When work called me to Philadelphia from my hometown in Oregon, I rented an apartment in Olde City and then moved to Mt. Airy.
Besides the trees, what drew me was the diversity and the progressive politics.
I bought a row house in the 100 block of West Durham Street and considered it temporary until I could find something a little bigger and with enough privacy that I didn't hear the toilet flushing in the house next door.
That was 26 years ago.
Today, I'm hooked on my block, which offers the kind of community I haven't found anywhere I've ever lived -- from New England to the Pacific Northwest and points in between.
Here on West Durham Street, I know most of my neighbors by first name. I can walk into the house next door unannounced and borrow an egg or a cup of milk.
Fences used to separate the backyards on my side of the block. But a few years ago, we all got together and took them down so we could enjoy each others' company.
When our daughter was a toddler, I didn't have to look far for a sitter. Anna, the Italian grandmother across the street, offered a special combination of tough love and homemade spaghetti sauce with tomatoes fresh from her garden.
Down the block, a retired railroad worker and his wife became "Aunt Ruth" and "Uncle Eddie" to our daughter. Ruth told her Bible stories and made her kielbasa sandwiches, while Ed taught her to play checkers and let her turn on Cartoon Network, which we didn't allow at home.
Their passing several years ago was the first family loss my daughter experienced.
During the Great Ice Storm of '98, when the city was too stretched to clear our street, everyone on the block pitched in and chipped away at the ice with everything from shovels to axes to ice picks. Inch by hard-won inch, we got the street cleared.
Today, I love that the Allen Lane train station, with its coffee shop, is just two blocks away, and that my gym and some of my favorite restaurants are two blocks in the other direction.
But such amenities aren't what's really special about Mt. Airy. It's the people and the caring we have for one another.
As I approach my third decade on West Durham Street, I don't even hear that flushing toilet anymore.
When we came to Mount Airy in 1996, I was skeptical.
We had just moved from the Garden State, which, actually, wasn't all that much a garden, into the hippiest enclave of the 4th largest metropolis in America. Adjustments were sure to be made.
Would I have to reduce my carbon footprint? Was I going to have to drive a hybrid car? Would we be forced to eat granola? Fortunately (or unfortunately), none of that was true.
Mount Airy turned out to be a warm, welcoming neighborhood, green and cool, and way, way different from what we expected.
Oh, they ate granola to be sure; in fact, the Weaver's Way co-op stocked 22 different kinds, but no one forced us to eat it, and honestly, when we tried it, it didn't taste all that bad.
We were strangers in a strange land, unsure of the odd customs here, but the locals welcomed us into their earthmother-y bosoms, and showed us the lay of the land: The Co-op.The street festivals. The trees and flowers everywhere you walked.
The friendly, convenient shops dotted here and there all throughout the neighborhood (All within walking distance! Try THAT in Jersey).
The neighbors who actually stopped and talked to you, and were genuinely curious as to how you were!
Living beyond labels
We loved the diversity of thought, of viewpoint, of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, everything.
We chatted over coffee with our Italian immigrant neighbor, barbecued later with our gay neighbors, and in the evening had beers with our hard-core Republican neighbors.
And the strange thing was, none of those labels mattered.
They were our neighbors. Just our neighbors. We had stumbled on the lost Shangri-La of neighborhoods, the legendary El Dorado of friendship and togetherness, the Holy Grail of... well, you get the idea.
And we soon discovered how community aware Mount Airy is.
Everyone seemed to be involved in local organizations, groups, and committees.
Everyone was far too busy making this place a better place to live, to argue and gossip.
Soon, we joined too. Park cleanups, Co-op committees, Babysitting groups, we got involved with our friends and neighbors, and the more we worked, the better we got to know how lucky we really were.
Pleasures outweigh quirks
Now, after 14 years of living in Mount Airy, we sometimes think of how green the grass might be on the other side.
The New York Times deliveries at 4 a.m. wake us up. The traffic can be stupidly miserable. Parking can be tough to find. Police helicopters? Got 'em.
But then we think of how, on Halloween night, hundreds of kids swarm all over our streets, transforming the neighborhood into a spooky free-for-all, how the first zucchinis get distributed all through the neighborhood (whether you want them or not), and how on warm summer evenings, we all sit out on our adjoining porches, beer in hands, swap stories, tell jokes, and listen to the man 3 doors down softly play his guitar.
There's no place on earth I'd rather live. No place.
For as long as I can remember, I've called myself a "Philadelphian." Yet, until seven years ago, I was a Philadelphia resident for just the few days after I was born in South Philadelphia until my parents took me home to the suburbs. I was often in the city, went to college at Temple University, and since 1983 worked at jobs in Philadelphia, but I never was really a citizen of the city itself.
Then I took a job in Mt. Airy. I had been a commuter from the suburbs for decades, through a number of home and job moves. My wife and I had built a brand new home in Delaware County in 1998, and it was nice, new, suburban, a so-called "dream home."
The new job opportunity came in 2001. The house was still new, the commute was long but ok, but there were things about Mt. Airy that just seemed, well, attractive. It became clear Mt. Airy was more than a place to work - it was a real community, friendly, vibrant, diverse, accessible. I was wasting time commuting, my wife was finding more reasons to be in the area. The time had come for me - for us - to become 100% "Philadelphian."
We spent a number of weekends touring Mt. Airy, learning the neighborhoods, looking at and eventually bidding on a number of homes. We ended up being lucky bidders on a home a quick five minute drive or leisurely 20 minute walk to the office. Center City is a 20 minute train ride away - with the train station right across the street.
We knew that we had chosen a true community from the day we moved in. Our next door neighbor and I had the first of frequent conversations across the fence. He happens to be African American, I happen to be white, but that's not something that matters. Within a day, there was a knock on the door, and we were greeted by neighbors with a cheery hello and plants for our garden. Working outside, fixing up the lawn and house, neighbors on the way to who knows where would pull over and come up to welcome us to Mt. Airy. Neither my wife nor I could remember such a feeling of community. And after seven years, we still feel like this is truly home.
For most people that first moment of liberation, of freedom, comes when they are handed their first car keys at sixteen. Mine came when I was twelve when I got my first trail pass. I still have the small yellow card with its bright red number 2. And to this day it's packed away in a box filled with the others just like it that I carried throughout middle school and high-school.
Suddenly the city was mine as I hopped on the train to go to school, the bus or subway to visit friends. I didn’t have to worry about learning how to parallel park or drive, all I did was jump on the next schedule bus and the city was mine.
Riding SEPTA was not just about a new freedom of movement I never had before. It was also about discovering new friends. I began to meet my neighbors, people I had grown up with but never knew lived right around the corner. Seeing these people day in and day out helped me gain a sense of community I never got when I was chauffeured around.
Later, when I took a year off of college to work at a local bakery, the Night Kitchen in Chestnut Hill, I was lucky that the very last train on the Chestnut Hill East line got me to work at 1 AM, the exact right time to start making muffins and cinnamon buns. If I missed it, the 23 took me through the heart of North Philly to the front door of the bakery.
I was raised in a neighborhood that grew up around the city’s first train lines. As an urban planner I can think of hundreds of reasons why transit is good for cities. But I don't need theory. Every day I see with my own two eyes how transit makes it easier to support thriving communities. Today I work in the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities because I have seen the impact transit has had on my city.
And everybody should find new opportunities to make friends and meet their neighbors.