Kathleen Truede remembers when Frankford Avenue in Fishtown was mostly abandoned, boarded up buildings. She opened a jewelry store on the street a decade ago; at the time, the block included her store, a post office and a beer distributor.
Today, Fishtown Jewelry is nestled beside a hip coffee shop, with construction — new structures and renovations — happening all around. There’s measurable foot traffic. Taxis fill the street on Fridays and Saturdays. Luxury cars speed down the road; a white stretch limo breezed by as we stood in her store and talked about the neighborhood’s development.
Truede, who’s owned the building that houses her small business for 15 years, said despite what some longtime Fishtown residents say, things have improved.
“It’s a change for the better,” she said, “and Frankford is blossoming.”
A two-mile long stretch of Frankford Avenue from Fishtown into Kensington is undergoing an unmistakable transformation. Dozens of building permits have been issued along the corridor for both businesses and residential real estate. Some small business owners say the bustle has been great for business.
But like many changing commercial corridors in the city, the rent for even longtime stores is skyrocketing. Wine bars and luxury boutiques are in; small businesses say they’re in danger of being priced out.
It’s a complicated balancing act. How do you grow, but keep the spirit of a neighborhood alive?
The changing market
As Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan has pointed out, much of Fishtown’s revival can be attributed to its booming food and drink scene held together along Frankford Avenue.
Johnny Brenda’s and Steven Starr’s Frankford Hall have ruled the bar scene near the intersection of Girard and Frankford while Joe’s Steaks, a new iteration of the Northeast cheesesteak joint, moved in last year and draws large crowds of its own. Farther down Frankford is Fishtown Social, a swanky wine bar. There’s Philly Style Bagels, which has lines out the door every morning of people waiting to snag their signature product, boiled in briney beer.
And at Frankford and Master is the flagship of La Colombe, the 11,000 square foot coffee shop-that-oh-yeah-sells rum, which longtime residents say aided in bringing visitors to Fishtown during the daytime hours. There’s also a vacant lot along Frankford that could soon be a boutique hotel.
Between these bars and restaurants, which draw eaters from across the city, are boutiques and retail spaces flanked by high-end apartments. It’s drawn new residents from those with white-collar, Center City jobs to an influx of college students — a stark contrast to who strode the neighborhood before.
Fishtown long treasured its reputation as a gritty, blue-color row home neighborhood and a quintessential Riverwards experience. Shanta Schachter, the deputy director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, said community members who chimed in on the redevelopment efforts in the early aughts wanted Frankford Avenue’s transformation to reflect its strengths, like the abundance of metalworkers who lived in the area.
Now, the profusion of high-end retail and restaurants has sent housing and retail prices surging — not only on Frankford Avenue, but throughout the neighborhood. Fishtown and Kensington are still more affordable than, say, Old City or Center City. But it’s changing. According to Philly.com, Fishtown retailers three years ago were paying about $18 to $25 a square foot, and that’s increased to about $20 to $35 a square foot today. An infusion of house-hunting young people into the area has sent residential rates rising, too.
“We are kind of very aware of where Old City and Northern Liberties went,” Schachter said, “and it’s important that our neighborhood culture be maintained and retained.”
Is it good for small biz?
Truede, of Fishtown Jewelry, said most other small business owners on Frankford Avenue don’t have a problem with the development along the corridor. They can offset the hikes in their rent with the boost they’re seeing through increased foot traffic.
Schachter said time will tell — as dozens of construction projects take place — if Frankford Avenue will become another high-end street, or if developers can balance where the street is going with where it’s been. Most owners along the corridor are optimistic that increased attention translates to revenues.
“Many of the businesses, particuarly as you move north, are independent and being able to maintain that is critical to survival,” she said. “We’ve always had a long history of being supportive of small business. We want to encourage and protect that segment of the population.”
Bill Russell has owned a decorative furniture store along Frankford Avenue next to Johnny Brenda’s for two decades. He said the space around his business has gone from vacant and abandoned to busy and occupied. Russell says he’s open to change and acknowledged that oftentimes long-time residents in Fishtown say they want the neighborhood to return to what it once was: Quieter. Blue collar. Tight-knit.
“It’s not just this neighborhood, but people always say ‘we liked it better the way it was,'” he said. “And it just can’t be that way.”