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Roxborough: America’s second helicopter, first cult and maybe the best cheesesteak in Philly

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 Roxborough? Buy the stuff.

Roxborough just won the Ultimate Philadelphia Neighborhood bracket (congratulations!). The Northwest Philly neighborhood started off and has remained a favorite place for people to raise families and enjoy city life in a quieter atmosphere. Roxborough has always been an eclectic area, featuring one of Philadelphia’s best cheesesteak spots, access to some of the best nature in the city and buildings that date deep into the past. 

Boundaries

Roxborough is bounded to the South by the Manayunk neighborhood and the Schuylkill River, to the north and west by Northwestern Avenue and to the east by Wissahickon Park.

 

Population

Because of the way Roxborough’s census tracts overlap with Manayunk, the exact population is difficult to gauge. But the approximate population is between 25,000 to 30,000. 

Population (20-to-34)

Using the census tracts that match up with Roxborough, the percentage of people age 20-to-34 is 34 percent.

Racial Composition

Roxboroughrace

Rent vs. Own

42 percent vs. 58 percent

Median rent and home value

Median rent in Roxborough is $1,402 a month, according to Zillow, and the median home value is $213,900.

Name origin

A large house near what was known as the Robeson Mill in the late 17th century was called the Roxborough Estate. It is believed to stem from the name of a town in Scotland that used to be called Roxborough.

Another story credits cult leader Johannes Kelpius (read more about him below) and his followers with coming up with the name. He used “Rocks-burrow” in a letter written in 1706.

Legendary event

Every spring, toads move from the Schuylkill Center to to an abandoned reservoir to mate. To get there they must cross Hagy’s Mill and Port Royal roads among others. Most nights from April to June, volunteers line the roads and ensure the toads get across as part of the Toad Detour. The event has been covered by various local media and even nationally by the Wall Street Journal.

America’s Second Helicopter

Frank Piasecki, the first man to pilot a helicopter in America, worked at a building near Ridge and Fairthorne avenues, where he created the second model of helicopter ever used in the United States. He flew it for the first time in 1943 in Roxborough. His ideas and designs became the basis for helicopters for years to come.

Rox helicopter
Aviastar.org

Roxborough’s Cult

Roxborough was home to what was likely the United States’ first cult, The Ridge Hermits. Here are the details: Back in the late 17th century, Johannes Kelpius moved from Transylvania — land of vampires — to Roxborough. He believed the world was going to end soon and gathered with followers in the Wissahickon to wait it out. Kelpius was a skilled musician and academic but also believed strongly in the occult, thus his thoughts of doomsday being right around the corner. By 1700, most of his group had disbanded because the world didn’t end, as Kelpius promised.

The cave where Kelpius supposedly meditated.

The cave where Kelpius supposedly meditated.

USHistory.org
Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 9.39.11 AM
lucindalunacy via Flickr

Backdrop

“Stealing Home” is a movie about a washed-up baseball player returning to his hometown. It stars Jodie Foster, Mark Harmon, as well as Jonathan Silverman and Harold Ramis. One scene features a shot at Bob’s Diner in Roxborough, a well-known spot on Ridge Avenue.

Alumni

Robert Ames: Famous American spy who worked in the Middle East and died in the bombing of the 1983 American Embassy in Beirut. He also played for La Salle’s 1954 national championship basketball team. His life has been recounted in the book, “The Good Spy.”

Kim Delaney: Actress who has appeared in “Mission to Mars” and “NYPD:Blue,” for which she won an Emmy.

William Rittenhouse: Great-grandfather of David Rittenhouse, the person for which Rittenhouse Square is named. This Rittenhouse founded the first paper mill in the United States in 1690. (Historic Rittenhouse Town is where it is now)

History

Located nine miles outside of Philadelphia and well above it in elevation, Roxborough has always been a quiet, even outdoorsy place to get away from the city’s congestion while still being part of Philly. It started out as the home for many of Philadelphia’s wealthy mill owners, who worked nearby. Roxborough in the 17th and 18th centuries was home to plenty of industry, according to Deborah Del Collo’s book, “Roxborough.” Goods traveled down Ridge Avenue to the Schuylkill River to downtown Philly. Ridge Avenue also became a center for commerce.

Throughout the 19th century and part of the 20th century, Roxborough and neighboring Manayunk remained centers for manufacturing. When that part of the economy began to fade, Roxborough didn’t. It remained a favored place because of the area’s natural beauty bordering the Wissahickon and because the commute into Philadelphia had grown easier thanks to trolleys and cars.

View of Roxborough and Manayunk, circa 1907

View of Roxborough and Manayunk, circa 1907

Library of Congress

 

Thing to check out

Dalessandro’s. People who think South Philly or Center City are the places to go for cheesesteaks must try this shop in Roxborough. It routinely makes “best of” lists and has a 4.5 Yelp rating after more than 600 reviews but lacks the fame of places like Tony Luke’s, Pat’s, Geno’s and Steve’s.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 7.42.32 AM
ThisIsBossi via Flickr

 

Controversy

In recent years, controversy has often erupted when old, historical structures have been demolished or threatened to be demolished. Throughout 2014, Roxborough community advocates rallied against a developer who bought a nearly 150-year-old house at 365 Green Lane that acts as an unofficial gateway between Roxborough and Manayunk. He sold it to a Roxborough resident who is intent on saving the property in late 2014, putting an end to that battle.  

 

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