Calls to Rich Boardman at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Maps Collection came from out-of-towners, genealogists, but mostly, rowdy bar patrons.
“Often someone would call me and say, ‘I’m having an argument with a friend! What’s the boundary of this neighborhood or that neighborhood?’ ” said Boardman, who ran the Maps Collection for nearly 30 years. “They would be on the phone shouting, ‘This is the boundary! No, this is it!’ ”
When it comes to defining neighborhoods in Philadelphia, there are no easy answers.
Take, for example, the swath of the city bounded by South Street to Washington, and from Broad to the Schuylkill. Is it Graduate Hospital? South of South? Southwest Center City? It’s been called G-Ho. So-So. And then, of course, it has neighborhoods within: Schuylkill Square. Naval Square. And Devil’s Pocket.
And that’s just 0.4 square miles of a 141-square-mile city.
For decades, Philadelphia has carried the designation of “the city of neighborhoods,” a moniker cemented over the years, even as other large cities carved out tiny neighborhoods of their own.
Boardman says the nickname stuck for good reason: The now-retired historian has identified 685 Philadelphia neighborhoods dating to 1778. That’s everything from Chestnut Hill to Frankford to Beggarstown (located in today’s Mount Airy section), recorded on a map just two years after America declared independence. In 2015, Boardman added the final name to his current list: Olde Richmond, which he discovered in the “older” section of the city’s Port Richmond neighborhood.
But if history is any indication, Boardman’s list will continue to grow, as the city rapidly gentrifies and re-labels.
Given fluid boundaries, self-declared names, and a fierce pride among residents about where they are from, squabbles over neighborhood names are nothing new. At one point, more than a century ago, today’s Mount Airy had at least four names: Dogtown, Beeberstown, Beggarstown and Franklinville.
(Think those sound odd? There was once a Pumpkintown around the intersection of Germantown Avenue and Bells Mills Road, and a Frog Hollow in today’s Logan section.)
As new development has marched across the city, residents at times have been pitted against developers and real-estate agents, historians and preservationists, over neighborhood names: Should the Gayborhood be called Midtown Village? And what do we call the city’s Callowhill neighborhood — that, or the Loft District, or Chinatown North, or Eraserhood?
From the quarrels have emerged questions about who has the authority to declare a name and where the names should come from. And a bigger question has emerged about when change may be necessary.
According to a spokesman for the Philadelphia Planning Commission, the city has no involvement in drawing neighborhood boundaries — and keeps no official count of neighborhoods. Some, such as Fishtown and East Falls, date back decades, taking their names from the geography around them. Others, such as Chinatown, emerged based on the populations and businesses that settled within.
In recent years, new, sometimes controversial, names have crept into common vernacular — places such as Temple Town in North Philadelphia, Newbold in Point Breeze, and Naval Square in Southwest Center City — all named for massive development that occurred in their boundaries.
The rise of dozens of names has been fueled by new laws governing Philadelphia’s self-organized Registered Community Organizations, collections of neighborhood residents who are notified about proposed developments that may affect them and who then get to offer input.
In practice, the role has allowed groups to carve out territory, naming their RCOs to promote a desired name. It’s given rise to nearly 290 RCOs — and a multitude of organizations named for both historic and new neighborhoods, places such as Olde Richmond and Swampoodle, Cathedral Park and Olde Kensington. (And, for that matter, there are RCOs for South Kensington, East Kensington, and New Kensington, too.)
A few years ago, Denise Whittaker helped launch the Community Action Group in Northwest Philadelphia, claiming the swath from 24th and Allegheny to 30th and Hunting Park Avenue to Indiana Avenue for her RCO. The name she gave the area? Swampoodle Heights, reviving the historic Swampoodle name, used for the area in the early 1900s.
“We wanted to have a historic name, and this area was known for being swampy before industry moved in,” said Whittaker, the group’s vice president.
Why add Heights? The area around 30th Street is situated on more elevated land, she said, but mostly, “psychologically, a neighborhood name may change how you think and feel about where you live. … We’re trying to clean up our community.”
Some residents have taken to it: The Community Action Group hung signs for the new neighborhood — Swampoodle Heights: Love Where you Live, and another, Live Where You Love — along light posts, and has spread the name at cleanup events. Others, however, remain skeptical.
“Some people say, ‘I don’t live in Swampoodle; I live in Allegheny West,” Whittaker said. “… If you want to say Allegheny West, that’s your choice.”
Other neighborhood name changes have faced fiercer push-back.
The Cecil B. Moore section of North Philadelphia has undergone tremendous development over the years as the student population at Temple University has swelled. In return, private developers increasingly have been building in surrounding neighborhoods, replacing dilapidated single-family homes with student high-rises. Eventually the redevelopment gave way to “Temple Town” — a new name so widely used that even Google Maps picked it up.
Eventually, after protest, Google stripped the Temple Town name, and the Cecil B. Moore neighborhood was restored. For many North Philadelphia residents, it was a lesson about how fragile community history can be in the midst of change.
Other neighborhoods have seen their names shift under development pressures in recent years, too, many times altered by developers who are trying to re-brand to create interest in an area.
Developer John Longacre employed that method when he took a chance on an area of South Philadelphia bound by Jackson Street to Tasker and 18th Street to Broad. At a time when no one was developing that section of Point Breeze, Longacre introduced the South Philly Tap Room, new housing, and other commercial activity along West Passyunk Avenue to revitalize the area. When his job was complete, he dubbed the neighborhood Newbold after a street located in the neighborhood decades before.
“I’s a great name,” Longacre said. “It has ties to the history, and there’s a connotation — it’s new, it’s bold, it seemed to fit.”
As for that unlabeled area in the Southwest part of the city? The South of South Neighborhood Association said the group is not pushing any particular name.
“We’re trying to be sensitive of the neighbors that were here before us,” said Nicole Koedyker, programs manager for the group. “… In a unique neighborhood like Grad Hospital … it’s important to help [residents] feel passionate about the neighborhood.”