Bon Voyage, 23: A Sentimental Farewell to the Historic SEPTA Route

H. L. Gassmann

On Sunday, November 29th at 2:15 am, SEPTA’s route 23 made its last trip from South Philly to Chestnut Hill.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this route. Southbound, the bus began in Chestnut Hill and traveled down Germantown Avenue. Germantown Ave is home to some of the city’s most historic buildings, too large in number, various in purpose, and grand in significance and style to fairly recount here. Its major stretch was once Philadelphia’s center of high-end shopping, but has been decimated in recent decades by the prominence of Center City. The avenue has been the subject of many historical and sociological studies, most notably Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street.

When the 23 turned down 12th street, passengers experienced Philly, north to south. If you had a window seat, the route provided a magnificent tour. It was truly, as Hidden City’s Brad Maule wrote, “a perfect dissection of the city… along the way, the entire city passes by, a study in diversity, socioeconomics, architecture, history, people, neighborhoods: Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown, Nicetown, Tioga, Fairhill, Temple University, West Poplar, Callowhill, Chinatown, Wash West, Bella Vista, South Philadelphia.”

Despite being an iconic bus route, the 23 began as a trolley. Its earliest iteration began in 1887, between Germantown and 8th and Dauphin. It extended into South Philly by 1890. The route evolved over the following decades, but by 1913 it closely resembled the 23 of yesterday. This 1974 history of route 23 claimed it was “the longest known trolley car route in the world.” In 1992, the trolleys were pulled and passengers on the 23 traveled instead by bus. The trolley tracks are still set into the streets.

But from now on, the 23 runs from Bethlehem Pike and Germantown Avenue to 12th and Walnut on its southbound trip. Northbound buses travel up 11th Street to Germantown Ave. Passengers can transfer freely between the 23 and the new 45 bus. The 45 operates northbound on 11th and southbound on 12th between 12th and Noble and Broad and Oregon.

Prior to this split, the 23 was SEPTA’s longest bus route. It boasted the most ridership: 21,671 passengers on a given weekday, according to SEPTA’s 2015 route statistics. But the bus also elicited the most complaints from riders, and in 2014 was recorded as being late 64% of the time. Maule adds that it has the most reported “pass-ups,” which is when a bus fills up and has to drive past hopeful riders waiting at their stops. Since the 23 that skipped your stop was probably already late, and you now had to wait for another 23 which would probably also be late, it was easy for the 23 to ruin your plans. Since the route was so long, it was difficult for the bus to make up time and get back on schedule once it was late. SEPTA officials are hoping that by splitting the route into two buses, they can alleviate some of these pains.

So why are so many Philadelphians feeling nostalgic about the split? For long-time residents, this bus has impacted the way they experienced the city from childhood to adulthood. Sure, it was always late, and it was always packed through North Philly and Germantown. But for decades it was a primary way for Philadelphians to travel between Chestnut Hill and South Philly. I asked a good friend who grew up in Germantown and later moved to South Philly how she felt about the passing of the full-length 23. “It’s sad,” she said. “Home was always along the 23.”

I am a relatively recent transplant to the City of Brotherly Love, having moved to North Philly in 2012, but it has been enough time to develop a connection to route 23. I remember Sundays standing on 11th and Cecil B. Moore as an undergrad at Temple, waiting for the northbound 23 to meet up with my brother who lived in Germantown. On Sundays, the bus was scheduled to come every 20 minutes, but it wasn’t uncommon to see two or even three on the same block at once. Some folks must have been waiting at their stop for an hour. The 23 was my formal education on Philadelphia north of Temple U, where I breathed in neighborhoods I suspect too many Temple students have never seen. My trips inspired me to read, to research, to get my boots on the ground – what was that building? Before it was a Walgreens? Before it was abandoned? Before it was a vacant lot? And what I learned inspired me to pursue neighborhood histories, building histories, public history, and an education that will hopefully help somebody someday.

Since moving to West Philly, the 23 has become less relevant to my trips. But Saturday, I trekked down to Broad and Oregon to see the full route through. I had never done this before, having always picked up the 23 on Temple’s campus. It was as interesting and inspiring as I had expected. From South Philly, sometimes sparse, sometimes too hip; to Center City, with its usually upscale and always frenetic atmosphere; to all the North Philly neighborhoods, the beautiful and the bombed-out; to historic Germantown and the high-end Chestnut Hill; what persists is the feeling that even Philly’s bleakest neighborhoods have been, can be, and will be great again.

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