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.

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