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The “Black Bottom”

February 12, 2013
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The Black Bottom was a predominately Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia, stretching from 32nd Street to 40th Street between Walnut Street and Lancaster Avenue. The origin of the name came from multiple sources. One origin was the geographical slope that occurs at 40th Street when facing Center City. Additionally, another origin stems from the economic and racial demographic of the area, which was different from other neighborhoods near campus.

The neighborhood was destroyed as part of Penn and Drexel’s expansion during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The area known as the Black Bottom was originally known as the Greenville neighborhood. While there was a sizable Black population in Greenville in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the population exploded during the Great Migration from 1910-1930. During this time the neighborhood acquired its new name: the Black Bottom. Following World War II, the neighborhood’s population would increase again during the second wave of the Great Migration. The neighborhood had multigenerational families and a tight community in its row houses and small businesses. The neighborhood was also characterized by a strong code of ethics policies by its own community, a culture well documented in the sociological works of former Penn Professor Elijah Anderson.

In the 1950s and 1960s the area saw a decline and eventual demise due to urban renewal programs by the city of Philadelphia, Drexel University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Since most of the neighborhood was comprised of renters, many were evicted out of their homes with little compensation. There were large protests against University City’s expansion into the neighborhood with complexes like the University Science Center. In 1969, Penn students, community members, and other protestors staged a sit-in at College Hall outside of the President’s Office. Despite the protests and resistance, Penn continued to expand. One of the buildings set in place, University City High School (which the School District is currently planning to close) was constructed as a magnet school, which would also take in neighborhood children in an effort to quell concerns from Black Bottom residents. However, most of the neighborhood was gone and many of the magnet curriculum plans were abandoned once the school opened in 1971. There is a memorial wall on University City High School to commemorate the neighborhood, and former residents celebrate the last Sunday in August as Black Bottom Day.

-Lauren Alcena, CAS ‘13

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