa wanna blow a wad on that….even though they should. Overall a great article.

  10. To make real change we will need a lot of help. The best incentive program that I have seen to get us back to were we need to be, is the carbon fee and dividend program endorsed by James E. Hansen described at the end of his outstanding 18 minute TED Talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/james_hansen_why_i_must_speak_out_about_climate_change.html

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