A list of once-great, now closed Philadelphia manufacturing giants

Philadelphia is old enough a city that its business community has lived many lifetimes.

Though its Quakerly tradition shunned ostentatious consumption, there are old roots. In 1732, The Rowland Company became one of the first incorporated businesses in the country (and it still operates in Philadelphia). 1881, Wharton became the first college-level business school. The Philadelphia Contributionship(1752) is the country’s oldest property insurance company; Rawle & Henderson (1783) is the oldest law-firm and (since relocated) D. Landreth Seed Company (1783) is the oldest seed companies (George Washington was a customer).

Philadelphia’s global clout declined in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many of its prominent manufacturing businesses did not adapt to a changing world. Out of my own curiosity I’ve started a running tab of some of the more prominent closures from that time.

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Code of the Street

In the 1990s, a 15-year-old we’ll call Tyree moved from an unstable home in North Philadelphia to his grandmother’s home in Southwest Philadelphia. Her home was stable, but he walked into a new neighborhood with new dynamics. He fought his way into a new group of teenage boys who lived there and suffered violence and intimidation. All along, he had to follow an unwritten code.

In some sense, it’s an old story, as old as the the Roman empire or shogunate Japan, maybe older still. The difference today is this code’s interplay with race, drugs, more powerful weapons and higher expectations for we think the American promise is. This theme and that story are from the 1999 book, “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City,” written by ethnographer and academic Elijah Anderson. (It was published following to surging crime and the proliferation of drugs within cities in the 1990s, and was followed by books like Off the Books focused on the underground economy.)

Earlier that decade, Anderson wrote about similar themes in the Atlantic. The book gives more space to allow it to read almost like an oral history, with lengthy passages from residents.

The book explores the cultural and internal battle between “decent” and “street” life by going deep on several neighborhoods in Philadelphia, especially Germantown in its northwest section. That decent and street divide runs throughout the book. Through an ethnographic study and lengthy direct quotes from residents, Anderson delves into the intricate code of the street, which has developed as a way for residents to replace trust in institutions and instead rely on their own methods of justice and protection.

According to Anderson, the vast majority of residents in these hard hit neighborhoods of the 1990s were “decent” and trying to live a peaceful life, with only a small minority belonging to street families involved in drugs and violence. However, the proliferation of guns has made even small conflicts deadly, and the code of the street dictates that might makes right. Children as young as 10 years old begin to identify with and engage in either a decent or street lifestyle, with a strong cultural belief that toughness is a virtue and humility is not, he writes.

Anderson also writes about the concept of “code switching,” in which individuals alternate between decent and street behavior depending on the situation. The term “code switching” has become much more commonly used to describe how Black Americans navigate white culture, though this use is at least as important and interesting.

Throughout the book, Anderson discusses the role that economic dislocation, drugs, and a lack of opportunities play in the development and adherence to the code of the street. He also touches on the discrimination faced by black men in the job market and the impact of welfare reform on family dynamics. The consequences of the code of the street are severe, with a high rate of incarceration among black men in their 20s and the acceptance of early pregnancy and single motherhood as a way of life.

Overall, “Code of the Street” offers a detailed and nuanced look at the complex issues facing poor urban communities. Tellingly, though almost 25 years ago, the book is still informative, if only as a window into the voices and perspectives in the late 1990s confronting the cultural forces at play. I recommend the book. My notes are below.

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Notes from Sal Paolantonio’s landmark 1993 biography of Frank Rizzo

In recent years, it became commonplace to compare legendary and controversial former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo with Donald Trump. Perhaps that was why I finally read Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America, the influential biography published in 1993 by Sal Paolantonio. It is a familiar part of the foundation of the Philadelphia canon so it’s long been on my list.

Below I share my notes from the book.

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Here’s a snapshot census of reporters, editors and other news org full-timers in Philadelphia

Efforts abound nationally to pin down just how many full-time people are in the business of reporting, editing, visualizing and otherwise sharing news in a professional journalism setting. This is a local one.

We know that, to no one’s surprise, aside from spikes, the trend is very clearly downward. Fewer people will have full time roles with organizations dedicated to journalistic enterprise.

But I wanted to use my hometown of Philadelphia to get a sense of what that hiring mix looks like. So I sent a whole lot of emails out to friends, colleagues and peers. Below I share what I found.

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Horse tales

Riding outside West Fairmount Parks Belmont Stables, in early spring 2005
Riding outside West Fairmount Park’s Belmont Stables, in early spring 2005

It took me to leave rural northwest New Jersey, where I grew up, and to go to Philadelphia, where I went to college, to saddle up and actually develop a small knowledge base about Western-style horse riding.

I cleaned stalls and helped out Ike Johnstone at Belmont Stables, an historic West Fairmount Park building where Johnstone hosts the Bill Picket Riding Academy, through which he teachs anti-violence and communication to North Philadelphia kids. In exchange, Johnstone taught me some rudimentary riding skills.

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A conversation on building a maker community: Philacentrics

I’m thankful I was included in a salon-style dinner among a dozen Philadelphia city creative and philanthropic leaders at the historic Waterworks restaurant. The prompt for the conversation over dinner was the ‘maker economy.’

The discussion focused on Philadelphia but clearly the themes tie to a lot of cities around the world today: how do we build a broad future economy? The conversation was off-the-record, but there were a few topics interesting enough to be worth sharing without attribution.

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Gentrification is believing you are ‘Year Zero’: 100% Philadelphia at FringeArts

Neighborhoods and cities always change. Concerns about gentrification come when that change happens with such speed that those new to a place don’t even realize a community predates them.

After a special performance of 100% Philadelphia, something like an on-stage census map with real-life residents, at FringeArts, I was part of a panel discussing the issues the production brought up. The performance has been organized around the world. In each case, 100 residents of that city were selected to represent the dynamics of that place — race, location, income, politics, etc. Throughout the show, the residents are given prompted questions and move about stage to help give an in-person sense of thoughts on issues, both local and human-wide.

It brought thoughts to mind for me.

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Pen and Pencil Club board of governors

The Pen and Pencil Club, the country’s oldest surviving private press association, welcomed me onto its board of governors as one of its youngest members last February. This month, I am proud to say I was voted on to remain there.

Here is some background on the famous private club and my own goals for being part of its board again.

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