Manayunk has evolved many times over the last few decades, but the last 10 years might be the most significant yet.
By Noel Bartocci
Photography by Leo Joseph Photography (leojosephphotography.com)
What makes a home, a home?
One’s understanding of “home” is as definable as love, fear, or musical preference — nebulous and sometimes fleeting. Specifics about what makes a home a home can vary wildly from person to person, making the notion of a home (that is not explicitly a building) in a constant state of flux, or more so in consistent need of balance — remove one factor, and it can all fall apart. Despite the inconsistency of people’s definition, common themes do reveal themselves when they discuss what makes a home, e.g. comfort, familiarity, safety, convenience, and love.
These are concepts that don’t have an applicable, mathematical equation to figure out or are even tactile by nature, but ones of which you can’t deny being real. Home is something you just know when you feel it. In this article, I’d like to explore the question, “What makes Manayunk a great home?” Considering that’s impossible to answer for anyone else, I’m more accurately going to talk about what makes Manayunk a great home for me. Maybe along the way, you just might agree.
You live in Manayunk, but your address says, “Philadelphia” … I don’t get it.
When I’m talking to family outside of Pennsylvania, it’s easy to just say, “I live in Philly.” It’s technically accurate and saves me from delivering the overly complicated spiel about Philadelphia being a “city of neighborhoods,” that we don’t have a “downtown” (it’s Center City), and how you can travel just a few blocks and have a completely different experience. But for anyone familiar with the area and/or resides closer to Center City, they say, “Oh, you live in Manayunk — that’s not really Philly.” While some may consider this logistical and subjective “correction” a slight, I find it to be a point of pride. I mean, they aren’t wrong. While Manayunk proudly displays the shared, foundational culture of Philadelphia, we still maintain a specificity all our own. We’re a little more art obsessed and have a little more of a neighborhood vibe. We’re a little more community based and a little more small business supported. Sure, this unique alchemy of attributes is built upon a common foundation of “Philadelphia-strong,” but supports its own identity and interpretation of the notion, turning it into something truly special.
You gotta start somewhere.
A new job brought me to Manayunk over 10 years ago. I was single, still in my 20’s, and making all the kinds of mistakes a single, young professional is expected to make—eschewing healthy routines, living paycheck-to-paycheck, and indulging in heavy late-night meals and high ABV craft beers. For that version of me, Manayunk had everything I always wanted.
An early stand out was (and continues to be) Lucky’s Last Chance, a go-to for welcome indulgence, both between buns and/or in a pint glass. More impressive and welcoming, though, was the aesthetic and staff, both honest and grounded. It was effortlessly charming. Coupled with the food and tap list being top notch made frequent visits a no-brainer. Many a night I’d bring a notebook and or a stack of comics and post up at the end of the bar. The ambiance and persistent bustle of the restaurant and bar were never distracting, but often comforting. Without even understanding it at the time, I was yearning to connect with the strangers and locals around me. The community vibe was just slightly out of reach, but I was content in just being around it. I had never been a fan of loud thumping places, but the shuffle of glasses and soft cacophony of voices, underpinned by someone’s excellent Spotify playlist might as well have been my heaven.
My first apartment was on Main Street, a stone’s throw from my office and around the corner from The Couch Tomato, which ended up being a daily lunch spot. I remember thinking that my life couldn’t get any more convenient. Food, drinks, work, and a nightlife where I can be amongst like-minded individuals. Sure, I didn’t own living room furniture yet, but I was content in ending a few evenings a week atop a barstool with a book or a notepad, getting to know my community.
That one-bedroom apartment served me very well for nearly seven years. Not only did I eventually acquire furniture, but I also became a common face around town. By sheer force of consistency, I met more and more people. A bartender, a server, a shop-keep, a building owner, a neighbor, a dog and their fur-parent, etc. As people, we naturally stumble upon our routines, which eventually start to overlap with others’ habits and shifts. A genuine familiarity set in and before I knew it, and without even intending it, I started to adopt “spots,” or “haunts.” I knew which restaurants were the busiest and when. Where to park and when to move my car. What pubs to avoid on what nights. Even where to watch a football game that doesn’t involve the Eagles (blasphemy, I know). Essentially, all the things that aren’t listed in a brochure. These little details and points of comfort were what initially made Manayunk my home. But it didn’t end there.
Feeling my age.
At any given point in its evolution, if one thing has remained consistent in Manayunk, it’s the variety of specialty gyms—row, boxing, cycling, running, interval training, yoga, you name it. This town has “healthy lifestyle” in its DNA. As someone who does not possess the genetic trait of “athleticism,” I wanted to create an excuse to push myself. After years of indulging in loaded fries and late-night cheesesteaks at Chole’s Corner (back when they operated out of a tent, mind you), I was beginning to feel my age. The need to take better care of myself crept in. I was in my thirties now, for goodness sake. I just needed to find the proper incentive to start.
Around this time, I had stumbled upon the opportunity to write an article with this very magazine. I had already been considering stepping out of my comfort zone and trying one of the gyms around town, so why not make a respectful spectacle of it? I pitched a series of articles/reviews in which I would struggle through various gym classes and document the experience from the perspective of a beginner. Scratch that, lower than a beginner — more like a reluctant, but positive and willing, participant. If I did well, it’s a success and if I did poorly, it a humorous experience to write about. The goal was to illustrate that if I could do it, anyone could do it. It was through this shameless endeavor to get some free classes that I fell deeper into affection for the community.
For the nearly seven years since that first set of articles (one in which I even busted my face open on a treadmill), I still frequent the amazing classes and instructors at gyms like The Wall Cycling Studio, Rowzone, Never Give Up Training, and Goals Fit, just to name a few. That’s not even counting some of the great yoga studios in town like Unity Yoga and Hotbox Yoga, where I’ve struggled (but in a good way).
One of the most intimidating things in the world is to try something for the first time. To be vulnerable in the company of strangers. To not be good at something, in public. I used those articles to push past my discomfort and try to quell anyone else’s. What I did not expect was that taking those classes and experiencing others’ responses to my vulnerability validated for me what makes this a great place to be. I learned that it’s not necessarily the variety of things offered in Manayunk that makes it great, but the passion and kindness of the people offering them.
Shut down the streets!
I wasn’t entirely prepared for the enormity of the street events here in Manayunk. I grew up many states south of Pennsylvania, in the suburbs, and with little to no community to speak of, let alone block parties or events right outside my door. The various Main Street events throughout the years (the StrEAT Food Festival, Manayunk Arts Festival, Stroll the Street, Out & About in MNYK, etc.) can only be described as a cross between a block party and a festival.
Nothing prepared me for living on Main during that first, street-closed Sunday event (not all celebrations close Main St, but the ones that do tend to turn out the larger crowds). I walked out my front door expecting some extra foot traffic on the sidewalks, but what I found were crowds of people filling the road, hopping from vendor to vendor. Opulence, exotic eats, beverages, knick-knacks for sale, and smiling faces as far as the eye could see. Live music in the distance and local wares always on sale. What makes the street events even more inclusive are the brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants joining in and expanding their storefronts out into the street for a day or two. It was a mix of locals and invited interlopers, visiting and enjoying our home.
During the pandemic, the larger events were understandably scaled back, but Manayunk continued celebrating and improving its culture and community in subtle ways. Refreshed art installations, beautification projects, new streetlights, repaved roads, safe and socially-distanced outdoor events, etc. They took the skip year we all experienced and made it into an investment for next time we all take to the streets together.
One such festival is especially ingrained in my memory as a turning point. I was attending with my girlfriend at the time, Sam. We had been together for a few months, but this was the first time we’d been to one of the festivals together. During the event, artists had been commissioned to create the MNYK mural, located underneath the train at Cresson St. and Roxborough Ave., at the entrance of Pretzel Park. You know the one. It’s a wonderfully colorful monstrosity, squeezing every facet of Manayunk onto the wall. As a feature, the artists were inviting visitors and locals to contribute to the mural with painted palm prints. Without hesitation, her and I picked our favorite colors and messily marked the white wall with our hands. On that afternoon, we became a part of the neighborhood’s culture.
A little under two years later, I asked her to marry me in front of that mural. Our mural.
Fast forward 15 months and we’re getting married at the Manayunk Brewing Company — with hair and makeup courtesy of Starshine Salon and a cake from Terrace Street Bakery.
Six months after that, we’re closing on a house just a few blocks from where we exchanged our vows.
A lot of big life changes can be traced back to that fall afternoon where I ended up getting green paint on my sneakers. In hindsight, it was worth ruining the shoes.
In it for the long haul.
Manayunk, if you allow it, has a way of hooking you into its rhythm, making the proposition to evolve along with it more and more appealing. Just as much as I am still that 20-something looking for a hip bar, I’m also the nearly 40-year-old homeowner who walks to the Pretzel Park Farmers Market every Saturday morning with my wife. Both versions of Manayunk (and myself) co-exist, peacefully. I don’t have to switch between different personas just to function or fit in around here, because like me (and many, many, many others), this neighborhood has layers.
If you’d have asked a younger me, when I first moved here, where I’d be in 10 years, I would not have answered, “Just a few blocks from this apartment.” But I like to think that Manayunk has been growing up along with me… or have I been growing up along with Manayunk? The lines are just too blurred to know for sure whether the community has met me where I am over the years, or that my adoration for it has prompted me to follow where it leads.
Just say, “hey.”
On any given day, you may run into us strolling along the towpath, in line at Volo, or flipping through the new records at Main Street Music. You might catch us enjoying brunch at Winnie’s, picking up takeout at Taqueria Amor, grabbing a bottle of wine at Jake’s Cooper’s, or debating over which flavor of ice cream to share at Tubby Robot. You’ll see me picking up new comics at Johnny Destructo’s Hero Complex on Wednesdays and the two of us Strolling the Street on the Thursday nights we’re free. Bottom line — this is our home, and we support it, love it, and take the time to really live in it. So, when you see us out and about, say ‘hello,’ because we’re basically neighbors.