By Bobbye Burke
Individuals and communities find meaning in their experiences by "telling stories." Each of the following "stories," by persons who were asked to recall and articulate their experiences, is a part of the fifty-year history of the Center City Residents' Association, which was established in 1947. Zoning, parking, house tours, schools, outreach to the homeless, tree planting, recycling, concerts in the Square- these are the chapters in a larger story of a 20th century urban community in the process of defining itself over five decades.
When new residents decided to live in "Center City" in the 1950s and 1960s, tract houses in the suburbs were available with no down payment. Some parts of the neighborhood were run-down and neglected fifty years ago, but Rittenhouse-Fitler was never abandoned. The neighborhood's 19th century houses were intact with "real" plaster, high ceilings, vestibules and handcrafted carpentry details seldom found in new homes in the suburbs.
The renovation and preservation of the neighborhood's housing stock, begun by those early residents, continue to the present. In a society increasingly concerned with urban sprawl, fragile watersheds, and the "suburbanization" of America, the decisions of those urban pioneers to settle in the heart of the city now seem prescient.
The reform city administrations in the 1950s brought new thinking about livable cities. The international renown of the University of Pennsylvania's architecture and city planning departments brought a plenitude of theoreticians and practitioners to the community in the 1960s. The publication of The City in History, by Lewis Mumford, and The Life and Death of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, both published in 1961, gave residents a new vocabulary to describe the social cohesion and sense of neighborhood vitality which they had experienced.
The neighborhood's user-friendly streets, housing density and corner "mom and pop" stores challenged the concept of antiseptic public spaces then in vogue in many American cities.
By the 1970s, CCRA had established a long-range planning committee. Its first accomplishment was passage of the 1975 Comprehensive Rezoning Ordinance (the first rezoning since 1931) that protected the area's residential use. Within a few years, CCRA joined a coalition of neighborhood groups to halt a proposed Lombard-South Street expressway, which would have isolated Rittenhouse-Fitler from its neighbors to the south and thwarted the revitalization of the South Street corridor.
The rise of social history with its focus on the lives, working conditions and housing of ordinary people enriched residents' understanding of the area's history, the diversity of its buildings and the people who once lived in them. It's true that the neighborhood contains spacious mansions built by important architects for the city's 19th century elite, but many mill workers' courts, developers' row houses, and former stables have also become desirable residences.
During CCRA's fifty-year history, many changes have occurred, the demise of industry along the Schuylkill, new home construction west of 22nd Street in the 1950s and 1960s and the creation of Schuylkill Park in 1975. High-rise buildings were also erected, first the Rittenhouse Savoy and the Rittenhouse Claridge in 1951, then 1845 Walnut Street, 220 West Rittenhouse Square, the Dorchester Apartments, 1820 South Rittenhouse Square, Wanamaker House and the Hotel Rittenhouse. At the same time, many historic buildings on west Walnut Street and Rittenhouse Square were demolished.
By the 1980s, Rittenhouse-Fitler was no longer a somnolent residential neighborhood with a mythical past of Victorian greatness, nor a community whose future would be shaped by market forces alone. CCRA responded to the revitalization that had occurred in the area by creating a non-profit corporation, Historic Rittenhouse, Inc., to research the history of the community. In 1985, the neighborhood was designated a National Historic District, and in 1995 it became the Rittenhouse-Fitler Residential Historic District, the city's largest historic district. The recent initiative of CCRA to contract with the Center City Special Services District to provide weekly sidewalk cleaning services indicates a renewed neighborhood pride in the community's historical significance.
Center City Residents' Association has responded to the changing needs of local residents for fifty years. However, CCRA's "story-telling" is not complete; there are many chapters yet to be written in the history of this remarkable neighborhood. As Philadelphia faces the challenges of the 21st century, the vitality of Center City residential neighborhoods and such groups as CCRA will be significant factors in promoting economic development and tourism, in supporting local businesses and cultural institutions, and in encouraging investment in the city. Well into the next century, CCRA members will be leading the parade of those celebrating the rewards of living in the city. They are the ones who did not move to a tract house in the suburbs, remember!