The Philadelphia Historical Commission voted unanimously Friday to name Christian Street/Black Doctors Row as the city’s first Black historical district.
The historical district includes about 150 properties — brownstone homes, a church. Its spans from Broad and Christian Street to 20th Street. The district is effective immediately. (The Christian YMCA is in the area, but not included in the historic district, because the building is too new.)
For more than a year, many longtime residents of the neighborhood, the South of South Neighborhood Association and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia have all advocated for the historic district, culminating in Councilperson Kenyatta Johnson’s introduction of legislation in 2021 to make it official.
“Christian Street has been a historically vibrant, professional community for decades,” Johnson said. “The corridor has always been a very vibrant area and we want to make sure we maintain the cultural fabric for decades to come with a historic district.”
Beginning in the 1900s, the area was home to many Black doctors and other medical professionals who worked at Mercy Hospital, a Black hospital. (Segregation prevented the Black doctors from working in white hospitals.)
Christian Street was also home to Black teachers, elected officials, small business owners and blue-collar workers. The surrounding area had restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues that catered to the Black residents.
One Black professional who lived in the neighborhood was Julian Abele, a Philadelphia native and prominent architect who designed more than 400 buildings across the country, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Main Branch of the Free Library. Abele lived in the 1500 block of Christian Street from the mid-1920s until he died in 1950. His home is still there.
Another prominent family who lived in the neighborhood was Dr. John Patrick Turner, a surgeon, and Marion Turner, whose daughter, Marion Stubbs Thomas, formed the organization now known as Jack and Jill of America, a nonprofit social and cultural group that teaches leadership among young Black adults.
One longtime resident who advocated for the historic district is Linda Evans, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years.
“This coalition effort set out to preserve the historic buildings where I and my neighbors live,” Evans said. “This is a neighborhood where we live, we work, we play. We have long-term generational neighbors, some four and five generations.”
Over the past year, nine buildings in the neighborhood have been demolished by developers, Evans said. Often, developers don’t see a neighborhood; “they only see money.”
Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, said historical designation makes it very difficult for developers to demolish buildings in the area without permission from the city’s historical commission.
“It’s a high bar,” Grossi said, such as imminent danger or fire.
But it won’t stop property owners from selling their homes and will probably stabilize property values and limit wild fluctuations, Grossi said.