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In a city of neighborhoods, one with no name (or two?)

August 25, 2010

I recently moved into an apartment on Mt. Vernon Street, east of Broad Street. This was my first apartment outside of north central Philadelphia, or Templetown, as it is sometimes called. These two names are self-explanatory. (The  neighborhood is also known as Hartranft, after a Civil War general and advocate for broader suffrage and working-class rights, but I haven’t been able to find out why this specific neighborhood is called Hartranft.)

So back to my new neighborhood. It didn’t seem to have a name. Very broadly, it is North Philadelphia, but that moniker covers half the city. Lower North Philadelphia might be more appropriate, but that runs from the Delaware to the Schuykill.

A view looking east on Mt. Vernon Street.

The neighborhoods surrounding mine all have their own names, but they are too distinct to include my ‘hood. To the east is trendy Northern Liberties. But the trendiness ends around Sixth Street, when a few industrial buildings and a housing project psychologically separate NoLibs from the west.

To the south, below Spring Garden, an abundance of monikers exists. Some say Chinatown extends that far north, evidenced by Vietnamese and Chinese food markets a block south of Spring Garden Street. The neighborhood is also referred to as the Loft District, an appropriate-enough title given all the converted industrial buildings there.

But, the names for east-of-Broad, south-of-Spring Garden, north-of Vine St. Expressway don’t stop there. Eraserhood, owing to its bombed-out nature and the abandoned Reading Viaduct railway, recently named to the Register of Historic Places. And Callowhill, a more traditional name, from Callowhill Street, which runs parallel to Spring Garden to the south.

But Callowhill-Eraserhood-Loft District-Northern Stretches of Chinatown don’t apply to my ‘hood north of Spring Garden. There are no lofts, it’s not bombed out (there’s actually a lot of new construction), it has no connection to Callowhill, and the already-stretched definition of Chinatown certainly doesn’t reach this far.

To the west, there are just more problems. Spring Garden and Fairmount, and a tad north, Francisville, are three names for the neighborhood west-of-Broad and north-of-Spring Garden (Francisville is north of Fairmount, to be fair). Spring Garden and Fairmount could theoretically apply to my ‘hood, but historically they haven’t, and it’s problematic to just start changing boundaries all willy-nilly.

The Ukrainian Catholic church in "Poplar."

To the north, things get a little hazy, and it’s not just smog (haha!). Just below Temple there is Yorktown. Just below that is W. Girard Avenue.

There are two names I have found that have referred to this general area. One is Richard Allen, first alerted to me by a helpful Philadelphian on Twitter. The name refers to the public housing project, one of the first in the United States, that became notorious for drugs and crime in the latter half of the century.

This name is fine, but considering that the project, since somewhat revitalized, sits just south of Girard, and isn’t the defining aspect of the area like it used to be, the name doesn’t seem adequate. Especially not for the area between Fairmount and Spring Garden, which has a fairly different feel from the Girard area.

The other name that perhaps is most suitable is Poplar. The name refers to the general area I live in, and takes its inspiration from the Redevelopment Authority’s name for an area slated for redevelopment.

I turned to Linn Washington and Chris Harper, facilitators of the acclaimed Philadelphia Neighborhoods, the convergence-focused capstone for Temple journalism majors.

“The neighborhood you describe (Broad-6th/Girard-SG) sounds a lot like what is called West Popular … the RDA reference is about accurate,” Washington said in an e-mail.

Shedding some light on how ‘hoods get their name, Washington said they change as the city does.

“Neighborhoods and their names change over time sometimes. When I moved to Philly in 1970 there wasn’t an official designated University City – it was the UPenn area – then University City appeared, roughly from north of Drexel’s campus at 33rd St. out to 40th and Market St. over to the river,” Washington said.

“When I lived a few years on 49th near Larchwood, that area was solidly West Philadelphia but now that area is considered in University City – go figure.”

A steeple of the most-likely-doomed Church of the Assumption

After a conversation on Twitter about the subject, the good folks at Brownstoner Philly posted a blurb and poll about the question. The winner seems to be Poplar, followed by Eraserhood and Warehouse District.

So, for now, I will go with West Poplar. Although, it does surprise me how relatively unknown this name is for the area. Perhaps it’s because there aren’t many defining landmarks that draw folks here, but the name doesn’t seem to have near the recognition of NoLibs or Spring Garden. Or for that matter, Eraserhood or the Loft District.

Out of curiosity, I’m interested to know how many people knew of the name Poplar or West Poplar to refer to this area. Thoughts?

(For the record, Washington said he doesn’t know the reason for the Hartranft reference to the specific hood mentioned in the beginning of the post, either. “I didn’t know that section of North Philly carried that name until I started working regularly with MURL – before that it was just ‘North Philly around TU’s Main Campus’ for me,” he said.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Yee permalink
    August 26, 2010 6:50 am

    Hartranft:

    If you were really a reporter, you would delved alittle deeper into the story. Governor John F. Hartranft was a great Civil War general before he became governor of PA twice. This you could have found easily if you knew how to google. So next time before you dismiss a person of great importance, I suggest you do some homework. Governor Hartranft was a distant relative of my wife.

  2. August 26, 2010 7:58 am

    Next time before you dismiss someone’s work, I suggest you read the first paragraph.

    I quote: “The neighborhood is also known as Hartranft, after a Civil War general and advocate for broader suffrage and working-class rights, but I haven’t been able to find out why this specific neighborhood is called Hartranft.”

    The question I had was why that specific section is named after Hartranft. Not why Hartranft has a section of the city named after him.

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