by Jeremiah Cassar Scalia
Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer 7/17/07
There is a unique, historically African-American neighborhood here in Philadelphia that dates back well over a century and a half, located south of South Street below Rittenhouse Square, west of Broad Street and east of Grays Ferry Avenue.
It was out of that modest stretch of city blocks that a 16-year-old Wilt Chamberlain lead his Christian Street YMCA basketball team to victory in the 1953 National YMCA championship finals. It was there too, that jazz legend Billie Holiday used to perform in the intimate setting of Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a small club that stood at the corner of 15th and Bainbridge streets. And most significantly, it is these blocks that mark the birthplace of Philadelphia’s legendary contralto, Marian Anderson.
For all its history, this neighborhood stands without a name — at least one that is recognized citywide. And with the city’s rapidly changing landscape, it is in jeopardy of being overlooked, not only by Philadelphians in general, but by the very people who are moving into the district.
The neighborhood these days is a mix of people from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Much of this diversity has developed over the past seven or eight years as the real estate boom caused significant gentrification which has seen a rapid influx of young, predominantly white suburbanites.
Attempts have been made of late to name the area now that the land is becoming economically significant. Developers are clamoring for an attractive name to join the ranks of neighborhoods like Queen Village, Northern Liberties and Fishtown. We’ve heard the neighborhood loosely referred to as the Graduate Hospital area, for its largest institution, but also as SoSo (South of South) and Naval Square for the massive Toll Bros. condo project of the same name on Grays Ferry Avenue. None of these seem very appropriate, nor have they caught on.
A few years ago, a friend, whose family has lived in the neighborhood since the 1950s, told me people used to call it the Anderson section or simply ‘Anderson’, after Marian Anderson, the world-renowned singer who became the first African American artist to perform at the White House and the Lincoln Memorial- a woman who, through the power of her artistic genius, natural elegance and thoroughly disarming grace, broke the color barrier and helped bring America ‘s civil rights movement into the national (and international) spotlight.
Shortly after learning about the old neighborhood name, I was visiting with friends who live at 18th and Fitzwater Streets, across from Anderson Yards, the impressive baseball field. The topic drifted to the nameless neighborhood and I mentioned the old ‘Anderson’ name which prompted someone to suggest that the entire neighborhood take the name of the landmark, Anderson Yards, which sits in the very center of the section. Since then, a widening circle of friends and neighbors have begun referring to the neighborhood as Anderson Yards.
Recently, though, another name has gained in popularity. It’s G-Ho, for Graduate Hospital, the large medical facility that sits between South and Lombard Streets, a great hospital no doubt. Still, I find this supposedly hip name to be contextually sterile, as rootless and cultureless as the stainless steel of hospital wares. The g might as well stand for gentrification. Anderson Yards, by comparison, has a much deeper meaning and exhibits a true historical identity for the neighborhood. I’ve spoken with many new residents, who through no fault of their own, have never heard of Marian Anderson, yet they’re all hip to G-Ho.
Embracing Anderson’s legacy could become an opportunity for a diverse neighborhood to become a closer-knit community with a proud identity. Anderson was not born into the Philadelphia elite, nor was she an affluent white male (attributes historically having been namesake prerequisites) with a name like Franklin, Rittenhouse or Fitler.
Assuming such requisites no longer stand, and recognizing the significance of this woman who was from this vibrant, nameless stretch of city blocks I am left to ask myself and the reader one question. What could possibly stop us from paying her this honor? Anderson Yards already exists. It’s time the wider community recognized it.
Jeremiah Scalia lives and writes in Anderson Yards.