January 15, 2019

A Philly neighborhood created a festival to celebrate its top asset—its diversity

A local community development corporation launches Supper Sessions on the Avenue — a regular showcase of hyperlocal cuisine and business.

Supper Sessions celebrates the charm of Germantown Avenue’s Belgian blocks and trolley tracks. Photo by Albert Yee

Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy neighborhood has spent the past half century carefully—and intentionally—crafting its identity as an inclusive and diverse community. There’s a palpable pride of place that carries through the doors of its local restaurants, from the immigrant-owned restaurant and pasteleria Mi Puebla to the sustainability-minded brewpub Earth Bread + Brewery. It was with these types of established businesses in mind that Mt. Airy Community Development Corporation (MACDC) created Supper Sessions on the Avenue in 2016 — a showcase of hyperlocal cuisine and business.

Shift to a hyperlocal focus

Supper Sessions was a direct response to Street Fare, a food truck festival that ran over the course of five years and that seemed wildly successful with residents and visitors, but which behind the curtain, caused much consternation among existing business owners. While an annual night with over 50 food trucks brought out lots of people and tons of business, most of it went to the food trucks who came in from outside the neighborhood, and local businesses saw very little gain from the event. MACDC needed to find a way to keep bringing thousands of people out into public life, but make the event one strongly anchored in the surrounding neighborhood and supportive of its local business community. The answer lay in the middle ground—and a model working 16 miles away.

In its Dining Under the Stars program, operating weekly throughout the summer, Media, PA closes two blocks of its downtown to vehicular traffic and its restaurants come out into the street with tables, chairs, and service. This arrangement jibed well with the Open Streets Movement already gaining momentum in Philadelphia. And in Mt. Airy, this Open Streets/outdoor dining model incurred an added layer of charm in historic Germantown Avenue’s Belgian blocks and trolley tracks.

Generate support by being open to change

Germantown Avenue’s 7100 block alone has ten restaurants—but Supper Sessions would only work with buy-in from all of them.

Food trucks paired with full service restaurants allow for a wider variety of cuisines and price points. Photo by Albert Yee

For the inaugural run, MACDC hosted four Supper Sessions, each Wednesday in September 2016. Support from the neighborhood grew a little more each week, and the restaurant owners seemed generally pleased, but much of the public’s feedback lamented the loss of the food trucks. So it was to everyone’s relief when PJ McMenamin, third-generation owner of Mt. Airy institution McMenamin’s Tavern, suggested to add a couple food trucks back to the mix. Doing so in 2017 relieved pressure from restaurants with wait times and added not only culinary variety, but variety in price points, an important consideration in a neighborhood whose diversity includes that of the economic kind.

Intentionally welcome the entire neighborhood

Equally as important is reaching neighbors of all ages across a variety of activities — more than just food and drink. During each Supper Session, MACDC’s literacy initiative coordinator organizes entertainment for children, including story time with a special invited guest reader. Councilwoman Cindy Bass, State Representative Chris Rabb, and State Senator Art Haywood were among the readers in 2018. Likewise, MACDC’s healthy aging initiative makes sure local senior groups have the opportunity to table alongside other local organizations.

Story time and other children’s activities alongside local senior groups makes Supper Sessions inviting to a wide spectrum of Mt. Airy residents. Photo by Albert Yee

MACDC’s focus on local businesses extends beyond the dinner table as well. Quintessence Theatre Group, an acclaimed repertory group, hosts live performances during Supper Sessions. Clothing boutiques on the block accommodate alfresco shoppers, and vendors of art and handmade goods are largely curated from Mt. Airy and Northwest Philadelphia. Local businesses operating in other parts of the neighborhood are invited to table or partner with shops on the block. Even the signature color-changing lanterns draping the Avenue come from a local business.

Recognize change is a constant for success

Three years in, Supper Sessions has grown into an anticipated, very Mt. Airy series, but MACDC remains committed to trying new things and, more importantly, always listening to feedback. Supper Sessions’ very existence is the result of hearing and addressing the local business community’s concerns. Likewise, a survey sent to participants and stakeholders after this year’s event resulted in a format change: next year, Supper Sessions will happen once-a-month across the summer, rather than once-a-week through September. And from the organization’s standpoint, the event series advances MACDC’s mission by supporting local business and advancing a vibrant and diverse neighborhood.

As one of city’s oldest roads, Germantown Avenue has been critical to life in Philadelphia since its inception: a Native American path that became the “Great Road” in colonial America that then became a paved turnpike that finally became a thriving commercial corridor spanning 10 miles from Northern Liberties to Chestnut Hill. In Mt. Airy, the Avenue is the spine of the neighborhood — where East and West Mt. Airy come together. With Supper Sessions, MACDC sees to it that neighbors and friends do meet (in the street) and that they eat well.

This essay was originally published in Reimagining the Civic Commons.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners. The initiative’s pilot in Philadelphia was supported by Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation.

Mt. Airy CDC

Mt. Airy Community Development Corporation, formerly called Mt. Airy USA, is a partner in Reimagining the Civic Commons, and has collaborated with Free Library of Philadelphia on the reimagining of Lovett Library and Park into a community hub at the exact center of the neighborhood. MACDC’s community programming actively supports the diverse public life of the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.