Real Estate 2009: Dispatches From the Field

The market may have tanked, but some neighborhoods are still worth the look. Here, snapshots of five very different areas by people who call them home

Plymouth Meeting/Lafayette Hill
Debra and Brian Snyder, family of four

The niche: The New Main Line. Home: New construction in 2001, upscale development, 5,000 square feet on one acre, $550,000. Current estimated value: $700K-$750K. Who’s moving here: Young émigrés from the Main Line who aren’t looking to prove their worth and, frankly, don’t need the attitude. “When my husband and I were looking for a house,” says Deb, “we looked in Lower Merion and could get only a two-bedroom rancher for $700,000.” Ethos: “Definitely small town-ish. There are times when being here reminds me of being down the Shore,” says Deb. “Santa Claus comes on a fire truck at Christmastime. Whitemarsh Township shows movies in the playground, and everybody walks in the Fourth of July parade.” Shopping: No main street to speak of; only shopping centers. Minutes from King of Prussia, Wayne and Chestnut Hill. Dining: Close-by Conshy has the best of the nearest: Blackfish, Stella Blu and Gypsy Saloon. For family dining: Plymouth Meeting mall’s newer chain additions. The neighborhood favorite remains the Lucky Dog, where “the men’s softball team hangs out, and you can bring the kids at five o’clock to get a hamburger,” says Deb. “You really don’t have anywhere like that on the Main Line.” Kids: Great public elementary and middle schools. Miles Park underwent extensive renovation last year, and is now modernized, with a snack bar. Nightlife: See “Dining.” Lucky Dog and Conshy’s Great American Pub join the restaurants as nighttime go-to’s. Coming soon: Whole Foods, to the old Ikea in Plymouth Meeting. Still needs improvement: Upper-school system isn’t as competitive as, say, Lower Merion or Harriton.

East Passyunk/Passyunk Square in South Philly
Nancy and Pete Trachtenberg/Miller, family of three

The niche: Artsy, inexpensive, authentic. Home: Renovated two-bedroom row that’s about 80 years old, for $229,000 in 2006. Current est. value: $240,000. Who’s moving here: Post-grad-school couples, new families, hipster housemates — all lured by the promise of affordable, well-kept housing; easy subway, bus, bike and foot access to Center City; and old-school neighbors and a new-school civic association. “The face of Passyunk Square has changed vastly in the past five years,” says Nancy. Ethos: “We’re a conveniently located dot on the map — with a lot of energy,” she says. The already cuisine-rich corridor has become even more so, thanks to an influx of taprooms and tacquerias. Dining: Classic Italian: Franco and Luigi’s (“The ziti with chicken and artichoke hearts,” Nancy advises) and Marra’s, plus new Italian: Slice (“clam pie”) and Le Virtù, plus great Mexican (La Lupe, Acapulco) and purveyors (Ippolito’s Seafood, Artisan Boulanger, Cellini’s, Mancuso’s Cheese Shop, Faragalli’s Bakery). Shopping: Aside from some of the best tailors in the city, those food purveyors, and adorable vintage record and clothing shops, there’s not much. Nightlife: A casual pub scene includes microbrew-centric Devil’s Den, extra-casual Pub on Passyunk East (POPE), bustling Cantina Los Caballitos, and old-school Stogie Joe’s Passyunk Tavern. Coming soon: “Columbus Square Park has been selected for an excellent watershed program,” says Nancy. “The South Philly of 30 years ago would never have believed it could be part of such a modern experiment.” Still needs improving: Nancy sometimes wishes for “more of a police presence.” And public schools here have many young families saving up for private education.

Marisa and Franco Lombardo, family of five

The niche: Charming, convenient, green. Home: Three-bedroom circa-1920 single house in West Collingswood, with hardwood floors, pool and backyard, for $115,000 in 2001. Current est. value: $250K. Who’s moving here: Hip families who’d love to raise their kids in South Philly or Northern Liberties, if those places weren’t so, well, city-like. Says Marisa, “Northern Liberties is cool, but it’s not as safe and doesn’t have the outdoor life.” From Collingswood, she adds, PATCO can get you to the city in less than 10 minutes. Ethos: “Collingswood is a 30-something, Democratic, well-traveled, ex-pat, gay, ecologically minded, kid lovers’ haven,” says Marisa. Shopping: Sleepy Haddon Avenue comes alive Saturdays, spring through fall, for the beloved farmers’ market. “It takes up maybe five blocks, and has live bands, chef demos, fresh-cut flowers, and organic meats, cheeses and eggs,” Marisa says. In the winter months: Sara’s Produce. Dining: Cool BYOBs like Franco’s Sapori trattoria make up a miniature restaurant row, sans the parking fees. “We’ve built a little community of foodies here,” says Marisa. Kids: “There are five public elementary schools in Collingswood,” says Marisa, “with just 130 children in each. It’s like this little hometown.” Nightlife: Like Haddonfield, Collingswood is dry — but there’s still the great restaurant row along Haddon Avenue. And the town also has the lovely Art Deco Scottish Rite Auditorium (with some 1,000 seats), where bands play to sold-out crowds. Coming soon: The community is working on a three-stage renovation to Knight Park, and is planning its first-ever green festival. (The borough already offers free composting classes and materials, along with bike recycling and borrowing.) Still needs improving: Shopping. “Right now, it’s very much about the food scene. We need to get some substantial retail,” says Marisa.

Spruce Hill/Penn Alexander catchment
Alan Baldridge and Mark Borowski, family of five

The niche: Smart, urban, diverse, affluent. Home: Circa-1915 row, purchased for $370,000 in 2008. Current est. value: $400K-$450K, depending on renovations. Who’s moving here: Young families, young families, young families. The attraction: the Penn Alexander School, a University of Pennsylvania-assisted partnership pre-K-through-eighth-grade school that the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has called the “gold standard.” Alan, a pediatric gastroenterologist with three young children, moved for the school alone. Ethos: An open, intellectual and urban atmosphere. “My block is really, really friendly. We go to birthday parties; people talk to each other. There’s really a wonderful community spirit, which is hard to come by in this city,” says Alan. Shopping: Needs improvement. “Baltimore Avenue has incredible potential,” Alan says. “I just don’t know why it hasn’t happened. I would kill for a Whole Foods.” Dining: “I love the Ethiopian restaurants nearby. My three-year-old will say, ‘Daddy, I want Ethiopian tonight.’ And with three young children, is my savior, because you can get Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, delivered to your door.” Kids: “Clark Park is nearby, and there are children of all races, colors, creeds, family composition, in peaceful coexistence.” Saturdays in warm weather, the park hosts a farmers’ market. Nightlife: With all those families, it’s more like daylife. For coffee culture, “The Green Line is terrific,” Alan says. “And Pier One [the café] is nice on a weekend morning, to sit outside on the patio.” Still needs improving: See “Shopping.”

Newtown Boro, Bucks County
Arlene Colligon

The niche: Historic, homey, outdoorsy. Home: Two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath townhouse in historic Frost-Watson Mill, in a (now sold-out) Toll Brothers development. Base price in 2008: $532,000. Current est. value: $500K-$525K. Who’s moving here: Outdoorsy singles, active couples and sociable families wanting to put down roots in a “small city and a town,” says Arlene. The “boro” portion of Newtown is known for a strong sense of historic preservation and community involvement. Ethos: “You walk down to the Starbucks on State Street and see everybody,” says Arlene. “It’s so convenient to everything: the library, bookstores, a record store, a flower shop and a natural foods store, and it’s just a hop, skip and jump to Tyler State Park.” Shopping: Nothing much, except for lots of big-box stores nearby. Dining: The Saloon for sandwiches and salads, and the newer Grotto, a kid-friendly bar known for its pasta, pizza, martinis and impromptu meet-ups. Kids: “You see a lot of kids playing in the street, which is nice. And we have a great school district” in Newtown public schools, Arlene says. Nightlife: Friday nights in summer, families take turns hosting indoor-outdoor potluck parties called Porch Fest, casual get-togethers that might include a backyard movie, volleyball, and a visit from the ice-cream truck. Still needs improving: Shopping. And “All the neighbors want a dog park,” Arlene says.