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 Olney? Buy the stuff.
Welcome to Olney, the North Philadelphia neighborhood named for an English poet’s hometown that was transformed by the Industrial Revolution into one of the most diverse areas in the city, playing host to an eclectic mix of races, languages and cultures. The neighborhood is working to reverse a rise in blight and crime through a big push in economic development. Here’s a look at Olney and its history.
Olney (pronounced “Ah-leh-knee” by locals) is bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard to the south, Tacony Creek to the east, Godfrey Avenue to the north and a railroad west of 7th Street to the west.
5,234 or 20 percent
Rent vs. Own
35 percent vs. 65 percent
The median home value in Olney is $79,700, representing a 4.5 percent increase over the past year, according to Zillow.
The median rent price in Olney is $800 which, according to Zillow, is lower than the Philadelphia median of $1,450.
Olney was named by Alexander Wilson, a man who built his estate on Rising Sun Avenue and was really into British poetry. One of his favorites was William Cowper, who was from Olney, England, and so Wilson named his estate and the surrounding area Olney.
When Philadelphia was first settled, the Olney area was occupied by mostly farmers because of its relatively far (at the time) proximity from the center of the city. But the Industrial Revolution sent thousands of people further away from Center City in search of work, and companies like Heinz Manufacturing built plants in the neighborhood.
Those laborers who lived in the neighborhood were only there for several decades as industry raged on in Philly, but by the 1960s, those plants moved out of Philadelphia and relocated elsewhere. The Irish and German populations that had mostly occupied Olney at the time left, and an influx of African Americans and immigrants from Jamaica and Haiti migrated to Olney after being priced out of other areas through a wave of gentrification.
By the 1970s, Olney also welcomed a huge influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Korea. Now, the Korean population dominates much of the Fifth Street commercial district and some residents call the area “Koreatown.”
Now the neighborhood is a mix of mostly African Americans, Latinos and Asians. It’s struggled in the past two decades with blight and violent crime, high rates of poverty and low rates of high school graduation. But community leaders continue to push to revive the community and stimulate the local economy.
What used to be
The construction of the Olney Transportation Center
This Broad Street Line station, which falls just west of the Olney neighborhood boundaries, was constructed in 1928 and was the northern-most stop on the Broad Street Line for nearly three decades until the Fern Rock Transportation Center was constructed. When the Olney Station built, the area grew thanks to the quick commute to Center City.
What to check out
North Fifth Street
With the help of the North 5th Street Revitalization Project in Olney, North 5th Street in the area is booming with hundreds of small businesses, shops, restaurants and dozens of different cultures. The Project was started in 2005 by Olney residents and the Korean Community Development Services Center to focus on reinvesting in Olney’s commercial corridor by improving the environment, preventing crime and increasing economic activity.
The memoir Buck, written two years ago by MK Asante, tells the stories of being a teenage drug dealer in Philadelphia during the 1980s. And while Asante grew up in multiple neighborhoods in Philly, much of the book — which tells stories from the time Asante was 12 — took place in Olney. Buck was a Washington Post Bestseller in 2014 and 2015 and an NAACP Image Award finalist.
Olney Charter High School
Questions arose two years ago about the parent company that oversees several charter schools in Philadelphia, including the Olney Charter High School. A City Paper investigation showed that Aspira Inc. owed millions of dollars to its schools but wasn’t being held accountable for those funds.
On top of reports that staff members had used the school’s debit cards without providing receipts, it was also noted that school officials threatened teachers considering unionization. Earlier this month, after a three-year battle, the high school ultimately voted to form a union — but Aspira is reportedly challenging it.
After playing baseball and football at Olney High School growing up, Del Ennis went on to play outfield for the Phillies and be one of the best to play major league baseball in Philadelphia ever. Though he was one of the greatest, he was famous for constantly being booed for a completely unknown reason.
Community gathering places
Olney Recreation Center – 100 E. Godfrey Ave.
North 5th Street Revitalization Project – 5738 North 5th Street
Philadelphia Mural Arts has worked to construct several murals in the area, including this one at Olney High School located near Front Street and West Duncannon Avenue.