Germantown: Longtime Resident Talks About His Neighborhood

Foster hopes that his newspaper helps allow more residents to become involved in what's happening in their neighborhood.

https://vimeo.com/20501038]

Foster hopes that his newspaper helps allow more residents to become involved in what's happening in their neighborhood.

Driving down Germantown’s business corridor between 5 and 6:30 p.m., you’ll see nearly all the businesses putting up their metal gates and bars.  They’re losing a third of a business day because they need to close early out of fear and lack of security.

“In Manayunk, shops are staying open till 11:30 p.m., midnight,” said Jim Foster, the 68-year-old publisher of The Germantown Chronicle. “Germantown is a shadow of what it used to be.”

The story of what Germantown used to be really begins back in the 1680s when Foster said had its own industry and a “significant metropolis.”

Foster pointed out that the location of the first protest against slavery was held by the Germantown Quakers and is just down the block from where the newspaper is situated.

“You’ll find that by the 19th century, pockets of all lived in Germantown,” explained Foster.

After the Civil War, “they could buy houses anywhere in Germantown,” said Foster. “There had been black blocks since 1880s. They were scattered, not condensed.”

By 1831, Germantown was the first area to be connected by a passenger car by the Baldwin Locomotive Works to Philadelphia.

“It went to Ninth and Greene Streets to Germantown Avenue and Price Street. That same rock bed is where the R7 travels on,” said Foster.

Foster extends his duties to more than just publisher and chats with his workers about possible story ideas.

“When they decided to build an experimental train,” he added, “they decided that Germantown was the place to go.”

Even though Germantown had been a suburb of Philadelphia, it still continued as its own city after being incorporated into the city in 1854.

“It operated autonomously,” Foster said, “having its own City Hall rebuilt three times.”

In fact, Germantown was hustling and bustling as much as Center City did at the time. Soon enough there were two competing train lines bringing others into Germantown.

“A lot of people shopped in Germantown up to the ‘60s rather than Center City,” Foster explained.

So what happened?

“The downhill momentum began in the late 1960s,” he said. “The most given reason is urban decay, but there’s

The Germantown Chronicle is compromised of a handful of employees with closed off desks as work areas.

multiple reasons. The others are that the industry left and technology took its place.”

But Foster explained that Philadelphia had one of the most diverse work forces, not just one big industry like steel in Bethlehem, Pa.

“What happened was the political system,” Foster said. “They decided that they would make the Philadelphia economy hard to do business with and chased the businesses out.”

It wasn’t just the white-collar jobs that went out of the window. It was everyone.  The city had taxed everyone to the point where they just couldn’t make a business work in Philadelphia, let alone Germantown.

“Next thing it took were the subsidiary companies, which were the companies doing work for others,” Foster explained.

Foster said that a rate of 100,000 people per year disappeared out of Germantown. The end result was too many houses with not enough people.

Foster argued that the neighborhood’s crime rate has risen since the hiring of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in 2008. But Foster offered a solution as to how to fix Germantown back to its self-supporting economy of the 1960s.

Aggressive tactics and foot patrol by the cops of the 14th Police District, he explained, is necessary so that those committing these crimes get the message that “You’re not going to get away!”

Foster said he believes that change is in order on how Germantown is identified by the city government. He said that up to now the city has been blasting Germantown as a haven for criminals and discouraging potential patrons from exploring its historical past.

“Focus on it as a tourist destination!” said Foster.

The house where Foster works is just an example of what he has in mind.

“This building was occupied by Thomas Jefferson when the government moved to Philadelphia. It had been the home of the mayor, a summer house. But he gave it to Jefferson when he came here,” Foster explained.

History seems to haunt you no matter where you go in Germantown. Just next door to The Germantown Chronicle is Grumblethorpe, a house built for John Wister back in 1744.  Two blocks down, you’re in the middle of a renovated historic square and the location of the Germantown Historical Society. As you venture down further on Germantown Avenue, you’ll find at least four historically significant landmarks within a three block radius. But there’s no way you would know all of that unless you investigated meticulously what Germantown has to offer, which is unlikely for tourists to do. As the commercials shown in the region show, apparently Independence Hall is the only place that has historical significance to Philadelphia.

For now Foster realizes that he’ll just have to settle for Germantown only being a historical destination for a limited audience.

7 Comments

  1. I grew up in Germantown and lived on the 5100 Block of Greene Street. I have to say that I enjoyed my youth and all of my friends. We went to Saint Francis and on too High School without any major scars (save losses) Between our parents and the people I grew up with I have nothing but “great” memories. We all played sports at School and the Boys Club. Whow what a great time…… I know that since then alot of “stuff” has come out about the Boys Club. I was not scared and I am sorry about the guys who may have had a problem…. Please say some good things about what was alot of fun and I hope that somewhere along the line people are able to talk about the good times and forget the “bad” times… Don’t let them win…..

    PS…After 50+ years I still enjoy my network of old friends and we do look forward to seeing each other when we can….

  2. We visited Philadelphia last week and were eagerly looking forward to a nice German meal in Germantown. I was anticipating authentic German potato salad, freshly cooked spaetle (my favorite side dishes), and maybe a couple wursts, all washed down with some tasty German suds. So, we located it on the map and drove north from Center City.

    Well obviously, we did not find any German restaurants. In fact, we did not see a single German person.

    Apparently, it is an historic town, formerly occupied by German descendents, but no longer represented in the current residency. I guess we’ll forage for our German food elsewhere.

  3. If you visit the New York Times Frugal Traveler, you will find a list of good restaurants–just not German. Also, we have a lot of info on our site about local fare. Sorry you found something different.

  4. I am a newcomer to the area. I came to philly initially as an investor, but I soon discovered Germantown. Needless to say that was the beginning of the love-affair! The only other place that inspires me are the brownstones in Brooklyn, NY in terms of craftsmanship. Sadly, many of the residents don’t seem to recognize that pride of ownership is extremely important. Although many tend to correlate poverty with decay, I grew up in a neighborhood which was considered poor and one would be hard-pressed to make that assessment based on the looks of the neighborhood. Yes, this could be attributed to ‘a different time’ as I am in my 50’s, but this doesn’t have to be. I sincerely believe that it is not the neighborhood, but the people who make the difference. Hence, since I have moved to my new Germantown neighborhood, I have made a promise to myself to make my presence a betterment to my block and my community. I think Germantown has huge potential to thrive and I hope to meet with others with the same mindset.

  5. Yeah John Spire, a town originally settled by 13 German Mennonite farm families hundreds of years ago isn’t today serving up German potato salad and populated by nice German white people. Had you stuck around you could have enjoyed the local cuisine, authentic to what Germantown is, now.

    Hope you got tasty suds served by German folk elsewhere.

  6. I also grew up in Germantown; lived at 5370 Magnolia Avenue and went to Logan/Roosevelt/Germantown HS. Then it was the Army and back again to La Salle night school while working at INA. Now we are esconsed in a home in Kintnersville with about 20 deer which insist we feed them.

  7. I lived in Germantown until 1975. Safety was the main reason that our family moved from the area, sadly it’s still the same situation though one can see improvements. There are so many buildings in the center of GTWN ave and Chelten that could be the center for a resurgence of the area but it seems that there is no will from city hall to help. One perfect example is when you cross Washington lane at GERMANTOWN ave and you see how far Mt.Airy has gone forward.

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