Black businesses helped power a thriving mixed community near West Rittenhouse Street
In honor of the arrival of Black History (AKA American history) Month, this Time Machine column looks at a historically Black neighborhood in Germantown that rose from humble origins to become a dynamo of business activity.
Having its origins in the pre-Revolutionary War era, Rittenhouse Street provided a vital connection between the village of RittenhouseTown and the markets along Germantown Avenue. Rittenhouse Street was for a period also referred to as “Poor House Lane” due to its proximity to the almshouse which once stood on what is now the east side of Pulaski Avenue south of Rittenhouse Street.
For the first half of the 19th century, the street remained largely undeveloped. However, a review of period maps reveals that by 1855, the first block of West Rittenhouse Street was intensely developed. This may in part be a result of the arrival of the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad to Germantown in 1832, with its depot located close by, at the southeast corner of Germantown Avenue and Price Street.
This proximity to the railroad would have made West Rittenhouse Street attractive as a place to live. By 1870, the development of West Rittenhouse Street had extended west as far as Wayne Avenue, with those of English, Irish, and German descent settling along the narrow street, including descendants of the Rittenhouse family. The area had begun to turn into a neighborhood, centered in part around the Rittenhouse School, which would later become the home of the Joseph E. Hill School. The late 19th century saw a growing African American community in the neighborhood, especially on West Rittenhouse and adjoining streets. These new residents supported a network of Black business that had also successfully established themselves on the Avenue nearby; among them were John Trower, a Black caterer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist with his business at 5706, and George Deane, a realtor at 5914, just around the corner from West Rittenhouse Street.
The latter would rent to Blacks arriving from the South during the first Great Migration, helping to make the area more affordable for those wishing to move into the neighborhood. The area quickly became a beehive of activity, anchored by the Joseph E. Hill School at 58 West Rittenhouse Street, and the Mount Zion Baptist Church, on the north side of the unit block. The Rittenhouse Y.M.C.A. was also an invaluable neighborhood asset, located at number 132.
Businesses, many of them Black-owned, settled on West Rittenhouse Street as well. According to the 1929 Boyd’s Philadelphia city directory, these included plumbing, auto repair, real estate, antiques, and medical professions. The medical offices of Dr. William H. Warrick existed in the neighborhood for over 50 years, being operated at various times at 31, 120, and 124 West Rittenhouse Street, as well as at 331 West Harvey Street. The neighborhood centered along West Rittenhouse Street continued to thrive through the 1950s. However, in the 1960s, it fell on hard times for the same reasons other urban areas along the East Coast struggled, including deindustrialization, blockbusting, and redlining.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the neighborhood’s existence came at that time, when the City proposed building the Rittenhouse-Belfield Bypass as a short “loop” expressway connecting Belfield Avenue with Wissahickon Avenue. (The loop was intended to travel around the periphery of Germantown’s central business district.) In order to carry the expressway west towards Wissahickon Avenue, part of the proposed route was along West Rittenhouse Street. This would have caused irreversible damage to the vibrant Black neighborhood, all but destroying it. Fortunately, due to local opposition community members, combined with a lack of funding and tepid political support, the plan was never executed, sparing the West Rittenhouse community.
NOTE: Historic maps, the Germantown Courier, Polk’s 1929 Philadelphia city directory, J. Gordon Baugh’s 1913 A Souvenir of Germantown, the oral histories of the Germantown Historical Society’s African Americans in Germantown Between the World Wars project, and the Germantown Crier informed the writing of this article.
About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. All images courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/ Historic Germantown.
At right is a photograph of Mount Zion Baptist Church, as published in J. Gordon Baugh’s 1913 A Souvenir of Germantown.