Fritsch on Simon, 'Philadelphia: A Brief History'

Roger D. Simon
Christopher N. Fritsch

Roger D. Simon. Philadelphia: A Brief History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017. 156 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-932304-26-8.

Reviewed by Christopher N. Fritsch (Mountain View College) Published on H-Pennsylvania (October, 2019) Commissioned by Jeanine Mazak-Kahne (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

Printable Version:

In Philadelphia: A Brief History, Professor Roger Simon looks to establish a case for the importance of Philadelphia. The individual and the community become intertwined into a narrative of place and time. The work contrasts things that change and things that do not. The city became larger; its population fluctuated and became ethnically diverse. The goals of city and civic leaders revolved around economic security and constructing a sense of community.  

William Penn desired a haven for persecuted Quakers. He looked to construct a “holy experiment” in which all faiths lived in harmony, and a “greene Country towne” that would be the centerpiece of Pennsylvania life. Penn wrote that the soil would grow almost anything, the environment held all types of useful trees, shrubs and animals, and the Delaware River was useful for trade. Furthermore, Penn believed that a government that freed men’s consciences, allowed for political participation, and maintained a prosperous capitalist economy made his colonial venture invaluable.    

Pennsylvania’s six counties harbored Swedes, Finns, and Dutch residents, as well as the Lenni Lenape (some on the islands in the Delaware and others on the mainland in Philadelphia County). Philadelphia, like Pennsylvania, was diverse and in Penn’s world, the city became the entry point for successive waves of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century emigration. Penn sold land to immigrants from the Holy Roman Empire, who founded Germantown. By 1684, the first slave ship from Africa had arrived. By 1690, the Welsh had purchased a tract of land that stretched in the hinterland from Bryn Mawr west to Caernarvon (in what is Lancaster and Berks County) and north into the Gwynedd Townships (in what is Montgomery County). Throughout, Penn encouraged a prosperous society. By the end of the century, Penn presumably had opened his city to pirates, who brought silver and gold into the colony.

Eighteenth-century Philadelphia saw the arrival of other central Europeans, such as church Germans, Swiss, French Huguenots, as well as Britons with the arrival of the very rough Scotch-Irish. Most of these immigrants arrived in Philadelphia and moved on to open land with the hope of personal and familial prosperity and religious survival. Benjamin Franklin hoped that these people moved to their destination, as they were dirty, ignorant, and spoke another language.

Philadelphia grew in political and economic importance. Philadelphia was the center of colonial politics and after 1776, the center of the Commonwealth as well as national politics for a period of time. By the Revolution, differences had grown between outlying areas of the colony and the needs of Philadelphia. Simon’s account of the plight of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents from the founding of the colony to the nineteenth century presents a picture of local aid societies and government-sponsored institutions, such as poor houses, unable to cope with the impact of economic downturns and poor housing, unclean water, and disease. More importantly, Simon presents a city disconnected from its surroundings. 

Philadelphia’s strategic, economic, and political importance exacerbated the city’s occasional economic and unemployment problems. European population growth, agricultural and economic problems, and political turmoil contributed to a growing demand for grain—a demand which Pennsylvania farmers met. Pennsylvania farmers produced and sold for overseas markets.

According to Simon, the “Revolution had eroded the social equilibrium of colonial Philadelphia” (p. 18). Economic problems, population growth, and political issues created a city of wealthy and poor and masters and slaves. Philadelphia’s leaders in the early republic looked to establish sustained economic prosperity. If the colonial had equilibrium shifted, Philadelphia needed to be repaired. This post-Revolutionary goal seems similar to Penn’s vision for his colony. Sustainable economic progress was good for everyone. Creating economic progress and obtaining support for these ideas demanded a constructive relationship between civic leaders and residents. 

Penn’s green country town became a dirty, smelly, and disease-ridden environment. Philadelphia inherited and developed a number of problems. Epidemics, substandard living conditions, water and sewage issues, the need for better public education, and downturns in the economy, which left many Philadelphians unemployed, continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Prior to the Civil War, Philadelphia’s business and political elite moved to improve water quality and delivery, provide better education, construct green space, and redraw the map of the city.  

The delivery of clean water was high on the city improvement list. Early in the new century, the city council supported a plan to provide a public water system. For a little more than forty cents a month, residents who purchased the plan could obtain their water from public hydrants. The long-term impact of this was significant. Residents could remove water barrels, which bred mosquitos, and improved city streets could be cleaned more easily. In order to guarantee clean water, the city council purchased acreage upstream—Fairmount Park—from the pumping station and the Commonwealth prohibited dumping. This change made a lasting impact on many residents in Philadelphia. 

The rest of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth saw no great improvement. The author presents a strong case for urban decline during this period. The city’s middle class grew between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Philadelphia faced serious problems, including racial and ethnic conflict, business and economic change, and a worsening living standard. Solutions to these problems, which had been in the hands of citizens, fell to the city government. However, Philadelphia’s political machine accomplished very little.

What improvements occurred during this period were limited. New neighborhoods and better urban transportation allowed lower-middle-class residents and skilled workers to move into new homes. Meanwhile, upper- and middle-class residents moved north and west of the city center to Chestnut Hill and Overbrook Farms. Some continued to reside near Rittenhouse Square and along north Broad Street, and other Philadelphia residents took the opportunity to use new commuter rail systems and leave the city altogether. Havertown, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Saint Davids became their destinations.

For industrial workers, Philadelphia became a harsh world. Business and economic change caused a great deal of disruption for workers and accentuated urban problems. Shipyards closed and the Baldwin Locomotive Works moved its facility further south toward Delaware County. Other economic changes impacted the textile industries, as many of those moved south. The effect of these changes meant that “the poor, both black and white, still often lived in houses lacking indoor toilets, running water, and central heat” (p. 72). The prosperity that came with industrial capitalism, war production, and the consumerism of the 1920s did little to assist Philadelphia’s workers.

The author notes some political and civic success despite the city’s continued economic decline. Among the successes were the creation of public-private partnerships and the maintenance of the city’s business district. These same leaders looked to keep local industries in the city and encourage more industries to move to Philadelphia. Business leaders saw high taxes as the main culprit for decisions to either stay in Philadelphia or to move to it. Cutting taxes injured critical social services, such as transportation and education. Encouraging gentrification and the redevelopment of some neighborhoods did little to stop the outward flow of the city’s population and tax base. This was a migration which had begun fifty years before.  

In the decades after the war, the city’s Redevelopment Authority cleared numerous blocks and left them vacant until someone was interested. Redevelopment in this way often targeted the poorest neighborhoods. This period of time saw the continual impoverishment of Philadelphia’s working class and their surroundings. 

At the same time, the city did all it could to accommodate the growing suburban population. With limited resources, Philadelphia’s leaders approved the decision to assist in the construction of Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum. Situated near Interstate 95, the stadiums, like their contemporary counterparts, moved Philadelphia’s sports teams from urban neighborhoods, such as Twenty-first and Lehigh Avenue, to a part of the city accessible to suburban residents.  

Philadelphia’s problems continued as they had in previous generations. Redevelopment and revitalization continued to be focal points for the city’s politicians. From Wilson Goode’s Anti-Graffiti Network and Mural Arts Program to Ed Rendell’s goal to rejuvenate Center City and create the Avenue of the Arts, Philadelphia’s political leaders looked for ways to connect local residents with corporate support and regional patronization. Still, the city had much more visible problems.  Urban blight continued and racial and ethnic conflict remained. The MOVE (1985) incident exemplified the continual problems of race, ethnicity, and financial inequality. The cleanup from the MOVE fire exhibited another aspect of Philadelphia’s long-standing problems. Mayor Goode, who promised to rebuild the neighborhood, granted the contract to “a crony” (p. 105), the legacy of which, as Simon writes, “was of fraud and corruption” that dragged into the twenty-first century. Goode’s successor, Rendell, looked to revitalize parts of the city, but again, the worst areas saw little help.

Revitalization through gentrification in the late twentieth century saw the destruction of viable neighborhoods. As Simon writes, gentrification had very negative impacts. These included increased property taxes, eviction of renters, and large profits to real estate agents and developers. Still, civic and political leaders looked for new ways to create jobs and employment opportunities. At times, these ventures succeeded, such as the closing of the Navy Yard in 1995. At other moments, when economic downturns hit or jobs were difficult to find, Philadelphia experienced increases in drug use and street crime.

These ever-present social problems increased outmigration. The financial ability to leave the city matched the desire to leave. Drugs and crime were part of the problem. However, the decreasing viability of Philadelphia’s school system played a significant role in these decisions. Educational problems demanded some response. In Simon’s view, the creation of charter schools only accelerated the demise of local schools, thus making things worse. According to Simon, in 2008, only two-thirds of entering freshmen graduated, but this was an increase since 1997 (p. 117).

Simon concludes the book by presenting where the city is today. Beyond Center City, the arts district, and the historic district, “there remained another Philadelphia” (p. 122). This Philadelphia contained nearly one-half million residents—all living below the poverty line. High unemployment, limited opportunities, and discredited ventures like gentrification left the city in a difficult position. According to Simon, the new century demands greater investment in “education, social welfare, and housing” (p. 122).

However, these solutions resonate throughout the book. Job creation was as much on William Penn’s mind in 1685 and 1700 as it was for Philadelphia’s civic leaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The problems addressed by reformers in 1800 as they pursued clean water and improved public health continued into the twentieth century in some parts of the city. Twentieth-century Eastwick “lacked sewers, paved streets, and streetlights” (p. 87).

The poor seemed to be at the center of the conversation. Whether it was responses built around poor houses, prisons, and aid societies, or the creation of redevelopment districts looking to improve housing and create jobs, Philadelphia’s leaders—political, civic, and religious—responded to poverty in a variety of ways. The author does an outstanding job outlining the problems and the programs meant to solve them in the space available.  

The problem seems to be that in many ways the changing Philadelphia did not change very much. The problems in every century revolved around business development and the creation of jobs. Secondly, once the city grew to a certain size, public health became an overriding issue. Concerns over public health and proper housing existed throughout Philadelphia’s history and in every part of Simon’s study. If the problems were consistent, Philadelphia’s leadership responded in similar fashion. From Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company to the establishment of Central High School to the Free Library, Philadelphians held a strong commitment to education and social betterment. The various initiatives to encourage new business development and economic growth were meant to filter down from the top to the bottom. Beginning with Penn’s own marketing of Pennsylvania to Quakers in the British Isles and German pietists to Mayor Rendell’s marketing of Philadelphia’s Center City and a new civic center, leadership was often multifaceted. Business leaders sought profit and economic prosperity. They needed a labor supply and economic advantages, such as lower taxes. Philadelphia’s economic development demanded both the capital that came from businesses and their owners and workers to work in the variety of skilled and unskilled jobs that these businesses created.

Philadelphia changed. The problems and responses that came from these changes often did not. Philadelphia, since the eighteenth century, had poverty, racial and ethnic conflict, and at times, political turmoil. One might say nothing changed. The editors and Professor Simon look to two things about Philadelphia. The first is that the city changed in some ways and did not change in many others. Simon provides some insight into how change and continuity formed the history of the city. Secondly, the editors and the author look to make a case that Philadelphia is unique in this historical process. That conclusion nevertheless seems in doubt. Philadelphia, in comparison to other major American cities, was a leader at certain moments and critical to the broader development of the nation. At other times, the city lagged far behind. The idea that Philadelphia was different, as compared to New York or Boston, or even small urban, industrial cities and boroughs like Harrisburg or Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, is questionable.

As a narrative, Professor Simon’s work here is invaluable. The writing is done well and the footnotes are an asset for anyone studying or teaching Pennsylvania history. However, unlike the old Pennsylvania Historical Association series, this work is physically disappointing. The copy reviewed has fallen apart within months of its acquisition. The old Pennsylvania History Series continue to thrive on the bookshelf, forty years after being acquired. Students and faculty who use this book will need something to keep the pages inside the cover.


Citation: Christopher N. Fritsch. Review of Simon, Roger D., Philadelphia: A Brief History. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL:

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