Neighborhood Histories: Fishtown

The intersection of Girard & Frankford Aves is the busiest nexus of the neighborhood. Here you can see some neighborhood staples – Johnny Brenda’s and Joe’s Steaks.

 

Fishtown is a neighborhood that escapes definition in all ways. Its boundaries are disputed, its origins unclear, and its population in flux. Fishtown, a small neighborhood along the Delaware River northeast of Center City, can be difficult to define because it was originally merely a subset of the larger Kensington neighborhood. Today, however, Fishtown is a neighborhood in its own right.

 

A snapshot of the Google Map definitely of Fishtown. Depending on who you talk to, the boundaries of the neighborhood could include much more or less than this version.

 

Whether you believe that Charles Dickens christened the Fishtown name or the more accepted version that the name comes from the shad fishing industry that was centered on the neighborhood’s banks, today’s residents take pride in the moniker. Fish-shaped or decorated house number signs hang from at least half of the neighborhood’s homes and murals dot the landscape boasting the name.

 

 

The shad fishing industry along the Fishtown section of the Delaware River was huge in the 19th and 20th centuries. The operation was run by a handful of prominent local families who are consequently credited with the early development of the neighborhood’s housing, churches, and local institutions.

 

Historical residents of the enclave can be traced as follows: originally home to the Lenni Lenape Native Americans, then a small crew of Swedish farmers, later replaced with British gentry, shipbuilders, and German fisherman, and followed in the latter part of the 19th century by a large influx of Polish and Irish Catholic immigrants. The changing populations, which came with various religious affiliations, are evidenced by the many churches in Fishtown. Some, but not nearly all, of these churches include St. Laurentius, Holy Name of Jesus, Immaculate Conception, Kensington Methodist Church, and First Presbyterian Church.

 

The St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church represents some of the struggle between old and new when it comes to historic preservation in Philadelphia. The church holds significance for Polish cultural history in the area, but developers have been eyeing the property for years.

 

Today the Irish and Polish roots of the neighborhood are still evident not only through the churches which remain standing today, but also in the Irish themed bars that still populate some street corners and the multi-generational families, dating back to the original settlers, who still reside here and decorate extravagantly for St. Patrick’s Day every year. These older residents intermingle with a newer influx of college students, young professionals, and retirees flocking back to the city.

 

Murph’s Bar stands as representation of a transitioning neighborhood. While not a historic institution, it is an homage to the Irish bar. Meanwhile, the kitchen churns out some of the best Italian food in the city (a well kept secret of the neighborhood).

 

Some believe Fishtown falls just inside the triangle formed by Girard Avenue, Frankford Avenue, and York Street. Others extend that boundary up to Lehigh Avenue. Some incorporate the entire 19125 zip code into their geography, thus including the smaller enclaves of Olde Richmond, East Kensington, and West Kensington. Regardless of your definition, the Fishtown area is a great neighborhood with so much to offer.

 

 

Fishtown is attractive for its residential scale, small streets populated with well preserved two- and three-story rowhomes, and abundance of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. With many old industrial buildings converted to apartments and eateries, intact examples of early Philadelphia worker housing, and historic green spaces such as Penn Treaty Park and Palmer Cemetery, Fishtown has no lack of Philadelphia heritage despite the changes it has undergone in the past decade.

 

The IceHouse is a thoughtful project that sits on the corner of Columbia Ave & Thompson St. The development blends new construction with renovation of a pre-existing factory building. The structure melds with the neighboring rowhomes.
Hetzell Field is just one of many full-block green spaces in the neighborhood. Here many of the neighborhood youth baseball and soccer teams practice and play games.
This stretch on the 1100 block of East Berks Street holds many intact examples of early worker housing in Fishtown and date to the 1830s.
The origins of Penn Treaty Park date back to 1683 when William Penn entered into a peace agreement with the Lenape. The park was officially dedicated in 1893 and is maintained today by Friends of Penn Treaty.
1003 Frankford Ave is the oldest standing residence and dates to 1785.
Along Frankford Ave are many remnants of late-19th century industrial buildings. 1105-1109 Frankford Ave was originally home to Morse Elevator Works and opened in 1890.
Philadelphia born coffee company La Colombe found its headquarters in a similar former industrial building along Frankford Ave in Fishtown. This shop opened in 2014.
Palmer Cemetery was originally called Kensington Burial Grounds. It was founded by Captain Anthony Palmer, who founded the neighborhood of Kensington, in 1765, and was created to be a free burial ground for residents of the neighborhood. The grounds hold the gravesites of many original families of the neighborhood and veterans dating back to the Revolutionary War.
The fish motif pops up in all sorts of unexpected places around the neighborhood.

 

Holiday decorations are an integral part of life in Fishtown and you’ll see houses decked out for just about every holiday.