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Neighborhood Histories: Northern Liberties

The Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia was created by William Penn himself, only it wasn’t originally part of the city. The earlier Northern Liberties Township came from large tracts of rural land available in the area in the late 1600s. The “liberty lands” were allotted to settlers based on the size of their land purchase. Created as a less dense alternative to Center City, Northern Liberties was deemed “Philadelphia’s first suburb”. The neighborhood was officially annexed into Philadelphia in 1854.

The aptly named Liberty Lands park is a point of pride for the neighborhood.

Given its situation just outside the city’s core, it makes sense that Northern Liberties has a rich manufacturing history. Industry of all sorts flocked to the spacious tracts in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The types of factories included mills, breweries, tanneries, chemical and paint works, tool manufacture, and iron and stove foundries.

A former medicine factory on Fairmount Ave. converted into apartments over the last few years with some accompanying new construction.

The 19th century settlers of the neighborhood were mostly German artisans. Later, the early 20th century brought an influx of Eastern European immigrants, namely Slovakian and Romanian. These populations are still present today in their respective churches, St. Agnes Slovak Roman Catholic Church at 4th & Brown Streets and the Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church at American & Brown Streets, both of which remain active (although under a different name in the latter’s case).

The Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church (now St. John’s Church) at American & Brown Streets (above) and St. Agnes Slovak Roman Catholic Church at 4th & Brown Streets (below).

Nestled amongst the former factories and other industrial buildings, Northern Liberties also portrays some significant historic architectural styles, with many blocks of rowhomes still intact. The architectures that dominate the area are Italianate, Greek Revival, and Federal. The abundance of these blocks is at least partially due to the creation of the Northern Liberties Historic District in 1985 and the fact that many buildings have made it onto the National Register of Historic Places.

Some gorgeous twins on 5th Street with mansard roofs (above), and some rare Federal style rowhomes on Fairmount Ave (below).

It is for this reason that Northern Liberties has maintained its historic charm and character even while undergoing some drastic changes. In the past few decades the neighborhood has experienced significant development and an influx of new residents such as young professionals, students, and artists. Given the proximity to Center City – you can be downtown in under ten minutes by subway, bus, or car – the attractiveness of the neighborhood to people of all occupations makes sense. In Northern Liberties you can experience all the convenience of living close to downtown, while also having a close knit neighborhood feel, more space, and lower housing costs compared to Center City neighborhoods such as Rittenhouse Square, Fitler Square, and Society Hill.

As a result of the large swaths of land left open by de-industrialization in the mid- to late-1900s, redevelopment of the neighborhood was able to happen with exceptional vigor. While Northern Liberties does have plenty of historic rowhome architecture, the collection of styles has always been more eclectic than, say, the uniform rows of homes in South Philadelphia neighborhoods. Since the landscape was already quirky and diverse, the new construction, often hulking in some areas, meshes better here.

The eclectic nature of Northern Liberties architectural styles (above and below).

Today Northern Liberties has an exciting array of housing types, with the grand, old three story rowhomes still intact amongst new construction condos and townhomes. There is also a bustling commercial corridor to be found along 2nd Street where new restaurants, coffee shops, and stores are popping up everyday. The neighborhood still maintains its distinctive character and intimate feel, despite its booming growth and inflow of new residents.

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.