The Parkside Neighborhood: Rare Roots Run Deep

by Nikia Brown

From every corner of Philadelphia, its anthem rings true, “Philadelphia is the city of neighborhoods.” Historic in nature and diverse in form, the Parkside neighborhood, in particular, provides a vivid illustration of a historic, yet re-inventive Philadelphia. Several eras ago, Parkside was a destination for Sunday strollers and carriage rides, street vendors and park parades. It’s artistically designed Victorian buildings became the home and hope for many European immigrants and African-Americans migrating from the South.

An overview of the Exposition Grounds as seen from the Main Building in 1876. Courtesy: freelibrary.org
An overview of the Exposition Grounds as seen from the Main Building in 1876. Courtesy: freelibrary.org

In the 19th century, Parkside, formerly known as Blockley Township, was mostly utilized for its lush green lands. The neighborhood’s proximity to the railroad and Center City made it the ideal location for the nation’s 100th birthday celebration—The Centennial Exposition of 1876. The Exposition attracted tourists and settlers from all around the world offering a wide array of ethnic foods, vaudeville theaters, a grandiose soda fountain, hotels, and beer gardens. While the Exposition was a lauded success, Parkside suffered a grave decline after the 6-month long celebration. It took the courage of German-American entrepreneur, Frederick Poth, and the creative genius of 26-year-old architect, Henry Flower, to revive the deteriorating neighborhood.

The 20th century ushered in a surge of newly designed homes, German-born merchants and manufacturers, and a range of occupations from brewer to distiller, lithographer to mechanical engineer. On Viola Street, between 1900 and 1910, many households were owned by second and third generation middle-class European-Americans with Scottish, English, Irish, and German backgrounds. Interestingly, in the 1920s, the overly animated open markets of South Street pushed the newly emerging middle-class Russian-Jewish population to Parkside. The synagogue built on 41st and Viola Street continues to stand as a representation of yet another community that chose Parkside as their settling grounds. Today that synagogue is a Baptist church.

The southwest corner of 42nd and Parkside Avenue as it appeared in 1954. Courtesy: phillyhistory.org
The southwest corner of 42nd and Parkside Avenue as it appeared in 1954. Courtesy: phillyhistory.org

Nonetheless, with the devastating blow of the Great Depression and World War II, urban life increasingly proved difficult to navigate driving many of the Jewish residents to more outlying neighborhoods. This, as well as other episodes of, “White Flight” provided African-Americans an opportunity to find refuge in an unfair and uncertain America. Though the neighborhood remained fairly integrated for approximately 15 years, the African-American residents of the Parkside Historical District are the longest residing group to inhabit the area since it was built in 1897. With resilience and gracious tenacity, they weathered the cumbersome economic challenges of Parkside’s past and contributed to what is now one of Philadelphia’s most urban tourist attractions.

Another rendering of a future Centennial Commons area.
Another rendering of a future Centennial Commons area.

With Philadelphia’s recent designation as a World Heritage City and Parkside’s continuing development, this neighborhood is bound to attract, once again, the diverse communities that planted its roots to opportunity. The Fairmount Park Conservancy, with assistance from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation, has funded the creation of the Centennial District Master Plan. The projected 300-million dollar 20-year plan includes streetscape improvements along Parkside Avenue, renovation of the Park’s Concourse Lake, play fields opposite Memorial Hall, and a new transit line that will connect the area to Center City. Today, Parkside residents can envisage a neighborhood that pays homage to the bustling economic activity and immigrant engagement of its distant past. Parkside symbolically stands as the bridge between rich Philadelphian history and the promise of greater cooperation, civic engagement, and community progress.

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