History

Appetite for Distribution: The Life & Times of Philly’s Wholesale Food Center

November 13, 2019 | by Edward W. Duffy

Philadelphia has more than a dozen industrial parks, but only one of them is dedicated to the food industry. The Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, located below Packer Avenue in South Philadelphia, was built in the 1950s. It is bounded by I-95 on its east and south and on its west by the Philadelphia Sports Complex. The origins of the city’s biggest wholesale food market begins on Dock Street in the early 1800s and concludes during urban renewal with the redevelopment of “The Neck,” one of the city’s last farming communities.

The Dawning of Dock Street Market

The early British occupation of the Lenape lands we now call Philadelphia was centered on Dock Creek, a freshwater cove along the Delaware River sheltered to its west by a bluff rising above the tidal shoreline. For 150 years, Dock Creek, later channelized and capped by Dock Street,  remained Philadelphia’s urban epicenter. As the city grew, its port extended along the Delaware River from Dock Creek to Battery Island in Southwark below South Street and northward to the wharves above Market Street, which were mostly occupied by the business interests of Stephen Girard who lived nearby.

Dock Street Fish Market in 1914. | Images courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

In the early 19th century, the foot of Market Street was occupied by the Fish Market and the nearby Jersey Farmers Market. With the arrival of railroads in Philadelphia in the 1830s, ferries and wharves gradually crowded out the produce and seafood merchants on Market Street which then migrated to the area around Dock Street, occupying the first floor of multistory warehouses where previous occupants had since relocated elsewhere. Ships delivered seafood and produce in season to the wharves near Dock Street. The railroads established remote terminals for discharging cattle, hogs, and sheep, with the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) at 52nd Street and Merion Avenue, the Reading Railroad at its Erie Avenue yard, and the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad at Grays Ferry. From these terminals, drovers lead their herds through the city’s streets to the Dock Street Market.

Philadelphia County remained a thriving farming center until World War II. As late as 1925, Philadelphia farmers produced 15 percent of all fresh produce consumed in the city. A Depression-era Works Progress Administration study reported that as late as 1935 there were 13,889 acres of farmland in Philadelphia with 25 farms over 100 acres. Most were located in Northeast Philadelphia above Oxford Circle, in South Philadelphia below Snyder Avenue, and between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers in an area remembered affectionately by its former residents as “The Neck.” Northeast Philadelphia’s farms were rapidly developed after World War II, but The Neck would experience a different development pattern.

Dock Street Market in 1928. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Improvements in refrigeration made it possible for railroads to play a greater role in food distribution. In the 1920s, the PRR built a large terminal along Oregon Avenue at Weccacoe Street consisting of three long sheds where entire trainloads of produce would arrive and be sold in the auction room on the second floor of each shed’s head house and a multistory refrigerated warehouse which still exists today. This investment was driven in part by the railroad’s need to clear their site at 30th and Market Streets for construction of their new station there. The PRR also created a large abattoir and cattle pens in Grays Ferry, replacing similar facilities at 30th Street.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) and its subsidiary, the Reading Railroad, constructed similar produce and refrigerated facilities along Delaware Avenue at the foot of Snyder Avenue. However, its buyers of produce and seafood generally were the wholesalers with facilities on Dock Street, which remained the center of the city’s food distribution. Mom-and-pop neighborhood stores bought their produce and seafood on Dock Street, as did hucksters who drove through the city’s neighborhoods selling produce from the backs of their horse-drawn wagons well into the 1950s. When supermarkets came into existence in the 1920s, the produce merchants offered them the option of delivery directly to their stores or their warehouses. Examples include the Penn Fruit produce market at 52nd and Market Streets, the Acme warehouse in Brewerytown, and the Frankford Quaker Grocery warehouse on Unity Street in Frankford. 

Dock Street Market produce merchants determine the grade of produce in 1950. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

As Philadelphia’s population expanded, demands on the Dock Street market grew accordingly. The market was increasingly seen as outmoded, inefficient, and unsanitary. Periodically, studies were made and plans developed to build new markets or to rebuild Dock Street. And yet, for a variety of reasons, these early proposals were not carried out, and the conditions of congestion and spoilage in the wholesale market grew worse year by year. It would take pressure of a different sort to get the market rebuilt, which came from the redevelopment of the city’s historic district surrounding Independence Hall.

Urban Renewal Goes for “The Neck” with Food Distribution Center

Philadelphia’s celebration of the 1926 Sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence was considered a colossal failure. This was due, in part, because its temporary structures were built in the South Philadelphia marshlands of The Neck by Mayor Kendrick’s political cronies. This ran counter to most residents’ wishes, which were to host a low key “Old Home Week” celebration centered on Independence Hall. The plan would have included restoration of the colonial-era neighborhood we now call Society Hill, which had fallen in disrepair by the 1920s. The desire to revive the historic area did not die, but instead awaited favorable conditions to reappear, which came in 1935 with passage of the federal Historic Sites Act. Coincidentally, this was the same year when the U.S. Customs Service vacated what had been the Second Bank of the United States for its new headquarters further east at 2nd and Chestnut Streets. 

Mayor Richardson Dilworth watches as demolition of Dock Street Market begins in 1957. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

In 1942, Judge Edwin O. Lewis, who had helped lead the 1926 Sesquicentennial celebrations, created the Independence Hall Association initially out of concern that Philadelphia’s most famous historic district was vulnerable to attack during World War II. A concept for an historic district took shape extending from 2nd Street to 6th Street and Chestnut to Walnut Streets. In early 1945, Judge Lewis, expanding on architect Paul Cret’s 1926 concept plan for linking Independence Mall to the new Delaware River Bridge (now Benjamin Franklin Bridge), convinced Pennsylvania Governor Edward Martin to fund the creation of a three-block mall north of Independence Hall to establish a proper setting for viewing the historic building complex. In 1947, Edmund Bacon, future director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, successfully pitched the idea of extending the historic district southward across Walnut Street to Lombard Street with its concentration of 18th and early 19th century row houses. Bacon initially called the area Washington Square East, but it was later named Society Hill. This brought the district’s redevelopment within sight and smell of the Dock Street Market.

Architectural rendering by architects of Ballinger Company from 1957 of the proposed Philadelphia Food Distribution Center. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

In 1954, relocation of the wholesale food market was entrusted to the Greater Philadelphia Movement (GPM), an organization of civic and business leaders who originally assembled to assist such projects by rewriting the City Charter and modernizing the airport. The GPM sponsored a study of Philadelphia’s food distribution by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the cooperation of Penn State University’s School of Agriculture. The study concluded that the Dock Street Market needed to be relocated. A site of 388 acres was selected near the Walt Whitman Bridge and the expected right-of-way of the Delaware Expressway, today’s I-95, with enough land to accommodate wholesalers, processors, packers, and manufacturers of food and allied items. Its street network was designed to handle current and future sizes of trucks and serve a market extending in a radius of 150 miles. For the convenience of its users, the new market would include a truck stop, a hotel, and a bank. However, the most important facilities created in Philadelphia’s new Food Distribution Center were its produce and seafood terminals.

This lost promotional film from 1965 for the Philadelphia Food Distribution Center was discovered in a metal cylinder hidden inside a wall of the produce terminal conference room when it was being remodeled in the 1990s. Film courtesy of Edward Duffy.

The produce terminal, built for the Philadelphia Fresh Food Terminal Corporation, contained 70 store units in two buildings facing each other with mezzanine offices in each unit and, in the east building, additional second floor offices. Initially, Galloway Street ran between the two buildings, but this was later removed, which provided additional maneuvering space for trucks. The seafood terminal at 3425 South Lawrence Street, built for the Philadelphia Sea Food Dealers Association,  held 23 units, a restaurant, and an ice house. Both terminals’ loading docks were covered.

The chosen site was located in The Neck, inhabited by 159 residents, according to the 1955 Redevelopment Authority Relocation Survey, living in 37 homes–none of which had private baths and only 12 percent had running water. Most of the houses were described as being in poor condition, and most were not equip with water and sewer service. Drainage in the area was created by digging large open ditches. Most residents lived along Stonehouse Lane, a colonial-era road running to Greenwich Point on the Delaware River. The area also included a municipal incinerator constructed in 1951, but there was considerable open-burning of trash as well. This was all that was left of The Neck after its lands to the west had been redeveloped for the 1926 Sesquicentennial park and the oil refineries. Construction of the Food Distribution Center in the late 1950s marked the official end of the neighborhood.

A woman feeds her goats on Stonehouse Lane in 1954 before the remaining residents of The Neck are evicted. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The Food Distribution Center’s food-use designation was never intended to last forever. Deed restrictions on its various properties stated that “until January 3, 1996 the premises hereby conveyed . . . shall be used . . . for food . . . products.”  This was later codified into a zoning classification in 1993, but was removed in the most recent rewriting of the zoning code, and now the general industrial zoning classification applies to specific sites within the Food Distribution Center. There has been some movement of non-food businesses into the wholesale food center, like a plumbing products distributor and an electrical contractor. However, it continues to attract investment from food-related business, notably in recent times by the expansions of Samuels and Son Seafood and Sysco Food Service and by new tenants Philabundance, Asian Foods Specialty Dealers, Preferred Freezer, and Ritter Poultry. The largest change has been the relocation of the produce terminal to a new site on Essington Avenue and the conveyance of the former sites of it and the seafood terminal to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority for use as a distribution yard for imported cars. But, by and large, the Food Distribution Center continues to function as the Greater Philadelphia Movement originally intended it to.


Life at Philadelphia’s Food Distribution Center. All photographs courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

“Man eating a watermelon at new food center, 1959.”

“Early morning negotiations at South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, 1961.”

“Man unloading bananas at distribution center, 1961.”

“South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center employee, 1964.”

“A young man holds a watermelon next a pile of the same which have rotted at the Food Distribution Center during truck strike, 1965.”

“Wholesale shoppers buy produce for co-op, 1973.”

“Eddie Kaplan welcomes the recent influx of shoppers at the South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, 1973.”

“Watermelons being unloaded from truck, 1974.”

“Loading dock at South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, 1975.”

“South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center workers, 1976.”

“Man on phone at South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, 1978.”

“Buyers and workers on the platform of South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, 1981.”

“Man buys grapes for food co-op, 1981.”

“Food Distribution Center shoppers, 1982.”

“Men weigh fish for sale at South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, 1986.”

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About the Author

Edward W. Duffy Edward W. Duffy is the author of "Philadelphia: A Railroad History" (Camino Books, 2013) and "Philadelphia Celebrates: Three Great Anniversaries - 1876-1926-1976" (Camino Books, 2017).

8 Comments:

  1. Wow, that was fantastic! I used to take my grandfather to the food distribution center so we could buy oysters in bulk for our annual fried oyster dinner. Thanks for posting this!

    1. Kathy says:

      My dad is the young man with the cigar. I worked with him down the food center on packer Ave. He worked there all his life.

  2. John Vena says:

    My grandfather started on Dock St in 1919. The business has operated in all e venues and continues today in the Market on Essington Ave. I recognize quite a few people in the photos provided. I enjoyed the article, well done!

  3. John G. Livewell says:

    Thank you for this article. It was a fascinating look into this vital industry and its history.

  4. Duane Perry says:

    Nice article, Ed. Good to know how our food finds us!

  5. Carmen D.Valentino says:

    Well written descriptive article with great identified documentary photographs. Congratulations .

  6. EdCoyle says:

    Great review of south philly
    Grew up the horse drawn milk wagons,city trash wagons,vegetables on wagons garbage collection,ice men for the icebox,men selling clothes poles,sharpening knife and of course the neck was my play ground and the whole area was filled withVictory Gardens

  7. Arlene says:

    My nephew found my Dads picture when he worked on dock street then moved later to the new site

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