Wissahickon Creek, and the 1,800 acres of Fairmount Park that surround it, roughly bisect Northwest Philadelphia. Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill are on the east side of this divide, and Roxborough on the west side.
Despite close proximity, the two communities on the east side of Wissahickon Creek—Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill—look and feel very different from Roxborough on the opposite side. These differences stem from geography, land use, economics, transportation systems, time of development, community organization, and social class.
The geography of Roxborough kept it isolated from the rest of Philadelphia for many generations. Resembling an island, Roxborough is surrounded on one edge by the deep Wissahickon gorge, and on the other by the wide Schuylkill River. Until the completion of Henry Avenue in the 1950s, the only way into Roxborough from the south was Ridge Avenue, which required a torturous climb up the walls of the Schuylkill Valley.
In the early nineteenth century, the Manayunk Canal and then the Reading Railroad, both of which ran along the east bank of the valley, made Lower Roxborough into an industrial hub. Roxborough came to be regarded mainly as a working- and middle-class neighborhood that well-to-do Philadelphians rejected as a desirable place to live.
Upper Roxborough, and especially the Andorra section abutting the city boundary, was so remote from the rest of Philadelphia that it remained in farms until the completion of Henry Avenue into the area in the post-World War II period. At that point, all the major elements of postwar suburban design shaped the development of Upper Roxborough, including a love affair with grassy lawns and minimal trees.
Henry Avenue itself was a double-lane divided highway that cut much of Roxborough off from easy access to the Wissahickon portion of Fairmount Park and kept the natural vegetation of the park from infiltrating the community.
Easy access to Chestnut Hill & Mt. Airy
On the east side of the valley, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill developed in far greater sympathy with the natural fabric of the Wissahickon Valley. Ironically, this was partly due to easier access into the area. Although both Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill were elevated, the route from Center City was gentler than on the Roxborough side.
By the mid-1880s, there were two commuter rail lines into Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. These rail lines allowed wealthy and socially prominent Philadelphians to commute daily to jobs downtown. As a consequence, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill—and especially their west sides—came to be seen as highly desirable addresses.
Located between the two rail lines in Mt. Airy is Lincoln Drive, built as a parkway in the early 1900s. Unlike Henry Avenue on the Roxborough side of the valley, which somewhat resembles an interstate highway, Lincoln Drive snakes through Mt. Airy, following the contours of the land and creating a forested corridor that seems like an extension of Fairmount Park. In adjacent Chestnut Hill, a network of leafy streets likewise gives the sense of extended, forested parkland.
The rise of quasi governments
Because so many residents in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill were successful in business and the professions, and/or enjoyed inherited wealth and social position, they had the confidence, know-how, and personal connections to make successful demands for improvements from the city.
When municipal authorities proved unable or unwilling to help, these residents established voluntary associations to achieve their goals. Through lobbying efforts, such organizations pressured the Fairmount Park Commission to disallow motor vehicles to use the road along Wissahickon Creek, causing this route to be renamed “Forbidden Drive.”
For over 80 years, the Friends of the Wissahickon have carried out conservation and infrastructure projects in Fairmount Park, in cooperation with the park staff and administration. In more recent decades, the Chestnut Hill Community Association has functioned as an unofficial local government that has provided a vital community forum and the machinery for addressing a host of local issues.
Although Roxborough has had its share of voluntary organizations, these have not enjoyed the same influence as groups on the other side of the valley.
In microcosm, Roxborough and Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill offer important insights into the role that geography, transportation systems, community reputation, social class, the time of development, and civic activism play in the evolution of urban areas.
David Contosta is co-author of Metropolitan Paradise: The Struggle for Nature in the City, Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley 1620-2020. He is also a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College.