Germantown: A Little Slice of Bohemia

Catherine Adams and her daughter Ursula.

Moving into a new neighborhood can be a stressful time in one’s life. Issues with the moving company, problems from the home inspection and faulty electricity and plumbing can make the task seem insurmountable. But, with neighbors like those found on a little strip of Morris Street near the intersection of School House Lane, the process gets a bit easier.

Aline Gittleman (left) and her mother on moving day.

Aline Gittleman, a jewelry designer and teacher at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, has lived in Philadelphia for eight years, but only just signed the papers for her house on the 5400 block of Morris Street. Moving from the West Mt. Airy neighborhood next door, she had an idea of what her neighborhood had in store for her.

“I drove by multiple times and just got a feel for it,” she says. “I’d drive around and see all the old beautiful houses. It has a good feeling to it. It’s hard to explain. You can feel that at one time this place was really rich. There’s something to the history.”

Choosing this part of the city was not only about the financial considerations, but also the practical for Gittleman, who has a soft spot for nature and locally produced foods.

“West Mt. Airy is a little outside of our price range and Germantown is still close to the Wissahickon [Creek],” she says. “Our two main things were to stay close to the Wissahickon and close to Weaver’s Way Co-Op and that community.”

Gittleman, who will spend the first part of her residency on Morris Street tearing down walls in her house, creating a garden in her backyard and turning her third floor space into a painting studio, claims that although Mt. Airy and Germantown are neighbors, they are actually very different places to live.

Catherine Adams and her daughter, Ursula

“I’ve equated it to moving from San Francisco to Oakland,” she says. “Mt. Airy’s a little bit quieter, cleaner, more upscale, but it’s almost too adult. This place is different – I like the bohemian feel and it’s a little bit grittier which is what I like about Philadelphia and living on the East Coast. It’s almost too easy over there.”

As chance would have it, Gittleman not only moved onto a block of like-minded artists, but she also happened to move in down the street from another local jewelry designer. Catherine Adams lives at the corner of Winona and Morris streets. Her massive first-floor space sees its far share of uses.

“We call it the world’s largest garage,” she says with a glance back into the cavernous space behind her.

Not surprising, Adams isn’t the only artist in the 11,000-square-foot workspace. Her husband, Alex Adams, is a sculptor, and a wood worker rents a piece of the real estate to create his art. Right now he’s busy working on a custom dollhouse for the Adams’ daughter, Ursula.

Rose McMillan with a picture of her daughter Ayanna.

Just a few houses down the street is the home of Rose McMillan, a real estate agent and her aspiring model and dancer daughter, Ayanna. McMillan moved into the neighborhood in 1992 and works in South Philadelphia.

“I used to live in South Philadelphia and I was looking for a house with trees and I happened across Germantown,” she says. “It is a nice area. There are lots of pockets. There are areas that are nice and there are areas that are not so nice, but it just all blends in so well.”

And what creative niche would be complete without the neighborhood juggler? Dave Gillies, who lives across the street from the McMillans, started Give and Take Jugglers as a way to mentor children and foster creativity in youth as well as adults. Although the juggling is entertaining, he claims it is not the group’s major focus.

Dave Gillies does magic tricks in addition to juggling.

“My goal when I formed Give and Take Jugglers was to have as little juggling as possible in the show,” he says. “I learned early on that juggling isn’t very interesting. If you do three balls people will watch for maybe 12 seconds and ask ‘Can you do four?’ And if you can do four people will watch for maybe about 10 seconds and ask ‘Can you do five?’ So, you see where that leads – unfulfilled expectations. I learned that you had to connect with people. So our goal was to have the juggling show with no juggling and we’re about 80 percent there.”

Walking down the sunlit street, it’s easy to see why McMillan has spent 18 years on this block, why Gilles and Adams grow their creative enterprises here and why Gittleman would choose this block to begin a new chapter in her life. The 5400 block of Morris Street is a Germantown artist’s dream.

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  1. Very interesting article with visuals. Philly does have a lot of great things going for it. We need to hear more about the good stuff and it’s nice to hear it from regular people, especially artists! Thanks! : )

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