Housing activist Milton Street and some 1,500 of his supporters during a 1979 rally they held at Whitman Park in South Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center)

In 1956, Philly officials proposed building 21 public housing projects.

After more than two and a half decades of fierce and sometimes violent resistance, only one was ever built: Whitman Park.

The first families didn’t move in until 1982, after a lengthy battle had played out.

Originally, Whitman Park was supposed to be one in a constellation of housing projects scattered through the city. The scattering was key.

Historically, large blocks of public housing were “almost always segregated by race in terms of tenancy and neighborhood placement,” per a 2016 Shelterforce article.

These 21 developments, however, were intended to be built in majority white neighborhoods and primarily serve Black Philadelphians.

Mayor Richardson Dilworth framed the effort as a way to alleviate the city’s post-World War II housing crunch and take advantage of limited federal funds. As first proposed, the projects were projected to contain a total of 2,500 housing units

Almost as soon as the plan went public, protests erupted across the city.

Thousands crowded into public meetings. At a meeting in Logan, one sign read: “Don’t Send the Voters Into the Suburbs.”

The Philadelphia Board of Realtors recommended against building 16 of the 21 proposed sites. They argued public housing would “downgrade” home values. The five exceptions were projects in “slum” areas or neighborhoods deemed “sub-marginal.”

In 1956, the Philadelphia Board of Realtors recommended against building 16 of the 21 proposed sites, singling out five they thought should move forward. (Newspapers.com)

Against this tide of opposition, the nearly two dozen proposals dwindled down to one. Even then, it would take more than a quarter century to make it a reality.

Because of the pushback, Whitman Park’s scope changed dramatically. It started as an apartment tower with 250+ units, but shifted to 120 rowhomes.

Officials also changed the ownership structure, placing Whitman Park under the auspices of a program that allowed tenants to eventually buy their properties. (Later, changes to the income criteria essentially weeded out the poorest potential tenants.)

And neighborhood opposition persisted.

In 1971, residents used picket lines to slow construction. A year later, Frank Rizzo took office as mayor, vowing Whitman Park would not be built on his watch.

Rizzo would later put the feud in explicitly racial terms, telling a group of Whitman Park protesters: “When blacks say something, it’s to help their people. When the whites get together and ask for something, they’re racist. Where’s the fairness here?”

Opponents of the Whitman Park townhouse project protest at Judge Raymond J. Broderick’s home. in June 1979. (Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center)

Rizzo’s obfuscation triggered a lawsuit. And in 1976, a federal judge found Philadelphia had acted discriminatorily.

Still, there were fights to come.

In 1978, Black civic leaders — including the late Milton Street — led thousands to a protest at the site of the long-delayed project. And in 1980, the bitter feud boiled over into violence.

In early June of that year, police arrested over 50 protestors trying to block construction on the Whitman Park site. Those arrests eventually led to one neighborhood resident killing a woman who was raising money for the Whitman Park opposition.

Councilmember Jimmy Tayoun dubbed the slain woman, Marion Carr, a “martyr.” Her death sparked a night of near-riots in Whitman.

By daybreak the violence had dwindled, and it soon became clear that this had been the opposition’s final roar.

Philadelphia Daily News, Oct. 15, 1982. (Newspapers.com)

Two years later, Whitman Park opened with little incident. But the backlash left its mark on the development. As mentioned earlier, the Philadelphia Housing Authority changed the ownership structure in an attempt to pacify opponents.

Tenants were allowed to eventually purchase their homes. All 120 of them passed into private hands.

Or to put it another way…

In 1956, city authorities proposed building 2,500 units of public housing across 21 developments.

That proposal did not create a single unit of permanent public housing.

Originally posted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on Nov. 9, 2023 

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...