we took a trip up the Schuylkill River Trail to visit Manayunk + learn more about how the neighborhood continues to redefine itself. With the help of new trails, shops + attitude, Manayunk has quickly become the go-to spot for those looking to stay active. Manayunk Development Corporation (MDC) Director of Marketing + Events (and Manayunk resident), Caitlin Maloney, along with Project Director of the Schuylkill Project, Kay Sykora, walked us through some of the recent changes in the community's trail system + overall vibe.
hg: could you tell us a little about the history of the Manayunk area? Perhaps what it used to be prior to it’s resurgence in recent years?
caitlin: Manayunk was originally an industrial town with mill building that manufactured cotton, wool + other fibers. Many of those textile mills are now home to popular Manayunk businesses including the Manayunk Brewery (located in the old Krooks Mill building). Back in the 80’s local investors began to see promise in Manayunk because of its central location between the city + suburbs and its connection to the river. Manayunk’s Main Street quickly grew from a block of businesses to a mile long stretch. As with most Main Streets, things slowed down a bit when the economy took a hit and businesses came + went throughout the 2000’s. Although, over the past five or more years, Manayunk has grown drastically and is a whole new neighborhood that many Philadelphians still don’t explore. We always say that...
"...if you haven’t seen Manayunk lately, you haven’t seen us."
When people come back that haven’t been here in a few years, they are amazed at how much has changed in such a short time. From new restaurants to new owner-operated boutiques + over 15 fitness studios, Manayunk has continued to expand.
hg: there are a TON of fitness activities constantly occurring in Manayunk. From CrossFit to biking + running, what do you feel inspires so much activity in such a small section of the city?
caitlin: Manayunk is definitely fitness focused. We credit that to being along the Schuylkill and having our very own Manayunk Towpath which is part of the larger Circuit Trails. When you run or bike along the Trail from Center City to Valley Forge, Main Street in Manayunk is the only district you come through, so it’s a great stopping point for a water or lunch break. We have every variety of fitness studio including cycling, barre, bootcamps, rowing, boxing, yoga, dance + even pole fitness. There really is no excuse to not be active in Manayunk.
"'Variety' is the best word to describe Manayunk."
We’re a very dog friendly community—we have trails, the towpath + dog friendly parks (such as Pretzel Park). The opening of the bridge was HUGE for dog walking, recreation + fitness. With the weather getting nicer, we’ve seen people out taking the bridge to connect to the Cynwyd Trail, which is an entirely new opportunity. Not only do we have the Towpath + accessibility to Fairmount Park, but we now have this whole other set of trails on the Lower Merion side that we we couldn’t access before.
hg: there is also an abundance of fitness related shops (such as gyms, bike shops, etc.). Do these attract people from outside the area?
caitlin: yes, there are several area gyms and two local bike shops as well. Philadelphia Runner also recently opened a store on Main Street last year + having a fitness centered retail store has been great.
hg: Manayunk is home to the infamous “Wall.” Do you see people flock to this specific section of the neighborhood? If so, why?
caitlin: If you’re a cyclist, the Wall is definitely a destination. At the end of May, in the weeks leading up to bike race, you see so many cyclists in Manayunk training on the Wall. Then on race day, the Wall really comes alive and is lined with people cheering on the cyclists as they pit themselves against the 17% incline.
hg: the Philadelphia Cycling Classic + Marathon both have prominent routes through Manayunk. How does the neighborhood embrace these events?
caitlin: a lot of the businesses will come out + have water stations. Winnie’s is a super fitness-based restaurant, so she often is the home of after parties, or she’ll host their families during the ride. The fitness studios tend to have water for runners or riders and provide amenaties for race watchers as well. Families bring their kids out to see the marathon runners and the kids think it’s one of the coolest thing ever. It gives these families the chance to show their kids the power of fitness and what you can do. To see all these random people cheering on all these cyclists or runners is pretty amazing. No one knows them, but they know how hard they are riding/running + they support and embrace that effort.
hg: Manayunk contains (and is surrounded by) an immense number of trails and paths. Does this help the area become a sort of “fitness hub”?
caitlin: definitely! I think we tend to compare our district to other districts in the city to help figure out what makes it unique + a better place to visit or live. The one thing we always come back to is that it’s the only district on the water with a canal + a trail along it. Of course there's a trail downtown, but it’s not really along a commercial corridor. I think we look at other neighborhoods that have similar structures as us, such as New Hope or areas in New York or Pittsburgh, to see how they utilize the water + greenspaces.
There are plans in place to get the canal water flowing again. Eventually we hope to see kayakers going down the canal. My Executive Director Jane Lipton always jokes that she wants to see a gondola on the canal. There’s definitely a lot of potential since the canal is wider + longer than people think—it’s just not utilized given its current state.
hg: your newest trail is the Manayunk Bridge path. Could you tell us a little about what the bridge used to be?
caitlin: the bridge was originally used as a commuter line, but has been out of use for several decades so it’s really exciting to see it finally open and being utilized by so many people. Being connected to the Lower Merion side opens up a whole new trail systems for locals to explore. We are beginning to see a lot of Lower Merion residents walking over the bridge and coming down to Main Street to grab coffee or enjoy brunch.
"The bridge has really opened up the doors for our neighborhoods to connect."
kay: use of the Manayunk Bridge for rail traffic stopped in 1985. There had been two separate rail lines, the Pennsylvania and the Reading, which both serviced Manayunk. After the lines were merged + sold to Septa, there was no need for two commuter lines.
hg: what inspired the transformation of the bridge into a walkable/runnable/bikeable path?
caitlin: I think it stemmed from the idea that it was such an iconic bridge that was completely underutilized and had been for so long. Opening the bridge also creates more trail connections. Plus the view up there is unbelievable!
hg: has there been a lot of support for the trail? Has there been a lot of activity since it opened?
caitlin: tons of activity! On the warmer days you’re sure to see someone you know. Since it pulls from Lower Merion to Manayunk, the demographic of people on the bridge is varied. There are a lot of families, kids on their first bikes or tricycles, young couples with dogs, Lower Merion families that are coming over. It shows the changing demographic of Manayunk. We’re excited for it to get warmer out since this will be the first full, nice season open.
hg: when it first opened, there were some rumblings about how the entrance was not well-marked, hard to find and even neighbors to the path not being thrilled about having strangers in their neighborhood. Have these matters been improved? Are there plans in place to improve any aspects of the trail?
caitlin: the initial opening of the bridge was all part of 'Phase One.' 'Phase Two' of the bridge project includes signage, lighting, seating amenities, etc. In the end, the bridge is going to be incredible, but they wanted to open it up sooner rather than later for people to enjoy. There are future plans being discussed about how to better connect the bridge trail directly to Main Street, rather than going through the neighborhood to access it. We also have plans for lights so the bridge can be open longer into the evening hours; it currently closes at nightfall.
hg: are there any plans for any additional trails to be added in or around the area?
kay: yes! we have done the feasibility planning for the next section of trail, called the Ivy Ridge Trail—it will connect the bridge to the Ivy Ridge SEPTA Train Station. The city is putting final design dollars in its budget to continue to the next step. Since these projects cost so much (the Ivy Ridge Trail will cost over $5 million), it takes a while for them to be completed.
Separate from the trail system, the Manayunk Canal has had about $10 million already invested in it + there is still one more project lined up that will address water flow through the upper sluice way, which will keep algae from building up as it does now.
hg: are there any plans to promote this new trail within the larger recreational offerings in the Manayunk area?
caitlin: we are redoing our website + will be including the trail in more of our future branding. There will be a dedicated place on the site with more details on the bridge + how to access it. I think because it’s a bridge that’s owned/operated by many different people, there isn’t one person messaging it. In most people’s mind it is the “Manayunk Bridge,” so you can certainly come to our website looking for info, but Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and Lower Merion also have information on their pages as well. In the end its all of our bridge and the trail belongs to the region. It’s a treasure that we will all share and take care of.
hg: how does the Fairmount Park Commission and Friends of the Wissahickon work with the Manayunk community to continue to develop outdoor recreational initiatives?
kay: First Friends of the Wissahickon are a completely separate group working in a completely separate area—the Wissahickon. The one project we are working together on is the trail connection at Wissahickon Creek+ Ridge Avenue. The groups that I work with through Manayunk Development Corporation are Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, Philadelphia Planning Commission plus multiple non-profits + funders interested in seeing the trails connected and complete.
hg: besides ‘fitness’ what other events/lifestyles does Manayunk offer?
caitlin: there’s always something happening here. Between the Manayunk Arts Festival, Manayunk StrEAT Food Festivals, Hidden River Blues Festival, Mummers Mardi Gras, Halloween In Manayunk, Holidays In Manayunk, Small Business Saturday + more, there’s generally one big event each month. Our Manayunk merchants also hold different events throughout the year.
hg: what do you feel prevents people from visiting Manayunk?
caitlin: I think a lot of people are used to their neighborhood because that's what is closest. I also believe a lot of people feel that the city has all the same things Manayunk does. While it has a lot of restaurants + shops, we like to emphasize that you can come here for one day and have so much in one area. These amenities aren’t centralized elsewhere in the city like they are here. Plus, if they come out here they get all the fitness based things like trail access that they don’t get in the city.
"The demographic in Manayunk is changing but the perception is difficult to change."
People get an idea in their head of, “Oh I haven’t been to Manayunk in five years because it’s all college kids.” Well if you haven’t been in five years you have no idea what it’s like now. It’s totally different. Again, as we like to say, “If you haven’t seen Manayunk lately, you haven’t seen us.”