How the Philly Elite Sparked Society Hill Urban Renewal & Gentrification

Sophia Lee
Jun 14, 2018 · 9 min read
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Society Hill Towers By User Beyond My Ken CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons

For this post, Wenfei and I dug into how gentrification unfolds in specific neighborhoods. This phenomenon is on the one hand, ubiquitous across the world, but on the other, it occurs in unique ways depending on its location. As a transplant from Chicago, I wanted to learn more about Philadelphia. Because Society Hill gets mentioned frequently in early gentrification literature, I decided to study the journey from its inception as one of the earliest Philly neighborhoods, to disinvested, to the local example of financification that it is now. (Read about Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood in Wenfei’s new article [LINK HERE])

In this article, when I use the phrase “urban renewal”, I mean specifically the mid-century efforts by professional urban planners, government, and business interests to reverse the negative impacts in urban centers caused by suburbanization. These were federally mandated efforts that doled out top-down revitalization, and often did not include community input. The result of the efforts are usually controversial with mixed success and failure.

I found that as suburbanization caused Philly to shrink and deteriorate, local powerful businessmen realized it was in their self-interest to halt and reverse the out-migration of residents, capital and political power. They reversed suburbanization through urban renewal enacted by powerful private/public groups backed with federal funding. As the financial health visibly improved, Society Hill began to attract gentrifiers, and gentrification proceeded in the originally recognized manner: incremental improvement by individuals on single family structures. Where other urban renewal schemes failed, Society Hill succeeded by investing not only in new structures, but also in the existing fabric of historic structures. Despite this success, one distinct failure of Society Hill’s renewal is setting a bad precedent of not providing any affordable housing and catering only to the upper class. However, I still remain hopeful that we can learn from the gentrification of Society Hill to do better with the gentrification occurring in the rest of Philadelphia.

A brief History of Philadelphia to 1945

William Penn established Philadelphia in 1682 (1), and the Declaration of Independence was developed and written in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1776. It was briefly the nation’s capital before the capital permanently moved to Washington D.C. Philly had an early advantage in trade due to its location on the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers which supported shipyards, trading, and other water-dependent industries. During the 19th century, Philly’s economy shifted to manufacturing, and by the 1820’s, it was eclipsed by New York City. In 1858, some early suburbanization began to occur when the horse-drawn streetcar helped northwest Philly become more accessible, giving rise to West Philadelphia, Germantown, and Chestnut Hill’s growth. In 1882, Broad Street Station opened and connected the Main Line to Center City (2). After the Great Depression, we saw in our previous articles how redlining and the invention of mortgages ignited suburbanization and the devalorization of American Cities nationwide. By the 1940’s, Philadelphia had the reputation of being a “worn-out city”(3). The area that became Society Hill was then known as Dock Street Market and had a reputation for being “malodorous” and “rodent-infested” (4).

Philadelphia Elite Initiate Urban Renewal

In 1945, Philadelphia’s elite social class established the Redevelopment Authority (RA) to begin urban renewal and reverse suburbanization. This arm of city government did not make much headway until 1949 when twenty-four local Philadelphia elites (“six leading banks, heads of six large industries and two leading insurance companies, and partners in eight influential law firms”(5) ) came together to form the Greater Philadelphia Movement (GPM). The federal government passed the Housing Act of 1949, whose Title I provided “federal grants equal to two-thirds of the ‘write-down’ of renewal land — the excess cost of acquisition and clearing over the purchase price obtained from the re-developer” (6), and then the Housing Act of 1954 which provided federal funds for both rehabilitating existing structures and clearing slums (6). These bills provided the funding that enabled the renewal schemes envisioned by the GPM. The final key group that formed in 1957 is the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation (OPDC).

There was a great deal of overlap between the RA, GPM, OPDC, municipal government and business elite of Philadelphia, which calls into question the motivations and goals of the individuals involved. In a positive light, improving Philadelphia’s economy certainly could benefit all Philly residents. As William Kelly, the former president of the First Pennsylvania Bank sees it: “‘The future of our companies… is tied to the growth of our city. When I spend time on civic affairs I’m in effect working on the bank’s business, too’” (7). We can see how urban renewal was directly in the interest of Philly’s banks as it led to good investment opportunities. For example, “William Day … president of OPDC in the late 1960s, was also board chairman of the First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Co., which invested large amounts in Society Hill” (8). Things took a darker turn the late 1960s, when Gustave

Amsterdam was executive director of the Redevelopment Authority and executive vice president of OPDC. He was also Chairman of the Bank Securities Corporation, a private financial enterprise which financed one or more Redevelopment Authority contracts held by a building firm with which he was also connected. When it was discovered in 1969 that he had used his public and quasi-public positions to enhance his private investments, he was forced to resign. (9)

I think it is reasonable that increasing investment in Philly can help improve Philly over all of its residents, but when the leadership rigs the effort to personally take the greater part of the pie in comparison with the rest of Philly residents, there’s clearly something unjust unfolding here.

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Dock Street Market, 1910 (Public Domain, accessed on Wikipedia)

Philadelphia’s city government desired as early as 1948 to renew Dock Street Market (DSM) — the area now known as Society Hill — but there wasn’t enough funding to pursue anything until the passing of the Housing Act of 1954. The RA acquired the 31 acres of DSM as well as new land for relocation from 1956–1963 (10). Ownership then transferred to the OPDC, the existing buildings of the market were razed, and I. M. Pei’s Society Hill Towers were built in their place. However, something that set apart Society Hill’s renewal effort from many others across the nation which was specifically enabled by the Housing Act of 1954 was that “most of the renewal project focused on rehabilitating brick town houses from the 18th and early 19th centuries”(11) rather than wholesale demolishing the entire neighborhood.

The Successes of Society Hill

As the financial health of the neighborhood visibly improved, it began to attract gentrifiers and gentrification in the originally recognized manner: incremental improvement by individuals on single family structures. Harry Schwartz and his wife describe “a community of artists, activists, and young professionals like them”(12). This area was able to successfully attract $180 million in private investment during the 1960’s (13), and the city gained three times as much revenue in taxes (14). From a consumption standpoint, the amenities, productivity, access, and prices of Society Hill improved drastically (15). Neil Smith argues that above all, the neighborhood needs to be a sound financial investment (16). With the Philly elite rallying to revive the neighborhood, and the symbol of modernity and investment manifested in the I. M. Pei towers, this sure looked like a great investment.

Where other urban renewal schemes failed, Society Hill succeeded by investing not only in new structures, but also in the existing fabric of historic structures. Plaza Square in St. Louis, Southwest Washington Redevelopment project’s first apartment complex, Cleveland’s Erieview project all failed to attract middle class tenants. This was a reputation and branding issue: “middle and upper-income Americans shunned areas whose reputations had been so odious that they required renewal”. Another issue were new constructions that “ended up as regimented rows of dull boxes with empty windswept open spaces” (17). Society Hill successfully dodged the the first bullet by leaning into its romanticized historic past by rebranding Dock Street Market as the previous name of Society Hill (18), and also by using the Housing Act of 1954 funding to rehabilitate the existing historic structures. The neighborhood dodged the second bullet by hiring a good architect to design mid-century towers that are well-designed while following the minimalist aesthetic of its time.

In Gentrification, Lees, Slater and Wyly describe why this rehabilitation of historic structures was such an effective means of gentrifying an neighborhood by describing Michael Jager’s argument for the “gentrification aesthetic.” Jager noticed that gentrifying neighborhoods had a certain identifiable look to them while studying gentrifying neighborhoods of Melbourne. Jager reasoned that “[t]he effacing of an industrial past and a working-class presence … was achieved through extensive remodelling. … The restoration of an anterior history was was virtually the only manner in which the recent stigma of inner areas could be removed” (19). As mentioned above, neighborhoods with a bad reputation did not attract new tenants, so the strategy was to rebrand by romanticizing the former glory days.

Where Society Hill Could Improve

Despite its successes, the huge failing of Society Hill’s plan is setting a bad precedent of not providing any affordable housing and catering only to people who earn upper-income salaries. Although Title I was originally used for moderate-income housing, these lost favor in the late 1950’s because there was a perception that a “lackluster expanse of moderate- and low-income housing would not win a city a reputation for renewed vitality. … Decent, affordable housing simply did not seem the essential stimulus for an urban renaissance” (20). From the beginning, Society Hill was intended as a “high-grade residential area” (21). To achieve this, 34% of residents were intentionally and openly displaced (22). Existing residents weren’t exactly happy about their former home being designed away from their income level, either. One displaced resident complained: “ ‘What we have here is a plan for an area of wealthy poodled people,’ and a local shop-keeper argued, ‘All we’d have here are bluebloods and executives’” (23).

There’s Still Time: Let’s Do Better, Philly

Like a football fan ‘expertly’ coaching the team from the safety of their sofa, it’s easy to be critical of measures taken by past urban planners when hindsight is 20/20. We have to remember the context of the time when the slow death of urban centers seemed terminal, and the cure had yet to be discovered. I’d like to believe that they were trying their best with the information that they had. In the present, with our additional information, we now need to do better. This question — “[c]an Philadelphia prove gentrification doesn’t have to hurt?” (24) — is forefront on Philadelphians’ minds.


  1. Jean R. Soderlund, “Colonial Era,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, accessed 06/04/2018,
  2. Jeffrey Lin. “Understanding Gentrification’s Causes: What do three centuries of Philadelphia history tell us about today’s changing neighborhoods?” Economic Insights 2:3 (2017): 12.
  3. Leo Adde, Nine Cities: the Anatomy of Downtown Renewal; A Retrospective Review of Nine Cities in which Panel Studies were made (Washington D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 1969), 17.
  4. Jon C. Teaford. “Urban Renewal and Its Aftermath” Housing Policy Debate
    (Fannie Mae Foundation) 11:2 (2000): 452.
  5. Adde, 35.
  6. Adde, 18.
  7. Adde, 36
  8. Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier / Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London & New York: Routledge, 1996), 121.
  9. Smith, 121.
  10. Adde, 33.
  11. Teaford, 452.
  12. Jake Blumgart and Jim Saksa, “From slums to sleek towers: How Philly became cleaner, safer, and more unequal,” WHYY / Keystone Crossroads, 03/12/2018, accessed
  13. Teaford, 452.
  14. Adde, 34.
  15. These are the factors identified by Jeffrey Lin as the most important causes of neighborhood change in his article “Understanding Gentrification’s Causes” (see note 2 for citation info).
  16. Neil Smith, “Toward a Theory of Gentrification / A Back to the City Movement by Capital, Not People,” Journal of American Planning Association 45:4 (2007): 540.
  17. Teaford, 450.
  18. Adde, 34.
  19. Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly. Gentrification. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 113.
  20. Teaford, 446.
  21. Adde, 34.
  22. Blumgart and Saksa (2018).
  23. Teaford, 447.
  24. Blumgart and Saksa (2018).

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