In February, when Lonely Planet named Philadelphia the best 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 my friend and Hidden City 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.