Jordan Parisse didn’t want to see another beer store open on Chew Avenue, especially this crucial corner just south of Gorgas Lane. The young developer is a Mt. Airy native and knows Gorgas is essentially a dividing line. The more prosperous residents of East Mt. Airy live above it in big houses; the less prosperous below it in rowhomes. They don’t mix often enough.
“Our project is a line of demarcation between the nice area of Mt. Airy and where the seedy part starts,” Parisse said. “Something needs to spark it.”
So Parisse overpaid for the property. His development company, Northwest Holdings LLC, bought 6810 and 6812 Chew Ave. last year from owners who planned on turning what had been a shuttered nuisance bar into a beer store. Now, instead of another place Parisse feared people would loiter and possibly cause trouble, East Mt. Airy will get a mixed-use building that doubles as a headquarters for his nonprofit Trades For a Difference and a small apartment building. He expects the project will be done this summer or fall and by next spring be adorned with a mural. When it’s done, Parisse envisions it as a first step toward cleaning up Chew Avenue and better connecting neighborhood residents.
These types of developments are crucial for East Mt. Airy. This Northwest Philly neighborhood, situated east of Germantown Avenue, west of Stenton Avenue, south of Cresheim Valley Drive and north of Washington Lane, is stable and home to residents mostly making wages above Philly’s median, yet dealing with increased blight and foreclosure rates, and an aging population. In the words of researchers Ira Goldstein and Paul Brophy, it’s a middle neighborhood.
Middle neighborhoods are stable areas that don’t get the same attention as Center City and other ritzy ZIP codes nearby, or the federal and local money awarded to lower-income neighborhoods. As such, they are at risk. Philadelphia has many of them, and Billy Penn is working on occasional profiles of these neighborhoods. East Mt. Airy is the first.
That East Mt. Airy meets the criteria for a middle neighborhood could be shocking for people not living in the area. In 2013, CNN named Mt. Airy the best place to live in Philadelphia, combining East and West Mt. Airy into one neighborhood. West Mt. Airy is west of Germantown Avenue.
Together the neighborhoods have been seen nationally as a model for diversity. In the 1960s, when redlining, blockbusting and white flight were rampant in Philadelphia, the East Mt. Airy Neighbors and West Mt. Airy Neighbors formed to combat segregation and helped maintain a mix of white and black residents.
David Bell and his late wife Debbie, a mixed race couple, moved to East Mt. Airy in the early 1970s. They got involved with EMAN and began pushing for busing and improvements to public schools.
“We chose this neighborhood,” he said, “largely because of the diversity.”
The neighborhood today is about two-thirds black and one-third white, not as balanced as West Mt. Airy but more mixed than most neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Though East Mt. Airy is seen by Northwest and North Philadelphians as a posh neighborhood of manors, parts of it have fallen behind, mostly its southwestern corner, with rowhomes instead of manicured lawns. The census tracts for the rest of the neighborhood have median household incomes ranging from $50,000 to $77,000. In the census tract around Chew Avenue and Parisse’s planned development, the median household income is $34,000. The foreclosure rate and vacancy rates, per the latest HUD data, are 9 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively. Those are well above the rest of the neighborhood and the Philadelphia average.
Longtime resident Jane Cosby grew up on Chew Avenue, south of Gorgas Lane, where it meets with Vernon Road. She said the decline has occurred over the last 10 to 15 years and attributes it to a rise in unemployment and the turnover of housing after deaths of longtime residents.
“Some of the houses,” she said, “have shown the results of that.”
Nearly every block has a vacant rowhome or lot. Too often, you can spot drug dealers hanging out.
Parisse calls Chew Avenue the “forgotten corridor.” In the ’80s and ’90s, both neighborhood associations and the development corporation Mt. Airy USA focused on Germantown Avenue, revitalizing what had been a stretch of many neglected or vacant storefronts. Parisse is hoping the same can happen with Chew.
He first heard about the plan to turn the property at 6810 and 6812 Chew into a beer store from resident Vernon Price. People wanted to stop it, but the new owners said they would go through with their project unless someone bought the dilapidated property for their hefty asking price of $100,000.
“We knew if we didn’t buy it they were going to sell it to someone within their own organizations and do the same thing,” Parisse said, “whether a beer store or hoagie store or something else we really didn’t need.”
Parisse’s nonprofit, Trades For a Difference, mentors young people mostly involved in trades, tech and real estate. He wants the kids involved in his program to work on community-oriented projects, like blight removal.
Elayne Bender, executive director of EMAN, said Chew Avenue could be “a booming business district.” She and other members listened to Parisse discuss the project at a recent meeting. Most of them came away impressed, hoping he’ll be able to pull it off.
They want new developments that cater to current residents as much as draw new people. They’d like to see recently upgraded Pleasant Playground have even more activities. And like many areas of Philadelphia they’d like better community-police relations.
Bender, Bell and Cosby have lived in East Mt. Airy for decades, and the same can be said for many residents. The median age of East Mt. Airy is close to 40, several years older than the rest of Philadelphia, which is at about 34. About one-third of residents are over age 50. Given the older population, East Mt. Airy is due for more transition.
When they were younger, 100 people would regularly attend EMAN meetings and its membership swelled into the thousands. Most blocks had captains.
“When East or West Mt. Airy neighbors came down to [City] Council, everything stopped,” Cosby said. “They just knew we’d be there to say something and they’d better respond. I’d love to get some of that back.”
Can East Mt. Airy regain a similar level of involvement and remain a diverse place where middle class families want to raise their kids?
Parisse is part of a generation that grew up in Mt. Airy and has decided to continue living there as young adults. Brandon Ritter is the same.
Ritter, 23, has friends who were raised in Northwest Philly that have moved to West and South Philly now that they’re in their 20s. He has the type of job you’d associate with a young professional in Center City or the surrounding neighborhoods — working for a nonprofit focused on urban agriculture and nutrition — but no plans to leave. He’s always liked East Mt. Airy for the parks and trees, its quirkiness and the way residents accept everyone — and wants to make sure it stays that way.
“We are at that point in the crossroads,” he said, “where we have to be careful about how we plan our policies for the future.”