1650 – 1800
In the middle 17th century, Swedish colonizers owned most of what is now South Philadelphia. The names of both Catharine and Christian Streets originate from those times, “Catharine” was the daughter of the first Swedish overseer of the land, and “Christian” is named in honor of Queen Christina of Sweden, who ruled at the time. With the arrival of the first British settlers, the neighborhood housed the estates of founding Philadelphia families.
Grays Ferry Avenue was Philadelphia’s main gateway to and from points South. It followed old paths of Native Americans to the Schuylkill River. A ferry crossing was first created in 1696 and the Gray family operated a ferry and floating bridge at the site. The ferry brought many founding fathers to Philadelphia from the South, including George Washington when he entered the city as the nation’s first president.
1800 – 1865
After the founding of the Republic, the neighborhood remained mostly farmland, but the first decades of the 19th century witnessed the completion of the Schuylkill Arsenal, the U.S. Naval Asylum and Academy, followed by the Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore Railroad in 1838. Each would set the stagefor the further development of the neighborhood, though only the Naval Asylum remains. By the 1840s dense rowhouse development began in the neighborhood, mostly along Broad Street and in the west along the Schuylkill River. Industrial activity also sprung up down what is now Washington Avenue, then Prime Street.
After the Civil War the neighborhood took the shape we recognize today, with block after block of two- and three-story rowhouses. Those who lived in the neighborhood worked in the neighborhood. Factories along Washington Avenue and the Schuylkill River and Center City employed most of the residents. Demographically, the neighborhood was a mix of mostly Irish Catholics, upper-middle class white Presbyterians and upper-middle-class African Americans. Many white families began to move farther out of the City and the neighborhood welcomed many emigrated blacks from the South as part of the Great Migration.
1900 – 1950
By the turn of the twentieth century, the neighborhood was a true hub of Philadelphia’s black community, home to doctors, architects, lawyers and caterers, with bars, jazz clubs, concert venues, and community institutions to support the growing population. Many Baptist or African Methodist Episcopal congregations took over church buildings from departing white Episcopal or Presbyterian congregations, or, in the case of Union Baptist, First African Baptist and Tindley Temple, financed and built their own beautiful sanctuaries.
1950 – 1990
The area suffered a series of setbacks as redlining led to minimal investment in real estate. Proposed plans for the Crosstown Expressway down South and Bainbridge Streets destroyed the vibrant commercial corridor that was South Street. Though the Crosstown Expressway was never built, the two-decade saga led many businesses and residents to leave the area, and the effects are still felt today. As people and businesses departed the neighborhood in the Fifties and Sixties, drugs and crime activity spiked. In spite of all this, families maintained a strong community throughout and worked hard to keep their community safe and secure.
1990 – Present
The 1990s and 2000s saw a re-invigoration of real estate investment and interest, transforming hundreds of vacant lots and houses into new single- and multi-family dwellings.
South of South is a one-of-a-kind neighborhood with diverse demographics and building stock. It is home to new families and old ones alike, graduate students and senior residences and elementary schools. Businesses are mostly locally owned and operated and patronized by all who live there. The neighborhood’s rich history can still be felt in the buildings and residents.