Philadelphia designates the city’s first Black historic district

One of Philadelphia’s oldest Black neighborhoods was granted a special designation to honor its history — and potentially stall gentrification.

The vote by the Philadelphia Historical Commission last week came after a yearlong, somewhat controversial push from residents and activists to protect the historically wealthy and Black neighborhood on Christian Street in South Philadelphia from what critics have called “indiscriminate demolition,” or the tearing down of homes to create larger, more lucrative rentals or condos.

In a lengthy application, historians said the neighborhood dubbed “Black Doctors Row” is historically significant because it was considered the “‘main street’ for Philadelphia’s Black elite,” which included prominent Black leaders and professionals, between 1910 and 1945.

The new designation will prevent demolitions from taking place in the six-block neighborhood and add a review process before any proposed changes are made to the outsides of buildings.

About two years ago, some residents became concerned about the future of the neighborhood due to what they say is growing gentrification at the hands of developers who were tearing down buildings in an effort to replace them with luxury condos.

Linda Evans, who first moved to Christian Street in 1997, was among the concerned residents who pushed for City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson to protect the area from developers.

“Neighbors have to be willing to fight for their neighborhood,” Evans told NBC News.

Last summer, Johnson successfully fought for local legislation to place a one-year demolition moratorium on the neighborhood. In that year, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia put together a nearly 500-page application detailing the area’s rich Black culture and history.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission unanimously approved the proposal Friday. Johnson, who grew up near the neighborhood, called the decision “long overdue” and “community driven.”

“It’s an opportunity to preserve and maintain and carry on a legacy of African American culture in this part of South Philadelphia,” he said. “We recognize that African history is American history.”

Part of that rich history included Black medical professionals who lived and opened up practices in the area during the mid-20th century. They found the proximity to the Mercy-Douglass Hospital School of Nursing, which was the first training school for Black nurses in Philadelphia, to be the perfect place to put down roots.

“For the African American community in Philadelphia, Christian Street was a showpiece that provided material evidence of the Black elite’s steady economic progress,” historians wrote in the application.

The neighborhood of Christian Street and Black Doctors Row became predominantly Black in the 1920s during the First Great Migration. It also had the largest percentage of Black professionals in the state, according to the application. By 1940, its community of 1,600 residents was almost 100% Black. The neighborhood has since become a “highly rapidly gentrified area,” Johnson said.

Faye Anderson, a local activist who has championed the preservation of Black historical areas, told Philadelphia’s WHYY last year that the neighborhood had become predominantly white in recent decades.

Anderson opposed the new designation in written comments submitted to the Philadelphia Historical Commission prior to a public hearing about the topic. She said the wealthier, lighter-skin Christian Street residents benefited from colorism by being given “access to educational opportunities” that darker-skin Black Philadelphians did not receive. Anderson said those actions do not represent the “cultural life and identity of African Americans.”

Bruce Bohri, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Historical Commission, said the pushback from critics highlights the need for more historical designations for neighborhoods in Philadelphia with similar pasts.

“It’s a city full of history and a city full of Black history,” Bohri said.

Evans, who lives in the neighborhood, said she thinks Philadelphia hasn’t promoted Black history “the way that we should have.” But the designation, she said, could signal a new chapter.

“This is the beginning,” she said.

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