Neighborhood Histories: Fishtown
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.
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.
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.
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.