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A Personal Vision for Germantown

Initially written for presentation to a planning group sponsored by Philadelphia University.

On a recent Friday, I spent most of the day shopping for food at Germantown markets and having lunch with my daughter at a Germantown café. Like many people in the neighborhood, I was mentally drained from a couple of neighborhood controversies. Shopping in Germantown can be discouraging, but if you know where to look, food shopping is not. I always find that it revives my faith in the future. It did precisely that on Friday. I posted about it on the Living in Germantown Facebook page, and the response was uniformly appreciative.

Germantown’s Strengths

I mention this experience because it reminded me, not for the first time, that Germantown has many strengths and resources that we tend to forget when we concentrate on the tattered shops along Chelten Avenue or walk past the disastrous conglomeration of parking lots at Wayne and Chelten. Here are some of the ones I see:

Looking to the Future

Germantown’s development does not occur in a vacuum. In the larger world, fuel costs and environmental constraints are making revival of cities and local shopping districts not merely desirable but essential to survival. The rising generation is already beginning to move back to cities, abandon the private automobile and use public transit and bicycles to meet its mobility needs.

Germantown can and should capitalize on these trends in ways that honor and support the diversity of our population. My vision for the neighborhood’s future emphasizes equitable development, local job creation, and an ethic of acceptance for people from many backgrounds. Here are some suggestions as to what this means in practice:

Building Community

Germantown has very wide ethnic and class diversity. We have a long history of welcoming new people. A well-thought-out plan for a neighborhood with housing and shops that serve this diversity can help to facilitate and support this culture of neighborliness. It cannot create such a culture, but it can show that a neighborhood need not abandon diversity—of class, race, and background—in the name of development. That is an important lesson that we all need to learn again and again.

A plan for the neighborhood can help to build community. It can also help us to avoid one of the major hazards of attempts to revitalize Germantown: nostalgia. It is hardly surprising that many residents know that Germantown was once the second largest shopping area in the city. Nor is it surprising that many hope for a return to previous glory.

Personally, I find old photos of Germantown’s shopping district a little disturbing. The people in the photos are not the diverse group that I see when I go to the store or walk through the park. The department stores pictured in them were here when we first came to the neighborhood—and we could not afford to shop in them on two non-profit salaries.

Nostalgia for a romanticized past will not revive Germantown. A plan that helps people to settle here at reasonable cost, shop here for most of what they want, and find good-paying jobs here, is what we need. My hope is that, just as we pioneered on other social issues, we can find a way for all residents to stay here and prosper—thus providing an alternative to development that drives out long-term residents over time. Perhaps such an alternative is not feasible; but if it is, Germantown should be the community to find it.

Germantown garden watercolor © 2011 by Ruth A Seeley

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