Green Gentrification in South Philly

Aerial view of bridge over blue river through a city

One afternoon in 2017, a friend sent me a picture of New Light Beulah Baptist Church being demolished. I was deeply saddened. This was the childhood church of Marian Anderson, a world-famous Black singer from South Philadelphia. New Light Beulah Baptist was a historical landmark and an important fixture in the Southwest City Center community. In 2010, the congregation raised $250,000 to repair the roof, tragically unaware that it would be demolished seven years later—as would so much else in surrounding neighborhoods.

My grandmother used to tell me stories about life in “South Philly.” She moved to Philadelphia from Chicago to audition for the Marian Anderson Award, which the singer started to support Black vocalists barred from all-white art schools. She described going to the Christian Street YMCA. Built in 1914, it was only the second Black YMCA in the country. It had an indoor pool where children learned how to swim and housed the courts where Wilt Chamberlain played basketball as a child. I got a membership in 2013 when I returned to the city, but I did not see the vibrant Black community that my grandmother had described. South Philly had Black history, but no Black people. I wondered what happened to the Black community in what was now called the “Graduate Hospital” neighborhood. The answer lies in an almost 90-year battle to dislodge the Black community housed alongside the eastern banks of the Schuylkill River.

Blue historical sign for the Christian Street YMCA next to a green tree and in front of a brick building
A historical marker commemorates the site of the Christian Street YMCA, which opened in 1914 to provide recreational and educational opportunities for the Black community. Image from Wikimedia Commons, 2021.

Paris Along the Schuylkill River

The plan to develop the Schuylkill River’s eastern banks begins in the 1920s with John F. Lewis, a civic leader and president of Philadelphia’s Art Jury. In his book The Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill, he describes the Schuylkill as hazardous and dirty. He notes the domestic and industrial waste of nearly one million people that spills into the Schuylkill where it mixes with the Delaware River. He cites a 1913 report from Philadelphia’s Bureau of Surveys:

Foully polluted streams flowing through sections of the city, convert what might be attractive residential sections into slum districts, where buildings are erected and housing conditions exist, which foster unwholesome conditions of living.

He connects the foulness of the river with unsanitary behaviors as well, setting the stage for the area to be “cleansed.” Lewis espouses an environmental determinism stating that the environment creates an “unwholesome person.” Blight, purity, and cleanliness are used here to denote the “type of person,” then Black and Irish residents. His words are a judgment on the residents’ unfit stewardship of the river and justifies the need to remove them.

Lewis echoed the Bureau of Survey’s lament that the “foulness” of the Schuylkill River—and by extension, the people who lived near its eastern bank—prevented Philadelphia from developing like the world’s great European cities:

The magnificent development of the Thames Embankment at London, the boulevards and esplanades along the banks of the Seine in Paris, and the commercial development of the Elbe at Hamburg and Dresden; and the attractive appearance of the Main at Frankfurt; and of the Danube at Vienna, could not have been possible if these streams were as foully polluted as the Schuylkill River is at the present time between Fairmount Dam and the mouth.

The survey engineers and Lewis would envy boulevards and esplanades along the banks of the Seine, knowing that creating such a majestic and picturesque scene meant razing the Parisian working-class neighborhoods. Lewis’s vision married art, aesthetics, economic growth, water, and environmentalism. John F. Lewis was a patron of the arts, not an environmental scientist or epidemiologist. To him, a global city needed a splendid, pristine river like great European cities. Although Lewis would not live to see a city like Paris rise on the Schuylkill’s eastern banks, his vision of a riverside park would reappear in Edmund Bacon’s Comprehensive Plan for the city forty years later.

Old map of Philadelphia's park system in black ink on faded white paper
John Lewis’s “Suggested Plan of Redemption,” circa 1924. Available at the Internet Archive.

Edmund Bacon (father of Kevin Bacon) was a self-proclaimed utopianist and often considered among the twentieth century’s many visionary planners like Robert Moses. Like other U.S. cities, Philadelphia set about “renewing” the city’s core and facilitating the white flight to the suburbs. Bacon played a central role in this project by serving as Philadelphia’s Executive Director of the City Planning Commission from 1949 until 1970. He shepherded the razing of the Black Bottom, a Black West Philadelphia community, to make space for “University City,” the home of the University of Pennsylvania. He is also responsible for the displacement of Society Hill’s Black community, which W. E. B. Du Bois described in Philadelphia Negro.

As part of his 1964 Comprehensive Plan, Bacon revived Lewis’s vision of a green space along the Schuylkill’s eastern banks. His plan also included an expressway that would traverse through South Street’s Jewish and Black communities. He imagined a redevelopment that would extinguish the supposed layer of blight between Logan Square to the north and the Crosstown Expressway to the south. That layer of so-called blight was South Street’s Black community. The area included Marian Anderson’s childhood church, the Christian Street YMCA, and at least 15,000 people, 90 percent of whom were Black. Even while South Philly’s Black community lived and thrived, Bacon was planning its eradication.

Ultimately, Bacon’s 1964 Comprehensive Plan would not be implemented due to pushback from neighborhood businesses. But the uncertainty about whether or not the Crosstown Expressway would be built led many businesses and families to leave South Philly. The Black community lost many of its more affluent members because of the belief that it would one day succumb to eminent domain, similar to the fates that befell Society Hill and the Black Bottom. Even so, the vision of someday redeveloping the Schuylkill’s eastern banks persisted. It just needed a champion.

Environmental Stewardship, Racism by Another Name

In 1992, a local architect named John Randolph would become that champion. He had known about the previous plans to develop a park along the Schuylkill and had his own visions of paddle boats, a pedestrian walkway, and a bike path. So, he formed the Schuylkill River Development Council (SRDC), a nonprofit organization with the mission to revitalize the Schuylkill’s river banks.

Soon after being founded, the Schuylkill River Development Corporation (SRDC) got the support of Ed Rendell, Philadelphia’s mayor at the time, and attracted capital from funders such as Pew Charitable Trusts, the William Penn Foundation, PECO Energy Company, and several banks. Studies were produced to justify the park’s existence. It was reported that a 1993 study estimated that over 20 years, the city would reap $1 billion in new taxes. In 1997, a study by the Pennsylvania Economy League (PEL) estimated that the park would lead to a one-time increase in property values of 5 percent in a two-block radius, improve quality of life, and attract tourism. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the PEL’s research validated that the park would help retain current residents and attract newcomers.1

Environmental stewardship is not a civilizing mission.

The planners denied that they intended to gentrify the neighborhood. John Randolph pointed to a Trust for Public Land survey that found that parks and green space were concentrated in affluent neighborhoods. He cited that in 16 out of 23 cities, officials inadequately maintained parks in low-income neighborhoods. He suggested that building a park along the Schuylkill banks would be in furtherance of racial and environmental justice. Whether or not Randolph saw himself as an architect of gentrification, displacing Black and Brown communities in the name of “greening” a city is an example of what is called “green gentrification” or “environmental gentrification.”

Others who supported the project more directly echoed Lewis’s interest in cleansing the city of its “blight.” In 1995, Charles Ludwig, founder of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said that the park “will civilize a wasteland and bring the river back into the residential community . . . [and] make the east bank of the Schuylkill look like the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris.” A local realtor, Allan Domb, now a Philadelphia city councilperson, stated that the Schuylkill River Park would increase housing values immeasurably in the immediate surrounding neighborhood and that there was “no downside” to the project. Even if John Randolph did not intend for the area to gentrify, others believed—even hoped—that Schuylkill River development would change the neighborhood culture entirely.

With this backing from power brokers, John Randolph and the SRDC attained large federal grants that totaled $14 million. By 1997, the Schuylkill River Park, as Philadelphians know it, was created. In 2000, the United States Congress designated the Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area, opening it up to additional federal resources.

John Randolph has been heralded as a new type of environmental steward for creating a ribbon of green along the Schuylkill River and turning it away from its dirty and industrial past.2 But very little of this vision is new. Instead, the views of John F. Lewis and Edmund Bacon have prevailed into the twenty-first century. Although less explicit than other supporters of the heritage area, Randolph’s approach to environmental stewardship still implies that the South Philly neighborhood was barren and derelict in its duties to the river. This set of assumptions echoes those made by Charles Ludwig and others with real estate interests who saw the South Philly area as wasteland or frontier that needed to be civilized—or, rather, “cleansed” of its existing largely Black community and repopulated with green space to satisfy white middle- and upper-class sensibilities (and pockets).

Green Gentrification

Predictably, the Schuylkill River Park did not further environmental justice and did not improve the disparities in access to greenspace as John Randolph had suggested it would. To the contrary, the park had an even greater impact on real estate than estimated and led to massive displacement. Even if gentrification was not the planners’ intent, it was the outcome and led to a significant change in the neighborhood culture.

The area was renamed “Graduate Hospital,” and housing prices immediately began to rise. For example, the median home sale price increased from $25,500 in 2000–2001 to $311,250 in 2013–2014, a 1,120-percent increase. Between the year 2000—the same year Schuylkill River Park became a heritage area—and the year 2014, census tracts reveal that the area changed from majority Black to a majority white neighborhood.

What does your heritage mean when it entails my culture’s destruction?

The neighborhood changed so rapidly due to the high rate of renters and investor-owned properties that residents could be forcibly displaced. Once environmental amenities came to the neighborhood, high-income white residents moved in and investors sold properties or raised rents on low-income renters. The neighborhood began to transform to suit the new inhabitants’ tastes, and sites of Black culture and community were rapidly displaced. When the New Light Beulah Baptist Church finally had no choice but to move out of the neighborhood, the pastor of Marian Anderson’s childhood church told reporters: “I really didn’t want to leave . . . . To see the [old] neighborhood change, it makes me feel sad and empty, like history is being lost.”  

Here, the visions, utopias, and spatial imaginaries of Lewis and Bacon persisted through generations almost unchanged. The specter of Paris’s Left Bank loomed over South Philly. Effective stewardship did not mean clean water or clean air—it was intricately related to an aesthetic to attract tourism and increase property tax revenue. The language may have changed since the early twentieth century, but environmental stewardship still looks like colonization to many low-income Black people. People who were displaced through urban renewal in the 1960s and by environmental stewardship in the early 2000s have a similar experience of being forced from their homes—all with the active participation of the federal government.

People jogging, walking, and cycling cross a bridge over water in front of a cityscape
The Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk. Photo by the Montgomery County Planning Commission, 2014.

Black Americans have learned to question environmental stewardship from whites. Because of our experience, we may be reticent to accept environmental education framed as “for the planet” or for our “own good” when we have experienced environmental narratives being used to further capital and tourism interests. Here, the federal government’s heritage area designation solidified the Schuylkill’s heritage but led to the demolition of many Black cultural heritage sites, like Marian Anderson’s childhood church. What does your heritage mean when it entails my culture’s destruction?

It is essential that environmental stewardship is not a civilizing—colonizing—mission. The Schuylkill River’s natural heritage was linked to redemption of an area for the civilized. The Schuylkill River is a source of water, essential to human life. The Schuylkill River is important because it brings water to our homes, not because it can be made into a pristine pastoral playground for the white professional-managerial class. When we plant trees and advocate for open green space, it must be anti-colonial and anti-racist or the same effect will certainly reoccur.

Featured image: View of the Schuylkill Banks section of the Schuylkill Trail from the South Street Bridge. Photo by Montgomery County Planning Commission, 2014.

Sterling Johnson is a Ph.D. student at Temple University, researching Black geographies, anti-colonialism, feminist geography, and carceral and abolition geographies. Their lived experience as a Black Queer Mad person informs their research motives and perspective. Since 2012, Sterling has been a housing and harm reduction activist in Philadelphia. They have a law degree from University of California Hastings College of Law (San Francisco). Twitter. Contact.

Kimberley Thomas is a political ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. She applies her training as a human geographer and biological oceanographer toward research and teaching on climate justice and environmental politics. Website. Twitter. Contact.

  1. Deni Kasrel, “Like Paris along the Schuylkill,” Philadelphia Business Journal, vol. 16, no. 17, June 13, 1997, p. 5. 

  2. “Back to Basics: A Burgeoning Schuylkill River Park is One Sign of a Return to the Soundness of Stewardship,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 26, 1998, A.24.