Can this maps expert settle every neighborhood border dispute in the history of Philly?
Richard Boardman's list of neighborhoods has almost reached 700 as he catalogs modern and historical names.
In a city as old and history-rich as Philadelphia, it only makes sense that many neighborhood names have changed over the years. But what has remained constant, and is even a citywide pastime, is the bickering among residents over what the enclaves are called and their exact boundaries.
One man, Richard Boardman, spent the last three years working from his post at the Free Library researching the evolution of these neighborhood names and creating an extensive and annotated catalog of those monikers. This list of his is approaching 700 names. He's also created a map of those neighborhoods and their boundaries and hopes it will be used as the foundation for an interactive map posted someday on the library's website.
The catalog itself is a treasure trove of city lore. Pumpkintown once existed in what is now Chestnut Hill. The blocks around 46th and Market were once called Good Intent. The area below Southwark has been called Greenwich, but, whether current residents agree or not, it's also been known as Lovely.
Boardman retired in January after 43 years at the Free Library, the last 30 and change as head of the library's Maps Collection. He realized the need to create the catalog of neighborhood names after receiving a phone call asking for help.
"We often get questions," Boardman explains, "and, of course, there is no official answer, but over the years that's been a constant. What really prompted me, I suppose, was a woman [from] out-of-state who called in. She was looking for a relative, and had some documents, and wanted to know where this was, and wanted to know if there was a neighborhood map on our website. And that got me to thinking.
"I looked at various resources that had maps and realized we needed something more," he says. "And since I deal with historical maps here, it just ballooned from there."
The result was every Philadelphia neighborhood name, archaic and current, that he's been able to find through research. The first couple of years, he was finding more and more references in books on Philadelphia's enclaves, political subdivisions, geography and the like. But these days, he explains, "it's the odd little places that I run across in the paper."
One of those was "Olde Richmond," the last neighborhood he added to the catalog before cleaning out his desk at the library's Parkway Central Branch. The neighborhood, he learned, is a little tract north of Fishtown, by I-95. If you head further north, you're in Port Richmond.
Olde Richmond is a name that seems like it's ancient, but isn't really. Technically it's in Kensington, but the Olde Richmond Civic Association (ORCA), founded in 2007, has been trying to give their section its own stamp. At a coffee shop on the western edge of Olde Richmond, two baristas told me we were in Fishtown, but said they'd been hearing the name Port Fishington more and more.
"As we continue to work, people will continue to get to know us," explains Michael Cunningham, a former ORCA officer. "Kensington is humongous. It's nice to have a more specific name."
Though Philadelphia is often called "a city of neighborhoods," the disputes over dividing lines are so common that Jim Smart, the writer and cartographer whose map is used as a reference at the Inquirer and Daily News, called creating a good neighborhood map "kind of impossible."
Maybe one neighbor contends that Southwest Philadelphia begins once you cross Baltimore Avenue, while another says the neighborhood starts below Kingsessing. Maybe, like one South Philadelphia resident told me, you received something in the mail describing an area between Passyunk and Pennsport as Dickinson Narrows, and you thought "Oh, that's what they're calling that?"
What do you consider the northern border of Center City? I was raised hearing both Vine Street (the city of Philadelphia went from Vine to South and river to river until 1854) and Spring Garden Street (the first of the four Center City stops on the express Broad Street Line), but more recently, I've heard that the northern line is drawn at Callowhill Street.
The City Planning Commission's district plans actually place this boundary even farther north, with an irregular line that mostly cuts across Poplar, but juts up north to include all of Northern Liberties. But Gary Jastrzab, the Planning Commission's executive director, is quick to point out that the most recent district plans aren't meant to be taken as an official neighborhood or even sectional map.
"We're making very technical recommendations as to where existing zoning needs to be corrected. ... There's a whole range of very technical and quality-of-life recommendations in these district plans," says Jastrzab. "We're not getting into the kind of issues where we would be recommending a change in a neighborhood name. That's just not something that would have any meaning for us, really."
They do keep a list and map of registered community organizations (RCOs). The thing is, RCOs not only draw their own boundaries (per Planning Commission guidelines), but they also are allowed to overlap. The resulting RCO map is an eye dazzler.
"I received an email [in the fall] from someone on the Human Relations Commission who is working with a group of Cambodian residents in South Philadelphia," says Jastrzab. "This person kind of thought that the City Planning Commission was the official namer of neighborhoods. [They asked,] 'How can this little group of merchants get their neighborhood name changed to Cambodiatown?'"
"They should just start calling themselves that!"
Boardman's map of the city is printed across two dozen 8 1/2-by-11-inch pages, with lines and labels drawn by hand. He's hoping the library's web office will digitize and publish the map, along with creating an interactive one that will showcase the historical neighborhoods, too. He lays the sheets out across the table (cartographers call these plates), and looks at the patchwork quilt of lines in front of him.
"Everybody agrees where certain neighborhoods are, but they don't agree on where the boundaries are," says Boardman. "No matter what boundaries we put, people will disagree. Not everyone will be happy. But I hope it will be useful."
Says Camille Tomlin, a web developer at the Free Library, "We're still in the early stages in planning how it would all work and intersect. There are all these tools out there that allow you to trace sections, like geocoding things, and then create all these layers. Then once you have all these layers, how do you dig down ... to see how it changed? That's the hard part."
Including all the neighborhoods listed in the catalog is an ambitious scenario, though. "That would be optimum," explains Tomlin. "We still have to do a lot of data entry. Rich [and] volunteers will have to set all the boundaries as best we can for each neighborhood — all the geopoints for each one. Once we get that, we can overlay it on Google Maps or OpenStreetMap [or another app] to make it more visual."
Tomlin says there is no timetable yet. The web office is hammering out what it would be now. With limited resources for a project dependent on volunteer hours, they'll try to get as far into Boardman's catalog as they can, she says.
An abundance of Philadelphia's Colonial and pre-Colonial place names have stayed with us to this day. From Lenape names like Wingohocking, to Northern Liberties, which was a township name that William Penn picked himself, the history of the city unfurls with many of the words.
Nonetheless, Boardman, the Planning Commission's Jastrzab, and Smart all agree on this — it's mostly population shifts that dictate the arrival of new neighborhood names and the extinction of old ones.
Some of the newer names, like East Passyunk Crossing, make Boardman chuckle. Newbold, an approximately decade-old moniker for the east section of Point Breeze, has gone over so poorly with longtime residents that the Newbold Neighbors Association seriously considered changing its name in 2013. But the name stayed and so did tensions over it.
With the influx of new arrivals to the city, no one could reasonably expect that new communities and names for them wouldn't pop up. And to that same point, no one could be surprised that reactions to these new place markers would be bitter in a city that relishes being so damn provincial.
What's a fair way to redraw the lines? As University City stretches further southward and westward, bringing higher rents, students, transplants, house-party concerts, co-ops and all of the other stuff that comes with it, is it tone-deaf to stick to tradition and argue that the boundary is still Baltimore Avenue?
Considering Philadelphia's diversity, and how many larger sections are made up of a wide range of communities — people of various classes, ethnicities and backgrounds — what is a legitimate basis to decide, say, where North Philly ends and begins?
Race still appears to be a common means for clustering quarters under the same domain. When my cousin's friend told me, a Mt. Airy girl, that I wasn't from Uptown, that mess irked my spirit. Uptown, by the way, means (black) Northwest Philadelphia. Was he confused or something? How could someone who'd never lived within five miles of me tell me I wasn't from my area because I didn't fit the class profile he had imagined?
Boardman spent the last day of his career at the Free Library cleaning, pushing a small dumpster full of tubes that used to hold map scrolls. Colleagues stopped by with their best wishes; his inbox carried even more. That week, he was ruminating on another neighborhood name: Satterlee Heights, an early title for West Philly named after a now-demolished Civil War hospital, but he mentioned that maybe he'd add that one from home.
I asked about Olde Richmond, and he pointed it out on the map. He also shared a neighborhood guide that he cited in his research, which opens its chapter on Kensington with a possible answer for the boundary question, at least for that neighborhood.
"Kensington has been called 'a state of mind,'" the guide states, "which may explain why it's hard to assign boundaries to it."
Gregory Antczak, 66, a retired postal worker and part-time bartender breaks it down proper, though. York is a divider with Fishtown to the west and Kensington to the east. On the other side of the rail to the northeast is Port Richmond. (This wasn't just talk. Multiple maps demarcate Kensington basically this way.)
The east side of Olde Richmond, where he grew up, was just called Richmond, he explains, (we're talking maybe a quarter of a square-mile here), while the west side was Flatiron. "As kids, [with all the neighborhood rivalries,] it was a panic. I mean it could get brutal at times," says Antczak.
He says he got involved with the New Kensington Neighborhood Advisory Committee in the '80s to advocate for the removal of the neighborhood's deteriorating factories, some of which had gas seeping into nearby land.
"All these places became vibrant sales areas and housing areas because we got rid of the shit," he says.
Antczak marvels at the prices that houses in the neighborhood are selling for now. (The median home sale price in the 19125 (Kensington/Fishtown) zip code in 2012 was $134,900, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report.)
"I took four bullets through my window. People used to spit at my wife's feet when she walked our kids into Cokesville because I was an activist against this factory, you know? And here's the bottom line: Now, 30-some years later, I'm still the same old poor guy born and raised here, and now my taxes have quadrupled and they're trying to drive me out."
The founders of the civic association weren't newcomers — they'd been community advocates for years. Does he harbor hard feelings toward new groups, new neighbors or even new neighborhood names? No, he saves his ire for certain developers, poor construction and the 10-year tax abatement program.
"If [the company] is true and they mean it, and they're going to do good stuff. Wonderful," he says. "SugarHouse took care of our parish; they put $50,000 in St. Anne's new school building. The new school building was built in 1925, by the way," he laughs. "If they're going to do that, fine. It's all cool with me. This is a really nice neighborhood. Always has been. Always will be."
He says that he, his brother and friend came up with a name of their own roughly 40, 45 years ago. They had shirts made and everything, he says.
What did they look like?
"All black T-shirts, white letters, no breaks, all one word. PortFishington. True story!"