Up, up, up with Manayunk


Chuck Kern, a member of the Manayunk Dragon Boat Racing Team, gears up for practice on the Schuylkill River. (Andrea Sachs/THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 10, 2011

Every year since 1984, pro cyclists of Lance Armstrong caliber have shredded the streets of Philly during the Philadelphia International Championship, the longest-running single-day road race. As part of the 156-mile route, the competitors loop 10 times through the rolling neighborhood of Manayunk. On this leg, they face the vertical beast called the Wall, a hill with a 17 percent grade that topples many riders like a bucking bronco.

“Everyone who’s a cyclist has tried it,” said Luke Bunting, a retail manager at the Cadence bike store on Main Street. “Whether they make it . . .”

On June 6, a day after the hot wheels had cooled and the crowds had dissipated, it was my turn to tackle the Wall. I was ready to conquer, but in my own way and in my own time.

The clock I followed was set by a procrastinator. Not that I didn’t want to climb the Wall; I just wanted to savor Manayunk without having to explain the blood and the limp.

The Wall is on Levering, a side street off Main Street, which is a (flat) six-block historic district dressed in red brick and bright awnings. The neighborhood sits fewer than 10 miles northwest of the city center but feels far removed, encased in a bubble that wards off the traffic, the noise and the crowds.

“It’s not urban and it’s not suburban,” said Elizabeth Paradiso, a five-year Manayunk resident who opened her cupcake shop, Sweet Elizabeth’s, last week. “You get the best of both worlds.”

The neighborhood, named after a Lenape word that translates to “the place we go to drink,” is surrounded by lumpy hills and the slow-moving Schuylkill River. In the evenings, competitive rowers paddle sleek dragon boats along the water, the coxswain's voice rising above the honks of Canada geese. Behind the commercial district, a church spire shoots up like a Renaissance-era antenna. Bikers, runners and pedestrians with dogs nipping at their heels intermingle with al fresco diners and shoppers. Though they’re hardly wide boulevards, the walkways successfully accommodate wheels, sneakers and paws.

“It’s a young, pep-in-your-step place,” said Paradiso, before dashing into the kitchen to check her orange cinnamon pound cake cupcakes, part of a beer-and-cupcake pairing event. “You won’t even feel like a tourist; you’re part of the neighborhood.”

To really fit into the Manayunk scene, you need a bike helmet, a four-legged friend or a cup of frozen yogurt. I chose the accouterment that required neither a fitting nor a rabies shot. It must have worked, because as I plunged into my bowl of birthday cake and red velvet fro-yo, a woman approached my outdoor table looking for the nearest Starbucks.

Manayunk advocates independently run shops and restaurants, though one or two chains (including Starbucks) did sneak in while the neighborhood was sleeping. The community’s business spirit stretches back centuries, to its beginnings as a center of mill activity.

In the 1800s, Manayunk’s water-powered mills churned out wool and other textiles, including Germantown wool used by Native Americans in their rugs and blankets. The Manayunk section of the Schuylkill Canal became a watery highway of mule-drawn boats piled with soft goods and coal. But in the first of many economic downturns, the Reading Railroad’s appearance in 1833 squelched Manayunk’s industry.

The area suffered hard times in the 1950s but revived in the 1970s with an influx of artists. During the most recent recession, the neighborhood, once a center of furniture purveyors, lost a handful of home-decor stores, including Proper Brothers, a 100-year stalwart.

As the pendulum swings, Manayunk is now up again. Empty spaces are filling up — with sweet treats (Sweet Elizabeth’s), books (Spiral Bookcase), quirky crafts (Little Apple) and brain food (Spectrum Scientifics).

And while some stores may be gone, their goods live on. Upscale Resale, a secondhand clothing store, inherited a neighboring shop’s mother lode of leather shoes created by a Prada designer, with price tags hundreds less than normal. The Moldovan shopkeeper, who wore used pink suede Tod’s shoes, explained that the bulk of the clothes come from two Main Line doyennes. She directed me toward the designer rack, where a toast-brown Hermes sweater was on sale for $50. I imagined the pullover swooshing down the pistes of Gstaad and flapping around tanned shoulders on a Hamptons beach. I couldn’t offer it the same rarefied lifestyle and left it on the rack for another Main Liner to scoop up.

The clothing store was on the same end of Main Street as the cluster of furniture stores. The laid-back employees at Dwelling didn’t seem to mind my Goldilocks quest for the perfect couch I would never own or lay my Hermes sweater upon. I kicked back on a high-back slipper chair and a white leather float chaise that bobbed like a yo-yo on a short string. I finally settled on a teal settee with furry alpaca pillows for additional head support. I could have squatted there forever, but I was already feeling my muscles atrophy. The Wall called.

I followed the scenic canal towpath back toward Levering Street, a section of the Schuylkill River Trail that will one day run from Philly north to Pottsville. From my starting point near the railway bridge, I could walk to Shawmont (two miles), Conshohocken (six miles), Valley Forge (10.2) or, in a burst of adrenaline, Mont Clare (20). Instead, I chose the few blocks to Cadence. I had to conserve my energy, no?

At the bike store, I asked Bunting to sketch out the route for me. From Main, he explained, take a right on Levering, go under the trestle, then a left on Levering. “It’s deceiving,” he said. “There’s a soft turn, so you can’t see the hill.” The shop rents road bikes for $35 an hour, but they’re high-end models with the intimidating price tag of $4,000 each. That would be a very expensive fall.

As a compromise, I decided to vanquish the hill on foot, but in flip-flops, ignoring Bunting’s advice to switch to sneakers. Athletes suffer for their sport, and I wasn’t going to take the easy footwear out.

I started walking up Levering, a pleasant stroll past residential homes still corralled by gates from the race. The incline was gradual but grew steeper as I neared the bend. I suddenly felt like I was leaning into the wind, my body doing its impression of an acute angle. I passed a piece of pizza shorn of its cheese and wondered if the slice had simply given up from exhaustion. I continued onward, finally reaching the top of Levering slightly out of breath but still standing.

The bikers traditionally cruise down Manayunk Street, a glorious run called the Fall of the Wall. I, however, could not attain speeds of 50 mph in my Havianas. Instead, I turned around to retrace my steps. Halfway down the Wall, I started to feel the burn, right between my first and second toes.

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