by Linda Baldwin

I have been a resident of Chestnut Hill for many years and, although I’m not politically active, I interact daily with most of my Chestnut Hill friends and neighbors as I help them solve their hardware problems at Kilian’s, where I’ve worked for the past seven years. I am one of many Hillers who have elected not to join the CHCA, and I’ll tell you why.

I lived in Chestnut Hill in the ‘70s, back when this corner of the city was almost exclusively white, in fact WASP. Oh, there were a few “token Jews” like myself, but there were few – if any – African Americans, Asians, Latinos or other minorities living in Chestnut Hill. In other words, Chestnut Hill was a homogeneous community.

I moved out of state for 20 years (to North Carolina and then to Indiana). When I returned, I was delighted to find that this community had become noticeably more diverse. Chestnut Hill today is more representative of the diversity of the city (and the country) now than it was in the ‘70s. And yet, I don’t see such representation on the CHCA board. In fact, I see some members trying desperately to keep Chestnut Hill as “lily white” as it has been in the past.

Case in point: When many neighbors were expressing an interest in making the old Border’s building into an arts theater, I heard one CHCA board member say, in so many words, “Oh no, that would bring too many ‘outsiders’ into our community.” Now, what kind of a comment is that, if not discriminatory?

I wonder why our community rejected the prospect of having a wonderful environmental charter school take over a large vacant property on Chestnut Hill Avenue. Just over a year ago, the Green Woods Charter School proposed to purchase a property on Chestnut Hill Avenue to move its environment-oriented school to this beautiful property on the border of Fairmount Park.

Nearby neighbors were outraged, expressing concerns that this would affect their property values and that the traffic on their street would become untenable. Many of us near neighbors, however, signed a petition welcoming this school into our neighborhood.

Yet the Chestnut Hill Historical Society voted down this proposal. Why? Was this in the best interest of the entire community? Or were they simply deferring to the demands of the few affluent neighbors who were selfishly, and unnecessarily, concerned about their own personal welfare?
What is interesting to me is that this issue was aired long before the deal was sealed, giving neighbors plenty of time to air their objections. Several months ago, however, we read in the Local that the former Border’s Books building was about to be leased to Children of America, a franchise of a nationwide daycare center, and that the deal was sealed and ready to go.

If the neighbors on Chestnut Hill Avenue were concerned about traffic on their street, just wait until they try to navigate the traffic jams at the top of Germantown Avenue during rush hour, with parents dropping their tots off at the new daycare center.

That corner is already congested, with cars backed up for two blocks in every direction. This choice was a very poor one for our community.

Yet, was the community notified in advance of this decision so that we could express our feelings? No! Did anyone poll the parents of small children to find out if they felt a need for alternatives to the existing daycare centers? I very much doubt it. Personally, I’d rather see a Walgreen’s go into Borders than a business that will serve only a small segment of the population and that will worsen the traffic congestion during rush hour.

I won’t even go into the whole business of Chestnut Hill College’s use of the Sugar Loaf property on the corner of Germantown and Bells Mill Road because it would take up too much space. But this was just another example of “the powerful elite” in Chestnut Hill being afraid to allow positive growth in our community because some influential nearby neighbors fear that their “insulated” lifestyles might be disrupted by “outsiders” (i.e., college students).

I applaud the relatively new organization, Chestnut Hill Residents Association, a group with no membership fees, no fundraisers, no gala events, no street fairs and no self-interested members. The Chestnut Hill Residents Association was formed by members of the community to serve the interests of all the members of this community to take actions that will benefit all the people who live in Chestnut Hill.

Having vacant shops in Chestnut Hill will decrease homeowners’ property values far more than the presence of an environmental charter school would. What are we doing about all these vacancies? Has anyone in the CHCA bothered to take a poll to find out what types of businesses residents would like to see in Chestnut Hill? I haven’t seen one.

We sit by helplessly watching our community flounder. OK, so the development at the Magarity site may boost that part of the Avenue. But, Richard Snowden, how about filling your other vacant properties with locally owned businesses, to help restore Chestnut Hill to its former glory – as a unique community in which to live, shop and do business?

Linda Baldwin is a longtime Chestnut Hill Resident and a fixture at Kilian’s Hardware, where she has worked for seven years.

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  • mikeg

    Many people share your perspective, me included. I have noticed over the last several years that many Chestnut Hill residents who live closest to the core Germantown Avenue business district ARE open to change in the neighborhood. This is part of the irony of the whole 8200 debacle. The neighbors to this property want to see the property revitalized and developed. They were/are opposed, not to the prospect of useful new development on the site, but rather to the massive size and scale of the owner’s plan and the manner in which he steamrolled the community.

    Many of the neighbors who opposed Green Woods Charter School’s move to Greyloch are opposed to any viable use of that property. This is evidenced in the easements (I wonder who wrote them?)they negotiated for that have left the property practically unusable. The spirit of their opposition was hostile – hostile towards outsiders and children from outside 19118. They marshalled their vast resources and employed threats to make it clear that no public charter school, however valuable or successful or needed in this city, would be tolerated. They were badly outnumbered, yet their resources and their hostility won the day.

    There is an ignored majority in Chestnut Hill. A majority who are open to change, who embrace diversity, and support improving the neighborhood and the city as a whole. The majority is made up of professionals, laborers, tradespeople, families, retired persons, native Philadelphians and those from other places. How can we bridge the divide that exists between those few people here in our neighborhood who seem to pull the strings, and the rest of us?

  • Green

    All sides should to be concerned about traffic and the dwindling amount of open spaces in all parts of Chestnut Hill. The Hill isn’t as green as it used to be which is sad. If there has to be more development it should be respectful and harmonious with it’s surroundings.

    • mikeg

      Being concerned about traffic and green spaces is legitimate. Being closed minded and nasty is not. The residents of all of Chestnut Hill that behave badly (regardless of why) have harmed the reputation and standing of all of us who live in Chestnut Hill. Unfortunately, the nasty ones are the ones that seem to pull the strings. And in their own minds (and kitchens) they are heroes. The answers to our traffic isues does not lie in keeping people and commerce out and stopping change. There are gated communities for that. We need to be creative about traffic control. And we need to be creative, thoughtful, and open about development. Because the folks who for the last many many years have been hostile and closed-mined trying to keep change from happening have reaped for the rest of us the current climate of dysfunction.

  • Jjennabell1

    The real objection to the Charter School was that it was to be used as a “lily white” school so that the people in Chestnut Hill and the like wouldn’t have to send their kids to Jenks with the “masses.” The school board was going to spend a million doallrs on that while cutting funds from Jenks, the public school. See Chester County School snd the Ed Show.

    • mikeg

      A surprising comment from someone who has politicized water ice stands. The school board HAS already recognized GWCS for its achievements and now more Philadelphian school children will be able to access a quality public education. The curriculum at GWCS is unique and quite different from Jenks. Having the 2 schools in Chestnut Hill would have been good for both schools. They would have complemented each other. And they would have provided more opportunities for more children. But most importantly in regards to Chestnut Hill, it would have brought a world-class environmental science school to the neighborhood. It would have provided the city’s future scientists access to the greatest inner-city park and natural preserve in the world. It would have created thousands of future stewards of the Wissahickon. And it would have restored and repurposed a rotting and blighted historic building. Hi ho.