Philadelphia’s Society Hill is a delightful, historic neighborhood, containing the largest concentration of 18th and early 19th century structures in the country. Unlike Beacon Hill in Boston or Charleston’s Battery, it also contains a remarkable amount of unapologetic Modernism. This is not the result of an accident but a precise plan, one which produced a result that doesn’t quite exist anywhere else in the United States.
Society Hill is generally advertised as a banner success for preservation amidst an age of fecklessly sweeping urban renewal. For the most part, it was, yet that’s not quite all of the story. Its 1960s redevelopment accomplished a great deal of preservation, but that was enabled by wholesale condemnation and forcible land acquisitions. It also produced a demographic pattern that’s all too familiar: a lower-class and substantially African American neighborhood transformed abruptly into one that was affluent and white.