An Introduction

As in previous analyses, it is imperative to determine what is and is not present in the River wards at different times in history. Namely, while many of the factories physically no longer exist, their toxic legacies remain in the soil; this impacts the new infrastructure and urban redevelopment occurring on the same lands. With this in mind, the industrial legacy of the River wards, which enabled its rise and caused its eventual fall, has implications for current residents’ health and safety because of the remains of toxic land. 

The history of metal smelting in the Philadelphia region is vast: data collected by the Princeton Anthropology Department’s VizE Lab, under Project Philadelphia, identified around 48 lead and heavy metal smelters in Philadelphia city limits. The historical presence of smelters is integral to residents’ health because of the toxic effects that metals such as lead have on the human body. According to the CDC, there is no safe amount of lead present in the human body or blood stream and lead has been shown to impact an individual’s, “ IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement” (Blood Lead Levels in Children | Lead | CDC, 2020). While there are proven detrimental health effects on the body from being exposed to lead and other hard metals, the United States government (through its role in the Environmental Protection Agency) historically has not provided aid or valuable information to its constituents who reside on toxic grounds; moreover, the majority of those who live on land contaminated by lead are those of lower socioeconomic status.

Image taken from Philly Thrive’s Facebook page. Comic is from the Philadelphia Inquirer, artist is Signe Wilkinson.

Cartoons, such as the one depicted, show how prominent lead poisoning is in Philadelphia communities and the severe impacts it has on the population. 

Environmental toxicity from old factories in the River wards was driven by the smelting process, in which metal ores were heated so that the different metals could be separated; each metal has a different melting point. In the process of smelting, lead particles enter the environment and settle into the earth; metals do not decompose and remain in the soil forever. This means that if the soil is upturned, through processes such as urbanization that are characteristic of cities, lead is re-exposed and has the potential to endanger the health of those present in the geographic area. Lead can enter the ecosystem during every stage of the smelting process (as outlined in the table below, the EPA has identified 18 different sources of lead particulate emission in the smelting process); this coupled with the enormous volume of lead smelters in Philadelphia’s geographic area, depicts how the land can become contaminated to this extent. 

While the health impacts of smelting can be visualized through blood samples or artwork, they can also be visualized through analyzing the presence and absence of the built environment in Philadelphia. The narratives of infrastructure related to smelting are interwoven with the health narratives of Philadelphia because they occupy the same geographic space.

From Smelting to Baseball: One (of many) Examples

Historical and modern maps, acting as data visualizations of the past and present, can help us understand the dissonance between how the land can remain toxic while the factories that caused this toxicity are no longer present. The following three images all depict the same geographic location (coordinates are 39.982365, -75.097543). As time passes, one can see visually the relationships and industries that occupied the same geographic area.

The Philadelphia 1942 Land Use Maps depict the General Smelting Company at this location. Additionally, the J. M. Brewer Survey of Philadelphia Map of 1934, acting as a HOLC appraisal map, shows how this factory area was “completely or substantially complete [of colored] concentration” (as indicated by the red markings of buildings) (J. M. Brewer map on The legend indicates the geometric coloring style used in the 1934 map as a “heavy industrial type tending to control [the] character of [the] neighborhood” (J. M. Brewer map on

However, both of these images are drastically different from the modern-day Google Maps satellite image of the location, which depicts a baseball field and adjacent park occupying the same space that the General Smelting Company once did.

Image taken from, depicting the latitude and longitude coordinates of (39.982365, -75.097543).
Image taken from, depicting the latitude and longitude coordinates of (39.982365, -75.097543).
Image taken from, depicting the latitude and longitude coordinates of (39.982365, -75.097543).

The imagery of a baseball field and park, surrounded by the area’s visual toxic legacy (shown in the image by the abandoned junk lots and manufacturing infrastructure), is striking. The health dangers of children’s recreational activities on toxic land are also striking: many parks in Philadelphia, due to newspaper investigations testing the soil’s lead levels, have been shut down (Kummer 2019). As I will discuss later, many activist groups in Philadelphia are advocating for their right to clean, safe, healthy spaces. However, the government is not aligned with these desires and instead gives excuses for its inaction.

As I will discuss in subsequent pages, the lead particle’s invisible nature has resulted in two opposing narratives concerning toxicity and bodily poisoning. One side, composed of Riverwards residents, argues that while lead cannot be “traced” back to its source, childhood lead poisoning can occur via soil and environmental lead dust. The other side consists of society’s “standards” and the Philadelphia Health Department; as Kummer (2019) cites, Caroline Johnson, deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, has stated that “there are no known cases of elevated blood lead levels in the city linked to outdoor exposure, like from parks, playgrounds, or dust in the air.” Her statement directly opposes many of Philadelphia residents’ lived and embodied experiences.

This section will center my interlocutor Rachel’s voice as both a parent and anti-lead poisoning community advocate. Please follow along as I continue to contextualize the narratives and data of childhood lead poisoning with Philadelphia’s historical landscape.