A 2023 time capsule: The news that shaped the year

by Tom Beck
Posted 12/26/23

In 2023, the Local was crowned the top weekly newspaper in the state by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. We don’t mean to brag, much.

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A 2023 time capsule: The news that shaped the year


In 2023, the Local was crowned the top weekly newspaper in the state by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, and we don’t mean to brag, but we think it's for good reason. Your favorite hyper-local newsweekly had a pretty busy 12 months. 

As we break out the blue sapphire, we’d like to celebrate our 65th rotation around the sun by recapping the biggest and most important stories of our award-winning year, which featured coverage of everything from major development projects, investigations into the city’s funding of infrastructure improvements, civic and community life and profiles on local VIPs – not to mention a rather notable election cycle. If you didn’t read about it in the 30 or so pages of this newspaper, did it really happen? We’re not entirely sure. But what we are sure of is that if we were going to bury a time capsule for 2023 into the foundation of 8434 Germantown Ave., the stories below are the ones we’d stick inside.

SCH ‘Mom’ runs for mayor – and wins

If you had to pick just one big piece of political news that came out of Northwest Philadelphia, this would be it: City Councilmember Cherelle Parker, a resident of West Oak Lane, won the Democratic mayoral primary in a surprise landslide victory in April and was later elected the city’s first female mayor, defeating Republican David Oh.

In November, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy student Julien Friedland wrote a story for the Local about Parker, who’s the parent of a fifth grader at SCH, and her passion for education

Parker’s win wasn’t the only first for Northwest Philadelphia pols. Mt. Airy resident Nina Ahmad is also slated to become the city’s first city council member of South Asian descent after winning one of seven at-large spots on Council. 

Cindy Bass survives her first real primary challenge

This year’s set of municipal elections featured just one truly competitive primary race in district council elections. That race, which featured union organizer Seth Anderson-Oberman challenging three-term incumbent Cindy Bass, just so happened to have been in the Local’s backyard. 

The Local gave the race the in-depth coverage it deserved when no other news outlet in the city would, going so far as to schedule and co-host one of only two debates between the candidates at the Germantown Jewish Centre in Mt. Airy in April. Bass would eventually win the election, which was held May 16, but only barely. The final tally was 51% to 49% in her favor, and the race was so close that it wasn’t called until nearly a week after polls closed. 

Green City, Clean Waters

The Local’s biggest investigative piece of the year came from Local freelancer Kyle Bagenstose, who took a hard look at whether the city’s $2.4 billion plan to stop sewage from finding its way into the city’s river water is working as well as proponents had hoped. The plan mostly relies on constructing green infrastructure that traps rainwater in basins, preventing it from entering the overburdened sewer system. Though a citywide issue, the city’s lack of sewer capacity is a particularly big issue for some residents of East Mt. Airy and Germantown, where intersections and basements flood as a result of the city’s sewer backups. By some metrics, the city has seen some success in keeping water out of the sewer, but as the climate changes and the city sees more extreme rainfall events, it’s unclear whether the plan is worth the price.

Radio Silence on Verizon Building

The possibilities are endless at 8318 Germantown Ave., which at nearly 67,000 square feet is Chestnut Hill’s largest piece of commercial real estate. The former cinema could be “easily” converted into housing, for instance, according to John Landis, a Chestnut Hill resident and professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, it’s being largely mothballed by telecommunications giant Verizon, which once needed all that space as a switching location for where telephone wires converge. The company is still using some space in this huge building for its original purpose, but developments in telecommunications technology mean it no longer needs to be taking up such a large footprint in the center of the neighborhood’s commercial corridor. In this article, Bagenstose again took a deep dive into the community’s efforts to engage with Verizon about selling the building, and what it would take to get the property returned to a more community-centric use. 

Changes afoot for the top of the hill

The corner of Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike is the gateway to the main section of Chestnut Hill’s business corridor, and it was the subject of proposals that would produce major change this year. Developer Michael Young is planning a four-story, 30-unit apartment building for the south side of the historic Chestnut Hill Baptist Church which sits on that corner, on a lot that formerly housed a Santander Bank branch.  Young announced his plans for the project in a Local article in June and released renderings in November

Just next door, on the other side of that church, is the potential location of a five-story, 33-unit apartment building, proposed for the now empty lot at 10 Bethlehem Pike. When we last left this issue, the community association had teamed up with neighbors to fight that project in court

If both projects are built, a total of 63 new residential units would appear on that corner – and some neighbors fear – dwarf the historic church.

Battle for the soul of the Germantown YWCA

The Germantown YWCA, located at 5820 Germantown Ave., was a cherished building in the heart of Germantown’s central business district for most of its history. But for years now, the building has sat vacant. 

That was supposed to change after out-of-town developer KBK Enterprises was given a 2016 contract to redevelop the property by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which owns the property. But KBK has never followed through – and after eight years of inaction, one local property owner had enough. 

In November, Ken Weinstein, real estate developer and owner of Philly Office Retail, moved to take control of the historic building away from the PRA under Act 135, a 2008 state law that gives neighbors, businesses, and nonprofit organizations the right to ask a court to put blighted property in the hands of a conservator. 

The filing was a direct challenge to City Councilmember Cindy Bass, who favors KBK. The case is not likely to be resolved for many months if not years, but if Weinstein manages to wrestle the building away from Bass’s control it could put a crack in the City Council’s unwritten rule for leaving local development decisions up to district council members. It might also produce some affordable housing for seniors. 

Celebrating community

This year’s Fourth of July celebrations featured a surprise appearance on national TV when Good Morning America chose to air its live broadcast that morning from Chestnut Hill. The spot, which featured Pastor James Buck Jr, owner of Southern Flames BBQ, along with other local business owners, was seen by 10 million people across the country.  “They showed footage of us, of Chestnut Hill, on the big screen in Times Square,” said Courtney O’Neill, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business District. “You could see McNally’s pouring a pint of Guinness on Times Square in New York City!”

Of course, when it comes to community spirit, one of the biggest highlights of every summer is the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Pastorius Park Summer Concert Series, and the 2023 edition was no exception. 

This year’s run of concerts featured something for everyone; Latin fusion music from De Tierra Caliente, Gypsy jazz from The Hot Club of Philadelphia, classical music from the Joseph Arnold String Quartet, blues from the Deb Callahan Band, pop/rock from Emily Drinker and old-timey piedmont blues music from Dom Flemons, formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame. The series also included a special night for children when Alex & the Kaleidoscope opened the series on June 14. The Local wrote a series of articles on each performer in the Chill section of the paper. 

Angelo Cataldi calls it quits

The streets of Chestnut Hill, at least those outside of the bustling Germantown Avenue corridor, may be lined with beautiful homes, green landscapes and quiet streets. But one of those homes is louder than the others. That’s because it’s the residence of newly-retired WIP radio host Angelo Cataldi. He may have stopped his radio show, but he hasn’t stopped having opinions, many of which the Local explored in a lengthy profile that looks back on his career just prior to the Eagles’ February Super Bowl appearance.

Saying goodbye

We lost a long list of important people last year, some of whom were beloved by neighbors for their work on behalf of the community as well as their professional accomplishments. Paul Meyer, an internationally renowned horticulturist, was a beloved figure who nurtured his relationships with his friends and neighbors just as well as he did his plants. Bill Mebane, family doctor to many and an elder of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, had a special commitment to community service. Dr. Susan Bray, a trailblazing physician who was the first female president of the medical staff and established the palliative care unit at Temple Health-Chestnut Hill Hospital, was a loyal and active civic leader who served on many volunteer boards. Dr. David J. Becker, a pre-eminent cardiologist whose “Change of Heart” program persuaded two generations of patients to try a heart-healthy “Mediterranean” diet and exercise program volunteered as a personal coach to thousands of young doctors. Ada Bello, a pioneer in the fight for LGBTQ rights who was known for treating everyone with respect, and Linda Brunn, a civil rights and social justice activist who dedicated herself to helping those in need, particularly poor and marginalized families. 

Charles L. Blockson, a scholar, historian and football star who co-founded the African American Museum, was renowned for his vast collection of artifacts relating to the global Black experience – and his willingness to share it. 

And finally, The Local lost two people last year, Chestnut Hill resident John J. Currie, Jr., who delivered the paper to dozens of area businesses, honor boxes and mail subscribers for decades, and historian, author and college professor John O’Donnell, who worked at The Local as classified advertising specialist in his retirement.