Secret Philly

Why do we call Philly’s downtown ‘Center City’? Historians aren’t sure

It could stem from William Penn’s original “Centre Square” — or have to do with the metropolis’ shifting borders.

The Comcast Technology Center dominates the Philly skyline

The Comcast Technology Center dominates the Philly skyline

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Center City is the second-most populous downtown area in the United States, yet anyone who lives here knows it’s not officially called “Downtown.”

What isn’t known, however, is why.

Even well-versed Philly historians and researchers don’t have an answer. Turns out there’s no conclusive, agreed upon origin story of the “Center City” moniker — although there are a few theories.

David Haugaard, director of research services at the Historical Society of Pa., noted that since Center City includes other distinct localities, such as Chinatown, Society Hill and others, it encompasses more than what Americans traditionally consider to be a “downtown” — usually a center for business, city government and cultural activities.

So having a different name makes sense. But that still doesn’t answer where it comes from.

Haugaard’s colleague Anthony DiGiovanni, a cataloger and researcher, believes Center City is likely a derivative of “Centre Square,” which comes from William Penn’s original plan for Philadelphia, laid out as a grid with five public squares: Rittenhouse Square, Logan Square, Franklin Square, Washington Square and Centre Square.

Thomas Holme, the first Surveyor General of Pa. and right-hand man to Penn, drew up a prototype of Philadelphia in 1683 as an advertisement to attract white settlers to the “utopic,” symmetrical and green urban development.

1683 – Original Plan for Philadelphia by Thomas Holme
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Centre Square, Penn envisioned, would be the ideal spot for a Quaker meeting house, a market and a state house. It was also meant to be located in the geographic center of Penn’s city plan. The land reserved for Centre Square would later be renamed Penn Square, which subsequently became the permanent home of City Hall in 1871.

Joaquin Moreland Sender, who works in the library and business services department at the Historical Society, echoed DiGiovanni’s theory, and offered a more detailed chronology.

“My assumption — and that’s all that is,” Sender told Billy Penn, “is the concept of ‘Center City’ probably emerges after the city is consolidated in 1854. Prior to this date, the City of Philadelphia was largely limited to what we today call ‘Center City.'”

What consolidation? The growth of the city was never consistent with Penn’s original plan — which resulted in a whole mess of lawlessness and some economic stagnancy.

Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The great consolidation of 1854

As Philadelphia grew, most people chose to establish homes and business along the Delaware River, where all the activity and commerce took place, Sender explained, rather than setting up neatly along the grid laid out in Holme’s map. Over time, various boroughs and townships were established throughout the County of Philadelphia, but outside of the city itself.

For nearly 200 years, Philadelphia boundaries only extended east and west between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers and north and south between Vine and South streets. The county was made up of thirteen townships, six boroughs and nine districts, all with their own governmental structures and law enforcement agencies.

This led to various issues. For example, citizens could (and would) break Philadelphia law, escape across the border into another part of the county and go unpunished. There was also the tax issue: because the county’s population was not concentrated in in the city, the area’s major seat of government had no tax jurisdiction over it. Districts outside the city proper began to rack up debts that they could no longer afford to take on alone.

On Feb. 2, 1854, the Act of Consolidation was signed into law, extending the municipal borders.

The County of Philadelphia not only became synonymous with the City of Philadelphia, it also established executive power to a mayor, expanded and unified the police department and brought all municipal authority under Philadelphia’s government.

As far as who coined the term “Center City” and when it first came into popular existence? Sender could not help further. “I have not found any clear answers,” he said.

1854 – Philadelphia Consolidation
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Center City is not unique

To clear up a common misconception, Philadelphia doesn’t have the only Center City in the U.S.

There’s an entire town in Minnesota with that name, which is different. But our Pennsylvania neighbor, Allentown, does refer to its downtown as such. Was it also inspired by Penn’s original plan? Possibly — the land was originally owned by Thomas Penn, William’s son, and was founded by a friend of the Penn family.

Philly reddit took a gander at the Center City question two years ago, inspiring several impassioned responses and a few smart-sounding theories with no research to back the claims (that’s reddit, what are you gonna do…).

Some redditors seemed to have an above-average grasp of the city’s history — or at least were able to come up with plausible answers:

reddit screenshot center city 2
reddit screenshot center city 3

But in the end, the first and hottest take on the thread is what the Billy Penn newsroom might adopt as the explanation going forward:

reddit screenshot center city 1



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