Tourist Photos From 1981 Reveal The Heart Of “Old Philadelphia”

 

Editor’s Note: In February, when Lonely Planet named Philadelphia the number one U.S. travel destination for 2016, the city’s tired reputation for cheesesteaks, Rocky movies, corruption, and blight–cliches of 1981 or thereabouts, seemed finally put to rest. Now we could proudly speak of world class art museums, a dynamic restaurant scene, the profusion of pop-up gardens and public green space, and booming urban reinvestment–a far cry from the state of the city then. The following photographs from summer 1981 are a sampling from a collection of 193 amateur travel photos that contributor Rachel Hildebrandt acquired from a vintage photography dealer on Ebay. The unknown shutterbug captures Center City, Washington Square West, and South Philly with raw focus during a vulnerable period of economic depression and population decline. This “Old Philadelphia,” as some are wont to call it, is gritty and humble, its rough hewn exterior safeguarding a proud civic heart.

Hildebrandt, a fourth generation Philadelphian on both sides of her family, says she was drawn to the collection for its depiction of an unpolished city, one that has been steadily burnished by decades of tourism marketing and the current wave of redevelopment. “Philadelphia in the 1980s more closely resembles the city that I fell in love with while growing up than the Philadelphia of today,” says Hildebrandt. “These images illustrate and anchor the concept of a sense of place, which the City of Philadelphia has too often destroyed in the name of economic development.”

The first photograph in the collection shows a man leaning on a building at the southwest corner of 12th and Cuthbert Streets. Not one building in the frame still stands today. Others are snapshots of recognizable spots that have endured, like 36 North 3rd Street in Old City and the storefront and brownstones on the corner of 12th and Spruce. Some, like the construction site at 1600 Market Street, show Center City on the cusp of change. Viewed as a whole, the collection is a poignant look back, a snapshot signpost showing “Old Philadelphia” during a period of conflicted transition. May it serve as yet another visual reminder of the importance to preserve our city’s personality and structural character as we navigate this next phase of reinvention.

**

12th and Cuthbert--Every building visible is gone!!

12th and Cuthbert Streets

16

NW corner, 8th and Chestnut

13th and Arch looking south

13th and Arch looking south

21

800 block of South Street

Former Beaux Arts Video

10th and Spruce Streets

7th and South

1600 Market

1600 Market Street

4th Street at Monroe

4th and Monroe Streets

Reading Terminal

Reading Terminal

249 Arch Street

SW corner of 11th and Spruce

Southwest corner of 11th and Spruce Streets

704 South Street

13th and Locust, NE corner

Northeast corner of 13th and Locust Streets

8

Near 12th and Market

Northern Liberties?

Northeast corner of 4th and South Streets

Market st between 19th and 20th

20th and Market Streets, looking east

36 N 3rd St

36 North 3rd Street

SE corner of 22nd and Chestnut

Southeast corner of 22nd and Chestnut Streets

19

Location unknown

12th and Spruce looking north

12th and Locust Streets looking north

16th and Vine Streets

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. mmbixler.tumblr.com

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46 Comments


  1. The 2nd to last picture “12th and Spruce Streets looking north” should be 12th and Locust looking north.

  2. Cool photos! I like that version of 12th & Cuthbert way more than what we have today.

  3. 21 is actually 12th and locust looking north. 22 is 16th and vine before the vine street expressway.

  4. #4 is the 800 block of South Street.

  5. So great. Are the other 100+ photos shared anywhere?

  6. The Clinton pharmacy at 10th & Spruce also had the last drugstore lunch counter in Philadelphia.

    • The Clinton Pharmacy ante dated Beaux Arts Video. Eddie and Minnie Fine who ran the Clinton Pharmacy were like family to me. I still can image Minnie’s grilled cheese sandwich and remember her making orangeade and lemonade squeezing the fruit at the counter. We lived at 1002 Spruce and my Dad’s office was on the first floor.

      • We lived at 262 South 10th Street and I too remember the grilled cheese and tomatoe soup at the counter. I would buy candy and pay at the register that was in the left and the food counter was on the right. Great memories from 47 years ago!

        • I used to spend my allowance each week and Minnie and Ed’s on a comic book and yummy burger and read at the counter. They were awesome folks! Thanks for sharing.

      • At the time this photo was taken I was living on Portico Row, the 900 block of Spruce Street. I remember well Fine’s Drug Store. My mother’s sister went to Jefferson Nursing school in the 1940’s and the nurses’ dorm was on the 1000 block of Spruce Street. She also went to Fine’s Drug Store when she attended Jefferson.

  7. Northern Liberties… Checkerboard paste up of Bobby Startup posters for either the Hot Club or the East Side.

    12th & Market… Drove a U-Haul up onto the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon, climbed on top with a bolt cutter and removed the bar sign now at Silk City and a big Kelley’s Oysters sign… just ahead of the wrecker ball.

    13th & Locust… The Golden 33 and worse… The Bag O’ Nails next door. Gee, let’s go out tonight and have a really, really bad time… Youch!

    • Miguel Gonzalez

      Also, the photo labeled Northern Liberties is actually the NE corner of Fourth and South Streets. It’s a Starbucks now. You can clearly see First On Your Block Imports with its yellow storefront a few doors above South St in the background.

  8. I made my first trip to Philly about this time. I thought it was a horrible, filthy place and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live here. As it happened, I ended up moving here in 1998 and the city was already changing dramatically. Today, I’m happy both to live here and to show it off to tourists who visit. These pictures are a wonderful time capsule of a difficult period in Philadelphia history. I’d love to see them all!

  9. Wonderful photos. I would never want to trade today’s Philadelphia for the one in these photos, but I would like to go back then and buy real estate in Center City.

  10. Miguel Gonzalez

    That difficult time period was my youth.

  11. What an exceptional trove. We felt very adventuresome to come in town to the new restaurants popping up around 4th & South. We walked these streets as kids and thought nothing of the grit. It gave me an appreciation of where we are now. Thanks for these. Despite the “horrible filthiness” that Bob witnessed, we knew all the time there was something very special about this city and it has finally come to light more generally.

  12. Love the “before” photo of the SW corner of 11th and Spruce. I was the Project Architect at Agoos Lovera for the rehabilitation of that building, including adding those little balconies along 11th, that brought this great, but derelict, building back to life over 20 years ago. Thanks so much for posting all these photos!

  13. *Somebody* must remember that Discomat store, surely? One page deep on Google and it looks like a small chain in NJ/NY called Disc-o-mat was bought out by Crazy Eddie at some point, but this looks like an independent store for sure.

    • Actually, I just looked up their incorporation documents and I confirmed with my mom. Their incorporation documents say 1 North 12th Street. The reading terminal headhouse. It would be where the Hard Rock is now.. a couple of doors up from the state store.

      https://www.corporations.pa.gov/search/corpsearch <– there's the lookup too. Looking at the picture it does look like the 12th and Market I remember before the convention center got built but I don't remember that place there specifically. (I thought it was 10 blocks away)

    • I’ve been looking into it and found that this was Discomat, Inc, not Disco-mat from NY/NJ. The only address I can find for it is the same as Reading Terminal Market, which just makes it more confusing.

  14. There was another picture that was actually of 12th and Spruce, but it seems to have been removed. It isn’t the one that was marked 12th and Locust. What happened to the picture?

  15. I have lived across the street from about half of these and about the time they were taken: 1005 Spruce, 1028 Spruce and 728 South. The Vine St. Expressway construction photo was right outside my office. Thank you so much. I love that town.

  16. I’m not old only 36 however growing up in the city my older siblings would take me places as a kid and even when I was a teen I prefer market street and south street to how it was back then to what they are now.. For example south st now is a bunch of crappy over priced stores.. So is center city.. I. Miss tower books and records where you could hang out for hours and not be questioned.. Now they follow you the minute you walk threw the door.. I take the philly I grew up in over what it is today.. Btw I loved these pics..

  17. Hell, I made love at many of those sites. Pretty amazing article!

  18. Love the pic of Doc Johnson’s at 13th and Arch, those were great days, a lot of good adult entertainment places (Apollo, Studio, Arch Street Palace).

  19. Gail Brookover

    I lived in Philly from 1976-1984 an art student at PCA (UArts). My boyfriend and I bought a building at 21st and Bainbridge, right after graduation and renovated it. My art studio on the second floor literally had no back wall only a sheet of plastic until we built one! My boyfriend would leave the house with a flashlight, crowbar, screwdriver and hammer in his tool belt, saying he was going “shopping”. He would go down to South street between about 6th and 12th street and get sinks and claw foot tubs etc. for our renovation from the abandoned and open buildings. I used to be so scared that he would get trapped and I wouldn’t have any idea where he was (before cell phones of course!) When my daughter went to UArts in 2007 she was looking at an apartment to rent. She told me she had found one on 10th and South. I said “Oh honey , not there, that’s a terrible area” She said ” What are you talking about, it’s all new construction?!” How things have changed!4th and South Street used to be all galleries and funky shops! My daughter lives in Philly now and has just bought a house and loves living there. I have wonderful memories of that time! I was showing and selling my art at The Works Gallery,on South St. and Marion Locks Gallery, renovating houses…. just a great time!

  20. Heart of “Old” Philadelphia, love that. I lived, born and raised in Philly (1939 to 1965) now that’s “Old” Philly. The majority of the buildings, including one house I lived in are gone. I doubt I would even recognize any of the city now. Neat photos though, thank you.

  21. I lived in Philly 1982-87. Oh, I had forgotten! I loved living there and have not been back in many years. Thank you for sharing the great pictures.

  22. 3rd picture from the bottom (Discomat) is N. 12th street just off of Market. It was also part of the reading terminal building. I used to buy records there.

  23. The caption “Market Street between 19th and 20th Streets” should also be tweaked. The named block is in view, but the foreground is the 2000 block. A better caption would be “20th and Market, looking east”.

    What a great set of photos!

  24. I remember 4&Monroe stores. As a little girl we would shop at the clothes stands for summer clothes! I loved growing up in Philadelphia during that time period!

  25. Nice set of pictures that takes me back to the time when I was 27 with brown hair and the ability to hit golf balls 275 yards!

  26. Thanks for posting these great pics. I can see the back of our Lombard Mews townhouse on the 8th and South picture. We lived there from 1971 when I was 6 to 1983 when I went off to college. It was a great place to grow up with some sketchy moments thrown in. A mix of well kept and crumbling with plenty of freedom to run around and plenty of abandoned houses to play in. Glad to hear the neighborhood has done well!

  27. Upon seeing these photos the first thing visually that came to mind was the movie “Blowout”! Which coincidentally was also released in 1981!The movie depicts a post Bicentennial city with one foot mired in its past and the other not quite ready to step into the future! I especially enjoyed the scenes filmed in what was then an up and running Reading Terminal RR station!

  28. The pic of Northeast corner of 4th and South Streets is actually the northwest corner of 4th and South where Lickity Split was.

    The 12th and Market pic brings back many memories. I used to wait for the trolley in front of the Optimo Cigar store back when I was a kid in the 80’s.

  29. Re: the 13 And Arch photo…any Philly area high school or college athlete who had contact lenses probably got them from Dr Bernard J Simmons on the nw corner. He is in the PA sports hall of fame. Got mine there about 1977 or so.

  30. I am a now-distant member of the Franklin Inn Club, located on Camac Street, and between Chestnut and Locust. I lived on Clinton & 10th Streets, so these pictures bring back a lot of memories of the “Odd Fellows” neighborhood.

  31. The movie “Nasty Habits” was filmed in and around Philadelphia in the late ’70s, and so has some candid views of Center City, as a very busy and dingy place of old buildings and small stores.

  32. Great pictures, evoking good and bad memories. In the late 70’s – early 80’s I lived first on 10th near Spruce and later on 11th next to Doc Watson’s. It may have been dumpy but it was cheap, and I doubt that a working-class kid could afford his own apartment in that neighborhood now.

  33. Great photos! I lived at 1104 Spruce Street in the 80’s and remember that building depicted. It was fun back in the day…the eclectic mix of people, good cheap food and drink, excellent live music.

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