Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Clickable city history

Memories live - or are revised - at, an online archive of thousands of Philadelphia images dating to 1860.

Ruth Black's childhood was obliterated by shopping malls.

Jack McNally's was paved over by construction of I-95.

Tanneries once dominated Northern Liberties. Trolleys rattled over virtually every major city street.

They're all mostly gone now.

But hardly forgotten.

The City Archives near 30th Street Station house more than two million images of every part of Philadelphia, dating from about 1860. In thousands of cardboard boxes, the city's visual memory resides, untinted by nostalgia or grief or innumerable other transient human colorings.

Here, preserved on paper prints and on glass and plastic negatives, are images of the thriving tanneries and workshops of Northern Liberties and Kensington, the spiffy rowhouses, the old neighborhoods, the building projects, the public gatherings and celebrations.

And now the city is steadily putting it all on the Internet - everything from shots of the creation of City Hall's exalted William Penn statue right down to images of sidewalk cracks - and making it available for anyone to view at

On that expanding Web site, Philadelphia's growth and decline, decay and rebirth can be seen in image after image. Street addresses can be searched, old houses located, vanished neighborhoods made visible again.

What once was lost can now be found.

Perhaps most vitally, memories can be validated, enriched or corrected. Historical theses can be tested and developed - all because the city government documented so many of its own activities, capturing much of the rest of town in the process.

These images are as close to the way it used to be as it's likely to get.

"I was thrilled," Black said when asked about the site. It seems she just stumbled on it and became enthralled.

Now 70 and living in Cherry Hill, she was born and raised on Jackson Street in Holmesburg in the Northeast - a Jackson Street that still exists but that has changed utterly.

"It was nothing but fields and trees," she said of her childhood world. "I remember those fields and picking blackberries and climbing to the tippy-tops of the trees," she said. "We knew all the plants. We picked flowers, drew all the birds in watercolor. It's totally different now."

A shopping mall and housing construction obliterated those flowery fields.

But when Black discovered and searched for her old neighborhood, she was stunned.

"There it was!" she said. "There was a picture looking just like I remembered it all those years ago, walking down the street as a little girl."

For McNally, the experience was similar.

Now 53 and living in Abington, he spent some time as a very little boy staying in his grandparents' house at 534 New Market St.

He remembers an active, unpretentious neighborhood of small rowhouses and trinities.

"It was bustling and close to the riverfront," he recalled. "A lot of people worked down on the docks. There weren't a lot of cars. There were hardworking, blue-collar people. It wasn't fancy, but people took pride in things."

When the city's portion of I-95 was constructed, large swaths of Kensington and other neighborhoods were obliterated. The house at 534 New Market was demolished in the mid-1960s, McNally said.

That was it. All that was left, he thought, were his own childhood memories. But then he heard about, which was launched a bit more than a year ago. And when he searched for New Market Street, he made a startling discovery.

There, staring right out from the computer screen, was not simply a 1931 photograph of the very New Market Street block of his childhood, but the very house. And not simply the house, but a young girl sitting on the " 'stoop,' as we called it."

He believes it was one of his aunts. The site also contains two images of a block of Nectarine Street - "it wasn't any bigger than an alley" - right around the corner.

"I showed it to my mom and she went bats," McNally said. "I sent it to my cousins. It was neat. Sometimes people don't know what's there - or don't know what's there until it's torn down."

Joan Decker, commissioner of the city's Department of Records, is overseeing the project. She said the plan to put the photographic collection online grew out of a desire to make the images more readily accessible to the public. The negatives are housed in small boxes neatly stored on metal shelving at the cavernous archives at Market and 31st Streets.

Prints of the online images can be made for $10, so the site also produces revenue, an added benefit, Decker said. (There are no plans to eliminate the original negatives or any other archive holdings, she said.)

Currently, about 25,000 images are online, with 2,000 or so being added each month. At that rate it will take more than 83 years to put the whole photographic archive on line. Decker hopes the task, currently handled by two graduate students and an independent historian, can attract some funding to speed up the process.

(In 2006, 63,998 visitors came to the site 215,337 times. But as images are added, use has begun to rise: Already in 2007, 34,545 users have visited, according to techies working the site.)

The Philadelphia photo archive is arguably the largest in the country, officials said, and its online effort is unique in its search capabilities. Other cities have photographs available on the Internet, but no other site, apparently, gives viewers the ability to search by address and location, according to officials laboring on the project here.

That allows anyone to seek out an old house or intersection or explore an old neighborhood.

But the site does not simply document personal memories. It is possible, through these photographs, to see Philadelphia rise up in the industrial age and deteriorate through the post-World War II years of deindustrialization.

Visible are the great icons of the city's emerging prominence: the construction of the Broad Street subway and City Hall, the hubbub of Center City in the heyday of Wanamakers. Trolley cars clog the streets, telephone wires trace tangled webs in the air, billboards and painted signs seem to fill every available space, creating a visual welter.

For Rachel Cheetham-Richard, vice president of Avencia Inc., a local software firm that helped create the site and its search capabilities, contact with the images has bequeathed a sense of place.

"I'm from France originally, so this project has been very meaningful for me because Philadelphia is not home," she said. "But it has become home and it is actually quite moving to see the evolution of the city and the richness. Sometimes I wonder about all the foreigners here, building the subways and the sewers.

"It's very special to me as a foreigner to see these guys who were first generation, too, building all these things. They were working with their shovels and wood. Men working in the mud. And it really makes you more embedded. I hear that a lot from the users. . . . It has brought a sense of belonging. That's the way I feel about this project."

To see a slide show that compares Philadelphia streets, sights and scenery then and now, visit EndText