The Forgotten Black Bottom

This post was written by Segregation By Design (@SegByDesign)

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Black Bottom in West Philadelphia was entirely razed in the 1960s by federally-financed “urban renewal,” with the estimated number of those displaced being as high as 10,000. The vast majority of those who had been living in this neighborhood and who were displaced were African-American. The “redevelopment” of Black Bottom was spearheaded by the nearby academic and medical institutions, including The University of Penn, Drexel University, University of the Sciences. In addition to using funding from the Federal Housing Act of 1949 (which covered 2/3rds the cost of municipal “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” schemes), many of these institutions themselves received significant federal funding (Penn in particular).

These institutions wanted to eliminate Black Bottom due its proximity and prime location along Market Street. Using the mechanisms provided in the 1949 Housing Act, they were able to label the tight-knit, working-class community as a “slum” standing in the way of commercial expansion. Using eminent domain, the government redevelopment agency appropriated nearly all the private lots in the neighborhood, offering compensation well below market-rate for those who owned—and no assistance at all for those who rented.

Despite the organization and protest from local residents and sympathetic students, ultimately the neighborhood was lost to the “federal bulldozer” of urban renewal. The area was rebranded “university city.” Replacing the dense, Victorian row houses (seen in second image)* were large institutional buildings, parking structures, and surface parking. While recently some high-rise housing has been built, ultimately there are far fewer residential units than previously existed, further contributing to the housing crisis which currently every American city is experiencing.

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