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 Fairmount? Buy the stuff.
Welcome to Fairmount (or Art Museum or Spring Garden or Francisville), the neighborhood in Philly just northwest of Center City with the closest proximity to the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art. Once a working-class neighborhood rife with racial tension, Fairmount has experienced one of the highest gentrification rates in the city since 2000, and has since exploded with young professionals moving in and new bars and restaurants.
The neighborhood has an astounding history: Not only did David Lynch live (and get his inspiration) there in the 60s, but several movies have been filmed in the area, and the neighborhood has three of the most historically fascinating landmarks in Philly: The Fairmount Water Works, Girard College and Eastern State Penitentiary.
The following boundaries include Fairmount, as well as the neighborhoods sometimes referred to as Spring Garden, Art Museum and Francisville. While the boundaries are often a point of debate, we’ve found that the most common boundaries associated with the Fairmount area are Broad Street to the east, Girard Avenue to the north and Spring Garden Street to the south.
Population Age 20-to-34
7,135, or 39 percent
Rent vs. Own
50.6 percent vs. 49.4 percent
Median rent and home value
The median sale price for a home in the Fairmount area was $320,000 as of Feb. 15, according to Trulia. The real estate site notes that’s an increase of 12.3 percent compared to the prior year. The median rent price in the Fairmount area is $1,600, which is higher than the citywide median of $1,295, according to Zillow.
Fairmount, which sits just north of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is named for the hill on which the museum rests. That hill was named “Fair Mount” by William Penn himself because of the beautiful view it offered of the Schuylkill River.
If you consider the Art Museum itself to be part of Fairmount, then we’d of course be remiss to not include the Rocky movies that so famously depict Sylvester Stallone running up the steps to the museum. But you probably already knew that.
What you might not have known is that the super famous opening shots of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” were actually filmed at the Roberto Clemente Park and Playground at 18th and Wallace streets. Nope, that court isn’t in West Philadelphia — clearly it wasn’t the playground where Will Smith spent most of his days.
In addition, parts of the Transformers movies were shot at Fairmount Park and Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount. Eastern State Pen also hosted filmings for the 1989 film 12 Monkeys that starred Bruce Willis and the 1998 film “Return to Paradise” that starred Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche and Joaquin Phoenix.
Before David Lynch became one of the most famous directors of his time, he lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment in Fairmount. In fact, the “Twin Peaks” director has said before that much of his inspiration came from dark times spent in Philadelphia in the mid-60s. Lynch, at the time, lived on the 2400 block of Aspen Street, and the home was actually up for sale as recently as October.
Some European settlers were located in the Fairmount area as early as 1600s and were using it for farming purposes and its proximity to the river, but noticeable urban expansion in the neighborhood began in the 1800s after those major projects we mentioned earlier: the Water Works, Eastern State Pen and Girard College.
While the neighborhood was mostly populated by German and Irish immigrants, Poles and Ukrainians started settling there in the early 20th century. Through much of the 1900s, Fairmount was a mostly white, working-class neighborhood that experienced heightened levels of racial tensions in the 60s. A shopping area that once sat on Girard Avenue was destroyed by riots at the time, factories closed and crime increased.
But by the 1980s and 90s, townhomes went up quickly and displaced many residents who could no longer afford the housing prices. Gentrification, while not new, has skyrocketed in the area since 2000, as it has in many of Philadelphia’s popular neighborhoods.
Now, the neighborhood has been “reborn” as it’s been inundated with young professionals seeking proximity to Center City. It has one of the highest home-ownership rates of the neighborhoods close to downtown, and boasts a plethora of popular bars and restaurants.
What Used to Be
Girard College was at one time at the forefront of the civil rights discussion in Philadelphia, after a case of whether or not it could only admit white students made its way through the court systems and saw large protests.
The school was founded in the 1830s by Stephen Girard, one of the richest men in the country at the time, as a boarding school for poor, white, orphan boys — phrases that he specifically had written into his will for the school. Backlash against the “white” qualifier started in the 1950s, but administers of Girard’s estate said they were attempting to honor the man’s will.
By 1954, in wake of the national Brown vs. Board of Education decision that racially integrated schools, Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution that Girard College should admit black boys. Meanwhile, the judicial system was upholding the school’s decisions to not admit black boys based on the will of Stephen Girard.
Led by the local NAACP, large protests and picketing went on at Girard college for seven months in 1965 after the Supreme Court ruling. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Philadelphia in August 1965 and spoke to civil rights demonstrators at Girard College and at a rally at 39th Street and Lancaster Avenue. This video was shot by KYW, and was originally broadcast Aug. 3, 1965 on KYW-TV. Video courtesy Temple University Library.
Malcolm X and Rev. Ralph Abernathy were among other prominent figures who led protests outside the school. But after rolling through the court systems for another several years, in 1968, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that Girard must admit students and can’t hold race against them in the process.
The Supreme Court refused to review that ruling and finally opened the door for racial integration at Girard.
Thing to check out
Architecturally, the Fairmount Water Works is beautiful and features tall, white pillars overlooking the Schuylkill. In the 1800s, this place that at one time served all of Philadelphia its drinking water was a common international tourist attraction. Now it’s a place where you can learn about Philadelphia’s environmental history and the culture of the Fairmount Water Works. It also offers a pretty sweet view of Boathouse Row.
When you talk about racial tensions in Fairmount, one of the first things people talk about is that there used to be two separate trick-or-treating nights based on race, AKA there was a “Whiteween.” Apparently neighbors say the “tradition” of having Halloween on two separate nights based on race and word-of-mouth hasn’t happened in years. Read more about the controversy here.
Cop-out alert: You have to Instagram Fairmount Park. How could you *not* Instagram Fairmount Park?