Earlier this year, I unintentionally let my vote-by-mail registration lapse, and so I found myself at Overbrook High School, my local polling place, early on a Tuesday morning. Understandably nicknamed "the castle on the hill," the school looms large over Lancaster Avenue amid (then as now) an assortment of stalwart single-family homes and commercial establishments. In the end, I was happy to have voted in person. The polling place was a model of efficiency, and the school itself is quite marvelous: if the architecture and design are resolutely early twentieth-century, the hallway murals tell a longer story of Black history through the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Established to alleviate overcrowding at West Philadelphia's separate high schools for girls and boys, Overbrook High School opened in September of 1926. Unlike the established schools, which merged the same year Overbrook High opened, the new school was coeducational from the start. With a projected cost of over $2 million and capacity for 4,000 students, the school skimped nowhere. Designed in the English Gothic Revival style by Irwin T. Catharine, architect of the Philadelphia Board of Education, the building used some 4.5 million bricks and 2,000 tons of steel. The walls of the large, airy rooms were 20 percent windows, and a giant, oil-burning furnace replaced coal stoves. Like many of Catharine's [End Page 185] other designs, Overbrook High reflected the national trend toward specialized interior spaces. Described upon its opening as a "castle-like … educational fortress," Overbook High's design also reflected the new subjects combined under its roof: it was the first and only high school in the city to include all subjects, from the industrial to the academic.1
Overbrook High began its life as the model of a modern school, well-regarded in the city and its environs. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was put on the national map—in one case literally, in the other figuratively. In 1986, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), which the federal government uses to identify aspects of the built environment that are particularly significant—and thus particularly worthy of preservation. Despite this national recognition, in other parts of the country Overbrook High remains best-known as the alma mater of Wilt Chamberlain and Will Smith—"West Philadelphia born and raised" like his alter ego, the fictionalized version of himself he played on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The theme song describes the show's premise: playing basketball with friends, Will unintentionally provokes members of a local gang. Fearing for his safety, Will's mother sends him to live with his wealthy aunt, uncle, and cousins in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. The proximity of these developments (the school's appearance on the NRHP and its affiliation with an influential, nationally aired sitcom) illustrates something of the past of Philadelphia's built environment—and perhaps of its future.
As I sit here typing this piece, just blocks from Overbrook High, home and office still, in late 2021, sometimes collapsed together, a work crew hammers away at the vacant house next door to mine. It's been that way since before I moved in, two years ago now. When it's completed, it will probably resemble the other rehabbed houses across the city, with the subway tile backsplashes and exposed-brick staircases that populate Zillow listings. On neighborhood blogs popular among middle-class, largely White West Philadelphians in their thirties and forties, exhortations abound not to cross Fifty-Second Street when it comes to real estate. I posit no causality, of course, but these exhortations reflect the fact that those of us in this age cohort grew up with the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air vision of Overbrook and adjacent neighborhoods, after White flight and disinvestment affected the infrastructure and livability of cities across the [End Page 186] country. Certainly some members of this generation see the appeal of the area, with its quiet, residential streets and iconic landmarks, like the high school. Whoever moves into the vacant house will probably have more in common...