As of a month ago, after 12 years living in Philadelphia, I had never spent any time in Mt. Airy.
As of last weekend, after a evening on the town coordinated by Brad Maule, communications director for the community development corporation Mt. Airy USA, I’m thinking about buying a house there. Seriously.
I’d always considered the neighborhood too far removed from the urban grid for my taste — and it does take Regional Rail a good 40 minutes to get there from Center City. But what I discovered the other night is that Mt. Airy has a small but vibrant commercial corridor of its own, and that it’s stocked with some of the best bars and restaurants in the whole city. Part of what made the experience so awesome — a big part, I think — was that the food and drink spots Maule and I visited were filled with the most diverse crowds I’ve run into in Philly.
Some of the neighborhood’s other upsides are obvious. Take the state of the sidewalks.
“Flowers instead of trash! Main difference from South Philly,” said Federal Donuts partner Felicia D’Ambrosio, who made the move to the Northwest last year.
Transit, green space and theater
My brief walk to and from the train stations — plural, because the Chestnut Hill East and Chestnut Hill West lines flank the main Germantown Avenue strip, so I took one on my way there and the other one back — proved D’Ambrosio’s observation true.
Houses, which in Mt. Airy’s 19119 zip code are almost evenly split between owner-occupied and rentals (56 to 44 percent, as of 2015) all seem to have mini front yards that aren’t so much lawns as places to grow greenery to spill out onto the strip of concrete running alongside.
Proximity to the Wissahickon, the 1,800-acre offshoot of Fairmount Park with a creek running through the center, might have something to do with the abundance of flora. It also doesn’t hurt opportunities for idyllic bike rides or picnics or dog walks.
Interesting architecture dots Germantown Avenue, including the historic Sedgwick Theater, which infuses the neighborhood with a good dose of culture. Alex Burns, director of the theater’s resident company, Quintessence Theatre Group, has toured London, Paris and New York. NYC is where Quintessence was originally located, in fact, until it made the move down in 2010.
Why would stage pros leave Broadway for Mt. Airy? One, because there’s much less competition, Burns explained. Also, because the Sedgwick space is so gorgeous. Plus, compared to Center City, parking is easy.
“I think more people go to the theater here than in Center City,” he said. “Most of our audience drives in from Philly.”
Food as good as anywhere, with a diverse clientele
Back to the bar and restaurant scene. For me, that’s a deciding factor of where to live. And Mt. Airy’s little collection is top notch.
It wasn’t necessarily the quality or originality of what I ate or drank during my visit that bowled me over (although there is some sublime barbecue that alone is worth the trip out). It was the atmosphere, the vibe.
The clientele was diverse in various ways. Some people I chatted with were Mt. Airy lifers, and some were recent transplants. I met construction workers and thespians and lawyers and cops, all sitting at the same bar. There was a good range of ages, though the demographic seemed tilted toward the older end of the spectrum, and I saw almost no one who appeared to be under the age of 25 (another of the neighborhood’s winning features: it’s not Manayunk!)
But what made the biggest impression on me was the racial diversity.
Nearly half of Philly’s population is African American (42 percent, per the 2010 Census, versus 44 percent Caucasian). Taken alone, Mt. Airy has a much higher percentage of African Americans (58 percent) and a much lower percentage of Causcasians (31 percent).
The story isn’t fully told by the numbers, though. In general, Philly is highly segregated. Not just in where people live, but in what restaurants and bars they patronize. Ask almost anyone in the hospitality industry and they’ll concur.
Not the case in Mt. Airy. At all four places we hit up — which included a brewpub (Earth Bread + Brewery), an Irish tavern (McMenamin’s), a gastropub (Grain Exchange) and a soul food joint (Chef Ken’s Cafe) — there were plenty of people of color, and plenty of white people, spread around the stools and tables in approximately equal numbers, all enjoying each other’s company.
“The atmosphere here — it’s something special,” said Kevin, a 36-year-old black patrol officer for the Philadelphia Police. “Especially with what’s going on today in our country.” A native of West Oak Lane, Kevin said he originally chose Mt. Airy simply because it was a somewhere he could have a lawn — “it’s not the suburbs but also not the city” — but that it’s the spirit of community togetherness that keeps him happy there.
“I love the diversity of this bar,” said Orlando “Lonnie” Manai, a 62-year-old white civil engineer. “I moved to Mt. Airy from Lansdale specifically because of McMenamin’s.”
Alfresco dining and a temptation to move
At Chef Ken’s, which Anthony Bourdain highlighted on his Philadelphia episode of “The Layover” in 2012, Maule and I devoured a BBQ chicken combo. The platter was overflowing — two juicy browned breasts, two fat drumsticks, two thighs whose rich meat slipped off the bones and buried itself in chef-owner Ken Roberts’ incredible sauce, a ladleful of green beans, salty and soft, and a scoop of creamy mac ‘n’ cheese — and the single $15 dish was plenty to satisfy us both, even after our bar crawl.
Roberts knows he could charge more for his food. But he keeps prices low on purpose, he said, because he gets many customers from nearby Germantown (where the median household income is $30,400, compared to Mt. Airy’s $56,800).
Though he’s actually about to hand over his restaurant to a younger relative and move out to Las Vegas as a semi-retirement, Roberts does hold a special place in his heart for his current neighborhood. “I love what you guys are doing,” he told Maule. “We’re looking forward to next month. We’ll have our tables out for Supper Sessions!”
Held every Tuesday night in September, Supper Sessions is a fall promotion put on by Mt. Airy USA that sees the center of Germantown Avenue turned into a big al fresco dinner party. From 5:30 to 11 p.m., the block is closed to car traffic. Nine restaurants along the strip all put tables out on the sidewalk, and offer food and drink deals. Arts and crafts vendors set up stands, live music plays on a central stage, a kids’ activities center is open all night, and moonlight movies are shown at the Presbyterian church.
If you have the chance one Tuesday this month, I highly recommend checking it out. Just know you might end up tempted to move to Mt. Airy after you do.