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Racing against time to save South Philadelphia’s ‘Black Main Street’

A preservation plan would make Christian Street the first space in Philadelphia to receive that honor specifically for its Black history.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and the Preservation Alliance have joined forces to stop further demolition of homes on Christian Street, once known as Black Doctor's Row because it was home to so many Black professionals.
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and the Preservation Alliance have joined forces to stop further demolition of homes on Christian Street, once known as Black Doctor's Row because it was home to so many Black professionals.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

In the early 20th century, the stretch of Christian Street west of Broad was so dense with Black-owned homes, Black-run businesses, and Black cultural institutions that it essentially served as Philadelphia’s Black Main Street. Residents traded gossip at the neoclassical corner post office on 18th Street, the first in the city to be managed by a Black superintendent. Black business and political leaders networked at the Elks lodge on the 1900 block, while their wives organized teas in the gracious townhouses that lined the street. Their children were sent to the Georgian-style YMCA on the 1700 block for after-school sports and other activities. There were easily a half dozen stone churches within a 10-minute walk.

Christian Street wasn’t the first self-contained Black neighborhood in Philadelphia, which was largely segregated by race into the late 20th century. But, as new research by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has confirmed, it was an upwardly mobile, middle-class enclave, what the group calls a “Main Street for Philadelphia’s Black Elite.” You can think of Christian Street as the Black community’s equivalent to the affluent white neighborhood a few blocks north, around Rittenhouse Square.

But while both neighborhoods are home to a rich collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, only Rittenhouse Square is under the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s protection. It was designated a historic district in 1995. Christian Street, meanwhile, has been left to fend for itself, a task that has become increasingly difficult in the last few years as Philadelphia’s incentive-driven construction boom has pushed into neighborhoods beyond Center City.

With the help of local Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, the Preservation Alliance is now racing to redress the situation. In the five months since I wrote a column highlighting a developer’s plan to replace a 140-year-old townhouse at 1513 Christian with a slightly larger one, a second house a few doors away at 1507 has been reduced to dust, and a third one at 1503 was seriously damaged after a fire in mid-May. There are also demolitions occurring on other blocks. What was a largely intact street just a short while ago is now in tatters.

As the extent of the problem became clear, the Alliance turned to Johnson for help, and “he really ran with it,” said Paul Steinke, the group’s director. This month, Johnson introduced a bill that would impose a one-year moratorium on demolitions on Christian between 20th and Broad. The goal is to give the Alliance time to finish the research necessary to make the six-block stretch a historic district. If the commission approves the designation, Christian Street would become the first space in Philadelphia to receive that honor specifically for its Black history.

In a city that has been home to a significant Black population since its earliest days, it is hard to believe that no such district exists. To be sure, plenty of individual buildings associated with Black history are listed on the city register, including the house at 1515 Christian St. where Julian Abele, Philadelphia’s most important Black architect, lived. Several largely Black neighborhoods, including Parkside in West Philadelphia and Diamond Street in North Philadelphia, have been made historic districts, but those places are recognized primarily for their white history and the spectacular architecture there.

Getting Christian Street declared a historic district won’t be a slam dunk. Preservation in Philadelphia, as elsewhere, tends to favor architectural standouts created by famous designers, rather than social history. The Victorian townhouses that line Christian Street are handsome and well-built, with intricately carved cornices and keystones, but their designs are not so different from houses in the city’s other 19th-century neighborhoods. Because most houses were originally constructed in the 1880s by upwardly mobile Irish immigrants, the Preservation Alliance will have to make the case that the Black middle-class neighborhood that flourished there between 1910 and 1945 is crucial to Philadelphia’s identity.

From what I’ve read in the first draft of the nomination, written by architectural historians Kevin Block and Adrian Trevisan, the Alliance has a strong argument. While not complete, the nomination paints a vivid portrait of a socially cohesive community that thrived from the Roaring Twenties to the end of World War II. That period roughly coincides with the height of the Great Migration, when Blacks began leaving the South in large numbers for Northern cities.

These sorts of nominations generally take months or years to assemble because the history of every structure in the district must be established. Block and Trevisan have been at it for only a few months, yet they’ve already made enormous progress in identifying the backstories. The nomination includes incredible details: Who knew people had a taste for planter boxes in the early 20th century? Their research deepens our understanding of Black life in Philadelphia during a period of rapid urbanization.

One of the things that gives Christian Street its unique character — and set it up to become the city’s Black Main Street — is the fact that it is slightly wider than most downtown streets. Builders responded by offering homes that were taller and deeper than elsewhere, making them attractive to the city’s rising Black professional class. While doctors, architects, engineers, clergy, and business owners all gravitated there, the street was nicknamed “Doctors Row” because of its proximity to the city’s premier Black medical institution, Mercy Hospital and School for Nurses, originally at 17th and Fitzwater.

Owning a house on Christian Street, which is now part of the neighborhood known as Graduate Hospital, was such a status magnet in the early 20th century that seven out of 10 Black professionals from the city’s 30th Ward lived there, the Alliance researchers found. By 1919, the Philadelphia Tribune had dubbed Christian Street “a million-dollar avenue” and the epicenter of the city’s “colored wealth.”

Several of the residents identified by Block and Trevisan are still familiar names. Abele’s next-door neighbor was the engineer Frederick Massiah. An expert in the use of reinforced concrete and one of the city’s first Black building contractors, he was the father of filmmaker Louis Massiah, Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson, and business executive Allen Massiah. In 1948, Frederick Massiah moved to North Philadelphia, which was then replacing Christian Street as the city’s most desirable Black middle-class neighborhood.

That shift was the first indication that Christian Street was falling into decline. Much of the industry on nearby Washington Avenue closed after World War II, and urban renewal was wiping out nearby neighborhoods on the other side of Broad Street. When the city proposed running an expressway along South Street in the ’60s, more families began to flee the neighborhood. Yet, for all that, Christian Street remained largely intact until the development boom began a decade ago.

James Morton has experienced that onslaught firsthand. In the last year, developers have knocked down houses on either side of the home owned by his girlfriend, Samara Johnson, on the 1600 block of Christian. Those teardowns have damaged their house, Morton told me, but they’ve struggled to get compensation from the developers.

Councilmember Johnson (no relation to Samara) said he believes his proposed demolition moratorium, along with another bill limiting the use of a citywide height bonus in his district, could stabilize Christian Street and help Black residents remain part of the fast-gentrifying Graduate Hospital neighborhood.

That height bonus was originally intended to encourage the construction of new affordable apartments around the city, but it didn’t quite work out as planned. Instead, developers were able to get out of the obligation by paying a fee to the city’s Housing Trust Fund. Two other councilmembers, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Jamie Gauthier, have introduced a bill that would tighten up the rules.

Preserving Christian Street’s big houses may be a better route to creating affordability, Johnson believes. Although demolitions would be prohibited for the next year, the large houses can still be converted into apartments. Overbuilds, which would allow an extra floor or two, are still allowed and would help add density to the neighborhood. Massiah, the documentary filmmaker, argued that designation has to be seen as just the beginning of a process. “How can we make sure that designation benefits the community and not just new gentrifiers?” he asked.

Hearing the story of Philadelphia’s original Black Main Street, it’s hard not to think of the Tulsa race massacre, which occurred 100 years ago this month when a white mob attacked that city’s prosperous Black Greenwood neighborhood. That horrific event left hundreds dead and destroyed a thriving business district that was nicknamed the Black Wall Street.

Of course, the destruction of Christian Street isn’t on the same magnitude. But the memory of Philadelphia’s Black success in the early 20th century could be erased in a different way unless we find the will to preserve what remains.