Most other cities call their main business districts “downtown," but in Philadelphia, that name never took hold.

Instead, Philadelphians know it as Center City.

But how did it get that name and how long has it been in use? That was the question a reader asked through Curious Philly, the forum through which Inquirer reporters answer queries about the city and the region.

There is no definitive answer, but a possible one can be found in history and the bottom-up power of language usage.

Center City and William Penn’s City of Philadelphia are the same

When William Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682, the city’s boundaries extended from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill between South and Vine Streets, an area encompassing 2.25 square miles and the footprint of the current Center City.

The city itself, which Penn chartered in 1701, was part of a greater Philadelphia County that extended from the Delaware River to what is now part of Berks County, and was bordered to the north by Bucks County and to the south by Chester County.

A map dating from around 1705 showing Pennsylvania's three counties: Chester, Philadelphia, and Bucks.
Library of Congress
A map dating from around 1705 showing Pennsylvania's three counties: Chester, Philadelphia, and Bucks.

A county becomes a city

As new counties were created and boundaries redrawn, Philadelphia County by 1854 came to encompass the city, 13 townships, six boroughs, and nine districts, all of which had their own laws and governments.

That year, the Act of Consolidation combined those separate entities into the City of Philadelphia in a bid to make the county more governable at a time when its population was growing quickly, thanks to waves of immigration.

With the city now encompassing the entire county, what had been Penn’s City of Philadelphia now was a nameless section in the much-bigger entity.

According to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, one name that appeared was “Old City Proper,” a usage that lingered into the 1920s.

A 1959 City of Philadelphia map showing Philadelphia County pre-consolidation.
City of Philadelphia
A 1959 City of Philadelphia map showing Philadelphia County pre-consolidation.

The power of advertising

But in the late 19th century, other names for the area started appearing in newspaper real estate and employment classified ads.

Inquirer archives dating back to 1860 show that the terms “center of city” and “centre of city” started appearing in classified ads in the 1870s.

This, the encyclopedia says, suggested “a widespread understanding of the phrase as a designation for Philadelphia’s downtown.”

In the early 20th century, “Center of City” also started appearing in headlines. “How Realty Rises in Center of City," said one headline in 1906. “1000 New Lamps Flood Center of City with Light,” read another from 1910.

In the 1920s, the name Center City started to appear in ads, including those promoting suburban properties for their convenience to Philadelphia’s downtown.

An ad from the Sept. 12, 1926, Philadelphia Inquirer.
Inquirer Archives
An ad from the Sept. 12, 1926, Philadelphia Inquirer.

In July 1922, two workers were killed and 17 others injured when a roof collapsed at a building at Broad and Cherry Streets that was being converted into the Center City Office Building.

“During the 1920s and 1930s, Center City (sometimes capitalized and sometimes not) became more common as a place name in advertising, in the names of buildings, and in city government communication,” according to the encyclopedia. “Thereafter, embraced by city planners as well as organizations such as the Center City Residents Association (formed in 1947), Center City dominated as the name for the old city proper.”

So by 1947, Center City was the generally recognized name for Penn’s original City of Philadelphia.

Another theory

Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, said he did not know how the term came into use in Philadelphia, but noted that variations had existed prior to the mid-19th century.

Citing Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880–1950, by Robert Fogelson, Levy said the term downtown did not come into usage until after the Civil War and first referred to the dense commercial cluster in lower Manhattan.

“Prior to the mid-19th century, both Europeans and Americans used the term ‘City center’ or ‘town center’ to describe the commercial center of the city,” Levy said in an email. “City center is the term that is still used in England and ‘centre de ville’ in France and centro in many Spanish-speaking countries.”

Additionally, Levy said, people in what we now call South Philadelphia traditionally used “downtown” to refer to that area.

“So my guess is because the name was already taken, downtown wasn’t available for our commercial area, so, given our English and other European founding, I assume we adapted it to Center City,” he said.

While other cities went on to adopt “downtown” for their commercial districts, at least two others, Cincinnati and Charlotte, N.C., also use Center City, Levy said.