Density Standards, ‘Commercial Hegemony’ and the Suburbanization of Philadelphia

The City Planning Commission’s 1960 Comprehensive Plan is a borderline schizophrenic document: one that casts the suburbs as siphoning population from the city while the city grows. The report estimates the 1980 population of Philadelphia to be somewhere between 2.4-3 million people. Thus the two structural features affecting how Philadelphians would live in 1980: the threat of the suburbs and an ever-increasing population.



In a very real way much of the city’s housing stock of 1960 looked as it had in 1900. “Philadelphia is old,” the Comprehensive Plan states, “and this fact is reflected in the condition of its housing. Nearly one-third of its dwellings are more that 60 years old.” Converse to the declining attractiveness of the city’s multitudinous rowhomes and duplexes was the car-friendly wide open spaces of the suburbs: Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks counties. Compounding the problems of a declining housing stock was a rise of middle class incomes. “A higher proportion of City families,” noted the Comprehensive Plan, “can afford good quality housing than could in 1949.” Considering the aforementioned population projections, Philadelphia planners settled on one rather intuitive solution: turn the last remaining undeveloped areas of the city into suburbs. Here is how the Planning Commission articulated the problem:

As more families move into middle and upper income brackets they move outside the City if they find its residential areas unattractive. The implicit question is whether the City can make its residential areas sufficiently attractive to retain the greater part of its middle and upper- income families and attract suburban families of this group back into the City. –p. 75, Comprehensive Plan, 1960

One of the planning principles still in vogue in the 1960s which led to an almost fawning appreciation for the suburban model was low density. The reverence for low density emerged out of the writings of European and American housing advocates and regional planners of the 1920s-30s who developed an orthodoxy of “light, air, and space” as an alternative to the narrow, fetid, infectious cities. The need for light (read detached houses), air (recreation), and space (distance from neighbors) informed the Planning Commission’s conception of community and they borrowed the suburban idioms of subdivisions, centralized commercial centers, and abundant roads in their plans for a new middle-class Philadelphia.




To create newer suburban densities (see chart below) of 20 houses or lower per acre, the city had limited options regarding undeveloped land. Most of the prospective land was situated in the Southwest (see Phillyskyline’s excellent essay on Southwest’s Eastwick neighborhood), Northeast and in the declivities and ravines surrounding the Wissahickon in the Northwest. These zones, it seems, were not enough and the city’s Residential Area Plan contained a provision euphemistically called “A Plan for Population Distribution”.

The purpose here is to set up an explicit city-wide policy that marks certain areas for residential use and determines through density standards (emphasis added) how many people are going to live in them when they have been developed or redeveloped. –p. 70, Comprehensive Plan, 1960


More explicitly, this meant a dramatic program of reconverting former industrial, commerical, or high-density residential land for new low-density residential purposes. Table 36 of the Comprehensive Plan details where the conversions would take place, what zoning category most of the removals would occur, and approximately how many people per planning analysis section would be removed. The city hoped to free up close to 3,186 acres for 116,000 new dwelling units. It was estimated that this effort would displace 350,000 Philadelphians.

Just as fearsome to planners as middle class Philadelphians permanently leaving the city was the loss of what the Northwest Philadelphia District Plan called a loss of “commercial hegemony” of the city. In fact, by developing suburban-style commercial districts and enhancing automobile transportation, the city could–perhaps–reassert this “hegemony” over the suburbs and lure suburbanites back to the city like the days of old.



Of course, despite these valiant efforts to lay waste to Philadelphia’s former housing stock and to create suburban car-centric oases on the periphery, Philadelphia could not effectively induce middle-class Philadelphia to buy, play, and pay wage and property taxes in the city. Larger forces in land economics were working against the city. As the Comprehensive Plan noted ominously, the seven suburban counties constructed 189,000 new units of housing, compared to 45,000 in the city during the years 1950-56. This trend would continue exponentially as more roads opened up rural land deep in Montgomery, Chester, Bucks, and Delaware counties. And what was Philadelphia left with? A Frankenstein-like postwar built environment: six-lane superhighways bifurcating neighborhoods, providing access and (headache) to only the automotive, a pathetic public transit system, white enclaves, viz, a city of “neighborhoods”. Most prominently, the city was further segregated by income—a hallmark of brotherly love since the 18th century.





23 thoughts on “Density Standards, ‘Commercial Hegemony’ and the Suburbanization of Philadelphia

  1. All very interesting. In light of this posting and our previous conversations on Philadelphia suburbanization, the city of Philadelphia had the following population trends, according to the U.S. Census Bureau:

    1980: 1,688,210
    1990: 1,585,577
    2000: 1,517,550
    2005: 1,463,281

  2. i am a child of the ed bacon version of sw philly. when my great grandfather lived in the meadows,i.e. eastwick section i heard stories of how the blacks and whites got along and how my grandmom and her cousins used to play by the creek and fish and there used to be homes and stores out there and how she caught the 37 into town or to chester,pa. in the late 80’s i went exploring the area behind pepper middle school you can tell by the brush that this area surrounding me couldnt have been removed but some 20 or so years. it was something out the future.the area took me back in time,you could still see the sidewalks and streets it was erry but cool .as i walked more i found myself walking on the old 37 trolley tracks and its right of way the tracks looked as if a trolley would come any second . you could tell that this was viable neighborhood just like what you see on typical rowhome street. i even saw a creek,well it used to be one ,it was buried in debris. as i continued to walk i eventually saw the old homes pre-urban renewal .strange how everyone was wanting suburban like homes with driveways and the like ,that stuff was right there ,you’d think you were in the sticks. the last reality kick was as i walked to end of that block it just ends prematurely. the street stops and shrubs began and there sits a lonely trolley pole standing in the dirt with no tracks in overgrown shrubbery. it is now 2007 and it was twenty or so years since i took that track. i stood on the 84th street bridge to look down on that was sad nature has taken over it you can barely see a trace and futher down the block the homes were still there like proud people putting up a good fight and oh yeah that trolley pole is still standing. thanks ed.

  3. I totally agree w/ bryant. My parents were from there(eastwick). I met a lot of old timers from there both races and they are good people.I played down there as a kid 1970’s.We hung at the old road off of island ave. You can not see it from the bridge but it was there. Boy they were the times.

  4. I am the Granddaughter of Anna Klein. She lived across the street from the Airport Cafe. My mother Cass and Father Richard worked at the Brewester Club and we lived above it until I was 2 years old. We then moved To Colwyn where I grew up. Every Sunday my sister Gloria and I would go to my grandmothers house to play with our cousins and have dinner. A lady by the name of Mrs. Berry lived next door to her. My grandmothers maiden name was Berry and they use to say they were sisters inside out. My grandmother was white and Mrs. Berry was black. I remember everyone getting along, black and white alike. Yes, people were poor but It was a most wonderful environment to be apart of. Now I work at the New Post Office on Lindbergh and pass the area where my grand mother lived. To this day I still miss the wonderful times I had there. To see what has become of the area is extremely sad for me. From what I remember everyone had to move so they could build better homes for people but the only ones who benefited was big business.

  5. Both of my parents grew up in what we all called “the meadows”. My dad, born in 1911, lived at 82nd & Dicks Ave. He was the youngest of six children.

    My mother lived on 85th St., between what then was Guyer and Grover Avenues. She was the oldest of eight. Though my dad’s parents” home still stands, my mother’s family was forced to move out due to the reconstruction of the area. I believe 85th was obliterated from the map.

    I’m going back quite a while ago and yes, we were fortunate to have grandparents living there.

    I spent many weekend days (and nights in the meadows during my preschool and grade school years. Compared to the rowhouse my family had, visiting my grandparents was “country” to me. I, my brothers and our many cousins had wonderful times there.

    In my teens, my friends and I would hop the 37 trolley to attend the dances at St. Raphael’s Parish, also in the meadows.

    Thanks for reading a few of the memories I have of good times growing up in southwest philadelphia.

  6. Wow, I thought I was the only kid who grew up in the Meadows and was appalled at what the City did to that integrated working class neighborhood. They forced everyone out and left the land undeveloped for a decade. It was idyllic–our family had half a city block, we had fields and streams right across the way, we learned to dance at that drugstore opposite the public school near the fire station. Edmund Bacon, not the genius he’s been cracked up to be.

  7. Malby, my paternal grandparents lived at 8215 Dicks Avenue. Today the same house sits on a side street along Lindbergh Blvd.

    Across from their house, there was a field and we could see Wolf(e) School on the other side of that field. Do you remember that school?

    On one occasion my dear grandmother had some reason to cross that field and she took my cousin and me along. The ground was so soggy that my cousin would keep laying board after board in front of her to keep her feet from getting wet.

    My German grandmother always made “coffee milk” for her grandchildren—a small
    amount of coffee with a larger amount of milk and sugar. That was special…we didn’t get coffee at home!

    All my grandparents were born in the late 1800s.

    1. Yes I remember wolf school and walking through the marshy field and often pheasants flew out of the tallweeds. I lived at 8228 chelwynde ave. In the 40’s.
      It was a great childhood with fields , woods and many fishing streams, creeks and ponds.
      We used to sled down a hill near 79th and Cheyenne over a board so we were “airborne”

      We played at the old backyard on a rail car that took us down the hill. I went to read school, teachers I remember; rink, Burke who was later Woodmere and Barrett. We played kickball in the schoolyard and tried to knock the ball onto built ave and sometimes hair rollers deli.

      Great memories as I sit in my utah home reminiscing.

  8. phillyskyline’s piece on Eastwick is sadly misinformed. The writer has been drinking the Ed Bacon kool-aid. Eastwick was a vital integrated neighborhood BEFORE Mr. Bacon got his hands on it. He ruined it in 1960. He forced the residents out and bulldozed their homes. Then the land lay empty for decades. The hideous Korman construction is no substitute. The area reminds me of East Berlin.

  9. My mother grew up at 77th & Laycock and my father was born at 88th and Botanic. My grandmother was forced out in 1960. Most of the Meadows was racially mixed at least since the 1930s. My mother always said the area was targeted because it was under taxed. I think there may be 2 more reasons. In 1950, the Meadows was one of the few neighborhoods with outhouses. Due to it’s low elevation, the city would have needed to build a pumping station to put it sewage lines. Does anyone out there know if sewage lines were ever installed to the few remaining homes below Lyons avenue? I’ve also read that Korman holds development rights: they collect fees on anything built in Eastwick for doing nothing! The real crime was committed by Korman and the city officials they bribed for this sweetheart deal. These SOBs played god with people’s lives, just to make a buck. If hell exists, there a special place down there waiting for them. Apparently the skids are still “greased” at city hall, since no one questions what Korman does to earn these fees. Wouldn’t we all like to get in on some of that money?

    1. what about penrose plaza and park and all the apartments korman built!! you don’t think that helped eastwick!

      1. You can’t be serious. Penrose Plaza and Korman apartments helping Eastwick? That entire relationship was corrupt and the resulting ugly cold “planned” development was an insult to those who lived in the vibrant Meadows before Bacon and Korman ruined it.

  10. i lived at 8326 eastwick and loved every minute of it. there will never be a place like it.

  11. I grew up in the Meadows! My address was 7924 Laycock Ave. Went to school at McKean. Walked to school every day, and was gone most of the day without Mom and Dad worrying about me. Took my bike everywhere. We use to go down to the Creek and try and catch turtles, then bring them back to keep in large tubs. I remember going to an icecream shop named Mr. Uh’s-probably cost 10-12 cents for a cone. The main thing that I remember is that it was probably the best time of my life. No problems then that I can remember.
    I believe this house was purchased by my grandfather-Charles Furtaw. He worked at a helicopter plant near the airport. I have a poem that he wrote probably back in the early 60’s about The Meadows. I am going to have it restored, and will publish it when it is complete. I know that he also loved the Meadows. I will put it on this website when it is complete-probably during the summer. Thanks, John

    1. My Grandmother was raised in the Meadows which she pronounces “meadas” and it sounded like such a simple beautiful life. I am intrigued by her stories and always wanting to know more details. She lived on what was the original 84th and Lindbergh and was part of the Woods family who were referred to as the Woodzy’s. Is anyone familiar with that name? Would LOVE to hear old stories if anyone knew them!!!

    2. Hi John, if possible and if you still read this, can you email me about Laycock Avenue. I am in search of someone that lived on the 7900 block around 1958-1960. Any assistance is appreciated

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