Social Diary: The Great Divide

Can residents of the Main Line and the northern suburbs around Chestnut Hill ever be friends? Or are the waters of the Schuylkill destined to forever be a Philly socialite’s Rubicon?

Ten years ago, Dasha Yermakova and her then-husband sold their house in Blue Bell and packed up their two young children to move to the Main Line. The couple had decided to send their son to the Haverford School, and they’d fallen in love with a rambling stone house in Villanova. “We had a lot of friends on the Main Line, so we decided to move, even though our country club and other close friends were on the Blue Bell side,” Yermakova recalls.

Even before her moving van rumbled down 476, though, Yermakova realized that while geographically she was moving only nine miles, culturally, she might as well have relocated to Belize. “We were standing in the house in Villanova one day with our realtor, and I was asking about the houses on either side of us — we were in a little enclave of older homes that shared a gate and a driveway,” she explains. “So I asked the broker if there were any kids at the other houses for my kids to play with.” When the broker told her that there were indeed other children around, including teenage girls, the new Main Liner was delighted.

“I said, ‘Fabulous! Babysitters!’” she recalls. Her realtor looked aghast, and visibly recoiled.

“She said, ‘Oh no, darling. We don’t do that around here.’”

Ever since William Penn doled out tracts of land to the north and west of the city, custom has ordained that those who occupy opposite banks of the Schuylkill — the Main Line on one side, and Chestnut Hill, Blue Bell and their neighboring towns to the north — shall rarely, if ever, interact. That was understandable back in the days when you had to raft across the river to get from one side to the other, and even after Lincoln Drive and Butler Pike were in place, it was a fair trek to gallop between the two on horseback. But now, two prosperous suburban areas splintered by nothing more than a 600-foot-wide river might as well be as distant as Vermont and Key West. “Main Line people would rather drive to New York or Connecticut than to Blue Bell,” Yermakova says.

Anxiety grips residents of one side crossing into the other; the attendant feelings are vaguely negative, Xanax-requiring, and perplexing, as if one has suddenly landed on Easter Island without a map or a translator. “When I get to Germantown Avenue,” says Yermakova, who eventually decided she was a Main Line girl at heart and now lives in Gladwyne, “I can feel the temperature change.”

“It’s like an invisible elephant,” says a Lower Gwynedd lawyer of the chasm he feels between his own town and the Main Line. “You can’t see it, but you know it’s there, and you can’t fully grasp what it is.”