City dwellers often speak of suburbia with a sigh. The concept summons images of tract housing, chain stores and a life wasted away in a car.
This is far too narrow a conception of the 'burbs, at least in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Due to the region's extensive pre-automobile development there are many municipalities in the surrounding counties that still feature Main Streets studded with small businesses and idyllic tree-lined neighborhoods where residents can walk their kids to school or themselves to the local watering hole.
Pick almost any of SEPTA's regional rail lines that reach outside the city (or jump on PATCO and ride to Jersey) and you'll find small towns worth exploring. The Doylestown/Lansdale line, for example, passes through at least three streetcar suburbs worth a day trip: Jenkintown, Ambler and Doylestown itself.
Jenkintown is just outside the city limits and has numerous train routes passing through its station. At first glance, it's an inauspicious little portal, boxed in by a variety of bland office complexes and apartment buildings. But walk up West Avenue — past the provinces of one of the smallest, most well-regarded school districts in the state — and you'll find a warren of charming streets and a renewed small business corridor.
“I've owned this business for three years,” says Jordan Harvey, one of the owners of Velvet Sky Bakery (307 Leedom Street) and the head cake designer. “Since we opened, the shops have filled up. A lot more people have been coming into town.”
Harvey estimates that 15 other new small businesses have opened in that three-year period.
There are still a few vacant storefronts, especially along busy Old York Road. But 'Help Wanted' signs are everywhere: in hair salons, diners and more upscale eateries. Construction is underway on Guild Hall Brewing Company, a brewpub next to the century old Hiway Theater (212 Old York Road), which is topped with a refurbished neon tower and will soon be showing The Godfather.
One of those new businesses is the Cheesecake Lady (723 West Avenue), which opened in January and serves wonderful little cheesecake cupcakes for $2 apiece, along with their larger counterparts and a variety of dime-store candies. A new Moroccan restaurant recently joined the Old World European fare (French, Italian, Greek), and most of the dining establishments have taken a page out of Center City District's playbook with sidewalk seating. Our Family Café (709 West Avenue) serves thick slabs of scrapple, crispy on the outside and creamy within, and bottomless cups of coffee.
There are also a variety of entertainment options in town, from Phillies' games on Drake Tavern's (304 York Road) big screen TVs to Dungeons and Dragons at 7th Dimension Games (491 York Road). For families, the Rhinoceros Toy Store (301 Leedom Street) rents board games for play at home or in-store. Considering all these amusements and culinary delights — and its dense, walkable character (almost 4,500 people in a half square mile of township) — Jenkintown feels more like an urban neighborhood than many sections of Philadelphia proper.
Ambler lies further north and has a slightly larger population (closer to 6,500). Its Main Street, Butler Avenue, hums with life even on a weekday.
Until the early 2000s, Ambler struggled a bit economically and it is still pockmarked with a smattering of empty storefronts. But trends towards walkability and centrally-located shopping and dining have provided a boon for places like Jenkintown and Ambler.
Butler Avenue now boasts a series of imposing-looking restaurants with menus that make a conservative-walleted eater blanch. The Ambler Theater (108 E. Butler Avenue) is owned by the same non-profit chain as the Hiway and offers a similar slate of classics, indie movies and foreign films. There's also a growing Hispanic population, evidenced by a bodega and two new taquerias. The bar 31 Main (its street address is titular) has a divey feel, accentuated by the smokers who continually puff away within, and can claim the best beer selection in town.
Just outside of downtown — but still an easy walk from the train station — is Sweet Briar Cafe (11 Lindenwold Avenue) which boasts summertime specialties like burgers and ice cream. It's the kind of place that, before McDonald's, used to feed most small towns. Further out is the 64-year-old Costa's Deli (901 E. Butler Pike), an old school Italian place serving hoagies and milkshakes. It's a comfy little joint, with free wi-fi, counter seating, a pinball machine and some booths in the back. DiBruno Brothers and other Italian Market favorites supply them with pastas, meats and cheeses.
“I can remember when Ambler was a busy working-class town, a lot of little shops, before the malls became popular,” says David Costa, the owner and grandson of the deli's founder. “Then it was kind of going bad there for a little bit. But now people really like walking up and down the sidewalk going to little stores. They like a town where they recognize you, where there are houses around you. We made it full circle. Even the last few years, when the economy wasn't doing well, Ambler still made a steady improvement.”
The last stop on this regional rail line is Doylestown, twenty-seven miles north of Philadelphia. It is the most affluent of the three towns — median household income is $12,000 higher than the state average and the poverty rate is a mere 6.1 percent. This wealth is manifested in vibrant storefronts: There are no vacancies, but there is an espresso bar and two shops devoted entirely to the sale of fine olive oils.
West State Street is one of the town's main drags and houses two wonderful used bookstores in one building, including the Bucks County Bookshop, which specializes in older tomes and non-fiction, and Central Books, which features more novels (35 W. State Street).
“Doylestown actually has five book stores,” says Jessica Hohmann, who has lived in town since 1976 and opened Central Books in 1996. “There is also a large indie bookstore, children's bookstore, comic book store — it's a book lovers' mecca. [People are] re-discovering the joys of Main Street!”
Just to the west of this twin literary haven is a cluster of expensive-looking drinking establishments, so densely packed that a bar crawl could easily be accomplished without losing sight of the pub where the first pint was foisted. On the east side of State Street lies the last and oldest of the antique theaters — County Theater (91 E. State Street ) — along with the Nonno's, theaforementioned espresso bar, and the superlative Siren Records (25 East State Street). In a neat little alcove lies the comic shop, a vintage video game store and a bar that seems chiefly patronized by heavy set men in fine suits, puffing cigars, and guffawing at passersby.
Doylestown is also home to an array of notable museums, including The Mercer Museum — the castle-like gem (84 S. Pine St.) housing the bizarre collection of Henry Mercer, who built his citadel and then proceeded to hang a whale boat, wagon and other oddities from the ceiling where they still dangle.
Sidebar: Navigating SEPTA
Philadelphia has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the nation and newer households are even less likely to own an automobile than their predecessors. We also have an extensive public transit system that gets more heat than it deserves, especially when compared with basically any other city outside the other big three northeastern corridor hubs.
It can be difficult to fully take advantage of SEPTA's regional rail lines for general gadding about — the schedules are heavily commuter-focused. During non-peak times, the trains tend to come but once an hour. Punctuality is essential. Thankfully, there's an app for that.
The other issue is pricing: on a weekend, a round trip ticket to any of one of these towns is $10, if the tickets are bought at the counter. An-on train purchase means a $14 roundtrip (so always buy at the counter when you can). If you plan to go to multiple destinations, a $12 Independence pass gets you onboard, all-day, anywhere in the system. (They is also a $29 family pass available.)