Five Great Neighborhoods in Philadelphia
Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, and the locals have little patience with those who get the boundaries wrong such as real estate agents trying to boost the asking price of a house by shifting its location from a less-prestigious address to a pricier one.
There are dozens of neighborhoods in the 136-square-mile city. Some are a few blocks long, surround a small square or continue for several miles. For administrative purposes, the city is divided into Center City, West, North, Northeast, Northwest and Southwest Philadelphia, and these divisions encompass all the townships and boroughs that were annexed to the original city in 1854. Philadelphia is a city as well as a county.
The traditional boundaries of Center City are Vine Street on the north to South Street, the Delaware River on the east and the Schuylkill on the west. Center City is not a neighborhood really, but a geographical marker that refers to the central business district. It, however, comprises several neighborhoods, some no larger than a few blocks, others that stretch for a mile.
While there are many neighborhoods, these five are the most prized by buyers, renters and visitors for their housing, amenities and viability:
- Old City, Society Hill and Queen Village
- Rittenhouse Square
- Chestnut Hill/Mount Airy
Old City, Society Hill and Queen Village
These are actually three neighborhoods, but in a city in which history plays an important role in daily life, and because they create an unbroken line more than a mile along a stretch of Delaware riverfront park known as Penn’s Landing, they can be considered one.
All three are separated from Penn’s Landing by Interstate 95, but bridges over the highway at major intersections carry pedestrians and cars back and forth safely. In addition, Old City and Society Hill encompass Independence National Historic Park, including Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center and other tourist attractions.
Old City, from Vine Street to Walnut Street, Front Street to Seventh Street, was the first part of Philadelphia to be settled by English Quakers in 1682. It includes Elfreth’s Alley, a warren of tiny rowhouses lining a cobblestone alley, which has been inhabited continuously since the early 18th century. Old City became a warehouse district in the 19th century, with few residents other than the inhabitants of Elfreth’s Alley.
In the early 1980s, many warehouses and factories were converted to loft apartments and condos. By the late 1990s, Old City had become the hip urban neighborhood of today, filled with sidewalk cafes and expensive restaurants, nightclubs, small shops and artists’ galleries, tied into the city and the region by the Benjamin Franklin Bridge at its northern edge and the Market-Frankford El stations at Second and Fifth streets. Buyers are drawn to an eclectic mix of lofts and condos, both rehabbed and new, ranging from $185,000 to $2.4 million and more.
Society Hill begins officially at Front and Walnut Streets. The name originated in 1681, when the Free Society of Traders acquired a bluff at Front and Pine Streets and the surrounding land from William Penn. Since the 1960s, three high-rise residential towers designed by I.M. Pei stand at the entrance to the neighborhood, surrounded by two- and three-story brick homes dating from the 18th and 19th century as well as contemporary-style homes built in the last 40 years. The neighborhood had been in decline for almost a century, and when the federal government created Independence Mall between Fifth and Sixth streets from Arch to Walnut Streets in the 1950s, the city Redevelopment Authority bought up huge tracts of decaying buildings in Society Hill that were either razed or rehabbed.
The center of the neighborhood is the restored Head House at Second and Pine streets, built in 1804 to store fire equipment. The covered space behind the Head House that now ends at Lombard Street, known as The Shambles (in England, stalls where meat was sold), was a market that originally extended to South Street, was later enclosed and then abandoned. A farmer’s market is held in the restored Shambles on summer weekends. Head House Square, as the area is called, is surrounded by specialty stores, cafes and restaurants. In 1960, an urban pioneer could buy a building lot in the neighborhood for a few thousand dollars. Today, sale prices range from $270,000 to $2.3 million.
Queen Village, originally named Southwark, was called Wiccaco when it was settled by Swedes in 1642, 40 years before William Penn and the English arrived. Southwark was outside the city borders until 1854, and activities that Quakers frowned upon -- theater, gambling and other entertainments -- went on here with impunity.
The neighborhood was home to dockworkers and their families for more than 300 years, and attracted thousands of Russian Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, who opened a variety of businesses along South Street, the border between Society Hill and Queen Village.
In the early 1960s, an east-west highway linking the Schuylkill Expressway to I-95 threatened to demolish South Street, by then filled with artists and funky storefront restaurants. The artists forced the city to abandon the connector, and the properties they bought for nothing were worth plenty. The stretch of South Street from Ninth to Front streets remains, in the words of the 1960s song, “the hippiest street in town.” If you can’t find what you want here, from avant-garde fashion and old books to Victorian lighting fixtures and every cuisine around, well, it probably doesn’t exist.
The residential portion of Queen Village stretches to Washington Avenue to the south, and the dockworkers’ houses, supplemented by conversions of warehouses, parochial schools and even a social club, are occupied by young professionals and empty nesters. Sale prices range from $244,000 to $499,000.
Center City is designed around five major squares: Franklin, Washington, Centre, Logan and Rittenhouse. The Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, Philadelphia’s Fifth Avenue, commands the highest home prices in the city.
The neighborhood was on the western fringe of the city and largely open space until the early 1860s, when the rich began building their mansions there. The Curtis Institute is just off the square, as is the Philadelphia Art Alliance. The Academy of Music, the Kimmel Center and other cultural institutions are short walks from it.
Surrounded by high-rises, some of them under construction or renovation, Rittenhouse Square provides outdoor space with trees, grass and light, a pleasant place to spend even a few minutes anytime of the year. Surrounding the square in the first floors of these high-rises are some of the city’s finest restaurants and outdoor cafes. A few steps east from the square along Walnut and Chestnut Streets are high-end shops, specialty stores, movie theaters and more restaurants.
Residents say that while the square offers a vibrant and high energy environment, it is, like many Philadelphia neighborhoods, very small town, where one can usually meet someone they know. On Tuesdays, the square becomes an outdoor market, with fruit, flowers and baked goods for sale. Bald eagles nest in its trees.
The Project for Public Spaces in 2008 rated Rittenhouse the seventh-best public square in North America, calling it a “green, leafy oasis” and a “gem in the heart of Philadelphia.”
The median home price is $499,500. The penthouse at 1830 Rittenhouse, an older building, was sold in early 2008 for almost $2 million. Penthouses at 10 Rittenhouse, now under construction, will likely start at $3 million. The higher the floor, the better the view, the more expensive the unit.
Even with such high prices, younger professionals, especially newly minted lawyers, can pick up a one- or two-bedroom recently rehabbed condo for less than $500,000.
The name allegedly means “place where we came to drink” in the language of the Leni Lenape tribe that inhabited Philadelphia, and this 19th-century factory neighborhood on the east bank of the Schuylkill, a few miles west of City Hall has, in the last 20 years, become just that, as private investors have spent millions of dollars to turn a working-class industrial neighborhood into an upscale post-industrial one, with appreciating real estate values, intact 19th-century architecture and plenty of watering holes.
Main Street, the main drag and historic district, is lined on both sides by more than 30 restaurants, 18 bars and nightclubs, nine cafes and coffee shops, small business, boutiques and specialty stores, art galleries and pricey furniture outlets, and filled, just about every night of the week, with young people ready to party.
Easily accessible by public transit from all parts of the city, the neighborhood has become what one longtime resident calls a “college town without a college.” When older residents die, investors buy their houses and rent them to students from St. Joseph’s, LaSalle and Temple universities and the University of Pennsylvania for $1,600 a month and more. Compare that to the city’s average rental rate of about $1,000 a month.
While longtime residents want to see more families, new construction tends to be rental, although many of these properties are “condo-ready,” and will become for sale when the real estate market turns hot again. Despite what the natives say, many of the houses have been bought by families in the last few years and rehabbed.
What is for sale ranges in price from $123,000 to $510,000 -- a far cry from 20 years ago. Infrastructure improvements have softened the industrial landscape but have not leveled the hills of Manayunk, which, when climbed, lead to the more family-friendly (it has three supermarkets) Roxborough neighborhood above it.
The hills make Manayunk a challenge to bikers. The Manayunk Wall is an agonizing, half-mile climb from Main Street to Pechin Street in Roxborough that is part of the Philadelphia International Championship bike race every June.
Chestnut Hill/Mount Airy
These adjacent neighborhoods share many things, including two train lines from Center City 12 miles to the southeast, housing stock (sprawling late Victorian-era mansions as well as the two-story brick rowhouses common to all city neighborhoods), Germantown Avenue (the main thoroughfare for both, referred to as the "Avenue") and Wissahickon Valley Park, one of 62 large and small green spaces in the 9,222-acre Fairmount Park system.
“The Hill,” which runs from Cresheim Valley Road to the Montgomery County line, is a destination for shopping, with small shops and an ever-increasing number of national chain stores lining both sides of Germantown Avenue, from Winston Road west and beyond Bethlehem Pike.
The Avenue, as it is known throughout Northwest Philadelphia, is paved with Belgian blocks. From Bethlehem Pike south through Center City to 10th and Bigler Streets in South Philadelphia once ran the Route 23 Trolley. Covering 14 miles in 90 minutes, it was the longest trolley route in the United States, when, in 1992, the trolley was replaced by buses.
Chestnut Hill had been around since the city was founded, but not until the railroad arrived in the mid-19th century did the hamlet begin growing. Henry H. Houston, a director of Pennsylvania Railroad, was also a developer, and bought large tracts in West Mount Airy and the west side of Chestnut Hill on which he built substantial houses for the wealthy who were making their way from Center City to the north and west.
To the east and across Germantown Avenue one would find the Reading Railroad line. Today, these roads, now the R-7 and R-8 lines of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, provide service along both lines to downtown.
Chestnut Hill has always been one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city, and until 2002, had the most expensive housing. Because of its business district and small-town atmosphere, its proximity to the suburbs by car and by train to Center City, low crime and excellent public school (Jenks) and nationally known private ones -- Chestnut Hill Academy and Springside -- it was usually the relocation destination for corporate executives.
The resurgence of Center City since the late 1990s has challenged Chestnut Hill’s median price dominance, and more corporate relocations are heading to the high-rise condominiums in the city. Still, prices range from $180,000 for the smaller houses on the east side of Germantown Avenue to $3 million for the rambling Victorians west of it.
Much of residential upper Mount Airy, from Gorgas Lane to Cresheim Valley Road, looks exactly like Chestnut Hill. Mount Airy’s 1930s-era business districts between East Gowen Avenue and Johnson Street are being revitalized by the nonprofit Mount Airy USA community development corporation, which has attracted funding and developers to its section of the Avenue.
Mount Airy, too, has its sprawling late 19th and early 20th century single-family houses tucked into streets that wind through Wissahickon Valley Park, but it was designed to be, and remains, a middle-class enclave, especially on the east side of the Avenue, where houses, though large, tend to be of the attached variety locally known as “twins.”
The neighborhood received its name from the long-gone summer home of Pennsylvania chief justice William Allen, built in 1750 at Allen Lane and Germantown Avenue, now on the grounds of the Lutheran Theological Seminary.
It was near Allen’s house that the first shots of October 1777 Battle of Germantown were fired, and the American defeat that followed lost Philadelphia to the British and consigned Washington and his army to Valley Forge for a bitter winter.
In the 1960s, previously all-white Mount Airy was peacefully integrated by black middle and upper class professionals, and remains one of the city’s and the nation’s most racially diverse urban neighborhoods. The success of integration has brought Mount Airy national recognition over the years, most recently from Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine.
In West Mount Airy, median home prices are along Chestnut Hill lines -- $250,000 -- while East Mount Airy commands a median of $153,000.
Across the Schuylkill from Center City is West Philadelphia, and from the river bank (29th Street) west to 50th Street between Civic Center Boulevard and Spring Garden Streets is University City, so called because it is home to six institutions of higher learning, including the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the University of the Sciences, Lincoln University’s Urban Center and the Restaurant School of Walnut Hill College.
University City comprises seven smaller neighborhoods of Victorian homes with wide porches and tree-lined streets, occupied by 45,000 undergrad and graduate students, as well as faculty, and staff of the schools and hospitals -- Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania Health System -- within its boundaries.
The presence of so many academics has created a diverse neighborhood, reflected in the cuisine of its many restaurants. In addition, Penn’s 20-year-old mortgage assistance program for faculty and staff has steered many university employees to the abundant housing in the neighborhood.
The University City District, which is responsible for maintaining public areas, promotion and advocacy, encourages rehabbing of these spacious but tired homes through classes and preservation programs. The district also promotes urban agriculture through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s citywide Philadelphia Green program, and there are 14 community gardens scattered through the neighborhood.
The Center City construction boom has its parallel on the west side of the river. The University of Pennsylvania has capital expenditures of $250 million to $500 million a year and has been expanding its campus most recently eastward to the banks of the Schuykill after so many years heading west and northward. Recent construction has included residential high-rises for faculty and students, retail, the $232 million Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine and new academic buildings and facilities.
The neighborhood is linked to the rest of the city by the Market-Frankford Elevated Line and bus and trolley lines. In addition, 30th Street Station, the region’s transportation hub, has connections by Amtrak to the rest of the country and by SEPTA’s Regional Rail system to the rest of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. There is a rail connection to Philadelphia International Airport, also just 20 minutes by highway.
As a result of this development, median home prices in University City neighborhoods have continued to increase, though gradually, over the last decade. The median price is $289,000, a 28 percent increase year over year.