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by Sue Ann Rybak

Members of the Mt. Airy-Nippon-Bryan-Cresheim Town Watch packed the living room at 124 W. Mt. Airy Avenue on Tuesday, June 4 to mark the 25th anniversary of the neighborhood town watch that started on May 3, 1988 after a neighbor was burglarized. Since then, the town watch has evolved through the years to become a neighborhood association whose mission is literally “to love thy neighbor.”

In fact, the meeting had very little to do with crime prevention and much more to do with appreciating the neighborhood.

“It’s the neighbors who make the neighborhood,” said Steve Stroiman, one of the founders of the town watch.

Stroiman said that someone once asked him if he could live anywhere in the world where would he live?

“This place,” he said.

About 25 residents gathered to reminisce about what makes their “little village” so unique. Stroiman said residents go “way beyond the typical call of duty.” He recalled how the neighborhood came together to help an elderly neighbor, Billy Winterbottom, who lived on the 7100 block of Cresheim Avenue. Neighbors took turns taking him to doctors appointments, buying him groceries and checking in on him. Stroiman said after a while it became evident that Winterbottom, who had no immediate family in the area, could not live by himself.

“It was a very serious situation,” Stroiman said.

He said a small group of neighbors were able to track down his brother, who he had not seen in 20 years, in Colorado. With the help of neighbors, Winterbottom moved to Stapeley, an assisted living facility in Germantown, and later the Unitarian Universalist House, 224 W. Tulpehocken St.

David Kutzik, of the 100 block of W. Mt. Airy Avenue, recalled how after a snowstorm the entire neighborhood shoveled the street so a neighbor could go to dialysis. He said at least 26 neighbors were outside shoveling.

“It was extremely impressive and I think emblematic of the family-like nature of the neighborhood,” Kutzik said. “There is a strong culture of cooperation here.”

Jeff Best, another member of town watch, agreed and recalled how the whole community came together to help install Houston’s Playground.

“We initially hoped to complete the project in three days, but the rain pushed our schedule back,” he said. “But on the fifth day it was finished thanks to all the volunteers and vendors like Kurtz Construction Company and Kilian Hardware store. It truly was a community effort.”

A Music and Arts Hub
Kutzik said his block is a hub of music and arts. He said there are several venues for art and music in the area – including Mt. Airy Art Garage, 11 W. Mt. Airy Ave., and the Sedwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave.

Kutzik said recently the town watch held its annual Walk n’ Talk. Walk n’ Talks were originally created in the 60s to help neighbors in West Mt. Airy learn to build trust across racial lines and welcome new neighbors to the community. There is food, music, games and lots of conversation.

Terri Spross, of the unit block of West Mt. Airy Avenue, said she recently moved to the neighborhood and was impressed with the sense of community and the live entertainment at the Walk n’ Talk.

Spross compared her block to Italy.

“I love to listen to the block come alive,” Spross said. “Sometimes in the morning, I can smell some garlic cooking and it reminds me of a little neighborhood in Rome. There is an ambiance here. In the Spring, there is an explosion of color as the flowers blossom. At the Walk n’ Talk, I loved strolling the neighborhood while listening to music.”

A Community of Friends
Bobbie Horowitz, of 7200 block of Bryan Street, recalled how several Mt. Airy residents helped Amy Kunkle, owner of Food for All, which sells food for people with allergies. Knuckle lost $10,000 after a Groupon promotion nearly cost Kunkle her business. Horowitz said several regular customers and neighbors “pooled their money to loan her a series of small business loans.”

She said the strong sense of community is what makes this neighborhood special. Recently she was considering moving closer to her daughter.

“My daughter said ‘but Mom, how are you going to bring all those neighbors with you,’” Horowitz said.

A Global Village
Susan Miller, of unit block of Mt. Airy Avenue, said that in this neighborhood you can find people from all over the world.

“One of the things I am very proud of is the diversity and level of tolerance here,” Miller said.

Miller recalled how twin sisters Doris Polsky and Shirley Melvin started Twin Realty in 1965 to help stop the practice of “redlining,” or discriminating against minorities. She said they were instrumental in helping to stop the “white flight” in West Mt. Airy.

Miller added that this neighborhood is nationally known for being a haven for gay and lesbian people.

“Many neighbors may not know that this street is actually called Lavender Lane across the country,” Miller said.

Lynne Schleifer, of W. Mt. Airy, said it was a very accepting and safe neighborhood. She add that it was a wonderful place to raise children because “it’s such a harmonious place.”

Marilyn Cohen, executive director of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, said when she and Sharon Katz moved back from South Africa it was really important for them to find a neighborhood that was consistent with Nelson Mandela’s values.

“It’s a diverse neighborhood where all people are respected,” Cohen said. “It’s a neighborhood where people really care about each other. It’s really a community – not just a neighborhood.”

Helen Ard, of 7200 block of Bryan Street, said her father-in-law bought her house in 1919. She said it is a very multigenerational neighborhood. Ard, who has lived in her house for 65 years, joked that her grandchildren often say they would love to live in her house. She smiled and said they would have to wait a while.

Ard said she remembers when you could catch a trolley to anywhere along the avenue.

“You could find everything you wanted on the avenue,” Ard said. “There was a movie theater, an American store ( Acme), and drug stores.”

Ard said everybody knew their neighbors. She added that a stroll on the avenue was a way to socialize with friends and neighbors.

Elayne Blender, of 100 block of W. Mt. Airy, said in many neighborhoods, people are lucky if they know their next door neighbors. She added that is not the case in her neighborhood.

She said it’s just one of the reasons that make her block special.

“I don’t understand why everybody else doesn’t do this,” Blender said. “It just seems like such a natural thing. Why would you want to live some place where you didn’t know your neighbors.”

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that “a small group of neighbors” helped save Food for All.