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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 Germantown? Buy the stuff.
Germantown was home to more famous Philadelphians than likely any other neighborhood, people like the greatest U.S. men’s tennis player of all time and the author of “Little Women.” Germantown’s fame doesn’t stop there either. For a brief period of time it was even home to a President of the United States. Though the neighborhood has struggled in recent decades, it clings to a history as rich as anywhere else in the country.
For the sake of simplicity, we’re combining Germantown and East Germantown. The neighborhood is bordered on the southwest by Wissahickon Avenue, on the northwest by Johnson Street, on the north by Stenton Avenue and on the east and southeast by Wister Street, Stenton Avenue and the Roosevelt Expressway.
10,150 (23.2 percent)
Rent vs. Own
10,438 vs. 6,788 (61 percent vs. 39 percent)
Median home value
$127,600, according to Zillow. The median rental price per month is $945.
German Mennonites and Amish moved to Germantown in the late 17th century. Thus the name Germantown.
Lynne Abraham: Abraham, longtime Philadelphia district attorney and mayoral candidate, graduated from Germantown High School in 1958.
Louisa May Alcott: Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” was born in Germantown but moved away at 2 years old. A sign commemorating her birthplace still stands at 5425 Germantown Avenue.
Bill Cosby: Cosby spent most of his childhood in North Philly then attended Germantown High for a year but did not graduate.
G. Love: The musician known for his hip-hop/blues music attended Germantown Friends School.
Bernard Hopkins: Hopkins spent much of his childhood in North Philly but also lived for a stint in Germantown. After a troubled youth that included prison time, he went on to become one of the most successful boxers of the last 20 years.
Owen Roberts: Roberts was a Supreme Court Justice from 1930 to 1945.
Ralph J. Roberts: The co-founder of Comcast. He moved to Germantown at age 17 and attended Germantown High School.
David Rittenhouse: Rittenhouse was a prominent astronomer and the first director of the U.S. Mint. He is considered the second-best American scientist of the 18th century, behind only Benjamin Franklin.
Bill Tilden: Tilden is arguably the greatest U.S. male tennis player of all time, having won 10 Grand Slam singles titles mainly in the 1920s and 30s. He was also the first American to win Wimbledon and once went undefeated for an entire year. Tilden grew up in a Germantown mansion, but his homosexuality, which became known late in his life, and two sex crimes with minors made him an outcast in his own neighborhood.
For a few months, Germantown was the unofficial capital of the United States. It was 1793. Yellow fever was ravaging Philadelphia, and Colonel Isaac Franks offered his Germantown home to president George Washington so Washington would be safe from the disease. Washington lived and worked from there, meaning he would routinely hold cabinet meetings with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Washington returned the next summer to vacation in Germantown, too. Franks was an army buddy of Washington’s, serving as his assistant foragemaster.
Do you think that not only Philadelphia but the entire state of Pennsylvania and to an extent the United States is a great place to live? Well, you have Germantown to thank. Sort of.
According to “History of Old Germantown,” Germantown was the first American colony to be founded without any government or commercial patronage. Other colonies like in New York and Massachusetts were funded with help from major companies, royal governments or companies with ties to the royal governments. So freedom of expression and ideas and all the other hallmarks of our government really took root here. William Penn, so impressed by the people living there, let Germantown self-govern itself without any interference from him.
Germantown thrived during colonial times. The few-hundred German settlers made many of our country’s firsts, including the first protest against slavery, the first school book and the first paper mill.
In 1777, The Battle of Germantown was fought along its main street, Germantown Avenue, in Germantown and Mt. Airy. The British won and gained control of the Philadelphia area for the next year, but the battle also helped convince the French that the colonists were worth helping.
In the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, Germantown was an unofficial suburb with a working class population. Like many neighborhoods, a mass exodus to the suburbs crippled the neighborhood’s economy in the 1950s and 1960s. Today the neighborhood’s median income is slightly below the city’s average and while many areas of Philadelphia go through a resurgence its property values have continued to decline.
Germantown was thrust into the national spotlight after nurse Carlesha Freeland-Gaither was kidnapped there last November at the corner of W. Coulter and Greene streets. Surveillance cameras captured the haunting abduction. Three days later, federal agents found her in a parked car in Jessup, Md., mostly uninjured. Some Philly police said they had never seen anything as chilling as her abduction and credited her for dropping her cell phone during the abduction as a way to leave a clue. Freeland-Gaither also hit her abductor, who police say is Delvin Barnes, in the head with a hammer.
Historical sites you can still visit
The best thing about Germantown’s history is that almost all of it is still here. Outside of Old City and Society Hill, few Philadelphia neighborhoods can compare. There are more than 20 historic Germantown sites, including Colonel Frank’s house where Washington lived, ancient Hood Cemetery, and the Johnson House, which used to be an Underground Railroad station.
Community gathering places
Germantown Life Enrichment Center, 5722 Greene Street
Church Lane Garden, 234-48 Church Lane
In 2013, the Philadelphia School District closed down Germantown High School after it had been opened for 99 years. The decision by the SRC to close it down was not only controversial because of the school’s history but because the building was still in good shape with an adequate library, gym, cafeteria and other facilities.
Germantown remains the site of the reputable private school Germantown Friends School. Germantown Academy, despite the name, has actually been located in Fort Washington since the 60s.
Anything historic, from mansions of the 18th, 19th and 20th century aristocrats to the Germantown YMCA.