History of Mt. Airy

History

Whether compared to other American towns or to neighborhoods next door, Mt. Airy is a neighborhood quite unlike any other. Its diversity encompasses all walks of life: socio-economic, religious, or ethnic--the product of hard work throughout the centuries. 

Mt. Airy makes up the center of the “German Township” (with Germantown to the south and Chestnut Hill to the north). Like all other sections of Philadelphia that had once been separate townships, Mt. Airy was incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854. And like many other neighborhoods, it has held on to its separate sense of identity ever since. Unlike Germantown (with its connections to Colonial and Revolutionary history, for instance) or Chestnut Hill (with its history as a railroad suburb), Mt. Airy has a separate sense of history for different reasons, namely for all hard work that has gone to make it a diverse and integrated community that it is today.

Certainly Mt. Airy has connections to all the things that make Philadelphia’s Northwest so historic. Germantown Avenue was known as the “Great Road” and its Belgian blocks line what was long ago a Native American hunting trail. The small neighborhoods which comprise Mt. Airy, with names like Dogtown, Beggarstown, and Kresheim, go back as long as Philadelphia. Named for Judge William Allen’s retreat, “Mt. Airy”, (near the first skirmish in the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown in 1777), the neighborhood has some of the oldest churches and school buildings in the region, including St. Michael’s Lutheran Church (1730) and the Dunkers School that dates to at least 1760 (and maybe even earlier). German Township was a place where many of William Penn’s bold notions that people of different faiths could worship together peaceably were tried out.

Mt. Airy’s historical significance lies in how community members made concerted efforts to continue to work those ideals out in the 20th century. In the 1950s Philadelphia faced post-Depression economic decline and dramatic population decline. To counter predatory real estate lenders who drove wedges in neighborhoods using racially discriminatory practices, Mt. Airy community groups stifled such efforts with unified and positive responses, including legal challenges, Main Street and economic development planning, and other progressive commercial and community development efforts emphasizing cohesion and diversity.

As a result Mount Airy retains its legacy and own identity as a stable racially and economically integrated community, quite unlike any other.

Please check out the Pat Henning Library of the Germantown Historical Society for even more information on your house, your family, or the many plans that have involved Mt. Airy over its centuries-old history.

Partnership

Thanks to our partners at Cliveden for developing content for this page. For more information on historic Northwest Philadelphia, visit freedomsbackyard.com.