Originally posted March 2008.
Queen Village, my home and the headquarters of RowHouse Magazine, is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Of course, it’s full of fabulous row houses spanning almost three centuries, but it’s also a great neighborhood to live in.
Queen Village, called Wiccaco by the resident Indians at the time, was first settled by Swedish colonists in the early 17th Century. Later that century the land was given to William Penn as a part of the Pennsylvania land charter. Penn developed land north of the area for Philadelphia but the area of Queen Village remained mostly farmland. A landmark from this period is the Gloria Dei, also known as Old Swedes’, Church which was built in 1700. The original church building, located at Washington Avenue and Front Street, is still in use today.
The area enjoyed great growth during the 18th Century as business related to the shipping industry developed along the Delaware River. Workers looked to settle near their places of work. During this time, the name was changed from Wiccaco, meaning Pleasant Place in the local Indian dialect, to Southwark, named after a neighborhood in London. As Philadelphia grew, so did Southwark, which by the mid 18th Century, was a bustling suburb of Philadelphia. A few homes still remain from this period. One of the most special examples is the George Mifflin House. This home from 1748 is situated on a courtyard with other period homes and faces inward. Walking through the gates is like going back in time.
By the 18th Century, many cities were outlawing wood frame buildings because of huge fires that would destroy entire sections. Philadelphia was no exception. However, because Southwark lay outside the city limits, many wood frame attached homes still existed. Of these, a few survive and are still lived in today.
Other interesting places from this period include the U.S. Naval Ship Yard just below Washington Avenue and Spark’s Shot Tower which created ammunition for use during the War of 1812. A very early example of block-long row house development can be seen on the 100 block of Beck Street. These row houses date from 1840 and are protected properties.
After some civil unrest during the middle of the 19th Century, Southwark became part of Philadelphia in 1856. During the remainder of the century, Southwark welcomed an increasing population that included a diverse residency of African Americans, Western Europeans, and Eastern Europeans, especially Jewish and Polish people. Unfortunately, the growth resulted in over-crowding with unhygienic conditions, ramshackle housing, high crime, and an uneasy atmosphere.
For many decades, Southwark was an area in decline. The building of the I-95 which demolished more than 300 historic homes, further added to the demise of the area as now the main industry was cut off from the residents. People and businesses moved away. Bad planning lead to increased crime.
However, there is a silver lining. Despite all these changes some people did stay and took care of the homes that remained. I like to think that since the area wasn’t all that attractive to developers, it helped to preserve homes that otherwise might have been knocked down to build fancy new houses meaning more history lost. During the 1980s artists began to move in since the area was an affordable place to work and live. South Street, the main thoroughfare began to see restaurants, bars and boutiques fill the storefronts. The successful revitalization of Society Hill, a neighborhood to the north, lead to renewed interest in Southwark. Sometime during this time, local real estate agents started to call the neighborhood Queen Village to honor Queen Christina, the monarch at the time of the original Swedish Settlement. The present day boundaries are Lombard Street to the North, Washington Avenue to the South, Columbus Boulevard to the East and 6th Street to the West.
Queen Village Today
Since 2002, Queen Village has formally been included as part of Center City Philadelphia. It’s slowly morphing from a working class to a strong middle class neighborhood because of the proximity to Center City businesses. Many professionals call this neighborhood their home since the short commute is very attractive. However, it’s not impossible to find reasonable housing here, especially if you don’t mind a smaller home. With the solid base of long-time residents, some spanning several generations, the residents of Queen Village are a diverse group, of all classes and ethnicities.
Like all great neighborhoods, Queen Village has a very active community. The Queen Village Neighborhood Association works tirelessly to preserve the historic homes, increase safety, promote responsible development, and create a better area for people to work and live. Recent initiatives include the restoration of the Wiccaco Community Center and fighting the development of the Casinos on the Delaware Riverfront.
Living in Queen Village today is a unique blend of old and new. On 4th Street, you have the historic Fabric Row, America’s oldest fabric district. Since I’ve moved here, several new fabric stores, a decorator, beauty spa, a knitting shop, art gallery, music store and a book store have all opened and seem to be doing well alongside the older fabric stores, some having been there for over 50 years. There are monthly events to promote the stores. It’s a close walk to the Head House farmers market, located in Society Hill, where there has been an outdoor market since colonial times. On my block alone, we have homes representing the past three centuries.
Other things we like to do include visiting the antique stores near 6th and Bainbridge Streets. There are quiet parks, like Mario Lanza, where you can sit and read. Or, if you want more action, there is South Street, with its restaurants, boutiques, and performance venues. There really isn’t anything lacking no matter what you’re into. The nicest thing about Queen Village is the warm neighbors. This is a row house community, in the best sense, where everyone looks out for each other.