South Philadelphia began as a satellite town of Philadelphia, with small townships such as Moyamensing and Southwark. During the Industrial Revolution, the area saw rapid growth, in part due to mass immigration from Ireland. Its urbanized border reached that of Philadelphia. Along with all other jurisdictions in the county, South Philadelphia became part of the City of Philadelphia proper with passage by the Pennsylvania legislature of the city/county Act of Consolidation, 1854. The area continued to grow, becoming a vital part of Philadelphia’s large industrial base and attracting immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Poland, and many other countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as Black American migrants from the southern United States during the Great Migration of the early 20th century. The immigrants and migrants became the basis of South Philadelphia’s unique and vibrant culture that developed over the next several decades. Struggling to maintain their Catholic identity in a mostly Protestant city, the Irish built a system of Irish Catholic churches and parochial schools for their children, and added Catholic high schools. The later immigrant populations of Italians and Polish were also Catholic. At first they attended the existing churches but built their own national churches when they could. Ethnic Irish controlled the Catholic clergy and hierarchy for decades in Philadelphia and the region. Despite the dramatic growth in population, the low funding of education by the city resulted in the first public high school not being formed in South Philadelphia until 1934. Attracted to the industrial jobs, the new residents created communities that continued many of their traditions.
While many of the new arrivals were Catholic, neighborhood parishes reflected their national traditions. Monsignor James F. Connelly, the pastor of the Stella Maris Catholic Church and an editor of the 1976 work The History of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said in a 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer article that each parish church “offer[s] the immigrants the faith they were familiar with.” With the dramatic loss of industrial jobs during mid-20th century restructuring, there were population losses in South Philadelphia as well as other working-class parts of the city, and some neighborhood Catholic schools had to close.
South Philadelphia Communities
Most of South Philadelphia’s communities are largely Italian American. There also continue to be many ethnic Irish Americans and African Americans. An increase in late 20th-century immigration has given South Philadelphia significant populations from Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand; as well as from Russia and Mexico, and smaller groups from dozens of nations across the world. Today, many vendors at the Italian Market are of Asian descent, and Vietnamese and Thai restaurants are interspersed with historic Italian ones in the Market area. The recent revitalization of Center City Philadelphia and the subsequent gentrification of adjacent neighborhoods has led to dramatic rises in prices of housing in the neighborhoods of historic Queen Village, Bella Vista, and some other parts of South Philadelphia.
Many of the community clubs that create the annual Mummers Parade every New Year’s Day have traditionally been from South Philadelphia, especially those located on the largely Irish American S. 2nd Street (“Two Street”) in the Pennsport neighborhood.
South Philadelphia Boundaries
South Street to the north, the Delaware River to the east and south, and the Schuylkill River to the west.