A Distinctive Destination Built to Last
The idea of a grocery co-op is something of a contradiction. It combines the small-town appeal of a local grocery store with the idealism and obsession of organic food often associated with urban bohemians. Imagine the crowd at your local Whole Foods all shopped (and occasionally worked) at your corner market, providing locally grown and produced food items. Trade parking lots for bike racks and freezer sections for freshness and the result is Weavers Way
, a group of grocery stores where members become part owners and shoppers become friends. And this contradiction becomes neighborhood tradition.
So when Weavers Way was choosing its newest location, Chestnut Hill
just felt like home. After all, this Northwest Philadelphia community has been riding the line between urban neighborhood and small town for over 100 years. This month, the community’s efforts were nationally recognized as the National Trust for Historic Preservation
named Chestnut Hill one of 2010’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations
“Chestnut Hill doesn’t feel so much suburban as it does rural urban,” says Weavers Way marketing director Jon McGoran. “There are no large tracts of fabricated housing, it's all nice old housing stock, trees, parks and access to nature. But with Germantown Avenue, there is that nice main street business district. Instead of a big-box store mall that is convenient by car but is nowhere near where anyone lives, you’ve got a main street.”
Throughout its history, Chestnut Hill has been both a vibrant downtown and an insular residential community for visitors and permanent residents alike. Settled as a rural village, Chestnut Hill’s early land developers capitalized on the construction of Germantown Pike, which connected the town to Philadelphia. They built the place up as a summer retreat with elaborate farm houses and estates for city dwellers to the east. But in the 1880’s, the Pennsylvania Railroad connected Chestnut Hill to the rest of the Northeast Corridor. Soon after, a planned residential and social community sprung out of the western portion of the town, drawing a community of Italian stone masons hoping to capitalize on the local deposits of schist--a rough-cut building material--and the new-found interest in Chestnut Hill as a residential destination. Ever since, Chestnut Hill has worked with the local environment and partnered with local business owners and residents to keep the community atmosphere that the National Historic Trust celebrates today.
“History is not our strongest point,” says Peg Miller, manager of the Chestnut Hill Business Association
. “But we have some of the most beautiful, historic homes and buildings built by some of the most famous architects in the world.”
Tasked with protecting these buildings and involving the community is the Chestnut Hill Historical Society
, who run tours and exhibitions of local architectural marvels and even actively intervenes in preserving historic buildings. In 1990, the Historical Society and their partners, the Friends of the Wissahickon
, established an easement program to protect open spaces and historic facades. Today, the easement program holds 34 easements, protecting over 68 acres of land and 12 historic buildings. These easements are valued at over $10 million.
“The people here take great pride in these buildings and in their main street,” says Miller. “They work hard to protect it.”
This year, the National Trust added a new qualification to the Dozen Distinctive Destination program: sustainability. While preserving history and architecture have given Chestnut Hill its signature small-town charm, a group of young business owners are working to protect the town’s future through reducing carbon footprints, composting food scraps and exploring more efficient forms of energy creation. Just as the Italian stonemasons worked with the natural topography and environmental materials to build Chestnut Hill’s historic places 150 years ago, today’s entrepreneurs are ensuring their town lasts another 150.
Amy Edelman owns Night Kitchen Bakery
, a 30-year staple in Chestnut Hill known for creating specialty cakes that are equal parts confection and work of art. And though this community’s Cake Boss has experience creating and re-creating many popular characters in fudge and frosting, her most famous may be the GRINCH
. Edelman started Green In Chestnut Hill (or GRINCH, as the locals call it) after reading in the New York Times about the Green Restaurant Association
and their certifications for running a more sustainable business. She realized that every type of business--even cake-making—could stand to be a little greener.
“We had to reduce our Styrofoam as part of the certification, but we didn’t ever use it for take-out or anything,” says Edelman. “We were using Styrofoam dummy cakes as display molds for our windows. The Green Restaurant Association helped us put together paper cake boards. And from there, there were a bunch more things.”
She brought her knowledge to the business association, leading seminars and involving neighboring Mt. Airy residents to push these sustainability measures. But while Chestnut Hill’s commitment to the past has been a positive for years, getting local residents to think differently about their energy consumption has not always been so easy.
“If I worked for the business association, I would have been fired long ago (laughs). I can’t imagine working with that many different opinions,” says Edelman. “And people feel so strongly about how the way things should be done, because they have been in the community for decades. Change definitely comes slowly to this town.”
Edelman has introduced concepts like composting programs and even brought in solar consultants to get local architects and developers to consider installing panels. Her work has recently paid off as Chestnut Hill’s history of great architecture meets their new strides toward sustainability as the George Woodward Company
began construction on the town’s first LEED Platinum homes last spring.
But if you ask the town’s newest residents at Weavers Way (their Chestnut Hill location opens in May) they will tell you that Chestnut Hill has had a sustainable tradition in place all along: walking.
“This is one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the country and that is something we have definitely encouraged at our Mt. Airy store,” says McGoran. “People traditionally drive to the grocery store because they are buying big boxes and cans of processed food but our customers buy less because they want everything to stay fresh and go shopping more. We found in Mt. Airy, there is this great little cluster of businesses that have Weavers Way as an anchor. But Chestnut Hill is different. It is already an established retail district. They have the people on the street and we know it’s the people on the streets that give a community a sense of vibrancy and excitement. We are just happy to be a part of that.”
John Steele is a freelance writer and blogger
in Philadelphia. He enjoys music snobbery, trash television and laughing at
hipsters. Send feedback here.To receive Keystone Edge free every week, click
:The scene at the Chestnut Hill Garden Fest
The historic Valley Green Inn in Fairmount Park
roots Inc., urban nesting sells unique products for the home and office (Michael Persico)
Families enjoy the Chestnut Hill Garden Fest
The Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop has operated for more than 45 years (Michael Persico)