Mount Airy: Diverse Neighborhood Maintains Community Connections]

Mount Airy always seemed homely and quaint to Iman Marcano-Sowell.

That’s why when she decided it was time to find a home for Calypso – the Trinidadian restaurant she runs with her mother, Claudette Campbell – she knew it had to be in Mount Airy.

“I just felt like our style of food, our commitment to, you know, family – easy family dining – and good healthy options would do well in this community.”

But, Marcano-Sowell isn’t the only person proud to call this neighborhood home.

In fact, nearly everyone from Mount Airy seems to love living here.

“People will meet me and they’ll tell me, ‘Yeah, we know where you’re from,’” said Mount Airy resident Richard “Tank” Keitt Jr. “The people here are different.”

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Granted by William Penn to Francis Daniel Pastorius and a group of German Quakers in 1683, Mount Airy originated as a portion of German Township. Throughout history, it’s had a reputation for being a peaceful community of accepting individuals. Recognized by many civil rights groups as one of the first successfully integrated neighborhoods in the nation, Mount Airy has remained a progressive community, full of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, occupations, lifestyles and age groups. Oprah Magazine even highlighted Mount Airy as a uniquely diverse and friendly neighborhood.

Which begs the question, what is it about Mount Airy that attracts so many different, yet like-minded people?

“There’s a real big sense of community around here,” said Julie Byrne, co-chair of the annual Pastorius Park summer concert series and a Chestnut Hill Community Association board member. “People come out en masse and enjoy being part of a community.”

The continuing work of these types of community organizations have aided in creating a framework in Mount Airy that is central to the continued stability of the neighborhood. This framework not only allows for community members to articulate issues among themselves, but also to local government and other city officials.

This type of community involvement has also become part of Mount Airy’s attractiveness. For individuals seeking an activist lifestyle, or even those looking to volunteer, Mount Airy provides endless opportunities. Most importantly, the local organizations have created strong community and social networks, which has been key in breaking down racial barriers.

However, diversity is not one-dimensional in Mount Airy. Racial diversity is complemented and reinforced by other forms of diversity. Indeed, Mount Airy’s over 40,000 residents come in every race, religion and sexuality.

The neighborhood also has a high number of residents who identify as mixed raced. In the 2000 census, the percentage of people who identified as two or more races was higher in Mount Airy than in Philadelphia and even nationwide.

Tank, a musician at the Mount Airy Arts Garage bi-monthly Wednesday night Jazz Jams, moved to Mount Airy when he was 14 years old. He described the community as a place where neighbors have always been comfortable around one another and accepting of each other’s differences.

“It never changed, and that was July 1970,” he said.

Tank said even at that time, he had interracial and homosexual couples living on his street. That wasn’t found in other parts of the city, he said.

Leslie Winder, president of West Mount Airy Neighbors, grew up here too. While she said that members of the community were indeed tolerant, the neighborhood has still dealt with its fair share of challenges over the years.

WMAN was founded in 1959 to deal specifically with the issue of racial integration. However, it’s not so much that you work on diversity on a day-to-day basis, she said. Rather, it’s about making sure that this is a community that anybody and everybody feels welcome in, said Winder.

Currently, however, Winder thinks the neighborhood’s public schools are the biggest issue for the community. Over the past several years, the education system has had to deal with significant cuts to funding for music and art programs, libraries, guidance counselors and other forms of student support systems. Still, not enough parents make a case for the state provided resources, said Winder.

“Neighborhood schools are not supported by the neighborhood – in terms of people sending their kids there – as much as it used to be,” said Winder.

One reason is the growing number of options for children nowadays. Winder said a popular trend among parents is to send their children to charter schools or private schools outside of the community. The result is a fragmented neighborhood.

“When you have that, what you don’t have is a community where everyone is going to school together,” said Winder. “I mean, that’s what I had growing up – my daughter doesn’t have that same kind of experience.”

Still, despite its problems, Winder said she hopes that Mount Airy doesn’t change too much.

“I hope that we continue to see the strong community involvement – that we continue to see strong diversity – across all lines.”

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