Weitzman News

Posted April 14, 2022
  • A view of the demolitions carried out in what is now the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia to make way for Independence National Historical Park, c. 1960

    Photo David C. Elkinton/National Park Service

In ‘Changing the Face of the City,’ Philadelphians Get Inclusive View of Urban Renewal

When renowned Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon described the city’s urban renewal program as “changing the face of the city,” he–perhaps unintentionally–alluded to the human cost of these processes.

While planners and preservationists were making the physical city look different, from restorations of building facades to more dramatic material interventions, they also changed the class and racial makeup of neighborhoods through demolition and displacement. “Human faces changed, too,” says Francesca Russello Ammon, associate professor of city planning and historic preservation at Weitzman.

Changing the Face of the City, a new collaboration between Weitzman and The Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, aims to focus attention on the intersections of historic preservation and urban planning and renewal through the lens of social justice. The series of public talks, walking tours, panels, exhibits, and a student symposium connects the recent past of the preservation and planning professions to present-day inequities.

The first talk, Human Toll: Accounting For and Repairing the Damage Wrought by Freeways in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, is scheduled for April 20 on Zoom. Greg Donofrio, associate professor of historic preservation and public history at the University of Minnesota, will connect the construction of interstate highways to the racial housing gap and health impacts of freeway construction and use.

“We wanted to think about those two things going on in concert: how planning and preservation shape physical environments as well as social environments,” Ammon says. A leading scholar on urban renewal, Ammon has closely studied Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood, where preservation was more intertwined with renewal than in many other cities. Still, approximately 600 Society Hill families were displaced by Bacon’s urban renewal policies in the 1950s and 60s.

The Carpenters’ Company, founded in 1724 as a trade guild for “master builders,” continues today as a professional organization for architects, builders, and engineers. The Company’s primary charge is stewarding its headquarters, Carpenters’ Hall, which housed the first Continental Congress in 1774.

The Hall’s location in Independence National Historic Park, another urban renewal project involving the flattening of an urban neighborhood, was key to the Company’s thinking about this series, says Executive Director Michael Norris. Ammon, whose work marries public history and the built environment, was a natural choice to bring on as curator of the speaker series, says Norris.

The program is designed to reach multiple publics, Norris says. That is why The Carpenters’ Company is partnering with the Philadelphia Black History Collaborative, to connect the programming to young people in the city. Ammon will lead a walking tour of Society Hill for a group of Philadelphia area high school students, who will also develop a research topic on preservation and gentrification in their own neighborhoods.

This series, which is made possible by a rescue grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will continue through the rest of the year. Upcoming speakers this spring include Jennifer Minner, speaking on her Just Places Lab at Cornell University, and Aaron Passell of Barnard College on gentrification and historic districts. In the fall, there will be two more talks in the series, featuring Weitzman alum Charlette Caldwell (MSHP’16) and Fallon Aidoo of the University of New Orleans.