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.”
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.”
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.
“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.