The AmeriCorps Member Guide to Philadelphia
AmeriCorps members pose in front of the “I Love Philly” sign at LOVE Park, 2019.
Making the decision to move to a new city can be difficult. You may worry about the cost of living, securing housing, transportation, or wonder if Philadelphia and city living is the right fit for you.
These are questions that other AmeriCorps members and I all considered when first relocating to Philadelphia for our year of service with City Year. Though I grew up in the Philly suburbs and had visited the city before, I had to move from my college town near Baltimore and stressed over the best way to find housing when I was two hours away from Philly. Other Corps members had similar experiences, in some cases moving from hundreds of miles away to serve without ever having visited the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.
I spoke with five City Year Philadelphia AmeriCorps members (ACMs) and staff about their experiences as Corps members living and serving in Philly. Some of the ACMs I spoke with were born and raised in the city, while others relocated here within the last year.
Whether you are moving from across the country or from the Philadelphia suburbs, you will find that your year of service in Philly is filled with opportunities and adventures. Take a look at what our Corps members have to say!
Interviews with ACMs and staff have been edited for length and clarity.
Section #1: Moved to Philadelphia for Service
Stephanie Dennis, First-Year AmeriCorps member at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary
Johnny Hartmann, First-Year AmeriCorps member at Kensington High School
Left: Stephanie Dennis, First Year AmeriCorps Member
Right: First Year AmeriCorps Member, Johnny Hartmann (pictured right), helping to mix and run paint on City Year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service
Where did you move from and what made you choose Philadelphia as a place to live and serve?
SD: I moved to Philly from Hudsonville, Michigan. Honestly, Philadelphia wasn’t in my top choices, but I was interested in serving wherever City Year needed Corps members most. The recruiter mentioned that Philadelphia might be a better location for service because the site often pushes for new, innovative ideas. The way that my recruiter described City Year Philly changed my mind [about serving in Philadelphia].
How did you secure housing in Philadelphia, particularly as folks moving from out-of-state?
JH: City Year initially sent me some information about a Philadelphia Housing Facebook group. It was made up of college students and people in their early 20s looking for housing all over the city. I didn’t really get any leads on that, so I followed up with City Year and they shared the name of a realtor, or a landlord, who has housed Corps members in their properties before. I connected with the realtor, and that’s how I ended up in the place that I’m renting out now for the year.
What was the most difficult part of securing housing moving from a different state?
JH: I didn’t run into too many difficulties finding housing. I was worried about it at first, but once I contacted that realtor, I was pretty much set. However, I had never visited Philly before moving here, so I wasn’t familiar yet with the neighborhood. I think what was more difficult was the actual moving part. I didn’t want to spend money on a U-Haul, so I had to pack everything into my car.
Can you tell me about your adjustment to the Philly lifestyle? What was the most unexpected thing that you experienced?
SD: I’d say there was a cultural shock when I first moved here. Coming from the Midwest, there’s this thing called “Midwest niceness.” People from the Midwest are just too kind! And Philadelphians are very direct, and I had to learn that. But I would say that through the months I’ve lived here, I do appreciate the directness. I’m still constantly learning how my lifestyle and upbringing is a little bit different from people on the East Coast.
JH: Public transit took some time to get used to. But once I downloaded the Google Maps app, it was super easy to navigate. And I think overall just living in a big city was a major adjustment for me.
What do you appreciate most about Philadelphia?
SD: I like how close you are to other East Coast cities, especially New York, which is a place that I would like to live someday. I also have family down in Washington, D.C., and it’s very easy to go visit them on a weekend.
I also appreciate the subway system. Detroit doesn’t really have a subway system, so you’re really just relying on buses there. It’s nice having more flexibility and freedom of movement that come from having subway trains.
Is there anything that you wish you knew about Philly before moving here?
SD: I wish I knew that Philly is unique with its own cultural aspects that don’t really fit into the same box as other East Coast cities—for instance, how enthusiastic the sports fans are. Detroit really only has the Red Wings who are good in professional sports, so most people root for the Green Bay Packers or Chicago teams. That is an aspect to Philly that I had not experienced before, which I like. This year, I rooted for a team that made it to the Super Bowl, which felt really new and exciting.
What are your favorite things about Philly that may be different from your hometown?
JH: I love the number of museums here. I’m from Richmond, VA which has a great art museum, but the Philadelphia Museum of Art is ginormous. You can spend hours there and leave without having explored everything.
Corps members pose for a photo outside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.
What are your tips for living in and enjoying the city on a low budget?
SD: Relying on SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) to get around the city is so helpful when you’re on a budget. For food shopping, I write out my grocery lists in advance and rotate the different items that I need each week. For fun, I love to try out new coffee shops and restaurants. I recently just found Spread Bagelry, which I really like since bagel shops are not big in the Midwest.
JH: I highly recommend applying for SNAP/EBT, if you can. All Corps members are eligible to apply. But if you have a second job outside of service, it may not be accessible to you because of the maximum income limit. Also, try to limit ordering food or eating out too much. When you do want takeout, avoid delivery fees by ordering from places nearby where you can walk and pick up your own order.
I also learned about Buy Nothing groups here. If you need a lamp, a toaster or something random, look into joining your neighborhood’s Buy Nothing group on Facebook.
Do you have any last tips to incoming Corps members who are moving to Philadelphia to start their year of service?
JH: If you’re looking for housing, definitely ask City Year if they know of any realtors or landlors who have rented out to Corps members before. That’s how I found housing, and I think it’s one of the easiest ways to secure a place.
Also, if you’re moving here and aren’t familiar with Philly, get out of your apartment and explore. Get to know your surroundings, find nice little shops and cool activities you can do. That’s something I wish I did earlier in my year of service.
Section #2: Moved to Philadelphia for School and Stayed to Serve
Matt Valenti, Senior Development Operations Manager at City Year Philadelphia (CYP alum ’15, ’16)
Left: Matt Valenti as a First Year AmeriCorps Member at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School on Pi Day, 2015
Right: Matt in his current role as Senior Development Operations Manager, 2023
Where did you move from? What school/team did you serve at? How long have you lived in Philadelphia?
MV: I moved to Philadelphia from Bethel, Connecticut, and I moved here for college at Temple University. I served two years at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School in the Olney neighborhood in North Philly, first as an AmeriCorps member in 2014-15 and then as a Team Leader in 2015-16. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 13 years now.
What neighborhood do you currently live in? Have you ever lived in any other neighborhood(s)?
MV: I’ve lived in the Cedar Park neighborhood in West Philly since 2014. I lived in that neighborhood for both of my Corps years and continue to live there today. When I was a Temple student, I lived just outside of campus near 10th and Cecil B. Moore and then near 16th and Montgomery.
What was the most confusing or overwhelming thing in navigating a new city when you first moved here, and what tips would you give to someone just moving to the city?
MV: I would say having to transition from a very car-centric lifestyle to a car-free lifestyle. I didn’t have a car for the first three years that I lived in the city. Moving from a small town where you have to drive everywhere to a city with no car was an adjustment.
But you no longer have to worry about things like finding parking. You just hop on the bus and go! Being car-free opened me up to the whole city, I took advantage of it.
How did you first make friends when moving here? How about when starting with CYP?
MV: I first made friends in college through my freshman year roommate. Moving down here from Connecticut, I didn’t know anyone in the Philly area. My roommate was from the Philly suburbs and knew many students at Temple, so he introduced me to a lot of people. I also got to be pretty good friends with people in my dorm.
But after graduation when I started City Year, I was kind of back at square one where I knew no one again. Most of my friends from Temple had moved out of the city. But I made some really strong friendships with people on my City Year team. When you spend nine hours a day, five days a week with each other, it’s hard to not build a relationship with them. When I was a Team Leader, my whole Senior Corps cohort really bonded over the summer and stayed super close throughout the year.
What are your tips for living in and enjoying the city on a low budget?
MV: I think there’s always something going on in the city during the warmer months that are little to no cost. Be open to those opportunities and try new things. Maybe you normally don’t want to go to attend a parade because it isn’t your typical vibe, but since it’s free and something to do, just go and do it!
I had very outdoorsy parents, so I had a lot of hand-me-down hiking and camping gear. This may not be super accessible for everyone living the stipend life, but if you have access to a car, there are great camping spots just 90 minutes outside of the city. Other Corps members and I would take a mini-vacation and go camping for the weekend.
Section #3: Lifelong Philadelphians
Jianna Frei, First-Year AmeriCorps member at Roxborough High School
Sean McClendon, First-Year AmeriCorps member at Southwark Elementary
Left: Jianna Frei, First Year AmeriCorps Member
Right: Sean McClendon, First Year AmeriCorps Member
How long have you been living in Philadelphia? What neighborhood do you currently live in, and have you lived in any other neighborhoods?
JF: I’ve lived in Philly my whole life, all 20 years of it. I was raised in South Philadelphia, but I went to school in different neighborhoods. I went to elementary and middle schools in South Philadelphia and to Mercy Career and Technical High School in North Philadelphia.
SM: I’ve lived in Philadelphia my whole life. I was born in Hahnemann Hospital off of Vine Street and lived very briefly in North Philly when I was young. For most of my life, I have lived in South Philly. I went to Children’s Village for preschool in Chinatown, then to General George McCall Elementary by South Street. I went to Julia R. Masterman for both middle and high schools.
What are some common misconceptions that newcomers might have about Philadelphians or the city itself?
SM: I think some first misconceptions are about safety concerns in the city, rather than on our close-knit neighborhoods. There are a lot of positive things going on in our neighborhoods and in the way that our communities support each other.
In your opinion, what are the hidden gems that just don’t get enough hype?
Race Street Pier (photo courtesy of R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)
SM: South Philly, honestly. So many cultures are represented in the neighborhood. For me, it always felt like the heart of the city, where a lot of people who live there actually reflect the city’s diversity. There are so many restaurants, shops and vibrancy in South Philly that a lot of people don’t get to experience because they’re so focused on Center City, Chinatown, or Old City. Same goes for West Philly, too; not as many people explore the areas outside of University City.
I’m of half-Indonesian descent, and one particular restaurant that I want to shout out is D’Jakarta Cafe in South Philly. As for shops, I recommend the thrift shops on South Street. South Philly also has the Italian Market, and Washington Avenue has many other Asian restaurants and markets.
What is the most convenient way to get around the city?
SM: I think it depends on the part of the city that you’re traveling from or heading to and how much access each has to public transportation. Some places out in Northeast Philly or West Philly require a lot of transfers between buses or trains, whereas if you’re just traveling north/south or east/west, it’s pretty straightforward. I’d say the subways are more reliable when you can take them, but it depends on where you’re going. You probably will take a bus at some point, which can be a little slower, but they are nice when you time the commute right. I have also taken the trolleys before, and they’re fine; they just don’t move as fast and are less frequent than the subways.
Do you have any tips for finding housing within the city? Are there any neighborhoods that you think are particularly affordable or wallet-friendly for ACMs?
SM: I think for affordable neighborhoods, generally look toward places outside of Center City. I would look just outside of that area like in South Philly. There are less expensive housing options, all while remaining accessible to other parts of Philly that you’ll love.
If you’re near Philadelphia already, like in the suburbs, pick a neighborhood you like and walk around. Look for “rent” signs and opportunities to talk to current renters in the area.
What are your favorite things to do in the city on an off day?
JF: The Convention Center is a huge one for me, because they always have events going on, such as the annual Flower Show and Auto Show. Right next door is the Fashion District, which has the mall, bowling, and a movie theater all in the same building. It’s perfect for date night or for a fun night out with friends. As I said earlier, Penn’s Landing is also great, especially during the summertime when they have the hammocks out at Spruce Street Harbor Park. They also have a great selection of food trucks!
Spruce Street Harbor Park (photo courtesy of Delaware River Waterfront)
SM: In the warmer months, it’s so nice just to be outdoors. Go to a park and have a picnic with friends, or take a walk along Martin Luther King Drive or the Schuylkill River Trail. There are other parks too, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park (FDR Park) way down South Philly. On warmer weekends, FDR Park has a bunch of different food vendors selling Cambodian and Indonesian dishes. In the fall or winter, there’s ice skating and a winter village at City Hall. It’s also nice to catch more indoor activities like bowling or karaoke.
If you or your friends have a car, there are great places outside of the city, too. Peddler’s Village is nice, and you can also go further into Pennsylvania, and even into New Jersey, for shopping and exploring.
What are your tips for living in and enjoying the city on a low budget?
JF: Take advantage of pay-what-you-wish days at museums. On the first Sunday of every month and every Friday night, you can pay what you want to get into the Philly Art Museum.
There’s also a lot of open scenery in Philadelphia where you can just look at the city skyline and take in the views, like walking across the Ben Franklin Bridge. Do a lot of these free activities that are easy on your wallet, so you can save up for other things like going to a Philly sports game!
View of the Ben Franklin Bridge from Penn’s Landing (Photo by Taryn Painter)
Are there any other tips that you would like to give to incoming ACMs on how to navigate Philadelphia or their City Year?
JF: Things change all the time. As long as you have an open heart and mind and are willing to adjust to anything that happens, this year will be a great experience for you.
SM: Explore what the city has to offer and talk to people who live here. Have a point person who can answer your questions or can show you around. Even then, solo exploration is also fun. You’ll build your own little insights that even native Philadelphians haven’t even found, since everyone has different interests. Just throw yourself into the city, and you’ll find that it gives back. It’s a wonderful place to live that will feel like home. Philadelphia is filled with so much—just seek it out!
Are you considering a year of service, or do you know someone who is? City Year Philly is hiring full-time Student Success Coaches to serve as tutors and mentors in Philadelphia schools. Start your journey today.
Many City Year Philadelphia (CYP) alumni credit their year of service with transforming their lives, leading to lasting friendships, newfound...Read more about City Year Philly Love Stories (part 2)
At the start of the new fiscal year, CYP welcomed Kerri Strike-Stahller and Debby Kuhn as our new Site Board...Read more about Introducing City Year Philly’s New Board Leadership: Kerri Strike-Stahller and Debby Kuhn
Keimahney Carlisle (pictured fourth, red jacket) writes about her experiences serving on City Year Philadelphia’s 2022-23 Civic Engagement team. ...Read more about Creating impact, one event at a time: Behind the scenes with CYP's Civic Engagement team
Cameron Cheatham, incoming 2023-24 City Year Philadelphia AmeriCorps member, writes about his personal experiences that drew him to service. ...Read more about Ready to Serve: My Journey to City Year Philly