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Somerton: Farmland home of Chris Matthews and the horrors of the Byberry mental hospital

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, community centers and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love Somerton? Buy the stuff.

Somerton is about as far away from Center City you can get and still be in Philadelphia. And that’s part of the appeal. Somerton has gone from a rural to suburban feel but has always been in Philadelphia, lending it an atmosphere unavailable in many areas of the city. From Chris Matthews to the Byberry mental hospital, this is the story of Somerton.

Boundaries

Somerton borders two suburban counties. Its western border is the Montgomery County/Philadelphia County line, and its northern border is Poquessing Creek, with Bucks County on the other side of it.

Population

31,984

Population 20-to-34

6,061 (19 percent)

Racial Composition

Rent vs. own

5,089 vs. 7,474 (41 percent vs. 59 percent)

Name origin

Jacob Sommer was a prominent early land owner and judge in this area, so Somerton.

History

Somerton residents bill their neighborhood as a suburb in the city. It’s always been a bit removed from city life, dating to its earliest days in the 18th and 19th centuries as a farming village. While many Philadelphia communities began a decline after World War II, Somerton thrived, becoming a recipient of white flight. From the 40s to the 90s, the population increased from a few hundred people to more than 25,000. Then in the 90s, with Philadelphia still stagnating, Somerton was one of a few areas where new homes were still being built.

Being so close to the suburbs has made Somerton a major attraction for many city employees who are required to live in Philadelphia as part of their job. In recent years, the neighborhood has been shedding some of its homogenous reputation, with the Asian population especially increasing.

Alumni

Chris Matthews: The MSNBC political guru started living in Somerton in 1950 as a 5-year-old. Matthews once recalled his family’s house there as having “farms on all sides of us. …We had cows out back right up to the barbed-wire fence.”

Sharrif Floyd: Floyd, a Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle, grew up in North Philly but often lived with a guidance counselor in Somerton during his high school years.

William Cooper: The father of famed author James Fenimore Cooper was born in Somerton in the 18th century. He was also a famous judge.

Backdrop

The infamous Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry mental hospital cast a long shadow over Somerton from the early 20th century until its closing in 1987. After that the hospital turned into an attraction for people looking to loot, tag or just check out a creepy old hospital. It was demolished in 2006, but true stories of its horrors and urban legends survive.

When Byberry was open, its conditions were considered so brutal that Albert Deutsch compared it to a concentration camp in his 1948 book “Shame of the States.” The hospital was often overcrowded, and patients reportedly had to sleep in hallways. Warren Sawyer worked at Byberry as a conscientious objector in the 1940s and described an “incontinent ward” where hundreds of mostly naked men just moved about with nothing to do and nowhere to sit. He called another building “the death house,” where violent men were restrained. You can see pictures of suffering patients in the old hospital here.

What Used to be

Smithfield Inn: During the Revolutionary War, this inn was a battle site, and 26 colonial soldiers died at the hands of the Brits. There’s now a Walgreen’s there.

Controversy

Woodhaven Expressway: Many longtime Somerton residents complained about the development of their neighborhood post-WWII that turned it from a tiny rural community to something much larger. But the last straw was the Woodhaven Expressway. This highway was proposed to connect I-95 with MontCo, but Somerton helped prevent that from happening. Residents continually pushed against its construction and today Woodhaven Road, also known as Highway 63, connects with I-95 but then dead-ends just past Roosevelt Boulevard in Somerton.

Instagram This

Something rural. Somerton is one of the rare places in Philadelphia where you can feel like you’re not in the city at all.

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