The Geography Of Retreat

April 12, 2013 | by John Vidumsky


Across the city, neighborhood institutions are closing down for lack of money, attendees, or both. The Philadelphia School District closed eight public schools last year, and voted on March 7th to close a further 23. The Catholic Church also suffered losses in 2012, closing four schools and ten churches. These institutions, sacred or secular, are not just buildings, but pillars of the communities they serve, often the anchors of poorer neighborhoods.

Hidden City wanted to determine the pattern of which communities have been hardest hit by these losses over the past year, and which might lose the most when the inevitable next round comes. Having plotted the schools and churches on a map, we’ve discovered, perhaps predictably, that the pain is not evenly distributed. The same neighborhoods are continually affected. What follows is the spatial analysis detailing these neighborhoods, with an interactive map at the end for a broader picture.

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Catholic Churches closed 2012 With Abandoned Churches of All Denominations

This image shows the religious landscape of the city. The large triangles are the ten Catholic churches that were closed in 2012 as part of the Archdiocese’s Pastoral Planning Initiative. The fifty-four smaller triangles are worship sites of all denominations that are currently vacant. There are very few of these in the center of the city, but a wide scatter-shot pattern across the north, south, and west. The Archdiocese is still deliberating whether to close churches in South Philadelphia. It plans to vote on the issue some time this spring.




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Catholic Churches and Schools, with other abandoned churches

Adding the Catholic schools to the picture, it reinforces the donut pattern of closures. Four Catholic schools were closed last year, three of them located in South Philadelphia. The smaller purple circles are Catholic schools closed before 2012.







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Public Schools closed 2012, with previously vacant school buildings

Looking at public schools, it’s clear that the most damage has been concentrated within the northern half of the city. The large blue circles are public schools closed in 2012. The small blue circles are schools that were already vacant at that time.







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Public schools to close in 2013, plus those reprieved in March 2013

This one shows all of the above plus the schools that will close in 2013. These are indicated by turquoise circles. Four schools previously considered for closing were spared in a vote on March 7th. The damage will again be widely distributed, with much of the closings located in the northern half of the city. The Brewerytown neighborhood will be especially hard-hit.






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Finally, the map in full. You can zoom in and out by using your mouse wheel or the +/- buttons in the upper left. Mouse over each location to see the name of the institution.

Click here to see the map in a new window.

Layering the data from churches and schools which are closed, closing, and threatened to be closing, it paints a picture of the geography of retreat. Institutions in all directions across the city are closing down, while the center remains relatively intact. North Philadelphia and the outlying districts like Manayunk have lost the most churches and schools. This coincides with demographic shifts that have been going on since at least the 1970s. The map makes one thing clear: neighborhoods that have lost schools and churches in the past are about to lose more.

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We’d like your help to make this map as complete as it can be. Notice something incorrect? Know of something that’s missing? Please let us know in the comments.

Special thanks to Ben Leech of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and to Rachel Hildebrandt of Partners For Sacred Places for their assistance.


About the Author

John Vidumsky 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.


  1. Great idea for a map. Kudos to you and Hidden City.

  2. chris dougherty says:

    Interesting plotting. Though I’m not entirely certain, the logic underlying “rightsizing” is some kind of ratio of fixed assets to users–whether this be size or cost of facility to user groups–be they pupils, parishoners, pool users, library patrons and so on. Not sure if this data is available to HC but I know PSD, the City and the Archdiocese pore over this stuff. Of course as we found with the library closure debacle years back, these kinds of static analytics conceal the myriad ways folks engage with facilities. On paper, there may be thousands of square feet of costly space to some purported user group; this doesn’t mean the sites are not serving vital social functions in another realm. Or, you may be measuring the wrong metric altogether: does book circulation necessarily account for the amount of quality time outside of school kids spend in libraries? Does numbers of parishoners per census tract allow for non-denominational users? Does spatial proximity of facilities mean that folks will cross unseen or contested neighborhood boundaries? This is where a blend of quantitative and qualitative analysis–supplemented by patient on-the-ground observation–makes for informed judgments on where and when to make these painful but tactical retreats.

  3. Darren says:

    Great map, sad story.

    FYI…there’s one school listed with an incorrect address. Bok Technical High School is at 1901 S. 9th St, not 19th St. You do have the correct zip (19148). It’s in the East Passyunk Crossing neighborhood.

    1. Thank you–and look for our special story on Bok coming up next week–ed.

  4. Jibreel Riley says:

    how many of these former school buildings were demolished? There is big money in demolition of old structures for the raw materials alone.

  5. PhillyEd says:

    Interesting to also plot the nearly 100 schools that have opened in Philadelphia over the last 10-15 years. There’s another side to the school closure story – the school opening story and the net gain in public school options. Weird that this isn’t part of the conversation, no?

  6. David La Fontaine says:

    I hate bearing bad news, especially about my neighborhood, but there are two very beautiful apparently vacant churches at the intersection of Wayne Ave. and Queen Lane in Germantown, one Baptist and the other Episcopal.

    1. John Vidumsky says:

      Intriguing, we will investigate…

  7. JimC says:

    Here is another: St Bart’s school closed in 2005. See:

    Most of my neighborhood pals went there. I atttended Smedley Public School, now a charter school.

  8. Joe Matje says:

    Annunciation Catholic School, on the corner of 12th Street and Wharton Street, also closed in 2012 and can be added to the map.

  9. Sarah says:

    The church on Wayne (cross street: Harvey) is formerly St. Peter’s Episcopal, and is a Furness & Hewitt building. It’s especially sad because there were some stunning Violet Oakley stained glass windows that were removed and are now in the collection of the Academy of Fine Arts.

    A recent report on NewsWorks (in February) suggested that The Waldorf School is a potential buyer and will convert the church and its other buildings into its new campus.

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