Two hundred years ago, "Mount Airy" was the estate of William Allen, a well-known country gentleman of Ben Franklin's time. Allen's mansion was located close to "Main Street", where the Lutheran Theological Seminary now stands, on Germantown Avenue at Allens Lane. The village that grew up around the mansion was also known as "Mount Airy". As more and more houses replaced farmland, it became a residential community, eventually growing into the urban neighborhood it is today.
At one time, many people retreated to this area as a healthful summer resort, especially in the 1790's, when yellow fever epidemics raged through nearby Philadelphia. The whole Germantown-Mount Airy region was inundated with visitors.
Throughout its history, Mount Airy has been diverse. First, the Lenni-Lenape Native Americans hunted, fished, and made their trails here. In 1683, the Dutch and Germans came, fleeing religious persecution and military conscription in their homelands. By the end of the colonial period, the tide of newcomers in the area included former Africans, English, French, Irish, Swedes and Swiss.
Rich in history, Mount Airy is also rich in places of unique historical interest. Two schoolhouses from early times, the Concord Schoolhouse and the Beggarstown School, are located here. The Chew family mansions at Cliveden, which is now a part of the National Trust, attract nationwide attention, as do other buildings that were standing along the main road at the time of the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777. (That battle is re-enacted on site annually.) One of these buildings was the vantage point from which George Washington directed the battle; another is the Germantown Church of the Brethren.
An official documentation of Mount Airy's history, Mount Airy in Philadelphia, a Pioneering Community, can be found at Lovett Library. This illustrated booklet of articles by EMAN member Phyllis Knapp Thomas contains photographs and maps by member Dennis Johnson. The publication covers Mount Airy's development from early Native American settlements to the diverse community of today.
Over 40 years ago, the Evening Bulletin gave extensive coverage to a sermon entitled "East Mount Airy: Slum, Ghetto or Good Place to Live?" which was delivered by the Rev. Rudolph C. Gelsey. It had become apparent that small block groups could no longer cope with the internal changes and outside attacks that faced the neighborhood; there was an urgent need for a larger organization. A series of meetings followed the sermon and the press coverage, and East Mount Airy Neighbors came into official existence on January 18, 1966. Rev. Gelsey was its first president.
In two weeks, EMAN had 200 members and two strong committees, one reporting on conditions in the schools, led by Marion Wolfert, and the other, under Arthur Sonstein, fighting real estate solicitation (blockbusting). Within six months, information on illegal real estate practices was collected. The schools committee was busy, too, as several of its members testified before the school board. Further, a program devoted to exploring and promoting racial understanding was created.
Within its first year, EMAN had won a zoning battle against a large apartment project proposed for Gowen and Germantown Avenues; initiated discussions with the mayor about a revision of the area's zoning; worked to secure funds to renovate the tennis court and worked with Fairmount Park to sponsor tennis lessons; created tutoring programs in conjunction with the school district; and set up community recreation at Roosevelt Junior High School. Additionally, many concerned neighbors worked to resolve the complicated set of issues presented by area youth. Gang activity troubled the shopping districts, and police harassed all neighborhood youth.
In May, 1968, the first "Community Day" was organized, and was held at Pleasant Playground. This event has evolved into the annual event that is now known as Mt. Airy Day. During the same year, a relationship was forged with the newly-arrived Northwest Mental Health Center, and a movement for an alternative high school was building. (Parkway Delta High School opened in 1975.)
In the early 1970's EMAN bought and renovated 820 Vernon Road as a community center. It remained a center of EMAN activity for 15 years. During the early 1970's, the Zoning Committee, under the leadership of Mary Aspin, completely remapping the zoning in East Mt. Airy. In 1972 EMAN established the Edgar Baker Memorial Award to honor the memory of one of EMAN's first members. This award is given annually to a person in Northwest Philadelphia who shows dedication to the community (click here for a list of the awardees).
EMAN has long served as a leader in building coalitions with other community organizations. In 1976, EMAN along with WMAN hosted the Annual Conference of National Neighbors. This organization was a coalition dedicated to multi-ethnic living. Eversley Vaughan served on its board and as secretary and president of the organization. Later, EMAN helped establish the Philadelphia Council of Neighborhood Organizations, where Vaughan again served, for a time, as president. EMAN was a founding member of the Germantown Avenue Coordinating Committee which worked with the business associations to improve conditions on the Avenue, and the Mt. Airy-Morton Neighborhood Advisory Council which assisted neighbors to take advantage of city, state and federal assistance to improve their housing.
During these years, EMAN established the Together Blocks program and helped organize 100 neighborhood blocks. Working through existing city programs, EMAN helped ensure that many of these blocks received home improvement materials including paint, other home supplies, and street trees.
Also in the 1970’s, EMAN and other groups opposed Germantown Savings Bank’s redlining by protesting their opening of a South Philadelphia branch. GSB agreed to return more mortgage money to the area.
A great deal of EMAN’s energy during the 1980’s was devoted to joint activities with WMAN. The period saw the beginning of the Mt. Airy Village Development Corporation (now Mt. Airy USA) to encourage business development; Mt. Airy Learning Tree  for community education; Mt. Airy Express  a community newspaper which, in the late 1980’s was sold to ACME newspapers and became the Times-Express; and the Historic Awareness Committee. EMAN and WMAN continue to meet annually in January of each year to review their joint accomplishments.
The late 1980’s saw an epidemic of crack cocaine spread into the neighborhood. EMAN’s response was to increase Town Watch activity, to advise people how to report drug activity anonymously, and to develop better ways to work with the police department. Susan Simon began EMAN’s connection to the Police Advisory Council. Ernestine O’Connor continued to provide a strong EMAN presence on the Council until 2005. During this period the Mobile Police Sub-Station, a traveling trailer, became operational. It was stationed for three months at the corner of Musgrave and Hortter to strengthen that neighborhood, and to help residents regain control of their streets and corners.
In 1989, EMAN led the mayor and other city officials in a walk through troubled spots in the neighborhood, especially abandoned housing which became, at the time, easily occupied by drug dealers and users. This inspired the formation of Mt. Airy Block Leaders (MABLe) in the Musgrave area, and led to the bricking up of approximately 20 houses and the clearing of vacant lots by a City District Service Team.
MABLe, together with Neighborhood Action Clergy under the leadership of Rev. Janet Peterman at St. Michael’s Lutheran church, undertook to close two bars on Germantown Avenue, the Kent and the Wagon Wheel. The Kent was declared unfit by the City's Department of Licenses and Inspections and quickly ceased operations. The Wagon Wheel was a harder problem to solve. EMAN members from all over the area marched and picketed Saturday after Saturday, and a law suit was filed. Eventually, thanks to community contributions, the Village Development Corporation purchased the property. The Wagon Wheel was torn down and replaced with the Mt. Airy Commons Building (now home to Mt. Airy USA, WMAN, the post office, and the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union).
At this time, EMAN was also an active participant in planning the project to build 18 new townhouses on the old Curtin School lot that were sold to owner-occupants. EMAN President Ernie Covington, as well as Ed Battle and Phil Carstairs from MABLe put in hundreds of hours of work to make this development a reality.
1990’s – 2000’s
Zoning issues in the early 1990’s included negotiations with the owner of a lot next to the Trolley Car Diner (formerly the Roy Rogers site) on Germantown Avenue to keep its development in scale, and with SEPTA over a spray paint booth it had proposed for the SEPTA Depot on the Avenue. EMAN also worked very hard with WMAN and attorney Tom Johnson to conclude a legal agreement with the Northwest Center so that it would initiate no change of any sort in services or facilities without first coming to the community organizations.
A positive development in the 1990’s was the increasing cooperation with the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA). One joint project was the fiscal crisis at Spring Garden College, at the very corner where EMAN, WMAN, and CHCA meet. Unfortunately, Spring Garden College eventually closed. This property is now the site of New Covenant Church.
In the wider Northwest, EMAN was a major player in forming the Northwest Leadership Council to represent every neighborhood organization in Northwest Philadelphia. The council works on common problems such as drug dealers, student alienation, school safety, hidden racism, and trying to create a sense of well-being for every person and every neighborhood. Building broad coalitions has been a major emphasis in the past decades. In addition to the Northwest Leadership Council, EMAN has participated in the Northwest Task Force on Drugs, the Fourteenth District Police Advisory Council, the Northwest Interschool Council, and the Central Germantown Council. EMAN is represented at the Northwest Victim Services. It also cooperates with the Friends of Lovett Memorial Library and the Neighborhood (formerly Northwest) Interfaith Movement.In the past ten years EMAN has been involved in a myriad of projects. These include the Chew Avenue Corridor Project, “We Bloom Where We Are Planted,” which focused on businesses on Chew Avenue from Washington Lane to Mt. Airy Avenue. The project is concerned with the viability of the businesses, reduction of nuisance behavior, and encouraging the businesses to offer services and products desired by the residences. Pleasant Playground is also on Chew Avenue. EMAN board members are active on the playground advisory committee. EMAN has supported efforts to keep the playground staffed, and to build a new recreation building for the playground.
The Mt. Airy Schools Committee was formed in 1997. Its mission is to support the four public elementary schools in Mt. Airy, Emlen, Henry, Houston, and Linglebach, by providing volunteer, fund-raising support, and supporting activities planned by the schools. EMAN has also been an active participant in Mt. Airy Neighbors Against Drugs (MANAD). MANAD holds vigils aimed at reducing drug activity in Mt. Airy.EMAN’s Housing and Land Uses committee over the past several years has focused on two goals: 1) addressing vacant properties, and 2) encouraging home improvement. Through these goals EMAN can enhance the neighborhood by removing blight while simultaneously improving the housing stock. EMAN has surveyed vacant lots and properties, and worked with Mt. Airy USA to achieve these goals. EMAN has also been active in fighting take-out liquor licenses in the neighborhood.
EMAN, now in its fifth decade, is ready to respond to problems and to think creatively about the future of East Mt. Airy. Although there are new challenges, EMAN has never forgotten its central vision that people are the most important part of the community, and that everybody can always help to “Make a Good Community Better.” EMAN’s commitment to justice, fairness and a better Mt. Airy has never wavered. EMAN continues to work daily on behalf of the residents of this richly historic community.
Latest News & Upcoming Events
HAPPY NEW YEAR from East Mt. Airy Neighbors!
EMAN works throughout the year to preserve and enhance the quality of life in the neighborhood. We hope you will join us if you are not already a memb ...
'Tis the season --- you may have noticed increased activity along the Avenue (and pretty much everywhere!) as people prepare for the holidays.
Happy November from East Mt. Airy Neighbors!
Special Events: Paws on the Pavement, October 30th; A Toast to Mt. Airy, November 5th
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