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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Sharon Hill

Map: Red represented existing right-of-way transit. Purple represents the 113 bus, which I think could easily become BRT. The green lines represent places where protected bike lanes could be added easily.
When people ask me where I'm from, I usually say Philadelphia, and if people push me harder, I usually say "Well, Upper Darby. It's like the Pawtucket of Philadelphia." I do a lot of Upper Darby pride jokes, but maybe it's time to look to Sharon Hill, another town I lived in, as well.

Sharon Hill is another nearby trolley suburb of Philly, and recently as I've gotten talking to old friends about my times there, it's sent my mind back to what that time was like. I've been thinking lately about how easily Sharon Hill could become a bikeable place, and take advantage of its transit-oriented connections. It sits as a tiny, fairly dense borough just outside of Darby (not to be confused with Upper Darby). It's just miles from the Philadelphia border, and Darby itself is one of the densest places in the United States, with really great trolley connections into the city. Sharon Hill itself has an even better transit history. The trolley line it's on (the 102, formerly one of the Red Arrow lines), is mostly on a
right-of-way, so except for a few places where it sits in mixed traffic, it can speed people along through Delaware County to 69th Street, which has transit connections in all different directions. The R2 line (effectively the regional version of the Northeast Corridor) runs right through Sharon Hill, and the R3 (connecting Media, Swarthmore, and a bunch of other towns all the way into 30th Street Station) is all of a ten minute trolley connection away.

"Suburban" Philly housing, but of course a lot of people nationwide would cut off their left arm to have the kind of walkable bones that Philadelphia suburbs have. If we could only get a good transportation policy to connect all of that good land use!

The rowhouse is the most common Philadelphia form, even in the suburbs. Philadelphia has a lower percentage of detached single-family housing than even New York, as a region, though it also has a lower apartment percentage. This lower-middle class housing stock is missing from many regions because of exclusionary zoning, but it builds a beautiful "street wall" that makes these towns greater than they'd be if they were all detached housing. Jane Jacobs would salivate.
My family members who grew up their whole lives in Sharon Hill would boast of its past transit history, but Sharon Hill is one of these places that's really stagnated economically, and so when I lived there I had no sense of what the hell they were talking about. Just like how I thought living in Upper Darby in a rowhouse near trolley lines was normal "suburban life", I had no sense of how connected the Philly region was in Sharon Hill. Now that I live in Rhode Island, and spend all my time pining away about how to improve transit and biking here, I'm appreciative of the advantages of my old communities, and I want to help them to move along further. In fact, because the economic stagnation can be such a challenge for eastern Delaware County, transitizing and bikeifying the area should be a central goal. It could also help to relieve gentrification pressures on the city of Philadelphia itself, and to desegregate what ought to be by right a very diverse region.

The core memory that a lot of my family holds about Sharon Hill is the death of my cousin when he was just two. My Aunt Sharon and cousins were walking along Sharon Avenue when an older driver had a health issue and ran his car off the street, jumped a curb, and killed my cousin. My other cousin and aunt were severely injured. So I think that there would be quite the appetite for smart-growth in what more elitist voices would probably assume is a place not politically interested in change. Several of my uncles-- unfortunately now, a few of them have passed-- used to ride unicycles or penny-farthings to get around. The hashtag #KeepSharonHillWeird would probably trend if you got Delco people going at it, and it would probably be my father's side of the family pulling a lot of the weight on the weirdness.

MacDade Boulevard and Chester Pike are kind of the main drags through town (MacDade is technically in Collingdale, but much of Delaware County is full of tiny little continguous towns that would remind Rhode Islanders of Pawtucket, Warren, or Central Falls-- Collingdale was a block from my house, which being on the edge of Sharon Hill, can't have been more than a half-mile from the other side of town).

You can see where MacDade has been allowed to "stroad"ify.

 At the same time, this is what's left of traditional development. We take for granted the idea that everyone looks at this and immediately sees financial success, because this development pattern pays for itself, while the stroad doesn't. But I bet many people walk through this town center (or more likely, drive through it) and think not a lick about it. Note how even here, in a very much friendlier road design, the lanes are ginormous and unnecessary. This road is pretty flat for miles, until where it slopes down steeply into Darby. If you put a protected bike lane on MacDade, it would get used. I used to ride my bike on the sidewalk nearly everyday as a teenager-- just a crappy $30 bike we bought from the neighbor's garage down the street. But the biking I started doing in Sharon Hill was the first real "transportation biking" I ever did in my life. I would make it all the way out to Swarthmore, or would snake through Darby and check out the rowhouses and old shops (not a lot of great shopping in Darby-- but there could be). The segregation between someplace outright tony like Swarthmore (say "Swathmore" by the way) and someplace that people tell you not to go like Darby is due to the physical separation that all this overbuilt car infrastructure creates.

Chester Pike, which traditionally had Red Arrow trolleys on it, and now just has the 113 bus, is right at the end of the Sharon Hill trolley line (102). This is the gigantic configuration of the street, which we had to walk along, sun-drenched, as high schoolers. The trolley stop is in the background of this shot, and the reason you have cool little districts all throughout Delaware County that are walkable is because the original burst of development was all based around rail and trolley lines. As the U.S. unfolds silly little mixed-traffic streetcars-to-nowhere, Delaware County is one of the few places that still exists with right-of-way connections. That means that the trolley can get you places, and not get stuck. And that's yuge, as we'd say back heowme.
Gigantic. No one thinks this is successful, because it's not. Imagine the amount of public money that has to be shelled out in order to maintain the scant strip-mall environment that exists here. And yet, the great connection that could ferry transit riders back and forth between Philly and Chester is not there, except as a mixed-traffic bus. This road is so big it could get protected bike lanes and transit lanes, and still not have a traffic problem. And honestly, what Sharon Hill and other towns like it should vy for is to have a traffic problem. The only thing worse than congestion is no congestion.

This is where my uncle tried to set up shop with a magic business. The business did not survive. We think of the city and all its grungy hipster neighborhoods as places for cool, weird things, but actually the suburbs can often be a place of creativity too. But there's no analysis in most towns of how a cool little shop on Sharon Avenue brings in tremendous wealth with little infrastructure investment. The tax revenue from sprawl along stroads like Chester Pike probably looks impressive, but doesn't pay for itself when all the costs are taken into account. And that's before you consider things like the deaths of small children like my cousin. 

This failed magic shop was on the same block my cousin died on, back in the '80s.

Some Sharon Hill weirdness for your entertainment. #KeepSharonHillWeird

I wonder sometimes what it might mean to organize smart-growth movements in suburbs. "Suburb" of course is a very loose term that means a lot of things to a lot of people. The Sharon Hill area is a racially diverse place with walkable bones that has been completely devastated by the misdeeds of PennDOT or local planners. But it's also the type of place that could easily start making smart choices and reinvigorate itself, improving its environmental footprint and its equity/access for working-poor people.

It doesn't take magic or sleight-of-hand, just a return to traditional ways of building cities and towns.


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