Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Growing and Prosperous

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

There was visible evidence available to anyone who went walking around Center City and environs in recent years.

Passersby noticed that the playground at Palumbo Recreation Center at 10th and Fitzwater Streets seemed suddenly crowded with toddlers, overseen by parents in their 20s and 30s. Hipster bars popped up on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia and, to the north, along Girard Avenue, old taverns were converted to gastro-pubs. People were building new rowhouses on vacant lots. Old industrial buildings were being redone as condos. More baby carriages. More neighborhood restaurants. Revival of neighborhood shopping districts.

Palumbo Playground.jpgClearly, something was happening in the neighborhoods adjacent to Center City.

Now we know what it was, thanks to U.S. Census data released recently that offers a picture of Philadelphia between 2000 and 2009.

While the rest of Philadelphia lived through the first decade of the century without changing much, a cluster of 20 neighborhoods underwent significant change. (Learn how Metropolis chose the neighborhoods here.)

Ten of them ended the decade under stress, due to loss of people and personal wealth. We told their story in Part One. (Read profiles of those neighborhoods.)

Ten of them grew and prospered -- at a pace that far exceeded any other neighborhoods and the city itself. (Read profiles of these neighborhoods.)

Often, it involved a continuation of trends that began, in some cases, 20 to 30 years ago. But, they accelerated in the last decade. In the process, these trends redefined what is seen as Center City Philadelphia.

It used to be that Center City consisted of Vine to South, the Delaware to the SchuylkillProsperous Nabes.jpg River. Today, it runs from Washington Avenue to Girard, with expansion continuing north into Fishtown and Kensington and deeper into South Philadelphia.

The engine of this change is the central business district of Center City.

As Paul Levy, head of the Center City District, pointed out recently, Center City has become the hub of Philadelphia's post-industrial economy, home to nearly 270,000 private sector jobs.

Its "gravitational pull" brings in folks from all city neighborhoods to work.  One out of five Philadelphians now works downtown, but that share rises the closer you get to City Hall. For instance, 48 percent of private-sector workers in the zip code that includes Northern Liberties work in Center City; the number is 47 percent in Bella Vista, 40 percent in Passyunk Square, 38 percent in Pennsport, 32 percent in Point Breeze and 30 percent in Grays Ferry.

In a sense, the neighborhoods adjacent to Center City are becoming its bedroom communities -- only instead of driving to work people walk, bike or take the bus.

Three other neighborhoods are on the Metropolis list of 10.  Two are in West Philadelphia, another hub of the post-industrial economy, where universities and hospitals draw thousands of workers. University City and Powelton both saw large increases in home values and, as important, increases in the percentage of homeowners, as opposed to renters.  

One big reason for the change is the program the University of Pennsylvania began in the 1990's that included investment in the neighborhoods' commercial strips, plus economic incentives for Penn employees to buy homes close to the university.

The final neighborhood on our list is Fox Chase in Northeast Philadelphia, which has seen a rise in residents and wealth far outside the norm for the city.

What is story in the rest of the city?

As mentioned in Part One, taken as a whole, Philadelphia did not undergo great change in the period between 2000 and 2009. One plus was an apparent increase in population -- the first time in six decades, but that must be confirmed by the official count from the 2010 census that is due to be released in the coming weeks.

Here is a summary of how the city fared in key indicators:

Thumbnail image for Key Indicators JPG.jpgThe bad news was that personal wealth -- as expressed by median household income -- declined in the decade, when measured against inflation. (Go here for data on Median Household Income by neighborhood.) There were some exceptions, but most neighborhoods lost ground when it came to household income. (Go here for a ranking of MHI by neighborhoods.)

Poverty increased, but only slightly, a good sign considering that the data covers the beginning of the 2008 recession. Still, nearly one out of four Philadelphians live in poverty and in some neighborhoods it is a deep and persistent condition. (Go here for a list of poverty rates in neighborhoods.)

Until the recession, median home values increased in all neighborhoods, with the largest increases -- once again -- in the 10 neighborhoods that grew and prospered the most during the decade. (Go here for a list of median home values by neighborhood.)

The data shows that the city is a complex organism. The challenge going forward is to find ways to sustain neighborhoods that have been buffeted by hard times.

It won't be easy. It may be that the only way to rebuild the city is to do it the same way it was built: house by house, block by block.


Covor Photo: 1800 block of Bainbridge St. in Southwest Center City.

Photos by: Jessi Melcer


Part Three: Read about the 10 neighborhoods that came under the greatest stress in the last 10 years.


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