Category Archives: Neighborhoods

Six Months in Mt Airy: I Like It Here


When I left Philadelphia for Portland nearly five years ago, I wholly credited Penn Treaty Park for reestablishing a personal connection with nature—it and Johnny Brenda’s were my go-to fortresses to escape Fishtown without leaving Fishtown. Watching the tide roll in and out focused my attention on the bigger Delaware River, the one that bubbles out of the ground in the Catskills and empties into the Atlantic below the horn of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Portland’s lush greenery cemented that connection as something wholly necessary, wherever I might live. Moving back to Philly a little over a year ago, I knew I had to be somewhere with real green space. Not Rittenhouse green space, but Wissahickon green space. And I knew it had to be Mt Airy.

I like Chestnut Hill and Germantown, and Roxborough, Manayunk, and East Falls have their pluses, but Mt Airy is the sweet spot, the porridge. It’s just right. The low crime rate, the racial and economic diversity, the progressiveness, the SEPTA regional rail lines (and buses), the stuff on Germantown Avenue, the great residential architecture, American Revolution history … all this is well documented. But for me, A#1 at the top of the list is the natural beauty—the tree canopy throughout the neighborhood, the topography and vistas it provides, the direct access to Wissahickon Park.

Mt Airy in paper cut by the one and only EmmaF-C
Greatest gift ever: Mt Airy in paper cut by the talented and lovely Emma F-C

Six months ago, I departed my interim arrangements a surprisingly satisfied customer in Brewerytown, where I’d been living since moving back to Philadelphia from Portland, Oregon. It was nice to watch that neighborhood in mid-transition—it felt very similar to G-Ho of about 12 years ago, before Toll Bros and boring people with boring homes took it over. The growth in Brewerytown, though, is anything but boring, and places like High Point Cafe and Shifty’s Taco and Brewerytown Beats, as well as those in the pipeline like Pizza Brain’s second location and Crime & Punishment Brewing, will keep Brewerytown interesting. Plus—speaking of access to green space—all of East Fairmount Park is right there, from Lemon Hill to Strawberry Mansion and a new plan coming from Penn Praxis to provide even better connectivity via Brewery Hill Drive.

But I knew I had to be in Mt Airy amongst the trees and the birds, so in November, I made the move. These first six months have been a bona fide love fest, getting to know Weavers Way, Earth Bread & Brewery (brewer Tom Baker says proper shorthand is “Earth,” not “Earth Bread”), High Point, the Goat, Chef Ken, Carpenter’s Woods, even busy Lincoln Drive … So I thought, what better way to profess this love than on the 44th annual Mt Airy Day?

My only hangup is a matter of syntax: how to spell it. Mount Airy? Too formal. Mt. Airy? Ehh. Much like I absolutely despise hyphens, I don’t like using dots for anything other than periods. I use “Mr Jones” and “Dr Smith.” Mt Airy? It’s neither AP nor Chicago style, but baby, it’s Skyline style, so here we are, in Mt Airy. (See also: Allens/Allen’s/Allen Lane.) Besides, it’s good to have options.

So: what up 19119! Nice to see ya. It’s nice to be here. See y’all at Cliveden. Happy Mt Airy Day!

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Click any of the 80 photos below to launch a gallery of photos, all taken on the iphone 4S, in chronological order from November 1st through May 4th, Mt Airy Day. Use your right and left arrow keys for best viewing.

Clean, Pure, North Philly Color

Who says there aren't any trees in North Philly? | Photo: Bradley Maule
Who says there aren’t any trees in North Philly? | Photo: Bradley Maule

Hard to believe it’s been nearly five years since Steve Weinik, Steve Ives, Chris Dougherty, and I got together for a day’s worth of riding SEPTA. (Worth noting: we’re planning a fifth anniversary of sorts, a new tour, for this June.) In Weinik’s essay, he speaks of growing up in Mt Airy and always wanting to ride the 23 bus’s full length; so he did.

Now that I live in Mt Airy, my SEPTA Zone 2 pass is good for both Chestnut Hill regional rail lines—on their schedule, of course. So if I miss a train by five minutes, it’s either wait 55 more for the next one or explore my options. Those options include taking the H bus to Broad & Erie, traipsing across the neighborhood from one train line to the other (again, assuming the schedules match up), or hopping that 23 bus. In three months living here, I’ve found that to not be the least undesirable option, but one that’s actually quite convenient—door-to-door service from the POPE in South Philly to home in Mt Airy!—and certainly eye opening.

As Weinik mentioned in his piece, the 23 bus from top to bottom—from Germantown Ave & Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill to Broad & Oregon in South Philly—is a real Philly slice of life, a dissection of all that’s right & wrong, rich & poor, heartwarming & gutwrenching in this city. But what’s interesting, to me, is that in his view five years ago, the stretch of the 23 on Germantown Avenue in Fairhill was the most depressing, enunciated by his starting in ritzy Chestnut Hill and continuing on through the glistening skyscrapers downtown. But in the time since then, the Mural Arts Program—Weinik’s place of full-time employment—has taken a stretch of this route and splashed it with color that demands once-averted eyes to look. As Mural Arts’ in-house photographer, he got to watch the Dutch artists Haas & Hahn bring their favela magic to North Philly from up close. (Check his photos of the project, Philly Painting, HERE.)

At the southern end of Philly Painting’s two-block, three-story canvas, Germantown Ave follows its ancient indian trail with a slight curve to the left. At this bend, the Village of Arts & Humanities now sits in its 25th year of residence. What Lily Yeh founded as a way of breathing life into vacant land has blossomed into an award-winning organization that provides a creative outlet for thousands of kids and volunteers across Philadelphia.

Last Tuesday, Mother Nature socked it to us with 12″ of powder. That night, Steve Weinik and I did the city classic, Snow Day at the Bar, and probably stayed for one drink too many at McMenamin’s—on Germantown Avenue in Mt Airy. The next morning, with SEPTA regional rail in the snow to contend with, I opted to head to Center City instead on the 23 bus. This time, I got out at Lehigh, and I walked down Germantown Avenue to soak in the colors of Philly Painting and the Village of Arts & Humanities under a foot of snow and a crystal clear blue winter sky.

Après-ski à Cobbs Creek

The El crosses Cobbs Creek from DelCo into Philly | Photo: Bradley Maule
The El crosses Cobbs Creek from DelCo into Philly | Photo: Bradley Maule

“Polar vortex” … “bombogenesis” … what ever happened to classic nor’easters and plain old blizzards? In three and a half years, including four winters, in Portland, I saw exactly one snowfall: a 3″ job the first month I lived there that was melted by noon the next day. (Still, it shut the city down for at least a day.) This winter? Now this is the east coast. But FU, Weather Channel, I’m not calling a winter storm a name you made up just to stir a hurricane hype into ratings. Pfft.

Anyway. Tuesday, my favorite day of the week, delivered as always with a good foot of the white stuff. Living in Mt Airy, I did the most logical thing: bundled up for a snow hike through the Wissahickon, then met Steve Weinik at the neighborhood’s official snow day bar, McMenamin’s … then woke up the next morning on the couch still in my boots and gloves, feeling like a million bucks. (Truly–man I love winter.) Come Wednesday, the snow was over and the skies crystal clear, that dare-you-to-go-outside pure, cold, clean air. Challenge accepted.

West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center, 1927-2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule
West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center, 1927-2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule

One of the nice things about being an editor of the Hidden City Daily is assigning yourself stories and photo shoots as needed. With news of the West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center demolition in full swing, I had to get out there to see the handsome circa-1927 Romanesque building before it was gone. Yet another historic building from a time long gone meets its maker. Ugh.

While the WPJCC was under construction at 63rd & Ludlow, so too was the widening of Cobbs Creek Parkway, following the old route of Grays Lane (not to be confused with Grays Avenue or Grays Ferry Avenue) (according to Robert Alotta’s Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees, and Custer, 1990). Morphing from street grid to meandering sylvan drive, Cobbs Creek Parkway essentially follows the path of Cobbs Creek proper, Philadelphia’s winding western border from City Line Avenue to where the stream empties into Darby Creek, near 80th Street in Eastwick. Cobbs Creek Park, a ribbon of green space with a rec center, a swimming pool, an environmental education center (housed in a Works Progress Administration building completed in 1936), a skate house supported by Ed Snider’s Youth Hockey Foundation, and a popular hike/bike trail, was established as part of the Fairmount Park system in 1904.

As with a number of other examples–Grays Ferry, Gravers Lane, Allens Lane–Cobbs Creek’s naming convention comes from simply dropping the apostrophe, although there are still those who add it back. The apostrophe originates with William Cobb, an English miller who bought land along the creek from the Swedes, who had lived here since the early 17th Century. Remnants from a mill built by Swedish Governor Johan Printz can still be seen farther down Cobbs Creek near the Blue Bell Inn.

In addition to the waterway and Parkway, the West Philly neighborhood from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue and 52nd Street to the Creek takes the name Cobbs Creek. The native Lenape name for the creek, Karakung, lends itself to Karakung Drive in Haverford and the Karakung Golf Course, through which Cobbs Creek and its tributary Indian Creek flow.

Unfortunately, many people know the neighborhood from one of the city’s darkest days, May 13, 1985, when Philadelphia became The City That Bombed Itself. After years of tension and a very public eviction from Powelton Village, a standoff between police and the militant luddites MOVE at their fortified compound half a block from Cobbs Creek Park on Osage Avenue reached its hilt when a police helicopter dropped a bomb provided by the FBI, igniting an inferno that destroyed over 60 homes and killed 11 MOVE members. Of the two who survived the bomb, only one, Ramona Africa, still lives; Birdie Africa, the sympathetic 13-year-old who escaped the fire, burned, died last year in the hot tub of a Carnival cruise ship.

62xx Osage Avenue—"the MOVE block"—in 2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule
62xx Osage Avenue—”the MOVE block”—in 2014 | Photo: Bradley Maule

But the neighborhood rebuilt, and Mayor Wilson Goode denounced the action as unconscionable. Densely populated and primarily African American, Cobbs Creek takes the connectivity of the city grid to the edge, where a spacious park provides many residents with their first introduction to the natural world.

This set of photos follows that idea, the merger of city and nature, under this week’s blanket of snow. Photos were taken along Cobbs Creek, Cobbs Creek Park, and Cobbs Creek Parkway, from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue.

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• PA Community Forests: “On the Threshold of a Dream” (PDF) – a story about the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center
• PhillyH2O: “Cobb’s Creek in the Days of the Old Powder Mill” – a history of mills along Cobbs Creek written by John Eckfeldt in 1917, digitized by Adam Levine
• UPenn: West Philadelphia Community History Center – a resource created by Penn students and faculty to explore the history of West Philly’s neighborhoods