Philadelphia City Profile
Updated: Oct 7, 2022
Glenwood Community Garden, Wikimedia Commons.
The City of Brotherly Love lies on the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, at the intersection of two navigable waterways, the mighty Delaware River and the smaller Schuylkill River. With 1.6 million residents it the sixth largest city in the U.S., although its population and rank have steadily declined. It entered the twentieth century as the third largest city after New York and Chicago, and peaked at 2,071,605 in 1950. Over the next four decades, it lost 23.67% of its population through large-scale exodus of White families to surrounding suburban areas. Today Philadelphia is known for its historic rowhouses, bustling downtown, grand parks, universities and art institutions. However, it is also a city with many neighborhoods in severe distress, particularly on the north side.
General Socio-Demographic Data
Area (sq mi)
142.70 sq mi
42,100 vacant properties (2019)
Total housing units
Total vacant units
12,000 (10%) (2019)
Change in unemployment rates
+ 42% (1991-2000)
- 79% (2000-2010)
14.7% Hispanic or Latinx
0.4% American Indian and Alaskan Native (2019)
Sources: US Census Bureau, United States Department of Labour, 247.wallst.com, Philadelphia Land Bank
Philadelphia has a long history of racial segregation stretching back to the nineteenth century and deepening throughout the twentieth century. Racism and xenophobia resulted in whites-only restaurants, stores, hotels, clubs, beaches, parks, churches, and cinemas (DuBuois, 1899; Surgrue, 2008). Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) residential risk assessment maps, Federal Housing Administration underwriting practices, public school policies, and public housing site selection comprised the major sources of official, public segregation. Privately, White real estate companies, home owner associations, employers, and chambers of commerce were overwhelmingly committed to racial segregation, as were most of the city's trade unions. All of this resulted in the circumscription of Black families within "Negro Districts," typically featuring the most crowded and dilapidated housing in the city.
The Urban Renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s were defined by demolition, with substantial clearance of traditional neighborhoods, especially predominantly Black districts. Residents of targeted neighborhoods were allowed little participation in the decisions that affected their lives and communities. Ironically those programs contributed significantly to the creation of vacant lots and other blighted conditions in Philadelphia, as well as in other cities across the country. In the 1987 book Public Housing, Race, and Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920-1974, John Bauman chronicles the shift in housing projects from the 1930’s-1940’s (racially segregated) housing for industrial working classes to the 1960’s-1970’s predominantly African-American urban underclass. Bauman argues that this shift is not accidental and that housing conditions for Black workers were a concern for reformists long before the 1930’s housing reforms that instituted the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). He also detailed the challenges that the Philadelphia Housing Authority had in relocating residents of tenement housing into neighborhoods that weren’t already blighted.
Table 1. Philadelphia Population Change (1950 - 2020)
Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA)
Sources: MSA data: U.S. Department of Commerce (1950) Census, Washington D.C; Hobbs,F and Stoopes, N. (1980) Demographic Trends in the 20th Century, Volume 8, Issue 3; U.S. Census Bureau (1990-2000). City data: U.S. Department of Commerce (1950-2020) Census, Washington D.C; County data: Historic Population Change in Pennsylvania: 1900-2010 (2021) PennState Harrisburg, Pennsylvania State Data Center Research Brief.
Moreover, with the close of World War I and the return of the war veterans, black workers found themselves pushed out of the industrial jobs that had first drawn them to the city. By 1927, only 6.1 percent of black workers in Philadelphia were employed in the industrial sector. Still, black migrants continued to travel northward from the Jim Crow South. The under-employment of African Americans continued after the Great Depression, as migrants numbers waned. World War II revived the flow of black migrants to Philadelphia as the expansion of defense industries created new demand for labor. But the new migrants encountered the same paradoxical mix of new opportunities and persistent racial discrimination that had greeted the first wave of migrants from the South. Racial discrimination in 1940s Philadelphia was pervasive in both employment, where most skilled, technical, and professional occupations were closed to blacks, and housing, where racial barriers as well as the wartime housing shortage enabled landlords in black neighborhoods to profit from doubling up families, subdividing apartments, and charging exorbitant rents for dilapidated housing units (DuBois, 1899; Bauman, 1987; Wolfinger, 2007). At the same time the movement of jobs from the city to the suburbs and from blue-collar jobs to professional and management positions had began (Pew, 2018).
In the mid-fifties, industrial renewal programs trying to address the "problem of jobs" in Philadelphia began (McKee, 2002). The "problem of jobs" was the imbalance between employment that paid lower middle class wages and the size, spatial distribution and skill of the working age population. . In 1957, the city adopted the Central Urban Renewal Area (CURA), implemented by the quasi-public Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC). This industrial renewal program shifted to a comprehensive focus where housing is addressed among a broader plan for economic development focused on providing facilities for the small- and medium-sized firms that made up a large percentage of Philadelphia’s industrial base. McKee argues that the PIDC paid little attention to racial problems in particular and social issues in general; the PIDC contributed to the development of parallel, racially defined tracks of local industrial policy in Philadelphia, each of which successfully addressed elements of the city’s problem of jobs, but could not confront the challenge of the post-Fordist transition in any comprehensive fashion. Between 1967 and 1987, Philadelphia lost over half of its industrial sector, approximately 160,000 manufacturing jobs and experienced a significant population loss (See Table 1).
Table 2. Philadelphia Race Change (1950 - 2020)
Sources: Sorensen et al., 2012; Massey and Hajnal (1995); Logan and Stults, 2021
In "Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI): A Case Study of Mayoral Leadership, Bold Planning, and Conflict”, (2016) McGovern assesses Mayor John F. Street's 2002 plan to deal with this legacy. The plan aimed at revitalizing Philadelphia's distressed neighborhoods by issuing $295 million in bonds to finance the acquisition of property, the demolition of derelict buildings, and the assembling of large tracts of land for housing redevelopment. The 16,000 new market-rate and 5,000 affordable housing units built or planned in the city as of mid-2006, however, exceeded expectations. The NTI website boasts that since the year 2000, the average home in the city has appreciated 30 percent. According to Vitiello (2007) the national real estate boom and the increasing popularity of American downtowns helped drive this growth, fueled by low interest rates and demographic trends among “empty nesters” and twenty- and thirty-somethings. Still, economists have shown that the city’s 10-year property tax abatement for new housing construction and rehab as well as NTI-funded greening of vacant lots have indeed helped increase real estate sale prices.
McGovern (2016) argues that initially the plan was set out to pursue a mix of market-rate and affordable housing but the emphasis actually was on leveraging private sector investments and population expansion, with little engagement of community development corporations.
Indeed, according to the late activist Rosemary Cubas, the city’s eloquent language about “community partners,” “transparency” and “accountability” was a smokescreen. NTI’s managers ignored even more established organizations, such as the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations and the local office of Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), which argued for greater attention to community capacity from the outset. Even conservative critics agree that NTI has been a “black box” program lacking meaningful civic participation (Vitiello, 2007).
Finally an enduring legacy of discrimination in Philadelphia is represented by the overlap between redlined neighborhoods created in 1937 by the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and today's most disadvantaged areas. The map below (Fig. 1) shows the most disadvantaged communities in the city of Philadelphia based on Census data, including public assistance usage, poverty rate, the number of female-headed households, and the population under 18 years old. The areas in deep blue represent the most disadvantaged while the areas with pale blue or grey least disadvantaged. As Fig. 2 reveals, areas in the North, Central, Lower North and Lower Southwest Districts still overlap with areas deemed 'Hazardous' and 'Definitely Declining' by the HOLC. In this way, the HOLC functioned as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; not just a short-term description of risks, but a long-term direction of capital, investment, resources away from Black neighborhoods.
Bauman, John F. (1987) Public Housing, Race, and Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920-1974. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Berson, Lenora E. (1966) Case Study of a Riot: The Philadelphia Story. New York, NY: Institute of Human Relations Press.
DuBois, W. E. B. (1899) The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/516.html
Hunter, M. A. (2015) Black citymakers: How the Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America. Oxford University Press. https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199948130.001.0001/acprof-9780199948130
McGovern, Stephen J. (2006) “Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative: A Case Study of Mayoral Leadership, Bold Planning, and Conflict.” Housing Policy Debate (Fannie Mae Foundation 17:3, 2006), doi:10.1080/10511482.2006.9521581.
McKee, A. (2002) Philadelphia liberals and the problem of jobs, 1951–1980 University of California, Berkeley. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing
Pew (2018) A Key Driver of Poverty in Philadelphia? The Changing Nature of Work. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/01/08/a-key-driver-of-poverty-in-philadelphia-the-changing-nature-of-work
Sugrue, Thomas J. (2008) Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York, NY: Random House.
Vitiello, D. (2007) Twenty-First Century Urban Renewal in Philadelphia : The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and its Critics. https://www.plannersnetwork.org/2007/01/twenty-first-century-urban-renewal-in-philadelphia-the-neighborhood-transformation-initiative-and-its-critics/
Wolfinger, James (2007) Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.