One of the many events during this month’s 11-day DesignPhiladelphia festival was an open house at several of the architecture firms that have made the city’s hard-to-pronounce Manayunk neighborhood their home. I wanted to find out what led so many design-oriented companies to this relatively small area, about 10 miles northwest of downtown.
The town does have some San Francisco-like qualities: “artistic, scenic, upscale as well as scrappy, sleepy as well as speedy,” is how Jeremy Tenenbaum, a marketer at Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA), describes it. All that Francisco-ness starts with its steep terrain — one perilous stretch of road, “The Manayunk Wall,” is a highlight of the annual Philadelphia International Championship bike race. And despite the hills (or possible because of them) lots of people bike to work — VSBA has even set up a “bike shop” in the basement of its three-story redbrick building on Main Street, Manayunk’s main drive.
The place wasn’t always a hipster haven, of course. Its roots are working class. With a canal as well as the Schuylkill River to transport products and power the mills producing yarn and paper, Manayunk was a prominent industrial center for the last half of the 19th century — the “Manchester of America,” they called it. The area prospered until the Great Depression, but lost its way in the decades that followed. As jobs moved overseas and small family firms were absorbed into conglomerates based elsewhere, more and more factories closed. By the late 1970s, the area was rough and rundown, and most of its factories were derelict.
Enter the artists, the musicians and, yes, the yuppies. As had happened in New York’s Soho and San Francisco’s Los Angeles’ Echo Park, newer, more free-spending residents moved into the rowhouses where blue-collar workers once lived. Businesses and developers that catered to the spenders followed, and Manayank’s tumbledown buildings got some much-needed attention, too: in 1983, the area around Main Street became one of the largest National Historic Districts in Philadelphia.
VSBA was one of the earliest design firms to reach Manayunk. As Kay Sykora of the Manayunk Development Board puts it, Main Street “was pretty empty when they came.” Now, Main Street, which runs along the Schuylkill, has a mix of dozens of high-end furniture shops, design stores, and boutiques, many of them installed in former mills, warehouses, and other buildings that are reminders of Manayunk’s past. But Main Street has another side that really comes alive only after all the purveyors of handmade beds and repurposed vintage hardware have gone home for the day: the street is full of party-hearty restaurants and bars. This may be a fitting development, given that Manayunk’s name is derived from a Lenni Lanape word meaning “where we go to drink.”
High-end retail paired with lower-end bars, restaurants, and coffee shops catering to primarily postcollegiate residents seems to be a mix that works for the neighborhood. Earlier this month, Inc. Magazine named Manayunk as one of the five best places in Philadelphia to start a business. And despite all the gentrification, not everything has changed. There are still a few family-owned companies here, such as Wilde Yarns and textile dyers G. J. Littlewood & Son, and so are a good number of artists. Over 60 artists maintain space in the Mill Studios, two buildings that once served as a warehouse and a boxing club. The studio’s yearly open house, by the way, will be held this year on November 6 and 7.