Birth of a Neighborhood
Queen Village is a primarily residential neighborhood to the southeast of the central business district of Center City. It is bounded approximately by South Street to the north, Washington Avenue to the south, the Delaware River to the east, and South 6th Street to the west. It was the first Philadelphia suburb at the time of the fledgling city's founding, and, since its incorporation into the city in 1856, remains Philadelphia's oldest residential neighborhood.
In 1638, Swedish settlers colonized the coast of the Delaware River from what is not Wilmington, Delaware -- referred to by them as Fort Christina -- and as far north as what is now Trenton, New Jersey. Their leader, Governor Johan Pritz, declared the area "New Sweden," and the colonists enjoyed good relations with the indigenous peoples.
The portion of New Sweden that now lies in present day Queen Village was dubbed "Wiccaco" by the indigenous people, which means "pleasant place" in the Lenne Lenape language. The riverfront was lined with groves of large beech, elm and buttonwood trees. Elk, deer and beaver populated the nearby meadows, providing pelts for the fur trade. The area was claimed by the Sven family, who erected a one-and-one-half story log house on a knoll overlooking the Delaware River at what is now the NW corner of Beck & Swanson Streets. The family also maintained a large garden by their homestead with a variety of fruit trees. An inlet of water from the river allowed small boats to dock in front. The British Army destroyed the house during the Revolutionary War and used the wood as fuel.
The Dutch briefly claimed control of Queen Village, but the land was quickly ceded to the British. Pursuant to a land charter granted by King Charles II of England in 1681 to settle a debt to the Penn family, Quaker William Penn founded the Province (now Commonwealth) of Pennsylvania, and founded the city of Philadelphia the following year, just north of present day Queen Village.
The 17th Century saw little change in the settlement of Wiccaco, which comprised few homes and much wilderness, and some small farms. The shining jewel of this tiny village was Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, completed in 1700, and built of alternating red and black brick in the Flemish bond style between what is now Christian Street and Washington Avenue. Gloria Dei Church served as the Swedish Lutheran Church for over 150 years, has been a part of the Episcopal Church since 1845 and is currently the oldest church in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
William Penn changed the name of Philadelphia's first suburban settlement from "Wiccaco" to "Southwark," in honor of a similarly situated neighborhood in London, located on the south bank of the Thames River. (Not until the the late 1970's did local real estate agents rename the neighborhood "Queen Village" after Queen Christina of Sweden, in recognition her role in promoting the original settlements.)
As William Penn’s new city of Philadelphia quickly grew along the Delaware River waterfront, it left in its wake its original southern boundary of South Street by the early 18th century. The Southwark District (now South Philadelphia) was then divided into two townships but retained their original American Indian names, Moyamensing (pigeon droppings) and Passyunk (in the valley).
The 18th Century ushered in the principal development of the village, tied heavily to commercial activity along the Delaware River. The earliest residents of the neighborhood included ship builders, rope and sail makers, sailors, dock workers, carpenters, and craftsmen.
By the mid-eighteenth century, a building boom transformed Southwark from a village into a residential and commercial neighborhood, especially along the waterfront. Several mid-18th century homes still survive along Front Street between South and Christian Streets. Two notable examples are the Nathanial Irish House at 704 South Front Street and the George Mifflin House on the 100 block of Pemberton Street. Mifflin’s initials and the 1748 house construction date can still be seen on the brick wall facing that street. Dramatic changes in Southwark’s appearance were noted as early as 1743, when Secretary Peters wrote about then Governor Thomas Penn:
As the result of several large fires, Philadelphia outlawed the construction of wood frame buildings within the city limits by 1796, but they were already common throughout Southwark. Only a few wood plank front homes survive in Queen Village, some examples can remaining along the blocks of 800 South Hancock Street, 200 Christian Street, and 100 League Street. Philadelphia Quakers frowned on the performing arts and tried to ban theaters within the city limits, so entertainment venues, including the famous Southwark Theater, were constructed along South Street as far away as South 4th Street.
The Emergence of South Philadelphia
In the early 19th Century, a new United States Naval Ship Yard grew rapidly along the Delaware River just below Washington Avenue. In 1808, Spark’s Shot Tower, now a local landmark for being the oldest facility of its kind in America, was erected and served as a munitions plant during the War of 1812. Thousands of immigrants arrived in Philadelphia, mostly from Ireland, and settled the District of Southwark. Fierce competition for low wage jobs, coupled with religious prejudice and severe overcrowding caused social upheaval. The Nativist or "anti-Catholic" riots swept the region in 1844 and Saint Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church suffered three days of riots, resulting in many deaths and injuries. Local volunteer fire companies, including those from the Wiccaco Firehouse on the 100 block of Queen Street (now a private residence), protected the church from destruction.
Commissioner’s Hall was the political center of the District of Southwark and once stood at the intersection of Beck & Second Streets. After Southwark was formally consolidated into the City of Philadelphia in 1856, pursuant to the Consolidation Act passed two years prior, Commissioner’s Hall became the 2nd District Police Headquarters until it was demolished in the 20th century. The 100 block of Beck Street (formally known as Beck Place) is an early example of entire block row house development, now common throughout the city. In an effort to preserve them, the Philadelphia Historical Commission designated the 1840s brick row houses as historic.
Philadelphia was a northern stronghold during the Civil War. Washington Avenue hosted tens of thousands of Union soldiers at "Welcome Centers" staffed by neighborhood volunteers who provided soldiers with a warm meal and the thanks of a grateful nation. A constant parade of blue uniforms marched through Southwark on the way to battlefields throughout the South. After the Civil War, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened an emigration depot at the Washington Avenue wharves to help process the ongoing flood of new arrivals. Once immigrants passed through U.S. Customs, they either settled in the city or boarded trains to elsewhere in the state in search of jobs and homes.
In addition to a flood of European immigrants, African-Americans migrated to Philadelphia in large numbers from the war-torn southern states and settled along either side of South Street, primarily west of 6th Street. By the 1890s, an influx of mostly Eastern Europeans attracted a large Jewish population along the 4th Street commercial corridor and a significant number of Poles settled along the waterfront as dockworkers. Severe overcrowding resulted in poor local housing conditions, filthy streets & alleys, rampant crime, and even more social unrest. The nineteenth century witnessed dramatic changes as the once semi-rural District of Southwark became South Philadelphia.
The Coronation of Queen Village
By the 20th century, Philadelphia had become one of the world’s largest industrial centers, but pollution, disease, and inadequate housing alarmed city officials. Due to the slow reaction of local government, philanthropic groups, such as the Octavia Hill Association, provided the poor with clean and affordable housing. The Association still maintains rental properties throughout Queen Village, including Workman Place (on South Front Street between Fitzwater & Pemberton Streets), and several homes on the 200 blocks of Beck and Queen Streets. An influx of mostly Russian Jews firmly established both South Street and Fourth Street as busy commercial districts by the early 1900s.
For more than a century, historic Fabric Row (along South 4th Street) has offered a wide range of textiles for fine clothing, drapery, upholsters, and interior designers. Generations of Philadelphians purchased their new suits and wedding gowns here. After World War II, the neighborhood began a long and steady decline as the children of new immigrants left South Philadelphia for other parts of the city and nearby suburbs.
After 1950, and for the first time in the area’s 300 years history, the local population began to shrink. In the 1960s, two major urban development projects dramatically altered the neighborhood.
Planning for the construction of a new interstate highway along the Delaware River commenced, and countless homes and businesses were in the proposed path of what would become Interstate Highway 95 (I-95) were condemned. Many of the city’s oldest homes, including more than 300 18th century homes, were torn down to make room for the highway. Neighborhoods that always had relied on the river were now cut off from it. Plans for a South Street cross-town expressway were successfully challenged in court by local residents and never built.
Meanwhile, in an ambitious effort to provide Philadelphia’s growing poor population with decent housing, the government built thousands of new housing units throughout the city. Several blocks between Christian Street and Washington Avenue (between South 3rd and South 5th Streets) were cleared to create the Southwark public housing project. Initially a model for urban renewal, the three large apartment towers quickly fell into disrepair and became a haven for drugs and crime. Within just 40 years, the Southwark project was demolished, rebuilt and renamed Riverview Plaza.
The commercial strip along South Street, having lain long abandoned, soon attracted young artists and new businesses, including boutiques, restaurants and pubs. Despite these and other major changes, many old buildings remained in the neighborhood. The successful and nationally acclaimed restoration of the historic Society Hill neighborhood to the north encouraged urban investors to buy properties south of South Street. Rows of restored historic homes, coupled with new residential construction along Monroe, Fitzwater and Catherine Streets, generated renewed interest in Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhood by the 1980s.
Local real estate agents renamed this part of South Philadelphia "Queen Village" (Lombard Street to Washington Avenue, Columbus Boulevard to South 6th Street), in honor of the area's original Swedish settlers and their Queen Christina. The name subsequently has been adopted formally on local maps. Now, in the 21th century, an influx of new residents and home-owners, including many families with small children, has transformed the old neighborhood once again.