Map of Philadelphia area placing West Philadelphia in context
West Philadelphia Community History Center

Faculty and Students at the University of Pennsylvania inaugurated this heritage site in the spring of 2008.
This virtual history center will be an ever-revised and expanded resource by and for members of the
West Philadelphia community, and especially for teachers and their students.

Click for the Home page for the West Philadelphia Community History CenterClick for historical summaries of West PhiladelphiaClick for descriptions and histories of West Philadelphia neighborhoodsClick for personal perspectives on West PhiladelphiaClick for special exhibitsClick for maps of West PhiladelphiaClick for statistics on West PhiladelphiaClick for a bibliography of resources for the study of West PhiladelphiaClick for teacher guides for studying West Philadelphia

 

 

 

WEST PHILADELPHIA: THE BASIC HISTORY
Introduction

City of Philadelphia with West Philadelphia shaded
City of Philadelphia with
West Philadelphia shaded

West Philadelphia is a 14.2 square mile residential area in the city of Philadelphia, west of the city’s center across the Schuylkill River.  In 2000, West Philadelphia was home to 209,000 people (13.8 percent of Philadelphia’s total population) and they reside in twenty-one historic neighborhoods.  West Philadelphia is bordered on the east and north by the Schuylkill River, on the west by City Line Avenue and Cobbs Creek and on the south by Baltimore Avenue.  Archeological evidence indicates that the first settlers to the area, the Lenape, arrived six thousand years ago.  The first European settlement in West Philadelphia dates to 1677, five years before William Penn established his planned utopian City of Brotherly Love ("Philadelphia" from the Greek), a one-mile wide rectangular city stretching westward from the banks of the Delaware River to the Schuylkill. West Philadelphia developed apart from William Penn’s Philadelphia until 1854, when townships and villages surrounding Penn’s original city, including West Philadelphia, were incorporated politically into a countywide municipality. 

City of Philadelphia, 1750, with surrounding townships, first edition published by N. Scull, G. Heap, and L. Hebert in 1753. Courtesy of the University Archives of the University of Pennsylvania. Click for larger view.
City of Philadelphia, 1750, with surrounding townships, By N. Scull, G. Heap, and L. Hebert

Transportation innovations have continually shaped the history of West Philadelphia from the construction of the first turnpikes that connected William Penn’s city to its westward expanding, rich agricultural hinterlands, to a series of bridges built across the Schuylkill that opened the eastern edges of West Philadelphia to residential development and the extension of an elevated subway in the first decade of the twentieth century that promoted further home building to its western boundaries.  Although factories did operate in the area, West Philadelphia has primarily been a residential community, a "streetcar suburb" within a city.

West Philadelphia has also been home to institutions, including city "asylums", universities, hospitals, and churches that have also shaped the physical and social landscapes of the area.  The role of the University of Pennsylvania has been most notable.  Home and institution building attracted new residents to the neighborhoods of West Philadelphia and the area grew in population from 13,265 people in 1850, just before it became part of a greater Philadelphia, to 330,286 community members at its peak in 1950 (like the rest of the city, West Philadelphia has lost a third of the number of its residents in recent times, a mark of the economic decline of the city since the mid-twentieth century as well as the post-World War II flight of the city’s middle class to the suburbs).  The greatest increases in the population of West Philadelphia occurred in the first half of the twentieth century accompanying the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern urban areas such as West Philadelphia.  The racial transition of the area is a major aspect of West Philadelphia’s history since the 1920s; in 1920, African Americans comprised 6.9 percent of the district; today, West Philadelphia is 75 percent African American.

West Philadelphia has often attracted national and international attention.  The area accommodated a major Civil War hospital; the country’s first zoo was built in West Philadelphia and the great 1876 Centennial Exhibition, a world’s fair celebrating the hundred-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was proudly mounted in West Philadelphia; such famous people as Margaret Mead, Wilt Chamberlin and Paul Robeson, and others called West Philadelphia their home during their lives; and in 1985, the world focused on West Philadelphia when an entire neighborhood burned during a confrontation between city police and a radical group, MOVE.  Today, West Philadelphia is becoming more international with the arrival of tens of thousands of newcomers from Southeast Asia and Africa; in many instances, they are moving into neighborhoods with beautifully-preserved, late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century architected homes that tangibly connect West Philadelphia’s present to its past. 


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