Funky Manayunk Tour

There are ghosts in Manayunk. This once-thriving mill town northwest of Philadelphia died in the mid-1960s when the King of Prussia Mall was built about 12 miles away. Manayunk (Lenape Indian for “where we drink”) was reborn about 20 years later in a celebrated revitalization story. There are plenty of people who will happily tell you all about the revitalization – the shops and galleries (over 50 of them) and restaurants (30 of them) lining Main Street and the pleasant tow path running along the Manayunk Canal.

What those people won’t talk about is all that’s been lost. If you want to know that, walk the city with Manayunk native Thomas Comitta, a new urbanist town planner and landscape architect who led the CNU XV tour “Funky Manayunk” on Thursday afternoon.

On corner after corner, Comitta stopped and recalled what was once there. A corner store. A pretzel shop. A corner store facing another corner store, creating a prime spot to hang out. When Comitta, born in 1949, was young, there were 16 corner stores within a 10-minute walk. There were kids playing in the narrow streets – wire ball, wiffle ball, wall ball. There was the Empress, the town’s only movie theater, where you could see a double feature for 25 cents on a Saturday. Kids painted house numbers on curbs for 10 cents each. Junior high boys learned to sing a cappella under the elevated train tracks. Sophomore year in high school, boys were initiated into the Boy’s Club by being led blindfolded to a cemetery on the edge of town late and night and left to find their way back home. There were neighborhood dance halls that fostered styles so distinct that when they got to Penn State, it was possible to tell which Manayunk neighborhood a student was from by the way s/he danced.

Manayunk was divided by parishes based on the countries of origin of the residents’ families – the five parishes were Irish, Italian, German, Polish, and Irish and German. Most of the town’s population was blue collar workers who worked in mills along the canal, and they walked to work.

It took about three years after the King of Prussia mall opened in 1964 for the town to die. Did people have any idea the mall would have such an effect? “No idea,” Comitta said. “Growing up, Christmas Eve you could go to Main Street and buy all your Christmas gifts. By 1966 you couldn’t – almost all of the stores were closed.”

For 20 years, Manayunk was almost completely dead. “You wouldn’t even admit to being from here, it just had this reputation for the dirty canal full of rats,” Comitta said. It was cleaning up the canal, a project that got started in the 1970s, that spurred the gradual revitalization in the town, Comitta said.

Manayunk came back to life in the mid-1980s; today Main Street is a sought-after location for both local and national retail (the mix is about 50-50, according to Comitta).

Despite being raised in Manayunk, watching the town die and then come back, Comitta didn’t fully appreciate place until 1993, when his father became very ill with emphysema but refused to go to a nursing home. “I want to die in the neighborhood where I grew up,” his father explained.

“Every day he’d get his kicks by going to the door and looking up and down the street and complaining about the kids playing outside. And I thought, wouldn’t it be a pity if he lived on a one-acre lot at the end of a cul de sac. It really affected my thinking about the importance of neighborhood,” said Comitta, who until then had been “a conventional suburban sprawl planner.”

Since the revitalization, Manayunk has undergone a major change in demographics from being a very family-oriented area to more of a college town. The five Catholic churches each used to have their own school – today they’ve combined forces in one school with 400-plus students.

Real estate prices have gone up substantially (Comitta’s example is the rowhouse next to where his mother still lives, on Smick Street, purchased for $5,000 in 1949 and sold recently for $119,000). There’s currently a moratorium on building in Manayunk because of sewer system issues. The capacity of the sewer system is supposed to be increased in five years.

The tour paused for a few minutes while Comitta took street measurements in front of the rowhouse where he grew up and where his mother still lives. Smick Street’s measurements are as follows: street width is 30’10”, each sidewalk is 7’ wide, on-street parking is 6’4”wide, the travel lane is 10’6”, the curbs are 4 inches wide, and the rowhouse is 16’ 3” wide.

The tour also stopped at SportsWorks, one of the stores on Main Street, and Comitta spoke with the owner, Linda Westphal, quizzing her on the details of having a business on Manayunk’s main street.

TC: What’s the best part about being a business owner here?
LW: It’s a neighborhood. We’re all very friendly. We look out for each other. We’re in a great location, six major arteries come into Main Street. With the blossoming of Center City, we’ve had to share, so we’re reinventing ourselves a bit now.
TC: What do you think this will be like in five years?
LW: I think it will be the same. Small stores, quaint restaurants.
TC: What one thing could the city do to make business easier?
LW: Parking has been an issue. Free parking would be wonderful. The city could be a little more retail friendly.

The tour then continued on Main Street to peruse the window displays in the office of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown before proceeding to the tow path.

Parting thoughts? The revitalization gave new life to a floundering city. But the new life is a very different life. When Comitta asked his father what he thought of the changes on Main Street, his father said, “Tommy, you can’t even buy a tomato down there anymore.”

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