The Life And Death Of Callowhill


A shot of the construction of the left turn lane onto Callowhill Street | Photo by Harry Kyriakodis.

City Council passed an ordinance last summer establishing “two-way regulation” on Callowhill Street from 2nd Street to Columbus Boulevard. Construction, completed last November, allows for two-way traffic on lower Callowhill Street, changing the one-way east-heading regulation on that short stretch which has been in place since I-95 was built. The project is a component of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s efforts to transform the city’s river frontage between Allegheny and Oregon Avenues. It will relieve some of the traffic pressure on Spring Garden Street and help reconnect Philadelphia’s waterfront to the rest of the city. But changes to Callowhill Street, one of the city’s oldest, are nothing new. Indeed, the history of the 400 year old street and the former river town of Callowhill, with its lawless beginnings and tragic end, is a wild trip from birth to evisceration and death.

Tolerance On Tap

Philadelphia’s earliest planners originally called Callowhill Street “New Street” because it was the first road opened north of Philadelphia’s original northern limit (i.e., Vine Street). The street dates back to 1690 and has always been part of what is now called Northern Liberties. William Penn later renamed the street after his second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn (1671-1726), apparently during his second stay in America in 1701.

Near the street’s juncture with the Delaware River, a settlement called “Callowhill” was platted by Thomas Penn, one of William Penn’s sons, between 1768-70. Penn’s descendants owned much of the land in the Northern Liberties District north of Vine Street, and they routinely sold off lots to generate income. Thomas Penn laid out a north-south lane, New Market Street, between and parallel to Front and Second Streets, and then dedicated four pieces of ground for a public market at each corner of the intersection with Callowhill Street. (New Market Street still exists north of this locale.)

The marketplace, nicknamed the “Norwich Market” in honor of the ancient bazaar in England, became the center of the new town of Callowhill, a place that drew moneyed Quakers who wished to get away from Philadelphia proper. Callowhill accordingly prospered as the city’s most immediate northern suburb.

This riverfront zone was also Philadelphia’s first red-light district. Amidst ramshackle shops, street vendors sold exotic goods brought to them by sailors arriving from all over the world. The commotion attracted a diverse group of people—common laborers, sailors, gamblers, and swindlers of all types. Prostitutes frequented the sector’s hostels and boardinghouses, and pirates of the Atlantic Coast openly swaggered along Front and Callowhill Streets. Working and retired sea robbers, including Blackbeard and William “Captain” Kidd, liked being in Philadelphia because of the mild temper of Quaker justice.

The district became a center for revelers from Philadelphia and Northern Liberties looking for adventure away from the eyes of authorities. The neighborhood—part of the Northern Liberties District but not Northern Liberties Township—was not fully represented by a municipal government or regularly patrolled by constables until it became part of Philadelphia in 1854 when 29 districts, towns, and cities were consolidated into one municipal unit.

The former location of the Norwich Market, at the intersection of Callowhill and New Market Streets in 1862 Today, I-95 goes directly through this site | Map courtesy of

As Philadelphia’s first “outlaw” district, the area had a history of violence. For instance, Gallow’s Hill, near Front and Callowhill Streets, was the site of a number of public hangings. John Fanning Watson, in his Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, reminisces: “In my youthful days Callowhill Street was often called ‘Gallows-hill street’.” Today, this area is filled with new townhouses along Front Street.

Not surprisingly, there were many watering holes located along Callowhill Street. Early accounts reveal their colorful names:

  • The Bald Eagle: Third above Callowhill
  • Commodore Porter: Callowhill below Second
  • Governor Simon Snyder: Callowhill and York Road
  • The Merchants’ House: Third above Callowhill
  • The Pennsylvania Farmer: Third below Callowhill
  • The Sign of the Lamb: Second above Callowhill
  • The William Tell: Callowhill below Second

The prevalence of so many taverns along Callowhill could be due to the distaste Philadelphia Quakers had for shady drinking places. Clerics of all faiths lobbied for Philadelphia’s consolidation so that the city could license and otherwise control these establishments.

Several market sheds were located in the middle of and alongside Callowhill Street as it headed away from the Delaware River. This is why the avenue along those blocks is unusually wide. The Callowhill Street Market, from Fourth to Seventh Streets, was an active shopping center well into the 20th century. Indeed, the entire Callowhill community remained a food distribution hub and a residential area well after being subsumed into the City of Philadelphia.

Factory Life and a Fatal Decline

In the mid-1800s, the Callowhill district began a transformation connected to industrialization. Developers put up row houses for factory workers and foremen alongside workshops and mills. Hostels provided rooms to single laborers who worked in the coal yards and factories, including the Baldwin Locomotive Works west of Broad Street.

An overhead view of the Callowhill district in 2015 | Image: Google Maps

Callowhill was still an active meat and produce center, as well as a residential neighborhood, at the turn of the 20th century. By then it was part of Philadelphia’s Tenderloin district, a place replete with cheap flophouses, seedy bars, and dilapidated warehouses. It was around this time that writer Christopher Morley became fascinated with the street life of Philadelphia. “Every street has a soul of its own. Somewhere in its course it will betray its secret ideals and preferences,” he write in Travels in Philadelphia (1920). “I like to imagine that the soul of Callowhill Street has something to do with beer. Like a battered citizen who has fallen upon doleful days, Callowhill Street solaces itself with the amber.” Morley further commented that “one may meet along those pavements certain rusty brothers who have obviously submitted themselves to the tramplings of the brewer’s great horses.”

During the Depression, as the neighborhood fell further economically on the heels of Baldwin’s move to Eddystone, Delaware Couty, Callowhill collected the indigent, including a new population of African American families who had moved to Philadelphia from the South in the decades before. Boys and girls of all races played barefoot in the streets, and mothers swept their doorsteps each morning.

Covers of David Goodis' books centered in Philadelphia's Skid Row area.

Covers of David Goodis’ books centered in Philadelphia’s Skid Row area.

But poverty prevailed. Unemployment reached 33 percent by 1940. Numerous blood banks provided quick cash, but finding regular work around Callowhill’s Skid Row was difficult. Some unemployed men took day-labor jobs and were routinely picked up and transported to agricultural sites outside of Philadelphia. Others worked as longshoremen on the Delaware River docks, but work was inconsistent and hard.

Many lounged in flophouses, missions, gambling dens, brothels, burlesque theaters, and grubby corner bars. This was where Philadelphia’s down-and-out spent much of their time. The spread of tuberculosis was high, and the blood that the men sold was sometimes infected. Paperback author David Loeb Goodis set many of his mid-century crime novels in Philadelphia’s Tenderloin, chronicling the despair, grime, and violence of the slum and its dwellers. The bleak district had, in a way, reverted to its rough-and-tumble early days.

Heavy Leveling and a Failed Future

City planners in the 1950s regarded the area from Vine to Spring Garden—and beyond, to Girard—as blighted and derelict. Yet, unlike Philadelphia’s Society Hill (about a mile south), the worn out, but still functioning neighborhood was not considered for rehabilitation. Although it was relatively similar to Society Hill at that point in terms of its stock of neglected 19th century properties and proximity to Independence National Historical Park (then being formed), it lacked the desired colonial pedigree.

With little protest, City officials condemned almost everything in the late 1960s as part of the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project. This was half of a joint program with the Franklin Urban Renewal Area, together making up the Franklin-Callowhill East Urban Renewal Area–“Franklin” refers to Franklin Street, a north-south road that once passed through the neighborhood.

The federally-subsidized scheme, managed by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, encompassed a rectangular zone from Second to Ninth Streets between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets. Some twenty city blocks were leveled in the massive undertaking, which also removed several cross streets from the Philadelphia street grid. Hundreds of modest 18th and 19th century dwellings and workshops were torn down. Residents of Callowhill were displaced, as were many small businesses. Some operations chose to relocate outside of Philadelphia, while others went out of business altogether.

This image shows the scope of the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project, ca. 1969. About thirty percent of Northern Liberties was wiped out in a failed urban renewal effort. Temple University Urban Archives.

This image shows the scope of the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project in 1969. About thirty percent of Northern Liberties was wiped out in a failed urban renewal effort | Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The project’s goal–amidst the thinking of civic leaders like economic development director William Rafsky–was to create extensive tracts of open land for use as an inner city industrial park, with easy access to both Interstate 95 and the Vine Street Expressway. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation offered the cleared ground to manufacturing concerns and even funded construction of industrial facilities. But massive economic restructuring at an international level creating deindustrialization overwhelmed the city’s quite progressive effort.

All this coupled with the construction of the Delaware Expressway, I-95, which finished off what had once been the town of Callowhill. The plaza of the Norwich Market, which was at the heart of the bustling district that William Penn’s son established, was located precisely where Callowhill Street dips under the multilane freeway. Today, not even a trace of the town of Callowhill exists, but at least we will soon be able to turn onto Callowhill Street from Columbus Boulevard.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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  1. If you are Greek (your name sounds Greek), Happy name day. Xronia Polla!

  2. It’s ironic that the parts of the city that later experienced actual urban renewal were the areas that were spared from “urban renewal” by the City.

  3. Do you have a schedule of your yours?

  4. Recently I made that turn onto Callowhill from Delaware Avenue (as I still call it) and felt triumphant!.

  5. Thanks, yes, I am Greek, though I never followed the whole name day thing. My parents sure do.

    I don’t have a schedule of my tours. But friend me on Facebook and you’ll see my posts when they are scheduled…

    • Met you at you presentation last Wednesday night. I have your book and will be reading it as soon as I finish another I am reading. Love Philadelphia history. My biggest area of interest is the transit system. I ridden it extensively and think it’s a great way to see the city. Hope to see you again another event.

  6. Just wanted to thank you. I love my home town and love the history. Have a great day.

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