Manayunk: An Urban Hike

As I began my urban hike, through the streets of Manayunk, it had not occurred to me how much things had changed over time. What was once a middle-class community, composed of Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants, is now an urban sprawl of gentrification. Manayunk is a borough, which is settled along the Schuylkill River. It is a part of Philadelphia, however, instead of calling it Northwest or Southeast Philadelphia, it is referred to by its Lenape Native American name, Manayunk- roughly translated to mean, “the place we go to drink” (Kostova, 2006). Each division of Manayunk, based solely on nationality, had a corresponding church for the parishioners to attend mass. The Polish had Saint Josephat’s. The Italians had Saint Mary’s. The Irish had Holy Family. None of these churches exists today. Their steeples are a mere relic of a time that once was. The reason they are referred to in the past tense is that they have consolidated all of the churches into a single church, and renamed it Saint Blaise. Perhaps the new, younger inhabitants of Manayunk are more interested in things other than worship. The hospital, in which I was born, is called Roxborough Memorial Hospital. They stopped performing deliveries in the mid nineties. Most of the services they once offered, one would have to find elsewhere. A brief history of Manayunk can be seen in a YouTube video, by Nik Stamps, though it is over forty-two minutes in length (Stamps, 2013).

Most of the families, who occupied Manayunk, were poor and had to perform manual labor to provide for their families. They came directly from their former countries, in search of freedom. They thrived in the new borough they had adopted from the Lenape Indians. The older occupations were construction, iron-working, carpentry, bakeries and corner stores. The corner store, or deli, was a staple of each nationality. They created a convenient shopping experience for the neighborhood, and due to the amount of them, you were able to obtain consumables of the other cultures as well. They were not only convenient, but perhaps very lucrative alternatives to supermarkets, which may not have been adopted at the time. There are no more family-owned pharmacies. They have all been replaced by corporate-owned CVS pharmacies. Ridge Avenue, a major center of commerce, has more fast food restaurants than I can count. None of these promote healthy living, but somehow they remain open to the public. These are just some of the aspects my grandparents taught me. As they are no longer living, I am forced to draw upon memory. Tragically, the corner stores are all gone, and converted into corner housing. This and much more would not be the only changes I would note on my urban hike (Spector, 2004).

My grandparents had no formal education, but their children did. My mother and father attended college and by the time I turned eighteen, college had become a requirement. However, as my grandparents passed away, so did the rest of their cohort. In the wake of their passing, they left behind real estate, as their houses were now vacant. These vacant houses were not inhabited by younger relatives, but sold off, cheaply, to the wealthy. This practice continued as the face of Manayunk changed. Public libraries were raised to the ground and replaced with condominiums. A small pasture at the end of Sheldon Street once gave the greatest view of center city Philadelphia. That view is now eclipsed by the towering apartments, which occupy a place where neighbors joined together to watch fireworks, every Fourth of July.

Just walking up Hermitage Street, I see people in their early thirties jogging. They are not in packs like some sort of marathon, but scattered about as I continue taking notes. This simple act of physical fitness is something my grandparents were too old to do, and my parents never adopted. Surely, it is a great health promotion, but perhaps they received enough exercise performing manual labor. But alas, here the joggers come toward me and behind me, and I found myself asking a question. Where are the children? If I close my eyes, and wait long enough, I should hear the sounds of Mr. Softy, the ice cream truck, and local playgrounds filled with laughter. When I close my eyes, I hear car horns honking, lawnmower engines, and the stomping of jogging feet. This could explain why most of the local schools have been shut down, just like the churches. Perhaps my mother and father had offspring at a young age, which may not have been frowned upon in the late seventies? By comparison, these new inhabitants are just beginning to create career goals for themselves, and maybe the thought of having children does not factor into their lives. In fact, passersby do not seem to be wearing wedding rings at all. What does this mean?

Occupations once performed by older generations such as carpentry, masonry, painting and landscaping are all subcontracted to businesses, the likes of Home Depot and Lowes. There are no more local hardware stores and the new population of Manayunk does not present an image that they have the time for this type of work- I did not see any young people performing these jobs, however, there were many Hispanics performing said jobs. It could be stated that the largest attraction to Manayunk is Main Street. Just walking from one end to the other, you can see and hear the sounds of soft elevator music and forks scraping plates. “While gentrification had a negative impact on the social and cultural community, it has helped preserve the historic built environment on Main Street as well as the homes that climb up the hill perpendicular to Main Street” (Fisher, n.d.). Little do they know or would they care to know that the very street they dine upon was filled with vagrants and wreaked of urine in the nineties. It is possible that the gentrification of Manayunk was made possible by the rehabilitation of Main Street. If one increases commerce and fine dining, it could attract a populous inclined to buy cheap property.

Manayunk is no longer the diverse melting pot that it used to be, especially when my grandparents were still living. The transplanted inhabitants of Manayunk are more educated, work jobs that do not require manual labor, and drive expensive cars. Strangely, there is no racial harmony anymore. Everyone I see driving, jogging and walking are Caucasian. The only place I experienced anyone of color, was under the elevated railway on Cresson Street. There were families sitting in lawn chairs, enjoying each other’s company. It was not hard to locate a brief YouTube video that illustrates Cresson Street (“Cresson Street, Manayunk,” 2012). This is what I was used to seeing when my grandparents were alive and well. Clearly, it would take more than an urban hike, as I am presented with only a snapshot, to divine why one ethnicity holds true to their neighborhood, while the rest has seemed to vanish. Looking at the ground, Cresson Street is composed of cobblestone. I remember a time when every street in Manayunk was composed entirely of cobblestone. Now, they are all covered in asphalt. Like the asphalt covers the cobblestone, and the new condominiums cover the library, I feel like a stranger in the very place I once called home.

In conclusion, this urban hike has made me explore areas of Manayunk that I had not seen in years. There have been so many renovations, restorations and new developments, that parts of it feel alien. To a certain extent, I felt foreign in a neighborhood that I was raised in and have so much history. There are no familiar faces, and no familiar stores. There are only the ghosts of what was once there when I was growing up. If the new population ever decides to have children, it would be my wish that they understand what a culturally dense place they are living in, and how lucky they are. As curiosity strikes me, I would like to make a wish, and that wish would be for one person to take the same urban hike that I did. Guiding them would not be an issue. What I would hope to gain is their unbiased perception- I want to know what they think of Manayunk, not knowing what it used to be. That is my wish.

 

References

Cresson Street, Manayunk. (2012, May 21). YouTube. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnJShJ1LBE4

Fisher, G. A. (2006). The gentrification of Manayunk (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=hp_theses

Kostova, E. (2006). MANAYUNK: A NEIGHBORHOOD JOURNAL [Scholarly project]. In Manayunk: A Neighborhood Journal. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0045.117;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=mqrg

Spector, R. E. (2004). Cultural diversity in health & illness. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Stamps, N. (2013, May 14). Roxborough & Manayunk Wissahickon. YouTube. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtlXPRT0b6E

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