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How Old City rebounded from 80 residents to one of the most bustling neighborhoods in Philadelphia

It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, community centers and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love Old City? Buy the stuff.

Old City is the one of the O.G. neighborhoods of Philadelphia, not to mention the birthplace of the United States. But it was also, for a long time, a neglected neighborhood. In 1970, only 80 people lived in the entire neighborhood. Artists and Stephen Starr helped revive it, though, and it is now known for history, great restaurants, nightlife and more.

Boundaries

Old City is bounded by Front Street to the east and 6th Street to the west and Florist Street to the north and Walnut Street to the south, according to the Old City District. The Delaware Waterfront between Walnut and Florist is unofficially considered part of the neighborhood, too.

Population

3,399

Population 20-to-34

1,993 (59 percent)

Racial composition

 

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Rent vs. own

1,447 vs. 692 (68 percent vs. 32 percent)

Median rent/home value

According to Zillow, median rent in Old City is $1,795 and the median home value is $373,900.

History

Old City is one of Philadelphia’s first settlements. In 1685, the Europeans built Philadelphia’s first dock at Walnut Street, making this area of the city home to a burgeoning trade center. According to the Old City District, much of the neighborhood’s entire layout is based on its proximity to the Delaware River and trade. All the rowhouses and narrow, dizzying streets we see today sprung up the way they did to best fit trade.

And, as most of us know, Old City is the cradle of American democracy. It’s home to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and several other historical sites.

Still, its rich history couldn’t save it from a notable decline in the mid-20th century. The construction of I-95 cut off Old City from the waterfront and even before then trade had dwindled in the area. By 1971, half of its 800 warehouses and similar buildings were vacant or damaged.

Its revival started in the 80s and 90s when the neighborhood became a hotspot for art and entertainment. The scope of its transformation is hard to imagine. Almost nobody, except for those on Elfreth’s Alley, used to live in Old City. The neighborhood’s population in 1970 was 80. Just 80 residents! It shot up to 300 by 1980 and to more than 2,000 by the late 80s.

Today it remains a favorite place for tourists and locals. You can visit to Old City for some of Philadelphia’s top restaurants, its history, wild bars, artsy coffee shops and more.

Legendary event

Uh, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the signing of the Constitution. America was born in Old City.

Backdrop

In 2004 and 2005, “Real World Philadelphia” was filmed in Old City. The house was located at Third and Arch streets in an old bank. People were so hostile to the cast when they lived in town that producers on the show had to tell them they needed to go out more often. Still, cast members look back at their time on the show with largely fond memories. The old house isn’t doing as well, with the city taking action against its owners for owing back taxes.

Real World House Philly
Bobby Chen

Alumni

Ben Franklin: Franklin’s first home in Philadelphia was located on Market Street between Third and Fourth streets. He was living with his father-in-law at this location.

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Chip Kelly: He lived in an Old City condo in 2013, but it didn’t work out so well for him. After he moved out, he was left with a $99,000 tab for failing to give notice for moving out.

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Stephen Starr: Starr has been credited with helping lead Old City’s resurgence. He opened Continental in 1995 — his first restaurant — and helped catalyze the neighborhood’s entertainment district.

Thing to check out

City Tavern. Sure, the original building is long gone, but the concept of City Tavern dates back to 1773. The place was originally built at the urging of Philadelphia’s wealthiest citizens. They wanted a place to match the cosmopolitan reputation Philadelphia was starting to enjoy. In its 18th century heyday, John Adams referred to it as the most genteel tavern in America.

What used to be

The Market Street Pond: Dock Street used to be Dock Creek, and that creek poured into a pond by about Fourth Street and Market and Chestnut streets. There was another pond by Sixth and Market streets. Our city was basically founded on a swamp. And in the early days of the city, the ponds would often cause flooding in the Old City neighborhood.

The President’s House: Philadelphia was the nation’s capital for George Washington’s presidency and part of John Adams’ presidency. They lived in a house located at about 5th and Market.

The Old Court House. We know the area by 2nd and Market streets as a place to unwind at questionable bars with more drinks than are probably necessary. Such behavior could’ve gotten you whipped on the spot in the 18th century. The area by 2nd and Market featured a building that functioned as a city hall and prison. Criminals were whipped or executed in public at this site.

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Library Company of Philadelphia via Old City Philadelphia: Cradle of American Democracy

The Floating Church of the Redeemer. The Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia, which is still around, used to have a church that floated along the Delaware River. It catered to working seamen who traveled aboard ships on the Delaware.

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Library of Congress via Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront

Controversy

Has Old City gotten too douchey? People wonder if the area’s many bars alienate the artists who helped revive the neighborhood in the 80s and 90s. Others say it’s one of the last few solid “weird” places in Philadelphia.

Instagram this

Christ Church, founded in 1695.

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Cameraluv via Flickr
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Takomabibelot via Flickr
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