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1.24.2021

Elfreth's Alley in Philly: America's Oldest Residential Street

Elfreth's Alley dates back to 1703 and it is the oldest residential street in America, and it is a wonder that it has survived this long. The entire reason that this street exists was for quick and easy cart access for artisans toting their wares from their workshops to the trade based at the city's ports. Elfreth's Alley was named after local blacksmith Jeremiah Elfreth. The houses often had craftsmen do their work on the lower levels of their buildings, and they lived in the upper floors. 

The area surrounding it was built up with factories in the 19th and 20th centuries, and by chance, it made it until the 1930s, when the city began to realize what they had in this spot. The waterfront of the Delaware River was  within short reach of this spot, meaning that in that time period, this was an ideal spot for industry. Over the years, all of the surrounding residential area was scooped up by surrounding industry. Come the Interstate Highway Age of the 1950s, some initial plans for highway construction involved the removal of this street. Historical status was sought and won by local historians to preserve this street as plans for I-95 threatened the block. 

This block not merely represents colonial history, with its origins dating back to 1703, within the life of William Penn himself, but it represents every generation of Philadelphians since, and every period of growth of this nation itself. 

The challenges to preserve this street have been faced by most streets in Philadelphia and every other major city as a whole. Urban "Renewal" projects often leave areas like this in the dust. All of the green areas around Independence Hall that make up Independence Mall, were once residential and commercial streets. People that lived in and around these areas were often working class people that were kicked out to build whatever the next biggest thing was. Whether it be factories, railroad projects such as the old Pennsylvania Railroad's "Chinese Wall" which created the "on the other side of the tracks" or "on the wrong side of the tracks" expression, highway projects, public areas, park areas, shopping malls, or whatever, usually wherever the interests of the city areas had been, destruction of neighborhoods and gentrification has followed and swallowed up neighborhoods within its wake. These projects made refugees out of the residents that called these former neighborhoods home. This story has played out across almost every major city in the nation, but especially in Philadelphia. The fact that this street has been able to survive, almost exclusively because of its colonial origins, is both inspiring and depressing, knowing how many other great neighborhoods now have to be referred to in the past tense. The fact that this street was able to survive the demolish and displace cycle of urban renewal is impressive.

Today Elfreth's Alley stands as a prime example of a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia through every period of the city's history. While the mansions of Society Hill are all neatly preserved (and rightfully so) this street stands as a representation of a working class neighborhood in the 18th century. The houses were built primarily in Georgian and Federal Style. Walking around the old neighborhood is delightful, and the community organization that works for and advocates for the neighborhood, in addition to even running the Elfreth's Alley Museum. museum dedicated to the history of the neighborhood. Their advocacy has facilitated the neighborhood's rise into a tourist attraction that gives a little insight into life from the beginning of Philadelphia's colonial origins through today. They run annual events at Christmas, Halloween, Fourth of July, and Oktoberfest, though you can walk up and down the alley at any time. Remember though that this is also a residential neighborhood, so be sure to be respectful when you visit. 

For more information on visiting Philadelphia's Elfreth's Alley in the city's Old City neighborhood, check out the website for its caretaker organization. It is centrally located within Old City, close to Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House, Penn's Landing, and more. It is well worth checking out on any visit to Philadelphia. 
 

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