The piece of Christian Street known as Black Doctors Row is on its way to becoming the first section of Philadelphia designated as a local historic district specifically to recognize its Black history.
The Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation recommended Wednesday that the area also referred to as a “main street” for Philadelphia’s Black elite in the 20th century should become the Christian Street Historic District. The six-block stretch of Graduate Hospital was once a hub of Black professional life.
The Historical Commission is likely to decide whether to designate the district at its next meeting, July 8. The commission adopts most of the committee’s recommendations.
Patrick Grossi, advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, told committee members at their public meeting Wednesday that the proposed “thematic district” recognizes “a five-decade period of Black success and Black continuity in South Philadelphia.”
“We think it is a compelling model for how local historic districts can be considered more holistically moving forward,” he said.
Time is running out to preserve what remains of Black Doctors Row, which in the first half of the 20th century was a neighborhood of prominent Black institutions and homes for members of Philadelphia’s upper-middle class.
City Council’s one-year demolition moratorium in this section of the neighborhood, meant to allow time for the historical nomination, expires July 1. Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson introduced the demolition ban legislation and supports the nomination in his district.
Concerns about demolitions on the street in 2020 and ongoing development pressure in the area spurred the nomination, which highlights the cultural heritage and architectural style of the area. The city’s consideration of it is the culmination of a nearly two-year effort to preserve the area’s history by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and the South of South Neighbors Association.
“It’s a very vulnerable area,” Grossi said before the meeting. “There’s obviously been pretty dramatic change just over the last 20 years or so. The next 10, 15, 20 years promise not to be any different.”
Linda Evans, who lives on Christian Street within the proposed historic district and is part of the group of neighbors that helped push the nomination forward, said the area’s Black history needs to be preserved.
“Christian Street was a bustling African American neighborhood,” she said. During the Jim Crow era, “Blacks met the systemic racism in this city and the country at large by establishing their own community here.”
The historic district would consist of 154 properties from South Broad to South 20th Streets. Most of the buildings are three-story brick rowhouses constructed in the last half of the 1800s, according to the nomination for historic designation.
People who lived and worked on these blocks include prominent Black doctors, pastors, architects, small business owners, and politicians.
Faye Anderson, director of All That Philly Jazz, a public history project documenting and contextualizing Philadelphia’s jazz tradition, and someone who calls attention to erasure of African American history, said she opposed the historical designation. She objected to the idea of the city moving to historically designate an area because it was a site of the Black elite.
“It’s next-level white privilege to claim that a small number of Negro professionals” is enough to designate the street as a historic district, she said.
But Brandon Washington and Cheryl Mobley-Stimpson, both fourth-generation residents of the area, said the professionals who lived there were inspirations to their contemporaries and current residents.
“I grew up as a child hearing the stories about Black Doctors Row,” Mobley-Stimpson said.
Suzanna Barucco, a member of the Committee on Historic Designation who works in historic preservation, said that recognizing the history of the neighborhood “is an important thing for us to do.”
Several people pressed for the inclusion of the words Black or African American in the name of the proposed Christian Street Historic District, but the committee sent its recommendation to the Historical Commission without changing the name.