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.
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.)
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
Nathaniel Popkin is the co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior script editor of the documentary film series "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." He's the author of Song of the City: An Intimate Portrait of the American Urban Landscape and The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia.