Along the wide berm of Norcom Road, on a windswept Thursday the week before Christmas 2017, the rush of cars and trucks along the edge of the Philadelphia Industrial Park is constant. The setting exudes a general geographic anonymity amid the pre-holiday bustle. Low-slung, mid-century offices and industrial buildings are spaced with geometric regularity, designed for transport and commerce, snug against the adjacent Northeast Philadelphia Airport. Within this expanse of stark efficiency, a walker along the footpath paralleling Norcom Road could be forgiven to miss the brief gap in the woods to the south. The empty parcel offers the attentive pedestrian a glimpse of something invisible to the countless passing drivers just a few feet away: a lonely stretch of macadam, scarred and worn, running east and south through grass and scrub into the distance. It is fragmented in places and mostly overgrown, but bears the great weight of memory. It is the sole physical remnant of an entire community once known as Northeast Village.
The story of Northeast Village is unique. Countless studies by sociologists and urban planners document for us the cyclic fate of urban neighborhoods and change in general. They grow, and then age, decay, languish. Some are revived again. Their fates ebb and flow in cycles timed with the counterbalance of demographics, of economies, and of generations. Yet, what happens when a neighborhood simply ceases to exist completely? When, quite in the literal sense, it is utterly erased from the map?
The Creation and Cancellation of a Close-knit Community
In 1945, following WWII, the City of Philadelphia faced a local crisis. Thousands of returning veterans sought to begin new lives and careers in the city, but there simply was not enough affordable housing stock within its burgeoning wards to meet the demand. In response, the Federal Public Housing Authority funded the City’s acquisition of land in the Far Northeast, which at that time was a vast, agrarian expanse beyond Pennypack Park and the farming hamlet of Bustleton. Along the southern side of Roosevelt Boulevard, newly extended to the Bucks County line, the farms of the Root, Jenkins, and Humphrey families were bought and cleared. Stitching together an area nearly half a square mile in size, the Philadelphia Housing Authority began in earnest with the creation of a project it called Northeast Village. It was an ambitious project for the still-young PHA, having been formed less than a decade earlier, and returning soldiers were moved in as quickly as it was constructed. By 1947, slightly under two years from its original conception and land acquisitions, Northeast Village was complete.
In stark contrast to the close-shouldered rows of the city’s old quarters, Northeast Village reflected the new suburban model, but with a military efficiency that was familiar to its residents. Tidy barracks buildings were repurposed for domestic occupancy and arrayed in close formation along streets bearing names that eerily echoed the geography of the wartime Pacific: Atoll, Wake, Dune, Cliff, Beachhead. Neatly mowed lawns and playing fields formed the spaces between the camplike gridwork of buildings. Although its 465 barracks contained over 1,400 residential units, Northeast Village was no mere residential subdivision; it supported a public school, the Benjamin Crispin Elementary, as well as stores, a community center, its own loosely-organized amateur sports teams, and even an all-volunteer fire department. The Village’s main entrance was located at what is now the driveway into 11451 Roosevelt Boulevard, opposite its intersection with Haldeman Avenue. From there, the neighborhood stretched over three quarters of a mile to the southeast, nearly to Decatur Road. A southern entrance originally connected to Red Lion Road which, before the expansion of Northeast Airport’s Runway 24, ran continuously to Academy Road.
“It had the aura of a community that seemed like a small town, even though it was within the city limits,” recalled Tom Rodgers, Jr., who lived in Northeast Village as a child from its beginnings in 1947. “We all saw each other as equals. The Village was a place where we had great childhoods and made lasting friendships.”
Throughout the 1950s, Northeast Village thrived, knitted together by a common bond of wartime service and fueled by postwar optimism. Parents found work among the expanding industrial and commercial corridors nearby, including the new, massive nine-story Nabisco plant, remembered by Village residents for having filled the air with the aroma of cookies. The combined economic force of the postwar industrial expansion and new opportunities for mortgage investments fueled private residential development across the region, from Torresdale to Somerton and beyond the city boundaries. By the 1960s, the Village formed just a small part of the interlocking weave of suburbia that became the Great Northeast. But unlike its surrounding neighborhoods, and in keeping with the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s original plans, Northeast Village’s days were numbered.
Some former residents actually trace the beginning of the end of Northeast Village to a jarring event that occurred much earlier in 1950. A U.S. Air Force twin-engine aircraft reportedly overshot Runway 24 on its approach, crossed Red Lion Road and crashed near two residences setting them on fire. The incident is well-remembered by those in the Village. “Nobody was hurt, thankfully, but it destroyed the two buildings,” said Rodgers. “It also got more than a few folks thinking about how close the southern part of the Village was to the airport runway.”
During the 1950s, the PHA had been consistent in its message to the residents that the development was intended to be temporary. Thus informed, and lured by the new private subdivisions and further helped by the GI Bill, many families found permanent homes nearby. As they left and space became available, residents in the southern portion of the Village were moved northward. Eventually, as they became fully vacant, the buildings on its southernmost blocks closest to the airport–Dune, Lagoon and Chevron Roads–were removed. Enough space had been cleared by 1960 to allow for the extension of Runway 24. By that time, the PHA had clear plans and made its official notification to the residents of the ultimate fate of the Village.
A soberly-worded letter from the Philadelphia Housing Authority to residents on May 19, 1960 marked the beginning of the end for the Northeast Village. The letter began: The Philadelphia Housing Authority has been advised by the City of Philadelphia that the land upon which the Northeast Village is erected must be returned to them within the next two years. The letter ended: This is not an order to evacuate or a lease termination notice. However, evacuation of the Village is a necessity and your best interests will be served in planning and preparing now.
Within two years of the date of that letter, in strict keeping with PHA’s written promise, the residential buildings, school, and stores were disassembled. By 1963, not a single building remained of Northeast Village. By various means, some original Village buildings are known to survive, having been purchased from the PHA and relocated. Several are reported to form a small enclave in Lower Township, Cape May County, New Jersey. “My guess is they were worth a few hundred bucks, plus transportation,” Rodgers said. According to Rodgers, it is likely that other buildings survived as well.
Only a few years after its vacancy, the street plan of the former Northeast Village was graded over and subdivided into the neat rectangles of the Philadelphia Industrial Park It was sliced cleanly with the broad, straight new transects of Norcom and Caroline Roads, bearing due northeast like fresh tire marks over a faded footprint. By the 1970s, the industrial and warehouse buildings, with their broad paved lots, wide driveways, and landscaping, had occluded nearly all remaining visible remnants of the old neighborhood.
Debbie Szymanski was born in Northeast Village, and, while she was too young to remember it personally, she grew up hearing the stories told by her parents and older brothers. Her family spent a little more than a year in the Village before moving to private housing in nearby Wissinoming. Despite this, her family’s time there remained deeply rooted in their collective memory. “My parents often pointed out to me where the Village was as we drove up the Boulevard,” Szymanski recalled. “My mom would always say, ‘you were born there, you know’. They also told me they would have never moved from there if the Village wasn’t closing.”
Both of Szymanski’s parents worked in factories nearby. “Even in that short of a time the experience stuck with them,” she said, recalling that the experience of her family was an example of how well people could live and work together. “They took some barracks and made them homes and functioned as a working community.” The lessons of those family memories have continued to inspire Debbie, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on Northeast Village. Debbie is also seeking to have a historical marker placed in the area, to permanently memorialize its civic example.
Several years ago, Tom Rodgers founded the Northeast Village Natives group on Facebook in an effort to keep its spirit alive through virtual means. The group’s members currently number over 440, composed primarily of former Village residents or their children. The shared images and posts yield tangible proof of the vibrancy of the community. Messages between former neighbors are set against photos of smiling faces in black-and-white, in living rooms and yards, at cookouts and on sleds. These are juxtaposed against the same smiling faces, decades older, but no less connected, no less a part of, the neighborhood they once formed and shared. More than 55 years after the last of the houses was disassembled and the last street sign pulled up, after decades of erasure, Northeast Village stands intact through social media and collective memory.
It was on a cold December day last month that yield the promise of discovery, aided by that ubiquitous tool of geographic reflection, Google Earth. A careful study the night before had shown a stretch of madam jutting southward from Norcom Road, at such an oblique angle from the current road that it could only have been from another era. Approaching the clearing in the trees from the walking path, and looking south, the old macadam suddenly appears. Pitted and cracked, choked with wet weeds, a faded ghost of the Northeast Village re-emerges into crystal reality. It is Echelon Road, extending east for a few hundred feet. From there, it meets the worn ghost of Dune Road, running south toward the airport perimeter fence.
At the clearing, there is a “No Trespassing” sign. Additional signs warn against approaching the airport perimeter fence a few hundred feet to the south. Tom Rodgers recalled an informal trip he made with a small group of former residents a few years ago, when they walked the surviving remnant of Dune Road. They had scarcely made it halfway along when airport security personnel approached the group. “They were friendly,” Rodgers recalled, “but told us that if we could see the Control Tower, we could be sure that they’d already spotted us.” Suffice to say that the sole remnants of the Village are best remembered from the walking trail of Norcom Road and no further. There should be no encouragement implied here to attempt trespass.
In a way, however, it’s quite appropriate that the physical remnants can’t be fully approached. Like the Village, the actual remains can no longer be experienced except from a sidelong, oblique angle. But what was once here can still be imagined in the more broad perspective of memory. That it survives in its virtual world, fittingly, is a testament to the true resiliency of community. For Northeast Villagers, their neighborhood lives on, absent of the asphalt and street signs that once tied them together, but by no means gone.