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).
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.
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.”