Philadelphia has and always will be a city of neighborhoods. In our ongoing series of Neighborhood Beginnings, today we'll be discussing a section of the city that was once referred to as... "The Neck"
You have probably visited "The Neck."
It’s located at the south end of the city, from Oregon Avenue to the Navy Yard: home to the Sports Complex and FDR Park. But these are recent developments that don’t even hint at The Neck’s long history...
The earliest European settlers of The Neck were most likely Swedes.
They followed the Delaware River north and built Philadelphia’s first church in 1698—Old Swedes—in what is now Queen Village. Many "Neckers" claim to be descended from Hessian soldiers who stayed after the Revolution.
The Neck was largely marshland and floodplain.
It was not suitable for factories and rowhouses but it was a rich environment and became a major food source for the growing city. Settlers of The Neck were resourceful and hard-working. They knew how to make do with whatever came to hand.
Houses in The Neck were built by their owners, who did not own the land but paid a nominal ground rent.
Builders used materials scavenged from abandoned buildings and trash heaps. Farmers colonized the western part of The Neck and raised livestock and crops for sale in city markets. The eastern Neck was home to small truck farms behind dikes and canals and homebuilt houseboats. Families grew cabbage, cut sod for city lawns, and harvested fish and shellfish. Roads were rare and most traveled on the canals by boat.
Pigs were a major source of income.
By 1912, an estimated 20,000 pigs lived south of Oregon Avenue, where they were fattened on trash scavenged by children before being delivered to the butchers on 9th Street. In 1911, City Council had passed a ban on pigs within the city limits, claiming that the gases from pig manure caused disease. The police staged raids on pig farms throughout the city, much like today’s drug busts. When the farmers of The Neck protested, the Republicans in City Council changed their tune.
The Neck produced the most powerful political figure in Philadelphia history.
William S. Vare was the youngest of three brothers and born to a poor family in The Neck in the mid-19th century. The brothers used the profits from their trash hauling, street cleaning, and construction businesses to build a Republican machine that ruled the city from 1890 until 1929. The Neck was a Republican stronghold. In fact, the division did not tally a single Democratic vote until the late 1930s.
It was Vare who initiated the changes that would erase The Neck forever.
In 1924, Vare crony Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick convinced the planning committee to move the Sesquicentennial Exposition from Fairmount Park to League Island Park at the southern tip of Philadelphia, This meant that clean water, sanitary sewers, and electrical lines had to be extended to the site as well as trolleys to bring in the patrons. Exposition funds paid for these improvements, built by Vare’s constituents who then benefitted from these improvements to their neighborhood. After the exposition, navy housing was built north of the park and the municipal stadium just west of Broad became the beginning of our Sports Complex.
By the 1950s, The Neck had dwindled to a small, tight-knit community of about 270 centered around Stone House Lane
A meandering road south of Oregon Avenue and 3rd Street, Stone House Lane was framed by canals on either side. Footbridges spanned the canals from the road to each house. The homes had gardens and livestock: cattle, goats, pigs, horses, and ducks, but no running water or sewers. Houses were heated with kerosene stoves and lit with kerosene lamps. It was a semi-rural community just 30 blocks from City Hall.
Since they did not own the land, residents did not have addresses and paid no property tax
Mail was, however, delivered and school buses picked up children for school. Neckers worked long hours on the docks and in factories to provide their families with modern amenities. Most families had cars and telephones. Pirated electricity fed televisions and radios. Clean water came from the hydrant at 7th and Pattison, delivered daily by local vendors, just like milk.
It all came to an end when the city needed this land for access to the proposed Walt Whitman Bridge.
The city had tried to "clean up" The Neck for decades without success. Building inspectors routinely cited residents with hundreds of building code violations but never enforced them. Then, in 1954, four children were killed in a fire caused by an illegal electrical hook-up. Riding a wave of public outrage, the city condemned all the homes in The Neck and forced the residents out. By 1956, the buildings had been burned and 10 feet of fill dirt dumped on the land to bring it up to grade. It now supports access ramps for the bridge and Routes I-76 and I-95. Most residents of Stonehouse Lane moved to 3rd Street, north of Oregon, and became rowhouse dwellers. The neighborhood and its way of life were gone forever.
You can still see The Neck as it was when the earliest settlers arrived.
The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum is Pennsylvania’s largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh. Its hiking and canoe trails and Visitor Center are open to the public year-round. Bald eagles, beaver, river otters, and red fox live there alongside hundreds of other species. No pigs have been spotted.
- Philadelphia: South of Market and East of Broad by Gus Spector
- Philadelphia's Broad Street: South and North by Robert Morris Skaler
- Philadelphia Celebrates: Three Great Anniversaries—1876, 1926, 1976 by Edward W. Duffy