Hancock Street/Beck Street/Beck Place

Hancock Street Houses. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Christian & Beck St.

By the 1740s, this area was experiencing a building and population boom. The small cobblestone alleys, like Beck Street, were home to mid-level artisans drawn here by maritime trades, including shipwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths, mast makers, and boat builders. Many homes in this enclave were made of wood — cheaper to construct, but harder to maintain. In predominantly brick Philadelphia, wooden houses were associated with devastating fires. Several of the wooden framed houses survive on the 800 block of Hancock Street, and still bear the bronze "firemark" plaques of various local insurance companies. These plaques denoted which homes were insured and should be saved in the (very likely) event of a fire.

The overcrowding of Southwark increased in the 19th century with successive waves of European immigration that fed the growth of industry along the waterfront, including the Navy Yard (at the foot of Federal Street and the Delaware River). Economic activity increased, and along with the population explosion came the companion urban phenomena of increased poverty, residential overcrowding and overtaxed infrastructure. By the late 20th century, concerns of overcrowding in Southwark gave way to fears of mass displacement. Beginning in the late 1960s, the development of Interstate 95 forever changed the neighborhood by destroying more than 300 18th-century homes, displacing hundreds of families, and cutting the neighborhood off from its historic lifeline — the waterfront. The harsh severance of the neighborhood from the river affirmed the decline of the industrial economy and accelerated the flight to the Northeast and the suburbs.

These blocks of Hancock and Beck streets are reminders of both the historic and the recent past, as these structures are some of the precious few 18th-century enclaves to survive the creation of Interstate 95.

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