Skip to main content


 A map depicting the Italian households within West Philadelphia according to the 1940 census, showing they were mostly situated in Morris Park, Haddington, and Cathedral Park.

South Philadelphia is well-known for its population of Italian immigrants.  However, 6,600 Italians immigrants lived in West Philadelphia in 1940, second only to Russian-born Jews. They settled in two areas.  Half lived in Morris Park and the neighboring areas of Haddington west of 60th St. and southern Overbrook west of Wynnewood Rd. One-fourth of adults in this area were born in Italy; 40% were either born in Italy or had a parent born there.


The other area was in Cathedral Park which was the home to another one-fifth of West Philadelphia’s Italians.  That neighborhood was split into two sections on opposite sides of Cathedral Cemetery.  South of the cemetery was predominately Irish.  North of the cemetery was predominately Italian.  Between the cemetery and Lancaster Ave., 23% of adults were born in Italy—37% were either born there or had a parent who was.


By 1990, the predominant share of West Philadelphia’s residential landscape was home to African Americans. 

West Philadelphia’s population shifted from majority-white to majority-black between 1950 and 1960. Each of the next five decennial censuses (1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010) would show the steadily increasing, dominant share of West Philadelphia’s population represented by blacks. 

In 1950, the black population of West Philadelphia remained concentrated north of Market St.

In 1950, West Philadelphia’s population still included 10% who were immigrants and many whose parents were foreign-born. In some neighborhoods, more than 20% were born abroad.

Russians were one of the largest immigrant groups in West Philadelphia in 1940.  They accounted for about 7% of adults. We know from the 1930 Census that almost all individuals in West Philadelphia who were born in Russia were Jews who spoke Yiddish.  Not all Jews in West Philadelphia were born in Russia. For example, 64% of immigrants from Poland reported speaking Yiddish.

The Jewish population of West Philadelphia increased rapidly after the turn of the century. In 1900, there were only 241 Immigrants from Russia.  By 1920, this had increased to about 12,000 and in 1930 it was over 18,000. Most of this increase probably occurred before 1924 when Congress limited immigration from Eastern Europe. Despite the concentration of Jews in parts of West Philadelphia, more than three quarters of Yiddish-speakers in Philadelphia lived in other parts of the city.

The largest concentration of Yiddish-speakers in West Philadelphia was in Cobbs Creek – about 6,500 in 1930. The other prominent concentrations were in Wynnefield and Wynnefield Heights (4,750) and East Parkside and northern Belmont (3,936).

Note #1: The 1930 census asked the main language spoken by all foreign-born individuals. This was important for identifying ethnic groups because of the large number of border changes after WWI.  The 1940 census only asked this question of a sample of about 6% individuals. The data from the 1940 sample on the language spoken by Russian-born individuals is consistent with the 1930 data.

After World War II, West Philadelphia’s white population began to decline, and the black population continued to increase.

During this 60-year period, West Philadelphia’s population more than tripled—an average growth rate of 3.8% per year. 

By 1930, West Philadelphia’s population had increased to fill in the southern and most of the western areas. The black population was concentrated in areas just above Market St.

Between 1900 and 1920, West Philadelphia’s population more than doubled. In 1930, it leveled off at three times the population in 1890.