W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ Offers Lasting Lessons On Gentrification In Philly’s Historically Black Neighborhoods, On Its 125th Anniversary

On its 125th anniversary, W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ offers lasting lessons on gentrification in Philly’s historically Black neighborhoods.

Society Hill, where Sixers star Joel Embiid recently put his penthouse condo on the market for US$5.5 million, has long been one of Philadelphia’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

It’s a distant cry from what the neighborhood looked like 125 years ago when sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois published “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.”

The book examines in meticulous detail the social conditions of thousands of Black Philadelphians living in what was then called the Seventh Ward, a neighborhood that overlaps present-day Society Hill.

We are sociologists and scholars of Du Bois whose research covers gentrification and anti-Black racism. We are also guest-editing a special issue of the City & Community journal that will be dedicated to Du Bois’ historic study.

On its 125th anniversary, “The Philadelphia Negro” offers valuable lessons about why many historically Black Philadelphia neighborhoods look the way they do today – and where they might be headed.

Family portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois, his wife Nina, and their baby son Burghardt in 1898.
Family portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois, his wife, Nina, and their son, Burghardt, in 1898.
W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, 1803-1999, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Du Bois surveys the 7th Ward

Du Bois and his wife, Nina, arrived in Philadelphia in 1896 at the invitation of the University of Pennsylvania and with the support of the local settlement house movement. With “The Philadelphia Negro,” published in 1899, these benefactors tasked Du Bois with analyzing “the Negro problems”.

As Du Bois wrote, “Here is a large group of people – perhaps 45,000, a city within a city – who do not form an integral part of the larger social group.” He observed that a quarter of all Black Philadelphians lived in the Seventh Ward, a neighborhood at the time bounded from east to west between 7th and 25th streets, and north to south from Spruce Street to South Street.

Philadelphia of the late 1800s was a manufacturing juggernaut and the second largest city in the U.S.. Yet, as Du Bois detailed in his study, Black Philadelphians were concentrated in “certain slum districts,” areas with “poor homes and worse police protection.” They were shut out from well-paying jobs and faced higher rates of incarceration and lower rates of pardons for crimes than white Philadelphians. These challenges, Du Bois explained, were rooted in systemic racism with historical ties to slavery.

“Such discrimination,” Du Bois stated plainly, “is morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly.”

When Du Bois arrived in Philadelphia, the process of devaluing and disinvesting in Black neighborhoods like the Seventh Ward had already been decades in the making. Throughout the 1800s, Philadelphia’s population swelled considerably as industry expanded and wealth increased. Real estate values rose across the city. Yet, Black residents were less likely than white residents to own property. Racial discrimination, he determined, kept Black Philadelphians in lower-wage work and segregated in areas of the city with older homes that were poorly maintained.

Urban renewal and resistance

Nearly 50 years after Du Bois’ study, the urban planner Edmund Bacon helped organize a “Better Philadelphia” exhibition in 1947 with a vision for private reinvestment in the city’s slumping downtown economy.

Bacon, deemed the “father of modern Philadelphia,” largely got his way. He trained his eyes on Society Hill, and his vision for that neighborhood became a blueprint for urban design. Expensive high-rise apartments pushed out poor residents, including Black people and Eastern European immigrants who had been there for decades.

Other parts of the Seventh Ward later experienced the effects of urban renewal too. Black Seventh Warders led a long, successful struggle in the 1960s and ‘70s to fight off a proposed expressway that would have cut through their neighborhood. However, as the sociologist Marcus Hunter documents in his book “Black Citymakers,” the neighborhood underwent significant changes from 1975 to 2000. South Street east of Broad Street emerged as a “distinctly artsy and commercial area,” while west of Broad Street “became a combination of high-end condominiums and businesses.”

Modern Philly gentrification

With its visible markers of luxury apartments and trendy cafes and restaurants, gentrification has transformed neighborhoods all across Philadelphia, from Germantown to Fishtown. While not part of the old Seventh Ward, the ZIP codes that encompass Point Breeze, in South Philadelphia, and Northern Liberties, just north of Center City, rank among the most gentrified in the nation since 2000.

A large building under construction at 27th and Girard in Brewerytown, Philadelphia
Construction is underway on a $10 million residential complex at 27th and Girard in Brewerytown, Philadelphia.
Jeff Fusco /The Conversation U.S., CC BY-NC-ND

For some historically Black Philadelphia neighborhoods, however, the disinvestment and decline over the decades has been so extreme that they are not vulnerable to gentrification anytime soon. Middle-class homebuyers, businesses and real estate developers and investors deem them too risky and stigmatized.

Meanwhile, Black Philadelphians have expressed frustration at how new research centers at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania – ironically, the same institution that hired Du Bois to conduct his study – have displaced residents in the historic Black Bottom, a neighborhood since rebranded as University City.

Gentrification benefits many middle-class white people who purchase affordable homes that quickly increase in value as the neighborhood demographics change. But long-term residents and businesses often face higher rents and property taxes that can make the homes and neighborhood where they grew up unaffordable. Cultural institutions such as Black churches close their doors for good as the people they serve leave the neighborhood. The First African Baptist Church in South Philly, one of the oldest churches of its kind in the country, was sold to developers in 2016 and became a boutique hotel.

When Philadelphia residents are squeezed out of gentrifying neighborhoods, they often relocate to lower-income areas, a process Hunter calls “secondary migration.” For those who can afford to stay, there is “cultural displacement” as gentrified neighborhoods no longer feel like home.

Yet, Black Philadelphians have always been “place-makers” – people who use creative and political agency to build spaces where they can thrive and respond to neighborhood change. And organizations fighting for housing justice, such as Philly Thrive, have helped lead anti-gentrification efforts in the city. The Jumpstart Germantown program is training area developers to invest in local communities and build community wealth.

Meanwhile, Black middle-class residents have chosen to invest in Philadelphia by opening businesses where everyone is welcome. One example is Uncle Bobbie’s, a beloved coffee shop, bookstore and community meeting space in Germantown.

While the Seventh Ward is no longer an official designation, an arts-based tribute is teaching new generations about the rich Black history in that area. It’s a story about neighborhood change and the possibility for more equitable futures for Black Americans – something Du Bois hoped for in writing “The Philadelphia Negro” and throughout his career.The Conversation

Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana, University at Albany, State University of New York and Freeden Blume Oeur, Tufts University

Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University at Albany, State University of New York and Freeden Blume Oeur, Associate Professor of Sociology, Tufts University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Every product/service is selected by editors. Things you buy through these links may earn “Alliance Media Group and “The IRL News” a commission or revenue.