Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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North of Market
The term once referred to the Quaker district along Arch Street, and then to a larger district that had its heyday after the Civil War, industrialized, declined, and is now our worst urban problem area.

Particular Sights to See:Center City
Taxi drivers tell tourists that Center City is a "shining city on a hill". During the Industrial Era, the city almost urbanized out to the county line, and then retreated. Right now, the urban center is surrounded by a semi-deserted ring of former factories.

Spreading the City Out to Its Edges

The early city of Philadelphia was too tightly compressed and thus generated slums. By contrast, areas today become slums by being abandoned. Is there a middle way between these extremes that doesn't produce slums?

Almost up to the time the national capital moved away to the District of Columbia, the town of Philadelphia was compressed into an area of about a half square mile. Although there was a whole empty continent stretching to the Pacific Ocean on which to build houses, early Philadelphia built row houses and dark little alleys and packed people into them. These airless unsanitary conditions were excellent places to breed tuberculosis and typhoid fever, streptococcal epidemics, rheumatic fever and a host of other diseases of crowded city conditions. In a word, slums.

That was absolutely not what William Penn wanted to happen. His vision, as every Pennsylvania schoolchild is taught to recite, was that of a "Greene country Townie", with an acre of trees and grass for every house, and that's indeed the way it started. However, economics soon took over. Penn's proprietorship sold land right and left, and was particularly effective in selling land to people who stayed in England. They might someday come to America, perhaps. But the sea voyage was notoriously hard on the stomach, so in general speculators' idea was to rent the property to immigrants. Somehow the terms of trade then got slanted in favor of landlords and subdivides, and for a long time, it was cheaper to buy or rent developed land from the early owners than raw undeveloped land from the Proprietors. Every landlord feels this tension; even today, whether selling a new condominium tower or a whole state of raw land, every successful developer finds a way of managing this conflict between today's buyers and tomorrow's. Since history shows that Penn was not a particularly successful developer, he apparently did not manage many of the mundane issues very well; this was probably an example.

s district has to move away to find employment. New immigrants are then attracted to the cheap housing which becomes available, and the whole cycle of social commotion begins. If you take an Olympian view of the matter, Philadelphia now has 1.6 million inhabitants stretched out over an urban area adequate to house 5 million people. From time to time, you hear someone lament that the city boundaries should spread still further and enclose those prosperous suburbanites in the city tax system. That isn't going to happen, of course, because in a sense the city-county consolidation of 1850 was such an attempt. It seemed to work for a while, but over a long stretch of time, it was counter-productive. Los Angeles went even further, and there is now considerable talk of the suburban areas seceding. To impose political boundaries in ways that flout the underlying economics is what England and France attempted after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, or what Europe generally did in the establishment of colonial boundaries in Africa. It seldom works out very well.

Our problem is one of attracting people from the far exurbs, which would like to get rid of urban sprawl, and bringing them into the abandoned wasteland of Northern Liberties, West and North Philadelphia. That's not a simple solution, since it amounts to asking someone to prefer North Philadelphia to Richboro in Bucks County, or Medford Lakes, or Odessa. But it isn't a hopeless problem, either. In both alternatives, the school systems and shopping districts start from scratch, the neighbors are what you make them. And transportation, particularly commuting, favors living near the city center.

But let's not get lost in details. The big picture is that it is now cheaper, an amenity for amenity, to live in the suburbs than downtown. And one of the main reasons is that it is cheaper to crowd houses together than to spread them out. It was particularly cheaper in colonial days, so we jammed houses together. It's cheaper in Arden, Delaware, the only local example of the effect of the Henry George single-tax system carried to extremes and never modified, and the vacation homes of Arden are absolutely packed together, as they are in most beachfront communities.

We packed ' em too tight together for three hundred years, and we don't need more row houses. We need five or six square miles of Greene country Townie.

Originally published: Wednesday, June 21, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019