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by Pamela Rogow

Part One

The word is out, at least in our community, a place where people talk: Money Magazine has deemed Mt. Airy the best neighborhood in Philadelphia. Numero uno That’s out of 110 or so neighborhoods here. Yo, I sez!

See the September issue for “Best Big-City Neighborhoods.” The online piece explained something of the process of bestowing such an honor. The print edition’s explanation is more detailed. Either way, Money, which is owned by CNN, noted why Mt. Airy trumped Chestnut Hill, a rivalry we generally avoid provoking these days. Affordability and the range of housing were mentioned in my phone conversation last week with the magazine’s senior reporter, Susie Poppick.

Money Magazine has long produced annual lists like the “Best Place to Live,” which usually lean towards suburbia, but this is the first time they’ve produced a list like this one, which selects the “Best Neighborhoods” in the nation’s 10 biggest cities.

Poppick explained that they began this project with technical resources, using data provider NeighborScout and supplemental resources like Maponics for each of the cities. For the neighborhoods that rose to the top, the research team at Money looked for age diversity — “not average age but looking for an even spread.”

Also good education scores, compared to U.S. school districts and neighborhoods. Racial and language diversity measures were factored in. NeighborScout provided a “family-friendly” score for the neighborhoods they were considering. “We don’t know exactly what goes into their secret sauce,” Poppick said. “Do parents read to their kids?” Plus crime, of course.

“And housing; has it appreciated a little? It is a healthy appreciation but also affordable … and not a lot of vacancies.” They created a formula that measures diversity of bedroom counts in the belief that an ideal place to live is neither all studio apartments nor all 10-bedroom homes.

Other measures were designed for ease of living — “family friendly, walkability, features like green spaces, groceries, museums, shopping. Maponics calls this Points of Interest. Unemployment rates were also factored in. It all begins with data. Then a team of reporters headed to the top four neighborhoods in each city, where they spend the day.”

In Philly they focused on Washington Square West, East Falls, the Graduate Hospital area and Mt. Airy. “We go in to make sure there isn’t anything we missed. The ‘je ne se quoi’ of visiting … we need to be a total expert but also need that extra special last ingredient which is visiting … ”

Poppick described the appeal and drawbacks of the other three Philly neighborhoods that rose to the top of their list. “But walking through Mt. Airy … Germantown Avenue is IN the center of the neighborhood … it’s very balanced, just the way the neighborhood was laid out. We spoke to people in front of their homes, went to the coffee shop … Mt. Airy shone. It stood out.”

Prompted by Money Magazine’s “Best Neighborhood in Philadelphia” honors and before we restore some decent humility to the topic, I checked with passersby in the section of West Mt. Airy where I live and work, sometimes called “Mt. Airy Village,” to ask locals at random about their neighborhood. This is the sound of Mt. Airy at its most content:

Maria del Pilar Castillo, 29, Attorney with U.S. Dept of Labor: “Temple Law School brought me to Philadelphia five years ago, and I stayed. I’ve lived in Northern Liberties, the Gayborhood, South Philly. After I married, we looked for a home that would be the perfect balance between city and neighborhood. We were looking for tree-lined streets in a progressive and diverse community and a bigger home. We also wanted a place where people have children. Everybody said, then you have to move to Mt Airy, no option! I grew up with big sense of community both in Montevideo, Uruguay, and in San Francisco, but I didn’t expect everybody here would be so friendly. I take the 6:49 train, and I always run into people. ‘Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!’ l appreciate the everyday pleasantries.”

Ramesh Churi, 77, Retired director, public health laboratory, City of Philadelphia: “I love it here. I’ve been in Mt. Airy 30 years and in Germantown before that. I was born near Mumbai, India. In 1962, I moved to Pittsburgh for a job with DuPont as a chemist. Later to Philadelphia. This is a neighborhood that accepts all kinds of people — African Americans side by side with white people, Indians. People of different social strata living together, I find it harmonious. Crime isn’t the issue here that other parts of Philadelphia feel. And our access to Forbidden Drive! Bicycling in the Wissahickon was a big part of my life until recently. The children were in the Wissahickon all the time, and the River Drive to town is beautiful.”

Mozi Greenberg, 13, Student, AIM Academy. Formerly attended Henry School: “I like how everyone knows everyone here. You can walk everywhere. I was just walking my dog, Ashby, in Carpenter Woods. I’ve a lot of friends here, so I can easily walk to their houses. And it’s so close to Chestnut Hill and has so many train stops that I can easily go there or to the city [downtown]. It’s so friendly here. I love growing up here. My mom has lived here for more than 25 years. It’s clean and pretty, always pretty.”

Carmen Johnson, 43, Chiropractic assistant: “Ten years ago, my husband and I moved from Brooklyn to Center City. Nick is a medical writer. We came for the cheaper rents. My husband knew about Mt. Airy from friends — and that it has more open space and a family feel compared to South Street, where we had been living. The trees, parks and schools here seemed everything that a mother would have wanted. My daughter, who’s 9, started at the Henry School and now goes to Project Learn. I am taking a drum class, African and samba. There is a diversity of people in the class — nurses, teachers, lawyers, community leaders. It’s very Mt. Airy-ish.”

Cindy Lees, 39, Community Advocate for Mt Airy Community Church and a Physical Therapist: “Mt. Airy is beautiful. It ‘does community’ very well. It’s very organized with established annual events — Mt. Airy Village Day, Mt. Airy Day, Night Market (Night Fare). At Open Mic Night, we see poetry too. There’s a lot of art and musical talent and dancing. There’s a value seen here to bringing people together…and having fun … It’s definitely one of the safer places you can live in the city, and I like having friends of different faiths.”

Haneef Hicks, 13, Student, transferring from McCloskey to Henry School: “I’m starting the 7th grade at Henry. My whole life, I’ve lived in (East) Mt. Airy. What I like about Mt Airy is that it’s peaceful. I’m not going to say no shootings. I live farther out … There’s no violence like in North Philly there, just this much [fingers show a pinch]. I live in a fun neighborhood. There are kids to play with on the block. People are friendly. I don’t like violence. It’s not trashy like North Philly. See my T-shirt with the peace sign?”

Leonard Nakamura, 64, Economist, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank: “What we like here? The food co-op and Meg’s (High Point Café) and Blue Marble Books. That has made this such a neighborhood! You’re constantly running into people you know. A few blocks away is Geechee Girl Rice Cafe and Quintessence Theater and McMenamin’s (tavern) and Earth Bread and Brewery. The Germantown Jewish Center is such a treasure. Great learned people go there. Any time you drop in, you can have a deep conversation. A wide variety of people are comfortable here, but not Tea Party people. Mt Airy in the 1950s and ’60s consciously organized against becoming a segregated neighborhood. It’s great to live amidst that heritage.”

Part Two Next Week