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Mt. Airy: Where Connie Mack lived, Grandmaster Flash found a hit and racial integration succeeded

It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, entertainment options and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love Mt. Airy? Buy the stuff.

Mt. Airy is one of the most famous neighborhoods in Philadelphia for its people and its way of life. Sports legend Connie Mack lived there while he managed and owned the A’s, as did the guy credited with inventing Monopoly (even though he probably didn’t actually invent it). In books and research papers, Mt. Airy has been credited over and over again for being one of the nation’s first integrated neighborhoods and remains a bastion of racial, religious, ethnic and economic diversity. Plus, there’s supposedly a headless horseman apparition that rides through Mt. Airy from time to time. This neighborhood has almost everything.

Boundaries

Mt. Airy is basically the zip code 19119 and is considered to have either Washington Lane or Johnson Street as its southeastern border, Stenton Avenue as its northeastern border, Cresheim Valley Drive as its northwestern border and Wissahickon Valley Park as its southwestern border. Germantown Avenue divides East and West Mt. Airy, but the neighborhoods are often lumped together.

Population

28,896

Population Age 20-to-34

5,189 (18 percent) 

Racial Composition


Rent vs. Own

4,617 vs. 7,344 (38.6 percent vs. 61.4 percent)

Median home values

$293,000 for West Mt. Airy and $172,300 for East Mt. Airy.

Name origin

Mt. Airy stems from the name of a mansion owned by William Allen, chief justice of Pennsylvania from 1750 to 1774. He was also mayor of Philadelphia, a co-purchaser of Independence Hall — used at the time as the Pennsylvania State House — and the founder of Allentown. Allen was considered a top-notch guy in general. It is said that he donated the entirety of his chief justice salary to charity and freed all of his slaves when he died. Alas, Allen was a loyalist to Great Britain (we can’t all be perfect).

Alumni

Charles Darrow: Darrow was long credited with inventing the board game Monopoly and made a fortune off the game. But he probably didn’t invent it, according to court battles, published reports and a new book called “The Monopolists” that traces the history of the game to an early 20th century woman named Lizzie Magie. 

Connie Mack: He managed the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 (!) years. He’s baseball’s all-time winningest (and losingest) manager and also owned at least a piece of the team for over three decades. The A’s renamed their stadium after him, and the Phillies also played there.

Connie Mack

Dr. C. Delores Tucker: Famous women’s rights and civil rights activist. She was secretary of state in PA in the 1970s. Her fame came in the 90s when she was an outspoken critic of rap music. Tupac rapped about her disapprovingly (to say the least) in his songs “How Do You Want It,” saying she’s worse than Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and in “Wonder Why They Call U.”

Kurt Rosenwinkel: World-renown jazz guitarist.

Sam Katz:  Lives in Mt. Airy now. Millionaire, politician and filmmaker who might be running for mayor as an independent this fall.

Santigold: Songwriter and performer with two well-received and commercially successful albums Santogold and Master of My Make-Believe.

 

Backdrop

Use your ears for this one. On their 1982 album We Are One, Philadelphia jazz/hip-hop/R&B group “Pieces of a Dream” released a song called “Mt. Airy Groove.” Its first line goes, “Just get on down to the Mt. Airy Groove because I’m about to show you how,” and then … they proceed to do just that.

The same year, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five sampled the beat for their song “It’s A Shame (Mt. Airy Groove).” The song was part of the album The Message, regarded as one of the most influential rap albums of all time, and one of the composers of the song was Stevie Wonder.

What Used to Be

The Mt. Airy Mansion. After William Allen died, his family took over ownership of the mansion. Then it became Mt. Airy College and then the American Classical and Military Lyceum. It was torn down around 1848 or 1849.

Mt Airy lyceum

History

What started as just surroundings for Allen’s mansion grew into a neighborhood that by the 1790s was seen as a summer resort area and safe-haven for the yellow fever epidemic raging in Philadelphia. Over the years, Mt. Airy has maintained that reputation as a place separate from the issues, especially racial ones, that have affected many other parts of the city.

The neighborhood became a model for integration after World War II and is considered one of the first neighborhoods in the U.S. to be successfully integrated. While many other parts of Philadelphia and the country were becoming segregated because of blockbusting and redlining policies, community leaders in Mt. Airy discouraged discriminatory housing policies and promoted a unified approach to welcoming people, regardless of race. Some of the groups that helped integrate Mt. Airy included the West Mt. Airy Neighbors, the Germantown Jewish Centre, the Church Community Relations Council of Pelham and Allens Lane Art Center.

Individual residents chose to forgo leaving for the suburbs even though it would have been beneficial in many ways because they cared about the neighborhood. Many of the white residents were liberal, college-educated types welcoming to others of different races, and many of the new black residents moving in had higher income levels than the city’s average, contributing to an ideal situation. In “Making Good Neighbors,” author Abigail Perkiss writes, “Integration in Mt. Airy was possible because a unique group of people with a distinctive set of resources came together with a new vision of what a community could be.”

Today, Mt Airy retains its aura of inclusiveness, extending to sexual orientation, religion, and beyond. Residents describe it as an educated, diverse, liberal community, Philadelphia’s answer to Cambridge, Mass. In 2013, CNN Money called it Philadelphia’s best neighborhood.

Community Gathering Places

Weavers Way: A famous neighborhood co-op founded in the early-70s as a place for families to get fresh deli and produce, it remains a community treasure and top place for organic food. According to Philly.com, about 3,000 households per year still partake in it, spending $30 and working six hours a year to help it get $5 million in sales annually.

Allens Lane Art Center: A major destination for Mt. Airy residents since the 50s, it features theater, dance, visual art and summer camps.

Thing to check out

Go shopping on Germantown Avenue, filled with several local clothing stores and restaurants, varying from Mediterranean to Indian to seafood to bakeries. If you’re more of the outdoors type, check out some of the most beautiful portions of the Wissahickon Valley Park on the west side of Mt. Airy (once it warms up).

The Sleepy Hollow of Mt. Airy

If you’re looking for something scary, try going up to Allen Lane in Mt. Airy. Mt. Airy was the site of the lone Revolutionary War battle fought in Philly’s city limits, the Battle of Germantown; supposedly the road is haunted by a headless soldier riding on horse. According to HauntedPlaces.org (OK, not exactly the New York Times), police reported seeing this ghost as recently as the 1980s.

Controversy

Though Mt. Airy is lauded for its middle class, diverse population, violent crime does happen. This month, a Nicki Minaj tour manager was stabbed and killed at a bar in the southeastern corner of Mt. Airy. In 2012, Brian Tootle was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Nafis Armstead in Mt. Airy. In 2013, police found a dead man’s body in a car in Mt. Airy after having been shot.

Instagram this

Cliveden Mansion. The mansion has stood since the 18th century and played a major role in the Battle of Germantown. Basically, the British used it as their version of the Alamo, hanging out in the house while preventing Americans from getting in.

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