Urban Renewal Era

"If you're thinking about Eastwick's history and events that are a part of the Eastwick history, you cannot exclude in any way where Eastwick was about four or five decades ago." -Earl Wilson, EFNC president

The land underlying Eastwick has always been characterized by vast open spaces and a close proximity to the Schuylkill River and Cobbs and Darby Creeks. Names for the neighborhood during the first half of the twentieth century reflect this close orientation to these features of the landscape, including "Clearview," "Elmwood," and the nickname "the Meadows." The turn of the century also witnessed a heightened interest in Eastwick, which served as a popular weekend destination for residents of downtown Philadelphia. Visitors were attracted to the open fields in Eastwick, and were encouraged to put a $2.50 down payment on a $50 property for weekend excursions. Many of these titles were eventually lost and remained as undeveloped land. 

Eastwick remained a semirural neighborhood through the 1950s. Open space comprised 60% of the land area in Eastwick, and many families maintained small farms on their properties. The wetland system now protected by the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge also extended much further in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1901 the wetlands encompassed 5,700 acres, absorbing overflows from the Darby and Cobbs Creeks. By the 1950s wetland acreage was reduced to 1,660 acres.

Use the maps above to examine Eastwick over the past 150 years! We recommend checking out the 1862, 1910, and 1942 maps. Orient yourself by finding the current entrance to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at 86th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard. Find the historic extent of the wetlands by looking east along the Schuylkill. Credit: PhilaGeoHistory

Island Avenue is a persistent feature in the built environment of Eastwick. Use of Island Avenue as a main thoroughfare originates with the Lenape tribe Indigenous to this area. Listen to John Hemphill III discuss pre- and early colonial history of Eastwick and Philadelphia.

The 19,300 residents in Eastwick comprised a vibrant community that was uniquely integrated for the time. A survey conducted in 1936 by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation counted 80% of the population as "Negro" and 15% as "foreign-born," primarily describing "Polish-Italians."  Neighbors also worked together to advocate for common causes. The Greater Eastwick Improvement Association was organized in the mid-1920s and campaigned for streetlight installation, highway improvement, and for the Philadelphia International Airport to be built in Eastwick.

Terry Williams grew up in Eastwick prior to redevelopment. Here he illustrates neighborhood cooperation during his childhood.

Leonard Stewart's father lived in Eastwick prior to redevelopment. Here he relays a story of how "people actually lived off the land."

Terry Williams recalls his neighbors' small farms in Eastwick prior to urban renewal. Poultry and fruit trees were commonly found in the neighborhood.

Earl Wilson describes a vibrant Eastwick prior to redevelopment.

Leonard Stewart describes the cesspools around his father's house resulting from a lack of indoor plumbing.

Although more white families had moved into the area by the 1950s, the area maintained what a federal housing offical described "considerable racial interspersion of residence."  A survey in the 1950s counted 2,188 white families residing alongside 1,127 nonwhite families in Southwest Eastwick. 

Eastwick was also home to 278 commercial businesses and 11 eleven factories, which employed many residents. The neighborhood also maintained 40 churches and an animated community hub along Eastwick Avenue. Residents were generally self-sufficient: 72% owned their own homes, and many harvested their own food.

The semirural nature of Eastwick also led to several problems. Eastwick was unconnected to the Philadelphia sewer system and lacked sidewalks. The majority of Eastwick lies eleven feet below the Delaware River and is prone to flooding. Open sewers and auto junkyards in vacant lots flooded frequently and attracted rats. Furthermore, Eastwick’s numerous vacant lots had a tax delinquency rate of 84 percent.

Eastwick needed major improvements to its infrastructure, but such a project would constitute an exorbitant expense for the city. Local government in Philadelphia had long been supportive of national trend toward public housing. In 1947, Mayor Bernard Samuel championed the provisions for public housing in Taft-Ellender-Wagner Act, declaring that "Philadelphia needs the benefits of the T-E-W Bill to help solve vital housing and redevelopment problems."

Migration of affluent families to the suburbs accelerated in the 1920s, and city governments nationwide were concerned that property values would decrease and slums would proliferate within city limits. By 1955, an estimated 9,000 Philadelphians migrated to the suburbs annually. Alarmist rhetoric spurred fears that vacated middle class homes would become low-rent apartments for the nearly 7,000 immigrants arriving in Philadelphia every year. Sensationalism aside, this stereotype did not fit Eastwick, where 72% of residents owned their own home.

Housing shortages during the Great Depression and after World War II further bolstered national support for public housing. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission finally saw an opportunity to improve Eastwick's infrastructure with the passage of the Housing Act of 1949. The city was eligible for $54 million in federal redevelopment grants, plus another $65 million loan, to completely redesign Eastwick.  However, the Housing Act coupled provisions to construct new housing with funds designated for slum clearance.

Terry Williams' family was mandated to move for redevelopment. Here he discusses the three successive moves his family made during his adolescence.

John Hemphill discusses the tension between the overwhelming optimism portrayed in media covering the development and the torment felt by residents in the area.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission declared Eastwick as blighted and scheduled the neighborhood for redevelopment in 1950. The redevelopment process would proceed in four steps. First, the City Planning Commission would draft a Redevelopment Area Plan. The Eastwick Redevelopment Area Plan was finalized in 1954, and projected 45,000 people living in 4,100 apartments, 670 detached houses, and 7,800 row homes. The plan also stipulated that the new neighborhood be racially integrated, a unique condition for the time. The plan was lauded as the largest urban renewal project in the nation, and city planners were excited for the opportunity to design a fully planned green community. However, the plan would also require the acquisition of over 2,000 homes, displacing 8,636 of the 19,300 residents and breaking up the existing integrated community.

The redevelopment plan and declaration of eminent domain was met with intense rejection from Eastwick residents. In 1955, residents produced a petition with 4,000 resident signatures opposing the development plan. Residents felt that Eastwick needed services, but not wholesale redevelopment. In a 1957 letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, resident Nancy Hodge pointed out how public conceptions of slums didn't align with the lived experiences in Eastwick:

"Most peoples' conception of slums is a filthy cluttered section breeding disease and criminals. The majority of Eastwick is green grass and trees. The city plans on building project homes and apartments to clutter up these green fields, laying a model foundation for a slum area to develop...If City Council passes this bill Eastwick residents will be a mass of displaced persons forced to buy other homes, many beyond their means."

Another 1958 article lists myriad concerns raised by Eastwick residents. Many feared that redevelopment would end integration in the neighborhood. Some had just spent money on a new home. Others were too old to move. Nevertheless, the Redevelopment Authority obtained title to homes within the site boundary between 1957 and 1958 and began to mandate that residents sell their homes.

Leonard Stewart discusses the filling project that deposited dredge from the Schuylkill River in Eastwick.

Margie and Nancy Cobb recount the declaration of eminent domain in Eastwick. Although many were forced out, a couple of residents refused to leave. "That’s the other thing that shows you about Elmwood people," says Margie. "They’re not going nowhere."

The second step of the redevelopment process was for the Redevelopment Authority to obtain title to and demolish homes. Demolition began in 1957 northeast of Island Ave. The third step of redevelopment aimed to address flooding in the project area. In order to mitigate flooding, the elevation of Eastwick would be raised by adding 11,000,000 cubic yards of fill dredged from the Schuylkill River (the fill was initially planned to cover the John Heinz refuge!). The foundations of housing projects would be built on top of the fill. However, as later residents would discover, the fill settled unevenly causing the foundations new homes to crack and buckle. 

The fourth step in redevelopment selected a private developer to complete the project. In 1959, the Reynolds Aluminum Service Corp. won the bid to develop the new Eastwick.  Reynolds, along with local developers Samuel and Henry Berger, incorporated a new subsidiary entitled the "New Eastwick Corporation" (NEC) to manage the development.

The project entered the construction phase in 1961. However, development proceeded slowly and never completed its established goals. Although Reynolds and NEC promised to build 2,000 homes in the first three years of its project, by 1966 they had sold only 503 new homes. Many prospective white tenants rejected living in an integrated neighborhood. To maintain white interest, the NEC implemented an illegal racial quota to ensure black tenants only comprised 20% of the residency.

In 1970, Reynolds and NEC entered a partnership with the Korman corporation to meet the projects goals. Despite challenges in development, construction increased in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1982 4,022 new housing units had been completed. An apartment complex at 7900 Lindbergh Blvd. was completed in 1971, and another apartment at 8400 Lindbergh Blvd. was finished in 1978. Although the original goal to bring in 45,000 residents was far from met, Eastwick's population had risen to 18,000.

Urban Renewal Era