It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, entertainment options and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love Fishtown? Buy the stuff.
If you’re living in Philadelphia nowadays, you’ve probably heard about the changes in Fishtown. The one-time mostly white, working class neighborhood not far northeast of Center City holds a rich history along the riverfront that dates back to the doings of Billy Penn himself. Now, the neighborhood has become the creative epicenter of the city — it’s home to more artists and musicians than any other area, and it’s exploded with bars, restaurants and entertainment.
While some parts of the neighborhood still struggle to eradicate drug problems and shrug off the stereotype that the area holds racism close, it’s working to better integrate the generations of neighborhood residents and the young newcomers who have made Fishtown boom.
The boundaries of Fishtown are in some ways up for debate, but they’re usually seen as between Frankford Avenue, the Delaware River and York Street.
(Because the data in this story is based on census tract data, take note that the data actually extends past York Street up to Lehigh Avenue.)
Population Age 20-to-34
4,374 or 35 percent
Rent vs. Own
33 percent rent vs. 66 percent own
Median home values and rent prices
Fishtown’s median home value currently sits at $255,400, representing a nearly 10 percent increase over the last year, according to Zillow. Over the next year? The real estate company predicts the median home value will rise another 5 percent. The median rent price in Fishtown is $1,800, about $500 more than the the Philadelphia-wide median.
I know it seems simple, but Fishtown is actually named because… fish — this riverfront neighborhood was once the center of the shad fishing industry in Philadelphia. The name was used as a sort of derogatory joke in the 1700s and 1800s, and from there, it just stuck.
What Used to Be
The Historic Delaware Station
This building is massive and, in many ways, decaying and falling apart. The Fishtown power plant was built in 1920 on 10 acres of waterfront property, and though it’s now abandoned, many have called for its restoration — maybe, say some, it could even be turned into a museum. All we know is that this drone video of the plant is sick.
A.J. Reach and Co. baseball factory
This former factory that sits at the corner of Tulip and Palmer Streets has been abandoned for decades since the industrial age in Philadelphia ruled. The factory that opened in the early 1900s made gloves, hats and baseballs and holds a history of the sport that few buildings in Philadelphia do. But it’s going to be changing soon — developers announced this year that the building will be turned in 30 apartments. Above is a rendering of what that will look like.
Fishtown residents have been buried at the Palmer Cemetery in Fishtown since the Revolutionary War. While Swedish immigrants settled in Fishtown after Native Americans, the cemetery reflects the changing cultural and ethnic makeup of the neighborhood, and holds burial grounds for German, Polish, Irish and English families that took up residence in the area. This cemetery is what used to be, but it’s also what still is — it’s still in use today. And some neighbors say the spirits of Revolutionary and Civil War veterans are still around…
This neighborhood just northeast of Center City Philadelphia was once settled by the Lenni Lenape Tribe of Native Americans who called it the Shackamaxon Village. European settlers — first Swedes, then Germans and British — moved into the area in the 19th Century seeking the easy fishing that was so close to the area. At the time, it was seen as a subsection of Kensington.
At the time, at Penn Treaty Park, William Penn entered into his famous agreement with the Native Americans that entered into a peace treaty. It’s why the Billy Penn statue that sits atop City Hall was situated to be always looking toward Fishtown.
Not long after, Polish and Irish immigrants began settling in Fishtown as well, constructing Catholic Churches throughout the neighborhood. Since then, and for the last 250 years, Fishtown has been a predominately white, working-class neighborhood that saw its fair share of economic and drug-related struggles in the 1900s. Racial tension marked the major issues in the last several decades, and at one point, Charles Murray — who co-authored The Bell Curve — used Fishtown as an example several years back of everything that is wrong with America in terms of “cultural decay.”
But those issues have subsided in recent years as Fishtown has experienced widespread gentrification and a massive influx of young professionals moving into the neighborhood who, in some ways, couldn’t find a cool, hip spot in Northern Liberties. Fishtown is now home to dozens of new restaurants, bars, shops and boutiques, and could soon be getting its first hotel. Now Fishtown’s challenge moving forward will be integrating its longtime residents with its newcomers, whether that’s racially, culturally or economically.
Community Gathering Places
Fishtown Recreation Center – 1202 E. Montgomery Ave.
Shissler Recreation Center – 1800 Blair Street
Donna Cooper, a former top Ed Rendell staffer, and Michael DiBerardinis, the one-time secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and current deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, live in Fishtown.
There was also the rumor that Bill Murray likes to hang out at the El Bar. We’re really not sure this is true, but hey, it’s a hipster legend.
Thing to check out
The River City Festival: For the last seven years, the Fishtown Neighbors Association has put on the River City Festival, an annual event that draws art and food vendors and more than 10,000 attendees to Penn Treaty Park.
When you walk around Fishtown, you’ll notice that some residents still have “Casin-NO” signs dangling in their windows. That’s because the possible addition of SugarHouse Casino along the Delaware River in 2006 (when it was granted a gaming license) caused controversy throughout the neighborhood — some wanted the positive economic impact that the complex could bring, others didn’t want gamblers and partiers hanging around Fishtown.
In fact, when the casino was being considered in 2007, neighbors were actually split into two associations: FACT (Fishtown Action), which was pro-casino, and FAST (Fishtown Against Sugarhouse Takeover), which was, obviously, against. In case you missed it, the casino won and was built with its first phase opening in 2010.
St. Laurentius Catholic Church
More recently, some Fishtown residents have taken up the cause of saving the St. Laurentius Catholic Church on East Berks Street — the Archdiocese closed the church last year and, in October, decertified it. But some residents say the historic church built in the late 19th century shouldn’t be demolished and have formed a Save St. Laurentius committee to lobby the city and the Archdiocese to keep the building standing.
Jason Sweeney murder
The brutal murder of a Fishtown teenager in 2003 left the city — and in many ways, the nation — utterly stunned and shook the neighborhood to its core. Jason Sweeney, a 16-year-old Fishtown resident, was lured away thinking he was on a romantic getaway with a girl. Instead, three of his teenage friends beat him to death and robbed him of $500, some speculate to use on drugs. Domenic Coia, Nicholas Coia and Edward Batzig Jr. admitted to the killing and were sentenced to life in prison without parole for the heinous crime. Appeals the men have made to have their sentences reduced have been denied.
Penn Treaty Park