Friday, October 27, 2006

Go East, Young Man

Market East is the buzz of Center City watchers of late. The recent leasing of the Girard Estate property on Market from 11th to 12th means that there may be big changes coming to a block that was once home to the long lost Snellenburg's department store. Trinity Capital Advisers, LLC of Conshohocken will lease the property for $90 million. The leasers say they don't plan to move too quickly in making big changes to this long underdeveloped parcel of land.

Many observers were surprised that this block is supposed to change drastically through a leasing option, rather than a sale of the property.

When one walks down Market East from City Hall to 7th Street, they cannot help but notice that the pieces do not quite fit together. The Market East of today is a shadow of what it was in terms of architectural stock 30 years ago. The demolition for the Gallery project's stages in the 70's and 80's took many visually interesting buildings away from Center City. Granted, most of those buildings were in need of great restoration, but market forces downtown today probably would have brought such renovations in due time.

The "Disney Hole" at 8th and Market seems permanently empty. But rumblings have floated around for several years about a possible Target store and residential development for the site. The culprit in blocking the redevelopment of this site remains the Parking Authority, supposedly, and issues about putting a garage at 8th and Chestnut for the project. I don't think we'll ever get a clear reading on what's kept the 8th and Market hold empty since 1980. One can only wonder what the old Gimbel's buildings there would have become today had they remained standing.

We are going to see major changes, ideally, along Market East in the next 10 years. The Center City District seems committed to focusing no shortage of energy at long last on this beleaguered stretch.

What should the vision be for Market East? Several plans in the past have called for Market East to become rather like Times Square. Bright lights, tourist-oriented entertainment and retail options. Perhaps this would be a much needed addition to Center City to further increase the feeling of vitality that we're blessed with downtown.

Whatever the vision for Market East, there must be a committed vision from PREIT, the owners of The Gallery, toward upgrading the interior aesthetics of The Gallery, and certainly, a full-scale exterior renovation of the complex. While one should admit that The Gallery serves many Philadelphians in many ways daily, it warrants serious attention to ensure it no longer is the butt of jokes by those that see themselves as being "above" The Gallery and those that patronize it.

Changes along Market East will raise growing issues of providing retail that does not merely pander to tourists and the well-heeled shoppers of Center City. A strong downtown serves people of all cultures and incomes, and increasingly, that's becoming harder to find in most major city downtowns as they boom with new residential and commercial development. Yes, a balance must be found between the City Blues and the Burberrys. Like everything else in America, though, market forces will make the final decisions in how the changes along Market East transpire.

It is certain that the next 10 years belong to the part of Center City east of Broad Street. We will hopefully be surprised just how exciting Market East is some years from now.

Oh, and don't even get me started on Chestnut East....

Monday, February 13, 2006

Same Place, Different Flavor

Philadelphia is unlike other cities even when it comes to being obsessed with doing things they we it always has. While other cities have no names or traditions left linking the city with is past, we still do. But that list of names and traditions is shrinking to the point where it's really no longer a list at all, but rather, a collection of items that could just fill a post-it note. Indeed, these changes are altering the flavor of Philadelphia's very being - and it's perhaps a quality of life issue in a non-traditional sense.

You think of quality of life issues touching things like crime, education, urban blight, tax structure, and more. But there is a social or pop culture quality of life, as well.

In what other city could Chief Halftown stayed on the air until the 1990s? Where else could Larry Ferrari have played the organ on Channel 6 also into the 90s? Completing the trifecta of Channel 6 traditions we loved: the Action News theme song. Need I explain?

Even on a civic issue level, Philadelphia has long-seated traditions that appear to finally be cracking. What other city would have been so very resistant to electing new mayors even when the incumbent seems steeped in bad involvements? How many other city's of our size and density could have staved off viable and useful public transportation improvements and been complacent to have amazingly long bus trips in their place? Where could litter possibly be more acceptable in communities that know fully well it shouldn't be? These are all negative things with which Philadelphia has been in bed for decades. But maybe it's atsrting to slip away for the better.

The way we consume goods is also departing almost entirely from tradition:

Since just after post-Civil War Reconstruction, Philadelphians have been able to buy something in a store with the name "Strawbridge" on it. Coming this May, that option disappears. In a very real sense, that option disappeared the minute the actual Strawbridge family and the rest of the board of the Strawbridge and Clothier retail empire sold the store chain to the May Company behemoth in 1996. The stores changed, merchandise became generic and only the Center City store still suggested that this venerable chain once had some unique retailing ideas. Come May, Philadelphia loses a great retailing name, even if the real substance of that name disappeared a decade ago. Perhaps Mr. G. Stockton Strawbridge, long the king of the S&C empire who died shortly after the company was sold off, can rest peacefully. His name will no longer grace a store that most people think is an impostor anyway. Macy's here you come.

I could spin another yarn about how regrettable that also in 1996, John Wanamaker became a thing of the past. But let's think about something the Wanamaker stores gave the Delaware Valley: the Christmastime light show. This 1956 creation still continues annually from Thanksgiving to New Year's, but each year, it seems less special. Could this be the words of someone as an adult realizing a piece of their childhood memory is not as impressive as it seemed? Certainly not. This year, the light show was no longer hourly, but every two hours. The reason Lord and Taylor gave the media was that the equipment is aged and they received a recommendation from electricians that it should run less often. The issue of aging equipment also took out pieces of the show in years past - shortening the experience over all and making it less engaging.

Essentially everything I have mentioned in this piece relates to the growing debate over corporate mergers, growing desires for even bigger profits and smaller advertising budgets, and globalization of practically everything except going to the bathroom. For a slow-to-budge place like Philadelphia, losing ties to the past can be tough. But we often don't feel any sense of such losses until they're put in our face. Otherwise, we're too busy buying stuff at Wal Mart, Target, or Macy's.

Where are places like Hanscom's Bakery? Horn and Hardart? Gimbel's? Philadelphia National Bank? Germantown Savings Bank? PSFS? Acme Markets held in local hands?This could be a list of ghosts that could seem infinite. But each place in this list disappeared for some reason tied to the dollar, corporate changes, or someone inventing a new way to provide a service faster and cheaper. So we lose household names and special experiences that are forced to become only memories.

How do we view what gives Philadelphia its unique cultural and social flavor? This is going to be a big question to ponder in coming decades. It seems certain that the world of business is going to continue to get smaller and richer. Will it then be our attitudes, connections to notable personalities, or civic contributions that will form the memories and household names of tomorrow's Philadelphia region? What better time to be cliche: "Time will tell."

While you might pass 8th and Market and glower at Macy's eternally lower-case logo taking the place of the Strawbridge and Clothier "Seal of Confidence", at least you can sleep well at night knowing that you'll always have the Action News theme song to keep you company at night when you dream of being able to take a plate of food from the window at Horn and Hardart again or remember the monorail in the toy department at Wanamaker's, or think of that time you appeared on Chief Halftown's stage singing as a kid.

Let us never forget to always be the eternally unique place we have always been and should fight to remain. How we go about establishing our traditions is being forced to change - how will we face it?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

23 Skidoo

No, is most definitely not a story about a 1920s song about the area around Madison Square in Manhattan. But it is a story about the ongoing "substitution" of diesel bus transportation for long-tenured trolley service in Philadelphia. Let us open the book on the growing issue of what to do with Route 23 - SEPTA's venerable route serving Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, Germantown, North Philadelphia, Center City, and South Philadelphia. Name one other route that pulls that off, and maybe this isn't such a special issue for consideration.

You can't name another SEPTA route that does that - just in case you're still thinking about it.

This transit route, connecting communities representing the height of market economy excess and social and economic nadir, has been served by often aging, and recently some modern diesel bus service. Perhaps you have stood on the corner of 12th and Market or Germantown and Chelten, for example, and been blasted in the face by an offensive cloud of diesel fumes. Yeah, that was likely the 23 going by.

Since 1992 SEPTA has run its Routes 23 and 56 as "temporary" bus service. Recently, the Route 15 was liberated from this designation and received handsomely restored trolleys that were orginally built in 1947 and 48 for SEPTA's predecessor, Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC).

There is a wider issue at hand here, that SEPTA tends to make policies under the guise of "temporary" intent, with long-term or even seemingly permanent realization. The Route 56 is nearly all paved over save for a portion on Erie Avenue from Frankford to West Hunting Park Avenues through North Philadelphia and Juniata Park.

Until recently, the 23 was spared any pave-overs of trackage. But SEPTA is beginning to undertake steps to potentially ensure this established route never again rumbles with trolleys. Several years ago, a piece of track was paved over in North Philadelphia along 10th Street north of Temple's Campus. More recently, and with considerably more fiery reaction from the public, was the paving of a section of the 23's tracks from Gowen Avenue in Mount Airy to Cresheim Valley Road at the base of Chestnut Hill. SEPTA's explanation is that the trackage was damaging the wheels of cars driving on this stretch. They were right, flats along this stretch were commonplace. What's upset people so much was that the pave-over was done last minute and with no community input.

SEPTA does not have a track record that is kind to trolley transit. Since the 1960's, scores of trolley lines have been converted to diesel bus service. This is not unlike most major American cities' transit systems evolutions during that stretch of time. In fact, Philadelphia is one of the few major metropolitan areas left that actually have trolleys that operate on regular surface street rights-of-way. Further, we have more trolley lines than most cities that still have trolley service.

So why should people care about the revival of the 23? First, SEPTA committed itself to restoring not only the 23, but also Routes 56 and 15 by 1997. Thus far, only the 15 has been revived and as mentioned above, the 56 is all but a ghost now. SEPTA has played a sorry game of dirty pool with Philadelphia's mass transit advocates and trolley enthusiasts (of which there are many).

The mood in Mount Airy and even the often challenging Chestnut Hill seems to be one of positive thought about the possible revival of this venerable trolley line. Let's hope it happens. But let's not hold our breath or anything. SEPTA's disappointed us before, and it will do it again.

PS
SEPTA did disappoint again...they just rejected an option to order more trackless trolleys from New Flyer, Inc. (the manufacturer of the new fleet of buses) to replace the lost trackless vehicles on South Philadelphia's Routes 29 and 79.

Where are the voices that will push SEPTA's board back in favor of Philadelphia residents?

Public Services and the Magic of Inconsistency

It would be simplistic to assume that all large American cities cannot possibly provide a wide array of useful and efficient public services to their residents and visitors. However, every few months one may run across some account in the media about an American city from which other large cities ought to learn. These are cities that seem to be doing "something right" when it comes to providing those hum-drum things we take for granted not because we don't really appreciate having them, but frankly, they're just not interesting services.

Whether or not services such as public education, sanitation, tree maintenance, parks and recreation and many more services are "sexy" or not is irrelevant. These are the very sort of things that people base their experience upon in living in a city. This may be painfully basic for some of you reading, but so many people don't spend even seconds dwelling on just why they are/are not happy in their city. Many Philadelphians know they enjoy life here or realize that something is missing from life here for them, but often we don't have time to ponder just why we realize these things.

So let's ponder one of the most useful services a city can provide during wintertime: snow removal. Remember, I said these kinds of things aren't "sexy" issues like building a huge glass addition onto the north side of the central Free Library or landing the 2016 Olympics, but we have to think about it.

Tonight, a report on WCAU 10 news pointed out that residents of Bella Vista were only mildly irritated with the quality of snow removal on their stretch of Fitzwater Street. I say this with a great sense of sarcasm. Bella Vista is blessed with civically-active residents so their opinions are never obsequious. The people interviewed tonight said typical TV news comments made for short attention span TV news. In regards to the street's snow removal today were lines (and I paraphrase) such as, "lousy," or "I've lived here 27 years and it's always been bad."

Channel 10 could have probably found tens of residents in other, newer neighborhoods in the City who felt the plowing they received on their streets was "outstanding" or "just fine." Snow plowing, like so many municipal services, can be inconsistent its quality and execution. So is it even really news? No.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Philadelphia had no snow removal when any section of Fitzwater Street was laid out in the mid-19th Century. You just didn't travel other than on foot or by one miserable carriage ride during weather such as we had here this past weekend. Snow removal never became a focused public service anywhere until the "magic" of the automobile era fully-realized itself in that oh so important timeperiod called the middle twentieth century.

What's my point here? Sometimes I ask myself that as I write these posts. One idea begets another and I veer off track. Odd considering I spend five days a week helping students of mine write papers that focus on a thesis statement.

The point is that we don't have a city physically geared toward some of our public services or even utilities today. You cannot expect expeditious and thorough snow removal if you live on a street where parking is allowed on both sides and the lane for traffic is barely 15 feet wide. Ever driven a plow truck? No? That makes me, you and most of us all.

The Philadelphia Streets Department could use more funding just like a gaggle of other municipal agencies. They do their best to maintain streets in a city that has the legal right to ignore Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDOT) policies...it's one of the many gifts of being a "city of the first class" under Pennsylvania law. We're the only such city in the Commonwealth.

Philadelphia is very much more self-reliant when it comes to basic public services such as snow removal. Bear with the City when big snows hit. Be thankful you live in a city where it's hard to drive because your community is so well planned for human scale and on-foot travel. Believe me, if planners fifty years ago could have found a way to demolish the north side of Fitzwater Street, for example, to widen that street to speed traffic flow or even make for easier snow plowing, they would have. I'm sure such a process would have been covered by Channel 10, too, with different people saying such original things as "terrible" and "a shame" about it.

If you find yourself stressed about poor snow plowing in your community - just take that energy and invest in thinking about how nice it will be to elect a new mayor in 2007. You do know why that will be a great thing, right?

Back from Seeming Oblivion

My impression re my blog, and I think it's a rather accurate one, is that relatively few people have seen it, let alone read it. However, should there be someone out there in Internetland that has been obsessively checking Philadelphia Maneto for updates over the last six months - I am back. There are those that might wonder, "Why such a long absence?" Well, you see I was on a sabattical from my blogging duties - one has no idea how challenging writing blog posts are until they undertake such endeavours themselves. Okay, this is all just me being random. The reality is that life got busier and other stuff.

But we're back, baby. And I hope to post more frequently - there are certainly no less issues about which I could write. Philadelphia has a way of making sure it never gets boring one way or another.

My best to any readers as this new year picks up momentum. Thanks for taking a look from time-to-time.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Greatness of the Northeast

This evening, I was driving around Northeast Philadelphia, nothing new for me. Even though I live near Center City, I have always been fascinated by this vast, important part of Philadelphia. My mother's family all hail from there, and some of them still call it home. Everytime I venture through the Northeast, I find some new corner of it that appeals to me for some reason.

For those of you not so sure about where the Northeast is, here's some help. Northeast Philadelphia is the vast "right arm" of the City and County of Philadelphia, extending as far as nearly 20 miles from Center City at its northeastern-most border with Bucks County. At its lower end, it straddles North Philadelphia and Kensington and Fishtown. For decades, it has been quickly understood upon mention of its name as a bastion for the middle class of the City. It is also widely understood to be a preserve for whites of eastern and southern European background, and of course, the omnipresent Irish-Americans.

There have been many articles written since the mid-1990s about the Northeast's shifting demographics. Many whites are getting older and older, some communities almost seem to be chock-full of retirees. Yet there are still many children in the Northeast. A drive through the area's venerable Mayfair section reveals legions of little ones playing in front yards and back driveways.

For many that long-ago left the City, much of the Northeast represents what they remember about most of Philadelphia in their youths. For example, my grandmom recalls that in her younger days, in the 50s and 40s, you could go to any part of Philadelphia and find areas that were as spotless and safe as much of the Northeast is today. She and many others long absent from town remember large sections of North Philadelphia still being white, working-class bastions with streets full of people sweeping and talking with one another. A time before the media depicted those same areas today as violence-ridden and at times, derelict regardless of how many good people still live in those places. For many I talk to, it seems implicit in their eyes that when these communities were white and homogeneous, they were "good" and that diversity signalled "bad" or "declining" places. This is a simplistic and often ignorant snap judgment.

This is why I firmly believe the City is unwise to continue to pay little attention to the quality of life in the Northeast. The Northeast is changing and finding diversity for the first time in large numbers, and longtimers are starting to grumble, and some are panicking and leaving. Who is to step in and ensure discussions occur to ensure strong, stable communities remain down the road? This sort of tumult is nothing new for the Northeast.

For decades, Northeast Philadelphians have threatened to secede from the city, or to vote out politicians that worry about other areas but not the Northeast. The people of the Northeast realize they are stable residents and pay a lot of the taxes that make the city's coffers solvent. Still, today, Philadelphia, like many of its contemporaries, neglects to ensure future stability in its most stable neighborhoods. The City is also guilty of neglecting other stable communities like West Oak Lane or parts of Olney, for example. All of these are communities that still appeal to a wide spectrum of families but fail to receive basic services that often are splurged on Center City residents or forlorn parts of North Philadelphia from which people are running fast.

It's got to be a tough battle for City politicians to find ways to revive the worst neighborhoods, while giving credence to the people of places like the Northeast. So often, we just assume that stable and attractive communities will exist in perpetuity. But as Philadelphians, we have ample evidence to the contrary. Just 50 years ago or less, large sections of Germantown were nicer and more stable, same goes for much of Southwest Philadelphia. These places were simply allowed to decline and age, and the City did little to help fight racism and promote stable integration in those areas, for example.

With much of the Northeast, particularly the strong rowhouse lower Northeast, becoming more racially diverse, you have to wonder if the city will step in and make sure basic services and diversity can thrive there. Seemingly simple things like new sidewalks and sewers, street lighting, new schools, recretion centers all are going to be crucial to ensuring that tomorrow's Northeast remains a nice place to call home.

But further, and quite importantly, the social organizations and civic groups of the Northeast must fight hard to ensure that neighborhoods don't go through rapid white flight, but rather, become places to live for all people that wish to make a home there. We must look to the examples of Mount Airy and other communities that have been able to maintain stable existences while being home to a palette of people. If we allow the Northeast to simply flounder and assume it can stand without City support, a grave disservice will be done to Philadelphians.

It is time to realize that the Northeast is not a charmed "other" amid the rest of the city. Rather, it is younger and only starting to show the pains the other older Philadelphia communities were left to falter in some 30 or 40 years ago.

Philadelphia can ensure a bright future for one of it's most stable sections, if it take the time now to start planning wisely what it will become.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Would the Real Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Please Stand Up?

A Philadelphia landmark, the Smith Memorial Playground in East Fairmount Park reopened a few weeks ago. This impressive place to play has entertained children in the City for a century, but amid its recent renovation, there are new rules that are limiting the way in which kids at Smith play.

Firstly, all children must be closely supervised, meaning kids cannot any longer just walk up and get into the playground. Parents can bring in a limit of four kids at one time - something that also is a problem from long-time patrons who used to bring many kids on behalf of parents that couldn't be there.

The reasons for all of these changes could be assumed by even the most conspiracy-obsessed crackpot: litigation and liability. Smith Memorial Playground, like the entire United States, has been mired in the new order of being afraid all the time, that someone may in fact sue.

Hope Zoss, the playground's new director, told Philadelphia City Paper writer Bruce Schimmel, "It's a litigious society. If somebody trips and falls, it's not the family's problem, it's our problem. The premise here is that adult supervision is required. We don't supervise children, we supervise the adults. We're promoting family."

Wow, what a sugar-coated quote. Zoss is trying to depict changes that will effectively keep out thousands of Philadelphia kids as something that will encourage family time. Zoss seems to have missed the chance to express in the City Paper article, that family time is scarce these days, probably because many children are suing their parents for not getting them the gifts for which they asked at Christmastime.

Schimmel raised a good point in his City Paper piece: that many City kids will not be able to play at Smith because they either won't have adults around during playground hours to take them there, or because there are such strict limits on who can get in and how many in each group. For youngsters from the Strawberry Mansion community adjacent to the playground, this is more than a drag, it's a nightmare. A great facility right in their backyard is now less available to them.

I made a trip to Smith Playground last weekend and noticed the crowd was considerably whiter than one would imagine considering the nearby community's demographics. Adults were nearly as numerous as children, and there were very few children that seemed to be from the Strawberry Mansion community. Most everyone had driven to the playground. I couldn't help but think how cool the place was, and how I would like to take my own children there someday - when I have kids.

But never did I imagine that Smith reopened with such restrictions and the power to turn away kids that are so eager to play on the massive slide so famous for decades, or in the playhouse that is more like a Main Line mansion.

Smith is a gem in our City, and we're more lucky to have it open than closed again. But who are we trying to ensure can play there? Who will be the faces of the new Smith? Are they supposed to be affluent kids that have nannies or parents staying home with them? Or are the gates to the park still truly open to the kids that are home alone during the day, or had relatives in the adjacent community that played their without adults with them for nearly a century?

Let's hope Smith revises it's requirements...it won't. So who's gonna do something about it?

How long will fear and lawsuits rule our decisions?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Overlooked

Overbrook is one of Philadelphia's most venerable communities. Since the 1890s, people have called this area home. The Overbrook area is relatively large, pieced-into several distinct sections that traditionally were divided by economic class and ethnicity. That said, the community runs from about 59th Street on the east, to City Line Avenue on the west, Vine to Lancaster Avenue. Like the borders of most every Philadelphia neighborhood, they are open to dispute and discussion.

Prominently situated at 63rd and Lancaster, sits Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. This is the parish I call home and it is a landmark building in a community full of great architecture. It was after Mass this past week that I had the chance to speak with a fellow parishioner about the Overbrook community and its many changes during the last 15 years. For the sake of anonymity, I'll call this woman Dee, and she's lived in the area her entire life. She's in her early 50s and like many Overbrook residents of the past, is Italian-American.

I had figured out that Overbrook had a large Italian community long before anyone ever suggested it to me. To this day a few Italian businesses sit in the area: Ugo's Salumeria and Caffe Sportivo Italiano both at 64th and Callowhill. Haverford Furniture, a nice store owned by an Italian-American family still does business around 65th and Haverford. And there are two Italian-American social clubs, one near Ugo's, the other sitting quietly at 67th and Haverford.

Since the early 1990s, Dee told me, the vast number of Italian-Americans, as well as a sizeable Irish-American community, have left Overbrook for other places. Broomall in Delaware County, and of course, New Jersey, she said are the two biggest destinations.

I suggested to Dee that perhaps one major reason for this recent exodus was racism. Anyone that knows me can tell you that I firmly believe racism has been the biggest push factor in why so many stable, white rowhouse communities in Philadelphia have suddenly resegregated into usually African American neighborhoods. This process is often fueled by realtors that scare residents by barraging them with "Cash for Homes" ads and other tactics that fly just below old blockbusting strategies. These factors leave communities just as lacking in diversity as they were originally, and most of the fears of former residents never become reality.

Dee was more than happy to confirm that it was indeed race that played a major role in Overbrook's abrupt turnover of residents. She said it seemed as though everyone disappeared at the same time - and most people mentioned that the neighborhood was "going down," an old favorite of phrases in working class Philadelphia.

"People started getting jumped," Dee remembered. "You gotta watch now," she continued, suggesting that in the past one did not need to mind their surroundings in Overbrook. Dee said hookers and drug dealers infest certain corners along 63rd Street, and that shootings have popped up from time to time in the otherwise quiet community. "You didn't used to have that," Dee stressed.

I couldn't help but wonder if people got jumped back when Overbrook was all white. I couldn't help but wonder if maybe prostitutes walked parts of 63rd Street before non-white residents moved in. I refuse to tie the arrival of minority families to the types of urban ills that may touch Overbrook from time-to-time.

It is doubly humorous to me that while so many former Overbrookers feel the community they once knew is in decline, the homes are selling for more than ever. Rowhomes routinely fetch over $110,000 each now. Twins and singles can top $200,000 or more, especially in ritzier Overbrook Farms immediately east of City Line Avenue. The old fear that land values would drop has never been realized.

You can still buy Italian goods at Ugo's, find great water ice at Morrone's on 63rd or the Dairy Bar at 68th and Lansdowne. Children still play baseball at Papa Playground across from the Dairy Bar. Every street teems with children playing jumprope or riding bicycles. There is a feeling on most every street that there are stable families living in Overbrook. Indeed, this community seems to have changed in skin color only, welcoming new residents that were seeking a nice house, a quiet street, and a place for their children to relax outside. Why couldn't more of the longtime residents remember that?

Dee is a kind lady and I was glad to meet her. It was fun to recount stories about Italian stores and traditions in the neigborhood.

But I was left without an answer to the greatest mystery I know: Why can't white working class Philadelphia sit still when a few non-white faces move into their blocks? What makes so many rock-solid communities still today think they are at risk because the street is no longer Italian, or Irish, or even American-born for example? It is not an Overbrook problem, it is not even a Philadelphia problem, rather, it is an American problem.

Any outsider I have ever driven through Overbrook has commented to me that it's nice, the houses are well-kept, and it's got a lot of eye appeal. That's true, it really is a great community.

Places like Overbrook are overlooked by yuppies because they're not close in enough to Trader Joe's on Market Street or the Ritz Theatres. They are not red-hot with young people because they don't know any friends that are dying to move there. But maybe it's time all of us started considering these great communities that while they may not be the ethnic bastions they once were, are still great places to call home.

To visit Overbrook:
By SEPTA - use the 10 trolley from 15th Street Station and ride to the end of the line at 63rd and Malvern. Walk west into the neighborhood.

By Car - Use 63rd Street northbound from Walnut Street heading from Center City. Or drive in from the Main Line on Lancaster Avenue east across City Line. You're there.

Give it a good look - there's a lot to appreciate.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Mount Climbing

I had the pleasure today of helping a few friends move into their new home in East Mount Airy, Philadelphia. This is a great house - as are so many in this dynamic community. It got me thinking about what makes Mount Airy stand out among so many other parts of Philadelphia that could be just as appealing and engaging were they to find a new lease on life - or at least a new direction.

Some people insist Mount Airy appeals to many because it is racially and culturally diverse. The area is indeed so, and since the 1950s has made an effort to encourage integration and prosperity. For others, the draw of Mount Airy has been that it offers a semi-suburban atmosphere: trees, yards, parks, recreation centers, all amid a slightly urban character of rowhomes, twins and large single homes. One must also mention the entire area is steeped in American history - having been the sight of the Battle of Germantown and covered in structures dating back to the 18th Century.

I think that it is that feeling that everyone can meld into the wider community in Mount Airy that makes it tick. If you think about Philadelphia's 135 square miles, there are nearly no working class communities that seem to welcome racial diversity or find themselves free of class friction in the face of the urban changes of the 21st Century. Whole swaths of Northeast Philadelphia are going through changes Mount Airy long ago deemed unacceptable - racial resegregation, capital flight. It is not that Mount Airy and neighboring areas did not experience any of those things, but the community stands out in the city for spending so much time and energy fighting those destructive trends.

Perhaps the most troubling thing for some of us about Mount Airy, despite its many virtues, is that it is becoming harder to find homes that are affordable. This is not a new issue in urban America, where communities with very alluring aspects begin to no longer have space for those that may most want to live there. I recently looked at two homes in East Mount Airy, just steps away from the house I helped my friends move into. Both were rowhomes, one more modest in size than the other. The smaller one was in top-notch condition, with lots of upgrades and a really nice street to boost its attractiveness. The asking price? $169,900. I was never going to get in there on a beginner teacher's salary. The other home I looked at was higher, around $185,000. Both homes just three years ago would have sold for about $85,000. Back then, I felt certain I could become part of Mount Airy. Now, I am not so sure.

Sticker shock is truly spreading across "Manetoland." Note the new nickname for Philadelphia. Nearly all sections of the city have appreciated greatly the last two years. Realtors have told me that for decades Philadelphia was undervalued - and that's probably quite true. One only need drive to New York or DC to see how good we have it here when it comes to affording a home in the city.

It's just hard to imagine paying $169,900 for a 1200 square foot rowhouse. I think you know what I mean.

But I'll still keep looking in Mount Airy because I think it's a great place - it energizes me to be there and see its palette of residents and observe its historic feeling putting a strong foot forward in such a great city.

Let's hope more sections of Philadelphia embrace the challenges and efforts Mount Airy has succeeded at facing for so many years.