Best Places to Live 2006

Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t always tell the whole story, either.

We mined many a database to get the statistics underlying our ranking of the 50 best places to live in the eight-county Philadelphia area — you can find the list on page 84 — and after all our number-crunching, some figures just begged for a deeper look. How does a growing township in Delaware County manage to keep its annual crime tab low enough to count on the fingers of three hands? What’s the most popular pastime in the area’s brainiest burg? How does an unassuming little spot in Chester County come to be home to the region’s highest earners?

We sent a team of reporters out to discover the answers to these mysteries and more — and to see what it takes to become the overall winner for best suburban town and best city neighborhood. No matter where you live, one thing’s clear from a glance at our map of highlights: Around here, you’re never far from the best.

Best Place to Live, City

Old City/Society Hill
(19106 zip code)

Population: 8,359

Old City and Society Hill have experienced a decade-long boom so powerful, you’d expect the close-to-the-Delaware neighborhoods to have become as sleekly homogenous as Rittenhouse Square. Fear not: Despite the rise of SoHo-ish condos and restaurants, the 19106 zip code has kept its quirkiness. There’s no Pottery Barn yet, and not all the hipsters have left for Northern Liberties, as evidenced by the hot girls in perfectly broken-in jeans walking tiny dogs at 9 a.m. at 4th and Market. To the south are the impeccable townhouses of Delancey and Spruce streets, which helped spur a housing price increase of 39 percent from 2004 to 2005, to a median of $447,750. Along Market and Chestnut are leafy parks and ­tourist-pleasing sites such as Independence Hall (and, of course, Buddakan). And north of Market, you’ll find Eames chairs in the windows of Mode Moderne next door to industrial supply houses that stock ball bearings. “The important thing is that the neighborhood never loses that mix,” says Lewis Wexler, of the Wexler Gallery at 3rd and Race streets. “Having the Shirt Corner Plus and Mr. Bar Stool makes it interesting.”

Residents are largely well-educated and successful: The median household income in 2005 was more than $72,000. And not only the young are putting down roots: “I’ve had clients move there who are in their 60s, and they love it,” says realtor Laurie Phillips. Sleek towers such as Old City 108 have sold out quickly, and vintage buildings continue to go condo, including a graceful former bank at 3rd and Vine that will be the Essex Condominium. “We like watching the sunrise over the Ben Franklin Bridge from our bedroom window,” says Jason Schaeffer, a real estate developer who lives at the National condominium on 2nd Street. “Jogging over the bridge and back is almost exactly a 5K. And we like walking to some of the best restaurants in the city.” — Amy Donohue Korman

Best Place to Live, Suburbs

Upper Makefield Township,
Bucks County

Population: 7,729

If you ask township manager Joe Czajkowski why remote Upper Makefield deserved to win this year’s Best Place to Live award, he’ll joke that it’s the happening nightlife. Unless your notion of a big night out is watching corn grow, that’s a bald-faced lie, but nightlife is just about the only thing Upper Makefield lacks. Where else can you buy a multimillion-dollar home in safe, countrified ’burbs, send your kids to great public schools, have easy access to the highway or train stop for your morning commute to Manhattan, and — the kicker — do it all while avoiding the Jersey property taxes you’d face in nearby Princeton, West Windsor and Lawrenceville?

“New Jersey is my greatest source of business,” says real estate veteran Jack Lacey, who’s sold more than 500 homes in Upper Makefield over the past 28 years. “And sales have remained constant here because of the quality of life the town offers.” Residents get bedroom-community privacy, historic landmarks (the Washington Crossing area is named for the general’s jaunt across the Delaware), and pretty vistas — all within the respected Council Rock school district. They also have a terrific location near I-95, Route 1 and the Trenton train station, which may explain why Lacey estimates that some 20 percent of Upper Makefield residents work in Manhattan, and another 30 percent in Princeton. On weekends, the stylish restaurants and tony antiques shops of New Hope and Lambertville are just a skip away.

But the biggest draw may be the guarantees that Upper Makefield will stay bucolic. “Our town has an extremely aggressive open-space preservation program,” says Czajkowski. As other Bucks County communities fight overdevelopment wars, less is definitely more here: Residents recently committed $31 million in tax dollars to increase the current 2,000 preserved acres to 3,500. That means the property that does exist is only getting more valuable — ensuring Upper Makefield’s continued exclusivity. — Jessica Remo

Safest Place

Bethel Township,
Delaware County

Violent Crimes in 2005: 0
Nonviolent Crimes in 2005: 13

Policing in Bethel Township is a part-time affair. Literally. All 22 of the town’s patrol officers are part-timers, with side (or main) jobs that have nothing to do with keeping Bethel safe from murder and mayhem. This might be why calls to the police station usually go straight to voicemail, but the laid-back approach certainly hasn’t hurt area residents.

Last year, the 5.5-square-mile town of 8,200 people recorded no major crimes — zero murders, zero rapes, zero assaults and zero burglaries. Police chief David Houser — the only full-timer on the force — attributes this astonishing statistic to a number of factors. The town has no commercial strip, so there aren’t a lot of people walking the streets, loitering on corners or passing money around. There is no “bad” area of town. And 70 percent of the homes have alarms.

Not that it’s all rosy in Bethel. Located just 15 miles southwest of Philly, the township is undergoing a population boom, with the number of residents more than doubling in the past 15 years. Until this year, Houser’s department shared policing duties with the state cops; now, his crew patrols 24 hours a day, in shifts of one or two officers each. So far, that has netted the department a handful of domestic abuse arrests. And let’s not forget the rash of crimes that marred Bethel’s perfect record last year: 12 larcenies and one car theft. “We keep an eye out for trouble spots,” Houser says. “I can always reassign officers if problems start picking up.” — Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Most Exclusive Place

Pine Valley Borough,
Camden County

Population: 22

Think Pine Valley Golf Club is exclusive? The number one golf course in the country has nothing on its surrounding borough. The town’s one square mile — including the green — has just 23 houses, 13 registered voters, five kids, and several weekenders.

Founded in 1929, 16 years after the course, Pine Valley has no town center or local watering hole; it has, simply, golf. “Everyone knows each other, of course,” says Robert Mather, deputy borough clerk. Like the 16 other borough employees (positions mandated by the state), four full-time cops and two part-time cops, Mather isn’t a resident. “Most of the people are big golfers. It’s why they live here.”

It’s impossible to calculate home values in Pine Valley because so few houses are sold in a year. (In 2000, the median price was $325,000.) The borough has slowly changed with the times, as new owners have razed several of the old stone houses to build new ones. Still, some things never change. The borough’s population, unsurprisingly, is all white. They are mostly men. And like the club, there may be a waiting list to buy in. Residents of the borough tend to stick around. A long time. Like, until they die. With 18 of the finest holes in the land in their backyard, why move? — R.P.S.

Brainiest Place

Swarthmore Borough, Delaware County

77% of residents hold a
bachelor’s degree or higher

Of course the town of Swarthmore is smart. It developed around one of the country’s finest liberal arts colleges, which is still the center of community life. Spread over 357 acres, the campus encompasses about 40 percent of the land in town, and it has no borders: Its buildings, trails and parks are open to neighbors, as are readings, lectures and events throughout the school year. But since the college boasts only around 180 professors, it can’t possibly account for the 77 percent of Swarthmore’s 6,174 residents who hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Nor does it alone account for what residents claim is the palpable smartiness of their fellow Swarthmoreans.

“There’s a really high intelligence quotient here,” says Booksource Ltd. employee Judie Neale. “Not just the college-educated — the youth have it, too.” The smarties make themselves known all over town. The local library, for example, has by far the highest per capita lending of any in Delco, and much of what goes out is educational materials, nonfiction and foreign films — universal signs of the brainiac. And local officials have no trouble fielding expert volunteers for civic projects, like the recently completed downtown revitalization, whose committee consisted of professional engineers, academics and architects — all of whom live in town, and were a fraction of the residents who raised their hands to help out. “People bring a really high level of expertise to things here,” says Mayor Eck Gerner. “It’s really clear how much of the town is educated and how much people want to give to where they live.” — R.P.S.

Place With the Best
High School

Tredyffrin and Easttown
Townships, Chester County

Combined average SAT: 1180

Spending per student: $11,670

A lot gets accomplished when everybody’s rowing in the same direction — or so goes the thinking at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, whose high SAT scores, myriad AP classes (26 of the 32 offered by the College Board) and excellent student-faculty ratio (15:1) made it the highest-ranking open-admission public high school on our top schools list last month.

“‘Relationships’ is the key word here,” says Conestoga principal Timothy Donovan. “There are strong relationships between the faculty, school board, community, students and parents, and that collaborative approach goes a long way.” Sounds warm and fuzzy, but it’s not just rhetoric: Conestoga’s school board didn’t flinch when administrators wanted to bring on more guidance counselors and a full-time mental health specialist a few years ago, or this year raise teachers’ salaries by more than four percent, plus hire three new teachers because of a registration boom.

Investments in guidance services for students (free tutoring, mock interviews), along with educational programs (“How to Help Your Child Write His College Application Essay”) and monthly town-hall meetings for parents, are clearly paying off. With graduates being accepted into prestigious universities like Penn and Princeton, Conestoga is seeing many students transfer in from area private schools. “People always worry about whether public high schools can ever be as good as private schools,” says guidance department head Misty Whelan. “But I really think it happens here.” — J.R.

Biggest Paychecks

Birmingham Township,
Chester County

Median household income: $152,516

Okay, a show of hands: Who here has ever heard of Birmingham Township?

Just as we thought. If none of us can find the place without Google Maps (for the record, it’s about halfway between West Chester and Kennett Square), how does it attract enough big earners to top the local median income list?

“I would say 40 percent of residents work in Wilmington,” says Megill Homes VP Scott Megill, who’s built and sold new homes in Birmingham for the past 15 years. Just a 25-minute drive away are Delaware’s big names, like chem-tech giant DuPont and pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca — companies that fill execs’ pockets deep enough to buy million-dollar homes on the banks of the Brandywine. And those who aren’t traveling south still contribute their share to the town’s superlative median household income; local realtors cite other corporate workers, lawyers, doctors and private business owners among residents who commute to nearby West Chester, Great Valley and Center City.

But the township’s appeal isn’t just fancy houses and the ability to get on routes 1 or 202 faster than you can say 401K. Birmingham is also within the boundaries of the highly sought-after Unionville-Chadds Ford school district. And residents like Michael Langer, who moved here 11 years ago from Ohio, call the landscape “a hidden gem” — even with a wave of development in the ’80s and ’90s, the 6.4-square-mile township has a rural vibe, with rolling hills, historic landmarks, horse farms and very few through-streets, making it ideal for high earners in search of a country home not too far from the office.

So now you’re asking — are they all snobs? Far from it, says Langer, who calls the township’s wealth “quiet money.” Michael Goslin, general manager of Birmingham’s Radley Run Country Club, agrees: “I’ve managed other clubs in New England, but the difference here is that most of these people could buy the place, and you’d never even know it.” — J.R.