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My Philadelphia: Mount Airy

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By Dale Mezzacappa

<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Mount Airy has a reputation as a liberal bastion of Philadelphia, a world unto itself with aging hippies, racial diversity, and beautiful homes.<?xml:namespace prefix = o />

It is all that. Which is just fine with me.

I have lived in the neighborhood since 1986, raising my son on a street of row houses built in the 1920's for the workers on the old Pennsylvania Railroad, whose tracks now are used for SEPTA's Regional Rail. The Allen's Lane stop on the Chestnut Hill West line is three blocks away.

The old gabled station with the apartment on the second floor now houses the High Point CafĂ©, which makes divine crepes and great lattes.  It is one of two coffee shops within walking distance of my house, both hot neighborhood meeting spots. They also hold events like open mike days and neighborhood sidewalk sales.

On a two-block stretch of Germantown Avenue in the heart of the neighborhood are no fewer than eight restaurants, from Mexican to a microbrewery, from upscale to greasy pizza place. The old Sedgwick Theater, one of the few remaining Deco-era movie palaces, now houses the Quintessence Theater Company, a vibrant young troupe that just finished its first season of Shakespeare and other classic works.

Across the street, in what was once the country's first foreign car dealership, is FitLife, a first-rate gym where the diversity of the neighborhood is on display - black, white, young, old, prominent (Comcast VP David Cohen, among others), obscure. The classes are varied, frequent, and start at 6 a.m. and don't end on some nights until 9 or even later. 

I have seen many changes in the quarter century I've lived on Mount Airy - most of them for the better.

When I moved in, what is now Infusion, the coffee shop, was a downscale Laundromat where one didn't dare go late at night. The train station had a few businesses cycle through, but was definitely not the neighborhood meeting space it is today. The Sedgwick was underused, the gym not as comprehensive or well-run, the restaurants not as numerous.

More than that, the house immediately next door was not kept up, its elderly owner unable to control the traffic brought through by his down-and-out, unemployed son.

Today, that house is restored and one of the nicest on the street. Many of the older families have died off, but a few remain, including the street's best gardener.  They've been replaced for the most part by young singles and couples who appreciate the block's stability, vitality and proximity to public transportation.

Two doors down, a couple lived in the same house for more than 50 years, serving as surrogate grandparents to many of the street's children. When Ruth died, one of my cats moved in with Eddie to be his companion for the remaining year of his life. Their grandson moved in for a while, then rented it to an older woman who loves the street so much that she recently signed 12-year lease.

Many of the neighborhood's institutions have persisted through the decades. In May, there is Mount Airy Day, a big neighborhood party. In October, the old cobblestones shake under the musket fire from the re-enactment of the Battle of Germantown on the site of Cliveden, the home of Benjamin Chew, where one can still see the imprints of the musket balls in the stone walls .

There's Big Blue Marble Bookstore and Weaver's Way Co-op. Every Tuesday is a farmers' market at the Lutheran Theological Seminary - which is located on the site of the estate of William Allen - the 18th century merchant, public figure, philanthropist and founder of Allentown. He called his country estate "Mount Airy," giving the neighborhood its name.

The Allen Lane Art Center houses a gallery and one of the city's most intriguing community theaters, which does edgier productions than others in the city. Patrons bring their own dinner and watch the play from their tables in the restored recreation center building. In summer, the complex hosts a children's camp that had its roots in the neighborhood's effort to promote racial harmony.

Over the few weeks, I asked friends what they liked about Mount Airy. Answers: The access to transportation - many bus lines and the Chestnut Hill East and West lines. The proximity to the Wissahickon and Fairmount Park, especially Forbidden Drive and the many hiking and walking trails. "It's green, and still has all the amenities of the city," said one person who moved from Center City.

The large houses and green space are important. Although I live in a row house, I can walk out on my back deck and feel like I'm in a park. My neighbors and I on Durham Street have abandoned fences and barriers for one big yard and garden. Across a narrow alleyway, once used for milk delivery and garbage pickup, according to old timers, are the backyards of the houses on the next street over, expanding the sense of openness. 

Many people move to Mount Airy because they know of its history of tolerance and the determination of residents in the 1960s and 1970s to maintain an integrated neighborhood. Residents organized to fight off blockbusters, who were doing their best to scare whites into fleeing as blacks moved in. 

The neighborhood is still diverse. My immediate neighbors on either side are a lesbian couple with an adopted Chinese daughter, and a single mom with a biracial daughter.

But the rest of the city has been changing so rapidly that Mount Airy no longer can claim to be the city's most eclectic. While it has remained a destination for prosperous African Americans, liberal whites and gay families, other neighborhoods have surged ahead in terms of other kinds of diversity. Parts of Northeast Philadelphia, for instance, more recently have seen an influx of Asians, Hispanics, Russians and other eastern Europeans. For the most part, Mount Airy has not attracted these other ethnic groups.

"Mount Airy has more racial diversity, not necessarily ethnic diversity," said one relatively recent transplant from the Northeast. "It also holds a history of intentional integration and has a larger influx of population of people who are more activist or share similar ideas and beliefs." Another longtime resident described what she loved about Mount Airy is its "sense of purpose."

To be sure, there is still palpable pride over what Mount Airy stands for. On Election Ddy in 2008, I brought a camera and tape recorder to the polling place and interviewed neighbors.  Excitement rippled along the snaking line of voters as they anticipated the election of our first black president.

Yet, its public schools have struggled to be integrated - they are mostly African American, although many families moved there hoping to create that rarity in American life: schools that represent the racial and socio-economic diversity of the country while also maintaining excellent academics. "At its best moments it represented something of the vision of bringing people together in a diverse community around their shared interests in having a good school," said one activist resident whose children attended the public schools. "That was the main thing that brought us to the neighborhood."

Still pulsing with idealism, Mount Airy remains a work in progress -and one of the most pleasant places in the city to live.

 

Dale Mezzacappa is a writer, reporter and teacher whose most recent work for Metropolis was a series on Philadelphia's public schools. 

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We continue our series of Philadelphia photo essays with one on faces from Philadelphia's past, compiled from city and Free Library and Philadelphia photo archives.

 














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