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Philadelphia Officially Recognizes First Black Historic District

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The Philadelphia Historical Commission recently honored a South Philadelphia neighborhood, Black Doctors Row, as it was officially named the first Black Historic District in the city.

In a meeting last week, the commission unanimously voted to turn the Christian Street Historic District into the Christian Street Black Doctors’ Row Historic District, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. With its new title, the neighborhood is now known as the first in Philadelphia to be recognized for its Black history and the contributions of Black residents in Philadelphia.

The effort to have the neighborhood designated as a historic district was led by the South of South Neighborhood Association, a nonprofit neighborhood association for Southern Philadelphia, and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia; the latter submitted the 487-page document that earned the neighborhood’s title, outlining how the neighborhood fulfills the criteria for being a historic district.

For years, the groups and local residents have fought to save Black Doctors Row from the effects of denitrification. In an official document, leaders named the “indiscriminate demolition” in Philadelphia as one of the reasons for the neighborhood’s naming. 

Over the past thirty years, the area has been subjected to developmental projects with original single-home families being destroyed to make way for condos and other rentals. According to resident Vicki Ellis, only eight original single-family homes remain on her block in the district.

“This demolition is both astonishing and frightening. Astonishing, in that it is proceeding at a rate not seen before, or at least not in my twenty years living here in Graduate Hospital,” said Richard Gliniak, the Democratic Committeeperson of the Preservation Task Force Committee, in the document. “Frightening because, if you look at the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places Map above, where pink signifies protected areas, the Christian Street Black Doctors Row and most of Graduate Hospital are currently unprotected from demolition, unlike the large pink areas just north of Lombard Street.” 

In the early 20th century, the neighborhood was a hub for prominent Black doctors, pastors, politicians, architects and business owners. During the First Great Migration in the 1920s, Christian Street and Black Doctors Row saw the biggest boom in population, eventually earning its title as the Philadelphia neighborhood with the most Black professionals as its residents. 

Amongst its residents was Julian Abele, a prominent architect and first Black graduate of the School of Design whose notable works include the Duke University Chapel and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Twenty years later, the neighborhood was one of the few Philadelphia neighborhoods with a population that was nearly 100% Black and was known as one of the leading centers for businesses and cultural institutions, such as churches, political clubhouses, a YMCA and post office, for Black Americans. 

“We are happy that this day has come,” said the spokesperson for City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson,Vincent Thompson, to news outlet NNY360. “We hope it is not the last historic district based upon the contributions of an ethnic group in Philadelphia.”

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