Photography

Saving South Street Through the Lens of Denise Scott Brown

February 4, 2020 | by Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum

Signs in the windows of the Citizens’ Committee to Preserve and Develop the Crosstown Community office at 820 South Street protesting the Philadelphia Planning Commission’s proposal for the Crosstown Expressway. | Photo: Denise Scott Brown

But why save South Street? Its halcyon days–the 1960s and again in the 1990s–are long gone. J. C. Dobbs is gone. The Black Banana is gone. The Tower Records empire has gone to sand. More storefronts are empty than full. And while the curfew for minors is meant to prevent flash mobs and youth-related crime, the cure emphasizes the illness.

South Street–originally Cedar Street–delineated the southern boundary of William Penn’s 1683 city plan, the moat between Quaker civilization and heathen wilds. South Street at the turn of 19th century was the historic heart of Philadelphia’s African-American community. Black businesses flourished, particularly following the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. The 20th century fed a growing, diverse city with Irish, Polish, Jewish, Russian, and Italian immigrants, arriving by way of the immigration station on the Delaware River and seeking work along the waterfront and Washington Avenue. The newcomers eventually displaced black residents toward the west of Broad Street. South Street’s posh carriage trade businesses moved to the Main Line and the street became an entertainment strip of theaters and nightclubs. By the 1960s, South Street west of Broad Street was a thriving district of black residents and businesses, while east of Broad Street became a motley bohemian destination for artists and counterculture types. River to river, as The Orlons famously sang, South Street was “the hippest street in town.”

Then forces moved against it. In the 1930s, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission proposed a “Center City ring road” to ease downtown congestion and connect surrounding highways. This was a trend of the era. Architect Victor Gruen urged planners to build ring roads in the 1950s. The location of Philadelphia’s route was carefully unspecified. Transportation planners spoke vaguely about “undesirable land usages to the south.” From 1947 to 1953, the Planning Commission’s executive director Robert Mitchell defined the Center City loop, marking South Street and Lombard Street as its southern segment. The route appeared in the 1947 Better Philadelphia exhibition designed by Mitchell, city planner Edmund Bacon, architect Louis Kahn, and others. From the 1950s to the mid-60s, the route was studied and planned as a depressed highway replacing South and Bainbridge Streets. Residents were informed, real estate values plummeted, people abandoned the street. By 1966, demolition was imminent. The Crosstown Expressway was an inevitability.

The plan exposed complex tensions. Like beads on a string, South Street was a set of connected, but very different communities that didn’t necessarily get along. The Crosstown Expressway proposal exposed conflicts between neighborhoods, economic classes, and ethnicities. What about the needs of current residents versus future development and local communities versus automobiles linking others to the city? And provisions for relocating residents? How would the highway carve Philadelphia into new racial and economic borders? How can the city demolish a place for “blight” if it helps create that blight? Why are rich, white streets protected while poor, black, and immigrant streets get the chop? Real estate broker George Scott once called South Street “Philadelphia’s Mason-Dixon line.”

The Center City Comprehensive Plan was developed by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in 1961. This rendering shows the expressway layout for Center City. The Crosstown Expressway can be seen at left. | Philadelphia City Planning Commission

Resistance to the Crosstown Expressway plan quickly mobilized. In 1968, housing activist Alice Lipscomb, community leader George Dukes, and lawyer Robert Sugarman created the Citizens’ Committee to Preserve and Develop the Crosstown Community (CCPDCC), an umbrella organization linking these disparate neighborhoods into a fighting force. Its office was located at 820 South Street, now a boutique clothing store. 

Lipscomb, one of the leading figures of the resistance, was an African-American matriarch who led the Hawthorne Community Council. She had worked with numerous Philadelphia mayors, met three presidents, wrestled with South Philadelphia slumlords, and rallied against racist housing policies. She was great at bringing together black and immigrant communities and also brilliant at recruiting white and affluent Society Hill residents. Former Mayor Edward Rendell would later say, “Nobody fought harder for her neighborhood than Alice Lipscomb did.”

The CCPDCC retained architects to advocate for their fight and produce evidence that the street was viable and should be preserved. They hired Venturi and Rauch. The study’s lead author was Denise Scott Brown. Scott Brown was born in South Africa, studied architecture in England, and came to America to learn city planning, studying at the University of Pennsylvania under Robert Mitchell, Louis Kahn, and others. At Penn, she completed her degree and taught, soon joining Robert Venturi in teaching and then in marriage and architectural practice. The young firm of Venturi and Rauch was already gaining notoriety, first for Venturi’s controversial house for his mother, next for his “gentle manifesto” Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Then Scott Brown and Venturi embarked on the hair-raising Learning from Las Vegas study, which dared to consider the candy-colored city as a serious architectural object lesson. Scott Brown and Venturi conducted the study with architecture students from Yale, including teaching assistant and future partner Steve Izenour.

The CCPDCC was wary, but hopeful. The architects offered to plan for the community under contract without fee. In Scott Brown’s Urban Concepts monograph, she wrote, “One of the reasons they accepted us was that we had a concern in common. Bob Venturi, apart from being an architect, was a fruit merchant. He had inherited his father’s business on South Street.”

South Philadelphia residents gather at City Hall in 1968 to protest the Crosstown Expressway. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

By the early 1960s, “social scientists became social activists,” Scott Brown wrote. “You must understand urban economics if you are an urban designer, and you must understand it particularly well if you intend to work against economic pressures, because strength and power are required to do so. Nevertheless, you can’t work against all the forces all the time and why would you do so if you didn’t have to, if you could use the pressures to take you where you want to go?”

Scott Brown and her team conducted studies to understand South Street’s land use activities at a variety of scales and the transportation systems that supported them. Four years passed as they planned and advocated. At City Hall, protest pickets appeared. “Stop!!! The Crosstown Expressway / YOU / Have the Power!” Mitchell, once champion of the Crosstown Expressway, defected to the opposition, while Bacon and others pushed on. The 1967 mayoral race hung on the issue. Mayor James Tate, worried about civil unrest, retreated and said, “Let the people have a victory.” But the plan needed to be defeated at higher levels. The CCPDCC met with Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration. Years of contention ensued. By 1972, new mayor Frank Rizzo was all for it, albeit in a new form as “Southbridge,” the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s proposed compromise to build an underground highway while developing new housing and commercial spaces. Scott Brown recalled that “In fact, Rizzo likes Alice Lipscomb for being a powerful community organizer. And she likes him. Sure he’s racist, but he’s better than some mayors.” By 1973, the state transportation boards backed down from the plan and even Bacon and the City Planning Commission reversed course.

The CCPDCC won more than just stopping the Crosstown Expressway. They and Scott Brown’s team had also prepared for the necessary renaissance to come and this was their counter plan: First, low-income housing needed to be rehabilitated, with minimal household relocation and neighborhood improvements. Local home ownership and local business operations needed to be supported. As a first increment, a small number of buildings should be renovated to house social services, a symbol of renewal. After this, additional planning needed to be directed at the community level, driven by community leaders.

Architect and photographer Denise Scott Brown in 1965. She conducted a photographic study of South Street in the late 1960s amid the Philadelphia Planning Commission’s controversial plans for the Crosstown Expressway. | Image courtesy of Denise Scott Brown

“The social planners liked our plans. They were glad that we hadn’t designed buildings because it was too early to do so,” wrote Scott Brown. “They approved of our designing by number the kinds of buildings and types of programmes that should be sponsored in different locations.”

The plan succeeded. South Street’s crunchy renaissance through the 1970s became the spiky crest of the 1980s and 1990s, followed by gradual decline. In 2001, street partying during Mardi Gras turned to looting. National chains came and went throughout the early aughts. Storefronts emptied and now sit vacant. Today the street persists, but toward what future?

But who will save South Street now? And does it need to be “saved?” The reasons why South Street flourished remain: its liminal location along the edge of Quaker sobriety, its vitality as a crossroads among cultures and classes, its gyroscopic cool through all changes of the hip guard. Today is South Street’s heyday for someone. South Street’s best years are our own.  We grow up and South Street stays. Still, as 21st century retail and social life evolve, what can we do to help it along? First, big developers should look elsewhere. South Street doesn’t want to be Times Square 2020; it wants to be the East Village 1968. As Scott Brown wrote, “These uses should attract people to the area, but should not induce revolutionary change that will displace residents and demolish neighborhoods.” Maybe we should explore a return to its working class and artistic roots? What small solutions would offer activities and services to a wider range of people, both locals and tourists, embracing contrasts, while serving the needs of the community? Can we once again attract creative people to come here, be their weird selves, open new shops, and grow new roots for the next 40 years? Maybe South Street shouldn’t be redeveloped nor reclaimed, but only rediscovered? Maybe South Street is almost alright.

The following photographs were taken in the 1960s by Denise Scott Brown with a few by Steve Izenour under her direction. They show the architects learning from South Street, its history, people, and economics, to understand how they tie to broader systems and forces. All images are excerpted from the forthcoming book, Wayward Eye, by Denise Scott Brown.

Tags:    

About the Author

Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum has worked with Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi as well as their successor firm, VSBA Architects & Planners. He collaborated with Scott Brown for the "Wayward Eye" exhibition at the Venice Biennale, designed the major retrospective "Downtown Denise Scott Brown" at the Architekturzentrum Wien in Vienna, and wrote and designed its accompanying monograph, "Your Guide to Downtown Denise Scott Brown." Jeremy has designed interpretive and interactive displays like the Fabric Workshop and Museum’s multimedia storefront. He has taught at the University of the Arts, performed with the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and exhibited graphic art installations. He has published poetry, fiction, and photography with The Columbia Poetry Review, Prosodia, Seven Arts, the Moon Philadelphia travel guide, and many other publications. He’s currently working on a short story collection.

22 Comments:

  1. Edward Fidler says:

    Great article and well researched. I never saw half of those photos before. Thank you.

  2. Tony Aloi says:

    Have many fond memories of South street ,from my first purchase of realestate off of 2nd and South in ’76,to establishing my business and raising my family there for the next 40yrs.I witnessed all the transformations from it’s bohemian and artistic roots to it’s lesser state today.it was a good ride.It is an iconic street, with a rich history.Would like to see a revival.

  3. Richard Pain says:

    Great article Jeremy and fascinating photos.

  4. Len Davidson says:

    South Street faces the same problems as the rest of the city and the country in that it’s a great street for local retail but local retail hardly exist anymore anywhere. If anybody could figure out how to bring back mom and pop to replace chain and bot we’d all be better off. I think we need an urban peace corps type movement to reestablish merchandising In neighborhoods.

  5. Great article; amazing photos. I look forward to seeing Wayward Eye.

  6. Francis W. Hoeber says:

    Glad your piece mentions architect Lou Kahn’s early role in advocating for increased car traffic into and around Philadelphia, a pivotal role that is largely papered over today. Kahn’s 1953 design for Center City included not only the Vine Street Expressway and the Crosstown Expressway at South Street, but also 12 massive parking towers adjacent to these Expressways. Each separate tower would have required destruction of an entire historic city block and provided parking for 10,000 additional cars. Kahn thought that bringing an additional 120,000 cars to Center City daily was a great idea. Fortunately, like the Crosstown Expressway, none of these got built.

    1. Marcin says:

      Actually, Kahn’s proposed design of parking garages were to keep cars out of center city. He wanted a pedestrain only center city. The garages were so you could park your call & walk into center city. This was something he & Bacon disagreed on.

  7. Claire Donohue says:

    I remember heading to South St around 8:00 PM on a Saturday night in the early ‘70s to tour the art galleries and go to Lickety Split Black Banana or the middle eastern coffee shop for music. Great memories!!

  8. Phil Furnas says:

    Wow. Great article; reconnects with my formative time of my own career -actually worked as architect in the 1700 block of S.S.in “80s. Suggest replacing cars with pedestrian “street”; parking “silos” ends of s.s. and jitney transport to bring residents, tourists, shoppers back to iconic community.

  9. LA Rosen says:

    Great article, interesting history of politics and the missteps of city planners when community destruction is glossed over. I remember South Street as the natural adjunct to 4th Street’s Fabric Row, where 2d to 7th was lined with tailor and bridal shops. Albeit, I remember shopping there often (as my mother sewed, knew many of the tailors as her grandfather was a ladies’ tailor. I remember having a custom made blue coat made there. I remember the street slipping into decay as man of those merchants moved away to the suburbs or ceased operations. South Street to me in the 70s-80s was one of the bases for the restaurant renaissance (Wildflowers? on 4th, just north of South; Lickety Split, and then the rebirth of Philadelphia as someplace open for fun past 10 with the opening of Starr’s (Stephen Starr’s first nightclub/casual concert venue) at 5th or 6th and Bainbridge — the first of his many, many nightclub and then stellar restaurants over the next several decades. The street was always a bit scruffy, and if you are to mention the “riot” after the Mardi Gras, you have to acknowledge the very, very poor role the city played in provoking that situation. The sidewalks were cordoned off to keep the multitude of pedestrians blocked in on the sidewalks — so emergency vehicles would have a traffic lane or two. But, at around 11pm, they decided to unceremoniously shut down the well-attended street carnival, and police started herding the reveling crowds by pushing them from Front Street to force them into a tighter and tigher space. The mixture of pushing, a day of drinking, and nowhere to go erupted into fights and set of a small amount of looting. After that, the city shut down the festival, (while other city’s where gearing up their own celebrations), rather than examine what went wrong and how to improve it rather than destroy a successful festival. ) Quakerless Quaker Philadelphia always has tension over adult-oriented entertainements and the occasional flashing-for-beads in good fun, and drinking, was too much. They even had a Catholic judge on hand for on-the-spot lectures on moral behavior for those arrested for having a little too much grown-up fun. It was an embarrassment. I have lived just off South St and seen decades of highs and lows, ebb and flow of businesses. The low-point for us was the advent of chain stores and fast food restaurants. that, to us, spelled the end of what should and could continue to be the Hippest Street in Town. The new culture of young entrepreneurs opening — organically and without mucking around with City Planners — of unique, independent shops, bakeries, restaurants holds far more promise than any trajectory in the past. Street parking is plentiful, but the last open lot/paid parking is being developed into retail and housing so the one thing that can bring economic boom to the street is added, inexpensive parking. One pricey parking ticket is all it takes to keep folks from coming back to support the local businesses. The vacant storefronts have more to do with overly ambitious rent prices than the economic potential of the area. Some of the city’s best bakeries, restaurants, a Whole Foods, and interesting shops are really what define the street now. More movement in that direction — with perhaps some SBA support and collaborative marketing — can sustain the street’s development. (The tragic and swift loss of the Society Hill Playhouse and their audiences of hundreds each night and some afternoons is still having a ripple effect from the loss of business to nearby bars and restaurants. Farewell La Fourno and your fantastic Italian fare and brick oven pizzas; others, I fear, may die in your wake as there are no cultural venues left to bring those hungry patrons. The bland apartment building built swiftly and cheaply on the grave of Society Hill Playhouse will not sustain any nearby business. It’s all about synergy.

  10. Ed Duffy says:

    Enjoyed the photos and was struck by their similarity to today’s Manhattan Ave. in Brooklyn. Few cars on the streets there, everyone walks or bikes, a large young population within a very short distance to keep the businesses thriving, and they are mostly home grown, few chains. A couple years ago the City shut down South Street for the day to be enjoyed by walkers, cyclists, and it was wonderful. Wish that might be its future.

    1. Ron Evitts says:

      Jeremy, Excellent! Thank you.

  11. Tony says:

    This great collection of photos takes me back to the late sixties, early seventies when Sunday mornings meant heading up to Kelems on South street to get our weekly liver knish fix!Not to mention Grendels Lair, JC Dobbs,TLA and Ripleys which came a little later! For us South Philly boomers that was our”Golden Age” of South street!

  12. Bill says:

    A wonderful collection of photos. They hint at stories, most likely lost forever, of the shop owners, bartenders, wait staff and all the customers that passed through their doors. Thank you for this peek into a forgotten piece of Philadelphia.

  13. Libby says:

    Your City Planning Commission illustration above is not from 1961 because it shows the cover over the depressed I-95 along the Delaware Riverfront. Citizen opposition to Ed Bacon’s planned elevated highway began in 1964; its redesign was finally determined in 1967 with Federal approval and the highway was not completed until 1979. The full story of that long struggle can be read on the Preserving Society Hill website: http://www.pennds.org/societyhill/exhibits/show/memoir

  14. C Cutler says:

    Thank you for the 2 photographs of my family’s Cutler’s Model Dry Goods Co. at 525 South Street.

  15. James Goodwin says:

    In the early 1970s, PENNDOT was having budget issues over funding it’s highway construction programs and this is why they cancelled most of their future highway expansions. The protests helped but only delayed the onset of construction. Blue
    Route had construction stopped due to court fights until the late 1980s when they were permitted to finish the project.

  16. Edward Blumstein says:

    The tragedy was that the movement to stop the expressway was led by a group of center city liberals and liberal minded persons who were never able to attract the residents join the movement.we thought we were saving the residents who had limited housing options. We also thought we were preventing the building of a wall which would separate affluent center city from poorer South Philly (especially West of broad)and foster racial segregation. Those most affected never joined the movement in any numbers. The highway was stopped and eventually built as the crosstown expressway which divided an Asian neighborhood.i have often wondered if the success was for the neghbors or the committee. Ed Blumstein

  17. Jerome Cloud says:

    I was 14 years old in 1967 and my older brother Dean took me down to South Street to buy my first leather jacket. We went to Big Hearted JIms. The salesman offered us a twofer. I got a 3/4 length brown leather model. My brother got a black hip length one. I didn’t like the leather belt mine came with but my brother insisted it was the way to go. You never use it, he said.. you just let hang down the back..”looks cool”. We walked out on to South Street in our new leathers. We thought we were all that.

  18. Carolyn Hernandez says:

    WOW..just wow…thanks for the share. The pics are amazing.

  19. Jonathan J Bart says:

    The one thing that stands out is that, other than White Tower, there are no chain stores of any kind. The chains killed South Street, as they are killing Walnut Street today. But the vacancies are good in a way as they will eventually require foreclosure and reduction in rents, so the process can begin again.

  20. David Z. says:

    Informative article and EXCELLENT photos! As a “street photographer” myself around the same time period, I enjoyed the look back.

    Does anyone remember a small coffee house called “Time and the River”? As I recall, it was a second story location accessed by outdoor stairs at the back or side of a building. I believe it was on the north side of South Street at the east end – around 3rd or 4th Street. I have searched in vain for references and would like to know its history.

    Thanks!
    David

Leave a Reply to Rosemarie Fabien Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *