Ode to the Philly row house

In 1893, 25 million people went to Chicago to see the exhibits on display at the World's Columbian Exposition. It boasted an enormous collection of art, technology, and agriculture from all over the world - the biggest spectacle of its day.

Philadelphia's contribution to the fair was a "model workingman's home" - a row house. A hundred years ago, that row house astonished visitors in Chicago. It stood as the signature structure of Philadelphia's industrial neighborhoods and as the manifestation of a particularly American dream.

At the turn of the last century, the populations of many American cities - New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit - swelled as people flooded into them looking for jobs. Only in Philadelphia, however, did many of those people have the chance to live in their own homes. Not in tenements or flats or rooming houses, but in real homes. Row homes.

This is what dazzled visitors to Chicago 100 years ago. Because these homes were modest in size, they were quick to put up and easy to heat, especially with the shared walls. Overall, they were easier to maintain than free-standing houses. All these qualities made it possible for industrial workers in Philadelphia, unlike their brethren elsewhere, to live in and even own their own homes.

In the 20th century, home ownership became a primary indicator of economic success, financial stability, and even social respectability. In this, Philadelphia led the way, with rates of home ownership significantly higher than in comparable cities. If the United States prides itself on being a nation of homeowners - and indeed, many of our economic, tax, and lending policies are designed to foster this - then in an important sense the roots of that pride can be traced back to the row house.

But Philadelphia row houses may become an endangered species, for they now stand as a symbol of all that has declined, decayed, and disappeared in the city. Mayor John Street has an ambitious $250 million plan to eliminate blight, and he plans to start by tearing down old row houses by the thousands.

But as the mayor's fleet of bulldozers begins warming up, there's an urgent question: What will replace the row house? What will define the Philadelphia neighborhood in the next hundred years as the row house defined it in the last? This is both the challenge and the opportunity facing the city right now.

In the first half of the 20th century, Philadelphia's row house neighborhoods were home to a broad working and middle class. In the second half of the century, those people fled the city for the crabgrass frontier of the new suburbs.

There is undoubtedly some percentage of middle-class families who will always remain anti-urban, and no amount of transforming rowhouse neighborhoods will change that. Their loss. But at the same time, there are surely families, priced out of other areas, who want the convenience of urban life and want their kids to have easier access to the cultural richness of the city, but feel they have no choice but to move out of the city. Whatever springs from the rubble of all those row houses should present those families with that choice.

It might well be true that the row house that has served its purpose for several generations of Philadelphia's families is at the beginning of the 21st century as obsolete as the Victrolas and Philcos that used to decorate row house living rooms. But it is part of what gave Philadelphia its particular character and distinctiveness. In many ways, Philadelphia was, and remains, a row house town. Rocky, after all, lived in one.

Can those neighborhoods be rebuilt without losing that sense of place? Can the city remove its blight without losing its soul?

Steven Conn is an associate professor of history at Ohio State University.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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