The Local celebrates a big birthday

by Carla Robinson
Posted 12/13/23

Astute readers may not need prompting to notice that printed at the top of the far left column of this newspaper is the Roman numeral LXV. 

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The Local celebrates a big birthday


Astute readers may not need prompting to notice that printed at the top of the far left column of this newspaper is the Roman numeral LXV. 

That’s right. Today is a very important day. You are reading the first issue of this paper’s 65th year of existence as a weekly publication. Its predecessor, which became the Chestnut Hill Local in 1958, was published 68 years ago in December of 1955. 

At the time, this community’s local paper had been The Chestnut Hill Herald, which was controlled by a publishing group headquartered in Conshohocken with no direct ties to the neighborhood. And Lloyd Wells, widely known as the godfather of Chestnut Hill’s civic infrastructure, decided that this community needed a newspaper of its own. 

So he started one. Called the Cymbal, that brand new publication announced it was created “to generate understanding and create public interest in the problems facing our community today.”

Three years later, in May of 1958, The Chestnut Hill Local replaced the Cymbal – and has been printing regular issues ever since. And to this day, The Local remains a genuinely unique institution – a community weekly owned by the community that it covers. 

“The Local has been telling our stories as Chestnut Hill’s paper of record for decades,” said Joel Barras, current board chair. “It remains the one news outlet we can rely upon to focus on the issues, the people and the community that matter to us most.”

Shirley Hanson, a Chestnut Hill Conservancy board member who began writing for the Local in the mid-1960s, said “Lloyd started it to create a forum for addressing community issues and gaining clout to prompt community action.”

Wells, who started the Chestnut Hill Community Association in response to the deterioration of many of the neighborhood’s beautiful historic buildings as the local economy changed, also started the Chestnut Hill Development Corp. (now the business association) and the Parking Foundation, so businesses could better compete with shopping malls by operating off-street parking lots in the upper blocks of Germantown Avenue’s retail corridor.

“My role was to attend all meetings of the organizations Lloyd created in his years of transforming Chestnut Hill. I would write articles about them for the Chestnut Hill Local, which he also originated,” Hanson said. 

From controversy over what would happen to land known as the Morgan Tract, now home to Market Square and Chestnut Hill Village, to big questions about how the community’s business district would compete with nearby shopping malls, the paper addressed important issues. Its coverage even led to the creation of other important civic organizations, including what is now known as the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, Hanson said.

“In the mid-1960s, Local editor Ellen Newbold wrote a dramatic front-page article, with a photo, of drastic work that was underway on the crumbling VFW Building at 8217 Germantown Avenue,” Hanson recounted. “The building had been condemned, and the VFW had only raised enough money to bring it up to code, so they were taking off the third story.”

Chestnut Hill residents Ann Spaeth and Nancy Hubby responded with an active fundraising campaign to save the historic community landmark, Hanson said, and the Local helped – thundering about this loss every week with articles, editorials, and appeals.

“The minimal community response was disheartening, and demolition continued,” Hanson said. “Then VFW officials raised a challenge – produce $4,000 within the next 48 hours!” 

Which they did. Next, the group needed to raise $35,000 for the building’s restoration. The National Trust for Historic Preservation stepped in with an unprecedented offer to make contributions to the building tax deductible, and donations ranging from 50 cents to $1500 began to arrive.

“Because of the Local editor’s broad and bold articles, editorials, and appeals, the campaign succeeded and produced the Chestnut Hill Historical Society (now called the Chestnut Hill Conservancy),” Hanson said. “Without the Local’s active presence, the VFW building would have been lost. And it’s also possible that no organization dedicated to preserving Chestnut Hill’s past and ensuring its future would exist today.”

Patricia Cove, another Conservancy board member and still one of the Local’s longest-running contributors, said she clearly remembers when she came to realize how much the paper matters. 

“As a member of the Local Management Committee, it became clear how important advertising revenues are to a weekly paper, and how the local businesses benefit from both coverage and more importantly, the benefits of their advertising campaigns,” Cove said. “Our community, as well as the city and surrounding towns, rely on the Chestnut Hill Local to provide the type of information that benefits not only the city as a whole but is both interesting and beneficial to those living nearby.

“As we continue to work on keeping the Local on track as a publication that serves the needs of a contemporary audience, the purpose of this paper is the same as it was in 1958 – to report on the progress and problems of the community in the belief that through a public account, we can better appreciate those successes and solve the problems,” Cove continued. “Here’s to another 60 years.”