When we moved from the Netherlands to Philadelphia six years ago, my wife and I first landed in Fishtown. It’s a nice neighborhood if you are young, but for us, eventually, Mt. Airy in Northwest Philly beckoned.
We, with our two-year-old son, live on a great multi-cultural and multi-national block, populated by several families with young children. Everything is nearby: the main retail district, a playground, the public library and two SEPTA lines into Center City are all only a stone’s throw away. Oh, and not to mention arguably Mt. Airy’s best asset access to one of the largest urban park systems in the U.S.
Recently, the 46th annual Mt. Airy Day was upon us – the neighborhood’s celebration of diversity in the community. It offers a great opportunity to mingle with residents and learn about what goes on in the neighborhood. Here is what some of my neighbors had to say.
Education forces families away from neighborhood – Ivory, Tariq, Titus and Isaac Fletcher
A young family of four stroll down the avenue towards the Mt. Airy Day festivities. Not so long ago they were drawn to this community for its safe and family-friendly character. Tariq Fletcher, a father of two boys, says that the neighborhood offers that “best of both worlds” adage with lots of opportunity to take kids out and play. Fletcher says, “You can walk around and enjoy nature while still living in the city.”
Titus, Tariq and Ivory Fletcher’s eldest son, is about to enter school. Not able to afford private school options, the Fletcher family faced a difficult choice: staying in the 19119 ZIP code they love or moving to the neighboring Colonial School District. For their kids’ education sake, they have made up their minds and will soon move to Lafayette Hill to get the kids into decent public schools. “It’s unfortunate. We will miss it here,” Tariq Fletcher says.
Love-City-Nature – Bradley Maule
“Mt. Airy is that front license plate, with a smile face, that says ‘I like Mt. Airy’,” says local photographer Bradley Maule. “I like where I live. But it is also realistic by not going so far to say that I love it”.
The neighborhood connoisseur just finished guiding his annual Jane’s Walk through 19119 and the theme he chose this year says a lot about how he sees the neighborhood: ‘Love-City-Nature’.
After living 3,000 miles away across the country for nine years, Maule realized that Portland, Oregon was not the place for him. Although it had a very easy- going, progressive open-minded vibe, Maule says one of Portland’s downfalls is its lack of diversity. What he learned while ‘being away’ is that Mt. Airy – with its immediate access to Fairmount Park – is the ‘home’ he was looking for.
The biggest issues he has with the neighborhood are related to transportation. Although access is great with two lines into Center City, he would like to see SEPTA trains run later on the weekend. “Come on SEPTA, you can do better than 9:45 P.M. for the last CHW line on a Saturday night”, he laments.
Times have changed – Stephen “Woowoo” Woolson
“This has always been here,” notes life-long East Mt. Airy resident, Stephen “Woowoo” Woolson as he looks over the historic grounds of Cliveden on Germantown Avenue. Things have changed in the neighborhood where he grew up. Over the years, he saw the trolley replaced with a bus line. Bars which once lined the avenue became nuisances and were closed down. Yet one thing always remained the same. “Everybody is getting along,” he says. Teenager Abriah Clark, also a 19119 resident, agrees with her uncle.
Integrated Community – Rob McGregor
Today, Rob McGregor, a retired University of Pennsylvania professor, says he sees people try to elbow each other out of the way in order to live in this community. “We have a stable, nice, integrated neighborhood,” he explains, “Exactly what they were looking for.” When Rob and his wife Peggy moved here in 1971, they were told that it was a questionable area.
After reading The Education of a WASP by Lois Mark Stalvey the McGregor’s decided to move from Seattle, Washington to West Mt. Airy. As public school advocates, they wanted to live in the city because Peggy McGregor wanted to work in the Philadelphia school system. So, for them, Mt. Airy was the natural place to be.
Before downsizing, they saw their kids grow up in public schools and go off to college. Both children, now with families of their own, stayed close. They live in Germantown and East Mt. Airy.
Not all is perfect – Elayne Bender
“The beautiful houses along Lincoln Drive and Wissahickon Avenue come to mind when people think about Mt. Airy”, says Elayne Bender. But she adds there’s much more to the neighborhood than the real estate. “In fact, it is a really diverse community”.
The East Mt. Airy Neighbors (EMAN) Executive Director explains that Mt. Airy is divided when it comes to race, economics and education.
“Our local public schools don’t reflect the neighborhood they are in,” she noted, citing the numerous private education options in near proximity where many residents opt to send their kids.
Bender says that in a strong urban community where young families want to live, it would be really nice to be able to boast quality public schools. A product of Philadelphia public school system herself, she says that the structural underfunded state of the local public schools is the biggest issue the neighborhood faces.
Hands-on approach – Ken Weinstein
Ken Weinstein remembers only visiting Philly a handful of times from his hometown of Somerville, New Jersey. Going to the city for him was going to New York, not Philadelphia. In those days, his politically-active father took him door to door in the neighborhood he now calls his own. Twenty-three years ago, Ken and Judy Weinstein moved here because they wanted to raise their kids in a diverse community.
“People work hard to maintain the neighborhood’s diversity – both economic and racial”, he says. “And they take a lot of pride in it.”
The Weinsteins are active members of the community. Judy is the Executive Director of Mt. Airy Learning Tree, a 35-year-old community education staple. Ken owns Trolley Car Diner on the Avenue and he is hands-on in Northwest Philadelphia as a retail and residential developer. He sees room for improvements.
He explains there are two forces that tend to move people away from the neighborhood.
“First, people leave because of [better] jobs [elsewhere].” And secondly, he says, “The biggest issue the neighborhood faces is that people move out because their kids are of school age and they can’t afford private education and don’t want to go the public school route”.
19119’s Biggest Issue
Weinstein is not alone when he says the local public school system needs to be improved in order to keep up the quality of living. Nearly everyone interviewed (except for those who are childless) brought up the struggling Philadelphia Public School District as the biggest issue the 19119 ZIP code faces. It even turns out to be a primary reason why people move out of their beloved Mt. Airy.
Three years ago, several local civic associations – East Mt. Airy Neighbors, West Mt. Airy Neighbors and Mt. Airy USA – banned together to create a fund to support the neighborhood’s public schools via a business tax credit.
And while the city grapples with how best to reorganize its public school system, those organizations also support a major update of the neighborhood’s knowledge hub, the Lovett Memorial Library. For the next eighteen months, the library and adjacent park, both located right in the heart of Mt. Airy on Sedgwick and Germantown Ave, will be closed to be updated under the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative. A project made possible by grants of John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation.
It takes a village
Elayne Bender says she sees hope for the future.
“No matter what side of the Avenue, there is a strong sense of [Mt. Airy] identity. In some ways, it feels almost like a little village in a bigger city. But all in all, it is a real genuine mix of people who have chosen to be here and because of that we are all interested in working together.”
She adds that when people in this community see a problem they come together to try and resolve it.