Black ‘Doctors Row’ set to receive historic district designation in Philly

An area in South Philadelphia will become the first to be recognized as a local historic district to honor its Black history.

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In 1899, the University of Pennsylvania published noted scholar W.E.B. DuBois’ study of Black Philadelphians. His report, “The Philadelphia Negro,” showed the diversity and the challenges of the Black population in the city’s South Philadelphia neighborhood. 

Today, a block in that area dubbed Black Doctors Row is heading toward designation as a historic district, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the first in the city with a basis in African American history. 

Black Doctors Row in South Philadelphia is heading toward designation as a historic district, the first in the city to be recognized for its Black history. (Photo: Screenshot/NBC 10)

The proposed district, encompassing 154 properties from South Broad Street to South 20th — mostly three-story rowhouses built in the late 1800s — includes a home at 1515 Christian Street in which famed Black architect Julian Abele once lived.

Abele designed more than 400 buildings, including Harvard’s Widener Library, the Free Library of Philadephia and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

On Wednesday, The Inquirer reports, Philadelphia’s Historical Commission Committee on Historic Designation recommended that the area be designated as the Christian Street Historic District. 

It’s located in a neighborhood in South Philadelphia currently known as Graduate Hospital, which refers to a now-shuttered hospital once a staple there. Due to the number of Black doctors and other professionals living in the area, a swath of it was known as Black Doctors Row, similar to Striver’s Row in Harlem, New York.

Gentrification and construction in the increasingly upscale area threatened to obliterate the neighborhood’s history until residents, the Philadelphia City Council, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and the South of South Neighbors Association stepped in. Their combined efforts halted demolition in the area for a year until the nomination for historic district status could be made. City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the district, spearheaded the effort in City Hall. 

“We think it is a compelling model for how local historic districts can be considered more holistically moving forward,” Patrick Grossi, advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, told the committee. 

The moratorium on demolition ends on Friday, July 1, and the committee is expected to take the measure to a vote one week later, on Friday, July 8. Per The Inquirer report, though some residents wanted the designation to include the words “Black” or “African American,” the proposal will go through as the Christian Street Historic District. 

Nonetheless, longtime residents say that its official recognition will allow for the history of the area to be known — and be particularly proud of. 

“Christian Street was a bustling African American neighborhood,” said Linda Evans, who, with other neighbors, advocated for the designation, according to The Inquirer. “Blacks met the systemic racism in this city and the country at large by establishing their own community here.”

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