Overbrook, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Overbrook High School at 59th Street and Lancaster Avenue

Overbrook is a neighborhood northwest of West Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The area contains an assortment of housing from large, old homes to row homes to 3-4 story apartment buildings.

Contents

Physical setting

The greater Overbrook area is a located in the northwestern portion of West Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In common usage, the name Overbrook refers both to a specific neighborhood and a larger area of West Philadelphia. The larger Overbrook area includes four Philadelphia City Planning Commission neighborhoods: Overbrook, Overbrook Farms, Morris Park and Overbrook Park[1]. The close proximity of Overbrook High School, the Overbrook School for the Blind, the Overbrook SEPTA Station, and Overbrook Avenue unite the four smaller neighborhoods into the larger area of Overbrook. Depending on the definition of Overbrook Farms, The Overbrook School for the Blind either lies partially in Morris Park and partially in Overbrook Farms or entirely in Morris Park.

According to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the main boundaries for the Overbrook neighborhood are North 63rd Street to the west, Lansdowne Avenue to the south, and the SEPTA regional rail tracks to the northeast. A very small portion of Woodbine Avenue between North 63rd Street and the SEPTA regional rail tracks bounds Overbrook to the north while a very small portion of North 52nd Street between Lansdowne Avenue and the SEPTA regional rail tracks bounds Overbrook to the south[2]. The Overbrook neighborhood is home to Overbrook High School.

Overbrook Farms is both a larger neighborhood in the Overbrook area and a distinctive neighborhood in its own right. According to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the northern boundary is City Avenue (US 1). The western boundary is North 66th Street between City Avenue and Woodcrest Avenue and Morris Park between Woodcrest Avenue and Malvern Avenue. The southern border is Malvern Avenue to Wynnewood Road, a small portion of Wynnewood Road, and Woodbine Avenue from Wynnewood Road to North 58th Street. The eastern boundary is North 58th Street between Woodbine Avenue and Overbrook Avenue, a small portion of Overbrook Avenue, and then Cardinal Avenue between Overbrook Avenue and City Avenue[3]. Overbrook Farms borders Saint Joseph’s University on its northeast corner. Although the Philadelphia City Planning Commission considers Malvern Avenue to form part of the southern border, the Overbrook Farms Club states that “At present, there are 413 buildings in Overbrook Farms, which is bounded by 58th and 66th Streets and Woodbine and City Avenues, and bisected by Lancaster Avenue”[4]. Overbrook Farms is home to the Overbrook SEPTA regional rail station; housing for Saint Joseph’s University students, such as the Lancaster Court Apartments; the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church.

West of the Overbrook neighborhood is a neighborhood that the Philadelphia City Planning Commission calls the Morris Park neighborhood. This neighborhood derives its name from Morris Park, which lies on the neighborhood’s western edge. The eastern boundary of the neighborhood is North 63rd Street. On the north, the boundary is Woodbine Avenue between North 63rd Street and Wynnewood Road, Wynnewood Road between Woodbine Avenue and Malvern Avenue, and Malvern Avenue between Wynnewood Road and North 68th Street. On the west, the boundary is North 68th Street and Morris Park between Malvern Avenue and Haverford Avenue, Cobbs Creek Park between Haverford Avenue and North 67th Street, and North 67th Street between Callowhill Street and North Gross Street. The southern border is Arch Street at North Gross Street, bordering Cobbs Creek Park [5]. Although the Philadelphia City Planning Commission defines a portion of the Overbrook area as the Morris Park neighborhood, the residents of the Morris Park neighborhood refer to the neighborhood as Overbrook. The Roman Catholic parishes of St. Donato and St. Callistus are in the Morris Park neighborhood. On the corner of North 66th Street and Lansdowne Avenue, there is a mural, green space, and a garden. The sign says “Overbrook: A great place to live together.” The garden is called Vito’s Garden.

Overbrook Park’s boundaries are City Avenue to the north and Morris Park on the west, south, and east. Haverford Avenue connects Overbrook Park to the Morris Park neighborhood while City Avenue connects Overbrook Park to Overbrook Farms.

Greater Overbrook is in the Fourth Councilmanic District of Philadelphia, represented by Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., elected in 2007 to a first term. The 19th Police District of the Philadelphia Police Department protects Overbrook. Overbrook used to have a large Italian-American population. There are still a number of Italian-American businesses in the area such as C C Orlando & Sons bakery and Vincent’s Pizza.

Overbrook developed in various stages between 1900 and 1960. The dominant housing type is the rowhouse. Because Overbrook was built in the early twentieth century when trolley lines were allowing middle class Philadelphians to move out from more crowded rowhouse communities, one can find a wide variety of styles of rowhomes in Overbrook. Overbrook was a community of choice when it was built. Real estate advertisements in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” in the 1920s referred to the area as “exclusive.” Facades of all kinds grace the fronts of otherwise uniform brick and stone rowhouses. Typical rowhomes in Overbrook are between 1000 and 1,700 square feet (160 m2) in size. Companies such as the McClatchy Company, the John McGinty Company, and smaller developers such as the Moss and Taylor Company constructed the majority of Overbrook’s rowhouses. Outside of Overbrook Farms, most of the houses in the Overbrook area date from between 1915 and 1930, with the Great Depression bringing a halt to new construction nationally and locally.

In addition to rowhouses, one can find a sizeable number of twin (semi-detached) houses. These semi-detached homes have two or three floors and typically are over 2,000 square feet (190 m2) in size. Prime examples of typical Overbrook twin houses are along Wynnewood Road from Haverford Avenue to Malvern Avenue, North 64th Street between Lansdowne and Lebanon Avenues, or Nassau Road between North 61st and 63rd Streets.

There are very few detached single-family homes in Overbrook. Single homes typically pre-date the construction of most of Overbrook’s housing or came into existence on select lots after the construction of most of the rowhouses and twin houses. For example, one will see a few single-family homes on Wynnewood Road near Columbia Avenue. A large stone home remains this intersection. This home once sat on acres of land that the owner(s) sold off to developers who then constructed twin houses and rowhouses. The vast majority of the single-family, detached homes in the Overbrook area are in the Overbrook Farms neighborhood.

People

House in Overbrook Farms

Overbrook was laid out intentionally in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly before 1930, as a place for middle-management level families to find a bit more green space in the form of small gardens, and stands of London plane trees. It was not intended as a community for working class families, initially. Close inspections of Sunday real estate advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the summer of 1922 and spring of 1923 reveal that Overbrook was "exclusive" and notable for houses with sizable rooms compared to many other new homes in the city. Served by trolley lines 10, 30, and others, and with easy access to the Market Street Elevated Line, Overbrook was a natural choice for families looking for a blend of urban convenience and semi-suburban living.

Examinations of early telephone records reveal that Overbrook's first buyers were mostly of English or Irish descent, based on surnames listed by block and residence. With this initial wave of buyers came a number of Mainline Protestant churches such as Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church at 65th and Lansdowne, or the former St. Paul's Lutheran Church at Malvern and 63rd (today home to a Baptist congregation).

Notably, Overbrook from its earliest days was home to a concentrated Italian-American community at its most southern reaches. In 1914, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia opened St. Donato's Parish, which remains to this day an "Italian National" parish, meaning that parishioners can register if they have Italian lineage. The church, at 65th and Callowhill Streets, is a striking example of Italian church architecture and was the spiritual center to a working class, densely populated Italian community that in the 1920s and 1930's was almost exclusively living south of Haverford Avenue within the aforementioned borders of Overbrook. In time, this Italian community would grow to be perhaps the majority ethnicity in the wider Overbrook community.

By the 1950s, Overbrook as a whole had grown into a community of middle and working class Italian and Irish-American families with many notable exceptions of other European backgrounds. Additionally, one could find a number of Lebanese families in Overbrook in those years. This pattern of the out-movement of Anglo-Protestant original residents and replacement with large Catholic families of Italian and Irish descent is one documented in many sociological studies in many American cities. It is a pattern that would repeat dramatically in later years, in a different way.

As the 1990s approached, the extensive African American communities of West Philadelphia stood just east of 63rd Street. By this time, and starting in the 1960s, Overbrook developed a "white" section and a "black" section. Residents living east of 63rd Street were almost uniformly African American, while residents west of 63rd Street were nearly all white. This division was one that at times, according to many anecdotal examples, was defended by members of their respective races.

Overbrook's census tracts west of 63rd street are Tracts 100 and 115. These tracts combined, according to the 1990 United States Census, were 93% white. By the 2000 U.S. Census, both tracts combined were just 29% white. In the period between 1990 and 2000, Overbrook's white section had begun to erode as residents moved in large numbers simultaneously to places outside Philadelphia. In particular, Delaware County communities such as Drexel Hill and Havertown are home to many former Overbrook families of Italian or Irish descent, today.

Replacing these white households were young African American couples, often with small children or planning to begin a family. Census data from 1990 and 2000 confirm that west of 63rd Street, Overbrook went from having large numbers of whites over age 65 or under age 45, to a community of overwhelmingly young African Americans between infancy and age 40. Other demographics in both the 1990 and 2000 censuses point to the idea that these new families were middle class and looking for better housing away from their former communities. Most of the new African American families came from other parts of West or Southwest Philadelphia, often leaving areas that were physically and economically declining or already distressed.

This transition of residents was not wrought with the same violent race-related friction seen in other parts of Philadelphia during the 1970s and 1980's, but it certainly was not free of conflict from time-to-time. Anecdotal accounts point to fear growing in the white community about quality-of-life in Overbrook in the 1990s, as violent crimes occurred in the community for the first time. Several prominent stories of violence toward business owners and community activists (who were white) at the hands of perpetrators (who happened to be black in most cases) fueled a fear that for many whites it was time to leave Overbrook, and the community would decline with the rest of West Philadelphia. Obviously, the true reasons for any family leaving anyplace are complex and hard to pinpoint.

Today's Overbrook will emerge officially as one that is drastically different even from 2000 census data. The 29% white population west of 63rd Street will likely plummet below 10% in the 2010 Census when it is taken. For the first time in the history of the Overbrook community, Overbrook will be uniformly African American in all sections, with small numbers of white residents remaining. Additionally, Overbrook will likely post gains in residents of Hispanic (of any race) and Asian descent.

It is worth noting that through the present, the number of Hispanic and Asian Americans in Overbrook remain quite low, below 5% for both categories.

Quality of life

As a community of primarily middle and working-class families, Overbrook is a community with below average rates of residents on government assistance programs such as welfare. Census data from 2000 indicate that Overbrook has a large number of households with two parents present, and home ownership/owner-occupancy remains around 65%. This is a slight decline from the 1990 figure of owner-occupancy of 71%.

Philadelphia Police have said anecdotally that crime rates overall in Overbrook remain low compared to the rest of West Philadelphia. Indeed, this perception that Overbrook is a "better" part of West Philadelphia is often discussed by residents when more police presence is sought. Many in the community believe police resources are consistently spread in other more distressed communities. Discussions the author has had with 19th Police District officers indicate this belief is well-founded.

Police data reveal the burglaries, automobile thefts, and robberies are uncommon in the Overbrook community as a whole.

Violent crime is also uncommon in the Overbrook community; however, there are instances of gun-related crime across the community from time-to-time. Certain areas are more prone to this sort of crime, according to police data. As with many Philadelphia communities, Overbrook has large sections that are quiet and relatively free of crime, while other pockets, in stark contrast, seem to be where violence most often occurs. When speaking with residents of the community, it is not uncommon to find people still believe that areas west of 63rd Street are quieter or more stable than areas to the east.

In terms of the physical integrity of the Ovebrook neighborhood, a simple drive through the area reveals that the most physically deteriorated parts of Overbrook are east of 63rd Street, and closer to Lansdowne Avenue. West of 63rd Street, and east of 63rd and north of Jefferson Street, one finds many streets that are somewhat suburban in appearance - yards, many trees soften the residential environment. Several thoroughfares have landscape medians in the middle in these areas.

Various community groups are working to prevent small quality-of-life problems (littering, dumping, graffiti) from overwhelming the community. These issues appear to be the most pressing ones for many residents of Overbrook today.

Future

As Overbrook nears its centennial, its future could go many ways. As Philadelphia real estate continues to gain value, Overbrook increasingly finds itself a community with well-proportioned homes made with good materials such as brick and stone, a variety of architectural styles, and home prices that are suited to middle-income buyers. The median price of a home in Overbrook increased between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census. For example, the author's home in Overbrook sold for just $66,500 in 1996. By 2006, the house was able to sell for $133,000. This story repeated itself across the neighborhood, particularly west of 63rd Street where homes are often larger than in other parts of the community. Only with the real estate slow down of late has Overbrook seen home prices stabilize, and time on the market for properties increase.

The community continues to attract a culturally diverse population, with some homes beginning to go to newcomers from Center City Philadelphia and other communities, where the reasonable prices and comfortable homes were selling points. Most newcomers, following the pattern of the last decade, remain African Americans with children.

Overbrook's community groups, such as the Neighbors of Overbrook Association, the Morris Park Restoration Association (MPRA), the Royal Gardens Association, Town Watch, ACORN, and others will continue to work together to build on Overbrook's cultural and physical assets in pushing forward in the 21st Century.

Landmarks

Overbrook, while overwhelmingly residential in character, does have several notable landmark buildings and institutions that help tell the story of the growth, character, and daily life of the community:

  • Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School and Church - 63rd and Lancaster, historic grade school (K-8) where Will Smith and Al Ryan both attended
  • Overbrook High School - 59th and Lancaster
  • Morris Park - forms western border of Overbrook section, known for trails and beautiful Indian Creek
  • Cobbs Creek Park - forms southern border of Overbrook section, undergoing restoration in many places
  • St. Donato Catholic Church - 65th and Callowhill, dramatic ceiling mural
  • Papa Playground - 68th and Lansdowne, extensive recreational offerings for youth
  • Harambee Charter School - 66th and Harlan Streets, Afro-Centric curriculum, opened on site of old Overbrook Italian Club
  • Haverford Furniture - Haverford Avenue at Atwood Road, Pacinelli family operated since 1940's
  • Vincent's Pizza - 65th and Lansdowne, busy and popular Italian take-out restaurant in the community for decades
  • Bocce Courts - Cobbs Creek Park at Vine Street, bocce still played daily by former and current (mostly) elderly residents
  • Orlando's Bakery - Lebanon Avenue at Kenmore Road, over 70 years, a community institution making fine baked goods
  • Overbrook School for the Blind - Malvern Avenue near 64th, landmark campus sporting Spanish Revival architecture
  • 63rd Street Architecture - Not a true historic district, but elegant residential architecture in an array of conditions
  • Lewis C. Cassidy Elementary/Academics Plus School, 6523 Lansdowne Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19151
  • West Overbrook Woods - AKA - WOW - City line across from the driving range

Notably, despite the erosion of much of the Italian-American community in Overbrook, two Italian social clubs remain in the community.

References

External links

Coordinates: 39°59′20″N 75°15′03″W / 39.988942°N 75.250833°W / 39.988942; -75.250833


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