Raising Expectations In The Lower Northeast


Castor Avenue | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

There are slender moments, when walking along Castor or Oxford or Frankford or Bustleton Avenues, that you might imagine you’re in Queens, the most ethnically diverse place in the world. The Lower Northeast, in fact, is a striking Eden of humankind, the home to people born in Haiti and Korea and India and Pakistan and Portugal and Brazil and Jamaica and Ukraine, and so many other places, and among this immigrant population it is growing. Population of the Lower Northeast has increased by some 11 percent since 1990 and the City Planning Commission quite conservatively expects it to grow another five percent by 2035, to 106,000.

Image: Philadelphia City Planning Commission

The map of the district created by the Planning Commission makes the district appear a small, ancient city, its core the densely settled palimpsest of Frankford, more than three centuries old, and Oxford Avenue, with the proper stone houses and apartment blocks of Northwood rising out to what was, well into last century, the country. Some ten blocks up from the center of Frankford, like a balloon on the end of a string, floats Oxford Circle. From the circle radiates Oxford and Castor and the Roosevelt Boulevard (which doesn’t so much radiate as obliterate what was once imagined as a kind of Piccadilly Circus).

It is up here that the Lower Northeast can look convincingly like sections of Queens (minus the sidewalk throngs). Many of the residential streets were built before the 1950s and so they have a less mechanical air than the blocks of the Upper Northeast. And there is Castor Avenue, where old-time Sicilian and Jewish bakeries persist among Brazilian steakhouses and jerk huts and African groceries. It is Castor, which leads to the wonderfully multi-ethnic Northeast Philadelphia Regional Library, that excites me for its possibilities, and so I was glad to learn that it would be one of the focus areas of the Lower Northeast District plan, which will be released a week from today. (There is something else special about Castor–and Bustleton. These avenues are served by electric-powered buses–SEPTA calls them “trackless trolleys”–a clean and fast mode of transit that’s been shunted elsewhere in the city by the transit agency’s leadership.)

Castor Avenue | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The City’s planners have the right ideas about Castor. As new contributor Liz Schlingmann reports this week, new zoning is being proposed to create more density on the Avenue, and thereby take development pressure off the residential blocks that surround it.

This week we’ll also have the story about the district plan’s vision of a greenway along the Tacony-Frankford Creek, which cuts like a sorry snake from Cheltenham Township through Olney, Juniata Park, and the angry hodgepodge of lower Frankford before sliding under I-95 and out to the Delaware River.

A bit later on–I suppose this officially makes it LNE week on the Daily–we’ll have an update on the renovation of Womrath Park.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.


  1. I ride my ride from Southampton to Kensington on a (somewhat) daily basis, down Bustleton, Veree, Oxford, and Frankford. It’s truly exciting that this neighborhood will be part of this development plan!

  2. I think the proper terminology is Near Northeast and Far Northeast. People in the Near NE don’t like being referred to as “lower’ in any way. That aside, good stuff, as usual. I grew up in Oxford Circle in the ’50s and always remember the Catholic areas and the Jewish areas being very clearly apart. And the Oxford Village public housing development on Oxford Ave across from the jewish cemetery. And the most important boundaries to us Catholics were the parish line. Always your first question, ‘what parish are you from?’ , not what neighborhood.

  3. The Tacony Creek cuts through Mount Airy? You’re off by about five miles and five neighborhoods.

  4. If the writer is so enthralled by Queens, NY then by all means move there. As a long time resident of the Northeast, I can tell you that diversity is more than greater choices in ethnic dining; it is a public policy choice that leads to more isolation and social conflicts in neighborhoods. When long time residents no longer recognize there neighborhood because the Federal government has allowed immigration to reach unprecedented level, then we have a problem. One only has to look at the crime statistics in Oxford Circle to know that something is seriously wrong in the Northeast. Thank you, public policy and urban planners for imposing your views on us.

  5. I’m always happy to see coverage of the Northeast from a non-NE publication. It’s been interesting to watch ideas develop for the Lower Northeast Planning District.

    But why the comparisons to Queens (in the lead, no less)? It’s a safe bet to say few people from the Northeast – or Philadelphia in general, for that matter – have been to Queens. Just like someone from Queens has probably never been to Oxford Circle.

    We’re a city in our own right, and the fact that Oxford Circle might or might not look like Queens is wholly unrelated to the topic at hand.

    If this city is going to be successful at anything whatsoever, living outside the shadow of another city is the first step.

    Shannon McDonald
    Editor/NEast Philly

  6. hey dave,if it wasnt for the law abiding immigrants moving in the property values would be much lower in castor gardens, and as for the crime,if you watch the news it doesnt look like immigrants commiting these crimes


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  2. It’s LNE Week over on Hidden City! | Philadelphia Planeto
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