Geology and Topography Matter in NW Philadelphia
(Disclaimer: I will not speak to the cultural differences between the communities of the Upper and Lower Northwest. They are well documented in other peoples’ testimony. I generally agree with their testimony. Instead, as an adult who came to Philadelphia 54 years ago, I am here to give testimony as an “explorer”. I am a “City girl”, having lived 5 years in Center City as a renter and, as a homeowner, 13 years in Germantown, and 35 years in Wissahickon). I know well both the Lower and Upper Northwest and how to get here from “town” (Center City). I worked in Center City for 15 years and as a consultant I commuted all over Southeastern PA and South Jersey for 17 years. I really love to explore.) The Philadelphia Planning Commission in its 2035 Vision for Philadelphia’s Growth identified the Upper Northwest (Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, and Germantown) and the Lower Northwest (Andorra, Roxborough, Wissahickon, Manayunk, and East Falls). Now, look at the maps of the region. Montgomery County surrounds NW Philadelphia to the West, North, and East. The geological barrier separating NW Philadelphia from the rest of the region is the Schuylkill River. There are no geological barriers separating Montgomery County from NW Philadelphia on the North and on the East. Likewise, there is no geological barrier separating NW Philadelphia from the rest of Philadelphia on the South. Those barriers are all human made. There is, however, a geological barrier separating the Upper Northwest from the Lower Northwest. That barrier is the Wissahickon Gorge, not the Wissahickon Creek. The Gorge and the Creek are part of the Wissahickon Valley. There is only one road crossing the Gorge from the Lower Northwest to the Upper Northwest. Now, let’s look at “routes” of travel (land and water routes; roads and bridges; railroads) all of which can be what I will call “community connectors.” Ridge Avenue and Germantown Avenue are the original trails (i.e., “land” routes) used by Native Americans traveling northwest from Philadelphia’s center; they function as community connectors. The Schuylkill River and the Wissahickon Creek were their original “water routes” and were community connectors in the days of canoes and barges. The Ridge and Germantown Avenue start in Central Philadelphia and run Northwest (and uphill) to the Montgomery County border, achieving the city’s highest elevations (in Upper Roxborough and in Chestnut Hill). Ridge Avenue and Germantown Avenue never cross; they never connect communities in the Upper Northwest to the Lower Northwest. The Wissahickon Creek empties into the Schuylkill and separates East Falls from the rest of the Lower Northwest. The Creek does not represent a barrier between the communities of the Lower Northwest because Ridge Avenue crosses the Creek and is the original North/South arterial through East Falls into Roxborough/Manayunk and is eminently walkable. How about the Wissahickon Gorge? It’s a major geological formation, famous across the world, much like the “Manayunk Wall” is known in bike racing. The Gorge is well-known to rock climbers; it’s also famous for “Wissahickon Schist”, the stone quarried from the Wissahickon Valley and used in the construction of many homes in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The Gorge is the opposite of a connector. It is a major barrier to connection. There are only two bridges that cross the Gorge. The Henry Avenue bridge is a North/South arterial which lies solely within the Lower Northwest. The Walnut Lane bridge is an East/West arterial that connects Lower and Upper Northwest. It is not pedestrian friendly and does not function as a community connector excepting connecting Blue Bell Hill to the Lower Northwest, Four roads connect Lower and Upper Northwest. Two of them, Midvale and School House Lane connect East Falls to Germantown (Lower to Upper). Both roads are narrow and very busy. A couple of miles north is Walnut Lane, mentioned earlier. Several miles north of Walnut Lane is Bells Mills Road which connects Lower to Upper Northwest. Bells Mills Road is two lanes with no sidewalks, very busy, and descends abruptly down to the Valley floor and Creek. The Wissahickon Valley at that point is over a mile wide. Not one of these roads functions as a community connector. Let’s now look to the railroads. There are three SEPTA Regional Rail lines. The Norristown Manayunk line connects the entire Lower Northwest with Center City. The Chestnut Hill East and West Lines connect the communities of the Upper Northwest with Center City. The closest transfer point between them is Temple University in North Philadelphia. The railroads therefore are not community connectors. There are several SEPTA buses that travel between the Lower and Upper Northwest. Those are not strong community connections. There are no commercial connectors holding together the Upper Northwest and the Lower Northwest. All the commercial connectors are within. For all these reasons and from a physical point of view, the Upper Northwest and Lower Northwest should not be combined within a single house district. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to express my concern.