June 25, 2016 At 9:00 Pm
By Sandy Smith
The neighborhood at the top of the city has long had a reputation as an enclave for blue bloods. But now there’s a new generation of business owners and residents moving in, because they like their urbanism with trees and grass on the side.
It’s sometime after 5 on the Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend. That usually means Philly’s restaurants are quiet because everyone’s down the shore. But all the bar seats at Paris Bistro in Chestnut Hill are full. There are regulars, out-of-towners, and a large, boisterous group. From behind the bar, Justin Bellerjean presides over the scene genially. As the night goes on, he explains, the personality of this space will change. “Having a nice neighborhood corner bar … you see different layers of customers come in,” he says. “My Monday happy hour crowd, it’s like the men’s bar at a city club.”
My burger order hadn’t gone to the kitchen yet, but I wasn’t particularly worried that 15 minutes had passed since I placed it—it’s easy to get caught up in the vibe. Even chef/co-owner Al Paris seemed to be having fun.
This new, up-late Chestnut Hill isn’t the neighborhood I visited in the early 1980s. Back then, ads on the radio spoke in plum tones about the “little shops” along Germantown Avenue and the “Ladies Who Lunch” made up the crowd at the handful of restaurants. Now, three decades and two waves of change later, that crowd has mostly ceased to define the environment of Philadelphia’s most elevated business district. (Literally: the highest point in the city is just north of the Germantown Avenue commercial strip.) Far from being a prim and proper enclave for bluebloods, today’s Chestnut Hill has finally become the urban (and urbane) village it has long had the potential to be.
And really, it’s all because the timing was finally right.
The seeds of today’s Chestnut Hill were planted in 1909 by a man named Dr. George Woodward, who had been building handsome suburban homes for the well-to-do in the manner of his father-in-law, Henry Howard Houston. That year, in an effort at social reform, he started building more modest twins and innovative quads that he intended to offer to working families at the same ultra-low rents he offered the swells, but the swells snapped them up first, and Chestnut Hill’s reputation as a blueblood enclave became firmly entrenched. (Woodward would go on to build more than 400 houses, most of which two family companies still own, and while the rents are no longer super-low, they’re still reasonable by today’s standards.)
The shops on Germantown Avenue primarily catered to these residents. They were what you’d find on any Main Street: drugstores, hardware stores, small grocery stores, flower shops, lunch counters. Several of these businesses lasted for decades, and a few, like Killian’s Hardware and Robertson’s Florist, are still there today.
But the shopkeepers aged, and their children left, and the business district started to fade. “In the 1980s, the area was still vibrant but fraying in places,” said Richard Snowden, the head of Bowman Properties, which controls a good chunk of the commercial real estate along Germantown Avenue today. Snowden’s firm started buying up those properties in hopes of keeping them in local hands, but what would replace them was unclear: “For a while, it was a little touch and go. We didn’t know who would occupy these shops.”
Korin Korman, owner of the 3000BC spa, opened her store on what Chestnut Hillers call “The Avenue” around that time, in 1992. “I think the most notable shift was that there were some national retailers at that time,” she said. “There was a Gap, a Borders bookstore, The Children’s Place.”
And for a while, the Avenue survived off the traffic they brought. But chain retail has its own issues in our changing world, and many of them bailed in the early 2000s. The one chain that really resonated with the neighborhood—and the one Snowden says helped bring the Avenue back—was, ironically, Starbucks. When it opened in the mid-’90s, it was one of the first outlets in Philadelphia and gave people a meeting place near the center of town. It proved to be a steppingstone on the road to rejuvenation. “High-quality chains act as magnets,” he said, drawing in customers who then explore the more interesting local offerings.