society hill and rebuilding philadelphia -- 6/22/20

Today's selection -- from The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment by Dan Rottenberg. Legendary Philadelphia real estate mogul Albert Greenfield was part of a group that took on the challenge of transforming a dying Philadelphia downtown -- which to Philadelphians was better known as Center City -- starting with a neighborhood known as Society Hill. The approach was unique in that it called for restoring, rather than simply tearing down and building anew:

"In later years, 1956 would be recalled in Philadelphia as the year Center City finally began to reverse its long decline. Upon assuming [planning commission] office, [Albert] Greenfield focused his attention not on the Penn Center space west of Broad Street but on the area he knew best: the historic district east of Broad Street. Here he approached the challenge like a developer rather than a bureaucrat.

"The city's future, he theorized, depended on building up its tax base, which in turn depended on attracting affluent people to live nearby and spend their money in its department stores, hotels, and restaurants. Like [city planner] Ed Bacon, Greenfield recognized that the Georgian homes in the historic district, now largely abandoned or converted to dingy rooming houses, offered the potential cachet that could entice affluent homeowners back to the neighborhood -- if the general area improved. But to Greenfield, a piecemeal, house-by-house approach to reviving downtown living was doomed to failure. 'The reason nothing is moving and nobody has bought down there,' he argued, 'is because nobody has been given a guarantee that his investment will be protected and the climate of the whole area improved.'

"Greenfield's solution was to draw up a detailed revitalization plan that would qualify the entire thousand-acre tract southeast of Independence Hall -- an area that comprised one-quarter of downtown Philadelphia -- for urban renewal under the Federal Housing Act of 1954. In effect, the city would condemn all properties within the project's boundaries; but instead of leveling everything and rebuilding from scratch, as other cities were doing, Philadelphia would offer every existing homeowner the opportunity to keep his or her property by restoring its exterior to its original period -- and the city would provide low-cost loans to do the job, as well. At the same time, vacant houses and lots would be offered to newcomers at bargain prices, again with the stipulation that facades be restored according to the plan's rigid specifications.

The Joseph Jefferson House prior to its renovation in 1969-70.

"To create confidence among homebuyers, the plan called for realizing some of Bacon's visions, like installing new brick sidewalks and imitation gas lanterns, creating green walkways that connected Society Hill to Independence National Historical Park, and building a major addition to the neighborhood's McCall public elementary school.

"This was a unique surgical approach to urban renewal -- what one observer called 'an attempt to salvage what is good of the old, add what is needed of the new, and in general transform that part of the city into a sort of urban residential paradise without making a museum-fossil out of it.' It was also a radical departure from Greenfield's previous seat-of-the-pants approach to urban development.

"In a city previously accustomed to old money and slow movement, here was the most complex and demanding urban project ever attempted -- in Philadelphia or anywhere else. In effect, Bacon's vision and Greenfield's plan both sought to reverse the process that the Pennsylvania Railroad had begun eighty years earlier -- that is, it would draw Philadelphia's upper and upper-middle classes back into the heart of the city, much as the railroad had lured them to the Main Line in the nineteenth century.

"That the plan would benefit Greenfield's own nearby hotels, department stores, and office buildings was obvious but also beside the point. In this case Greenfield's great strength lay in his lack of objectivity: Precisely because he had huge investments in the historic district, he enjoyed widespread credibility.

"Greenfield objected to reviving 'Society Hill' as the name for this district because he felt it connoted snobbishness and exclusivity. But when his own preferred title -- 'Old City Urban Renewal Area' -- failed (for obvious reasons) to generate any discernible excitement, 'Society Hill' was resurrected after an absence of more than 150 years.

"The first enthusiastic convert to his plan was perhaps also the most important: [Richardson] Dilworth's first public act as mayor was a directive to proceed with Greenfield's proposed plan. Shortly after, Dilworth announced that he would personally build himself an eighteenth-century-style townhouse on Washington Square, at Society Hill's western edge. No such townhouse had been built anywhere in Philadelphia since the turn of the twentieth century. Dilworth clearly intended it as what one observer called 'a straw in a change of wind, a wind of change blowing for the first time in Philadelphia's history from west to east, rather than from east to west.'

"But new residents could not be induced to invest in Society Hill unless government and private developers invested millions as well. Fitting together all the public and private elements of the Society Hill project, it soon became apparent, exceeded the scope of any public agency. Greenfield's solution was to create a nonprofit public-private partnership between the city and business leaders who had a stake in the downtown. Forming this new civic body -- possibly the first of its kind anywhere -- became Greenfield's primary mission.

"That spring he spoke at length to virtually every leading industrialist, banker, and merchant to drum up financial support. The business leaders he buttonholed soon discovered what homebuyers and shopkeepers had learned fifty years earlier: Greenfield had an answer for every objection. He could wax lyrical about Society Hill -- 'this plot of one thousand acres that combines all that civilization has to offer.' But he could also get down to hard economic facts and figures, pointing out that retail sales on Market Street had declined by 15 percent in the past eight years, even while sales in the greater Philadelphia region had grown. He reminded the banks and insurance companies holding mortgages on stores and buildings in the area that they would be the long-run losers if the downtown withered. When skeptics asked if people would really live downtown, Greenfield could reassure them not as a detached urban planner or economist but as a lifelong developer who had put his money where his mouth was. 'He understood the history, he understood the economics, he understood the politics, and then he understood how to sell it to a broad citizenry of the city that would have to support it on a continuing basis,' Philadelphia's redevelopment director Walter D'Alessio later recalled."



Dan Rottenberg


The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment


Temple University Press


Copyright 2014 by Dan Rottenberg


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