CNU XV Blog, Part 1: bad neighborhoods

MLewyn's picture

A few hours ago, I got off the plane and took the 37 bus to South Philadelphia (where I am visiting a friend for my first couple of days here). My bus went through some of the depressed neighborhoods in Southwest Philadelphia - places that are by no means as badly off as the city's deserted slums, but which are nevertheless not prosperous either.

I asked myself: what's wrong with these places? What makes them immune to the twin lures of suburban prosperity on the one hand and intown gentrification on the other?

One factor is beyond anyone's control: they are not close to downtown. The major advantage of an urban neighborhood is proximity to major job centers (such as Philadelphia's Center City or suburban satellite downtowns such as Silver Spring and Bethesda near Washington).

Moreover, the south side of Philadelphia has traditionally been industrial and working class, while Philadelphia's prosperous northwest fringe has always been prosperous. So that's two strikes against the neighborhood.

But another problem is their urban fabric. While these places have fairly old (1920s I would guess) housing stock and walkable residential neighborhoods, they have been mutilated by wide, auto-oriented streets such as Lindbergh Blvd. In essence, Southwest Philadelphia has the worst of city and suburb: the ugliness of suburbia and the distance from downtown of suburbia, combined with housing stock that is not quite old enough to be historic (by Philadelphia standards) but is not new either. Not too different, in a way, from Jacksonville's ugly, declining inner suburban neighborhoods. In Jacksonville, the oldest, most walkable, areas near the St. John's River are high-value gentrifying areas- just like Center City Philadelphia. And the furthest out, newest suburbs are too. Most places in between those extremes, the not-too-walkable inner suburbs, are struggling- just like Southwest Philadelphia.

Part of our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to figure out how to save the Southwest Philadelphias all over this nation.


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