A Shrinking City
The city’s population peaked at over two million residents in 1950; ever since, the numbers have declined while suburban counties have grown. After World War II, Philadelphia experienced a serious housing shortage, with many of its homes more than 100 years old and in poor condition. The phenomenon known as “white flight” began, and has continued ever since, in Philadelphia as in many other U.S. cities. Many economically disadvantaged African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other groups moved into the city while middle and upper-middle class families, mostly white, moved out.
Between 1950 and 2000, the city lost 26.7 percent of its population, in keeping with national trends—Chicago lost 20 percent and Baltimore lost 31.4 percent during this time, according to U.S. census data. Philadelphia was shrinking at a startling rate, and many manufacturing and other businesses were leaving the city or shutting down entirely, so there were no jobs for the people coming in.
The 1960s was a turbulent decade in Philadelphia, as it was across the nation. Crime had become a serious problem, with drug-related gang warfare plaguing the city. A 1970 City Planning Commission survey noted crime as the city’s number one problem. Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo was a controversial figure who was both loved and hated, depending on whom you asked. He had a reputation as an aggressive police officer, quick to use force, especially against African Americans, but also as a strong proponent of law and order.
He was elected mayor in 1971, after serving four years as police commissioner, and was given credit for keeping violence in check, if only by comparison to other cities at the time. He was reelected in 1975, and police and fire departments and some cultural institutions were well taken care of. Meanwhile, other areas, including the Free Library, the Department of Welfare and Recreation, the City Planning Commission, and the Streets Department experienced major cuts. Rizzo was a public figure who divided the city perhaps more than any other in its history.
Crime continued through the 1980s, with mafia warfare taking place, mostly in South Philadelphia. Drugs, gangs, and crack houses existed in many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and the murder rate skyrocketed. In 1984, Wilson Goode became Philadelphia’s first African American mayor. Throughout the decade, development continued in some areas of the city, including Old City, South Street, and Center City, which saw several massive skyscrapers built. But due to a combination of massively reduced federal spending on cities, a shrinking tax base, and generous labor contracts, among other things, the city finances worsened throughout the 1970s and 1980s. When Goode left office at the end of the 1980s, the city was nearly bankrupt.
The very least shining moment of the entire Goode administration had to be the highly publicized MOVE incident. The police had several prior run-ins with the radical group MOVE, and a major clash in 1978 resulted in the tragic death of a police officer and nine MOVE members going to prison. The second major incident occurred in 1985 during a stand-off at the group’s headquarters in Southwest Philadelphia. The police had no idea how to handle the situation, and eventually dropped a satchel bomb from a helicopter onto the house, setting off a fire that killed 11 MOVE members, including five children, and destroyed 62 neighboring houses. The handling of this unbelievable event was a shameful disgrace to the police, the administration, and the entire city.
© Karrie Gavin from Moon Philadelphia, 1st Edition