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Thursday
May172007

Live from CNU / Philadelphia - A tour of Manayunk

This is the first entry chronicling what I learn and observe as the Congress for New Urbanism descends upon Philadelphia.  This if my fifth consecutive Congress.

Today, I toured Manayunk, PA, a commuter suburb that has experienced a recent rebirth.  Tom Comitta, a well-known urban planner in Eastern Pennsylvania, explained how understanding his own neighborhood led to his "conversion" from conventional planning to traditional neighborhood design. 

Two things shaped the neighborhoods of Manayunk: Catholic parishes, and the rail service to Philadelphia.  There were once three train lines and three stations in the small community. There were five ethnic Catholic parishes, language and nation of origin distinguishing them.  As a result of the train service, few people had cars, and the local retail served the daily needs of workers on their way home.  Corner stores, cigar bars, barbers, etc., were located on the main path from train to home.  The corner stores became the hub of the neighborhood, and were usually only a block or two from home. 

Today's Manayunk is an delightful walkable neighborhood with local retailers and restaurants, along with prestigious national chains like Banana Republic and Starbucks.  A block from main street, a small townhome can still be purchased for well under $200,000.

While no single "plan" led to the revitalization of the area, the cleanup of the canal and towpath one block from main street helped to catalyze a new outlook on the town.

Manayunk helps to reinforce a theory I've been mulling over in my head.  Urban places can become so successful that they lose their charm.  When the pizzeria is replaced by an osteria, and it becomes a destination rather than a hometown. The true magic occurs in between.  When a place has a mix of old and new, local and national -- with respect to both its business establishments and its patrons.

At any rate, Manayunk is a delightful surprise.  It shows that otherwise bland, run-down Pennsylvania towns can have vibrant, colorful downtowns, affordable housing, and be really cool.  As a Pennsylvania native with a low opinion of much of the housing stock, this is encouraging and paradigm-shifting. 

(pictures to follow later)

 

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