Kensington is the epicenter of Philadelphia's opioid crisis. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

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About four years ago, Shannon Farrell-Pakstis called City Hall to report a concern to her district councilperson. An aide to Councilman Mark Squilla relayed him the message — something about Heitzman Playground in Harrowgate. The councilman was momentarily nonplussed.

“Where the hell’s Harrowgate?” he reportedly asked.

Squilla’s confusion is forgivable. The name traces back to a 1780s health resort that offered medicinal hot springs to well-to-do Philadelphians. Today, the appellation is unfamiliar even to many who grew up in the neighborhood, which is one of the enclaves that make up the city’s River Wards.

At H and Tioga streets, a metal fence wraps around the courtyard of the Harrowgate PAL Center inside the Harrowgate Plaza shopping center, which, according to maps, sits at the northwest corner of the neighborhood.

“No, the kids just call it North Philly here,” said police officer Frank Rivera, director of the Harrowgate PAL Center for the last 20 years.

Another PAL worker chimed in. “Once you step outside this gate, it’s Kensington,” he said.

Due east on Tioga Street, past the covered-porch rowhomes and under the Market-Frankford El, sits Harrowgate Park — the locus of its eponymous neighborhood. Yet good luck finding anyone on the street who calls it Harrowgate. They may know someone who calls it that, however.

Pastor Michael Wright presides over a small, predominantly African American church on nearby Venango Street. He’s not from the neighborhood, but he sees several divides in who calls it what.

“I think anyone 50 years or older who grew up there calls it Harrowgate, but the younger generations all call it Kensington,” Wright said.

‘Port Richmond’ when news is good, ‘Kensington’ when it’s bad

A 41-year-old native of the neighborhood, Farrell-Pakstis started the Harrowgate Civic Association five years ago in part to address its existential crisis. Her entire life she’s been correcting people — mostly fellow Philadelphians — for conflating her neighborhood with its working-class siblings of Kensington and Port Richmond.

Just look at the breaking news headlines for a case study, she says.

“Anytime something bad happens here, it’s Kensington. Anytime something good happens, it’s Port Richmond,” she said.

Neighborhood names come and go. It’s been decades since Harrowgate was part of Philadelphia’s common vernacular.

Proof of the neighborhood name on display at the Harrowgate Plaza shopping center Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn

A 1975 Philadelphia neighborhood guide observed that “not many local people use the name today, though some do, to differentiate themselves from the rest of Kensington.” In those years, some Harrowgaters claimed themselves as residents of “Upper Kensington” to set themselves apart from their (often poorer) neighbors to the south. Others simply called their domain “K&A,” the shorthand for the area around Kensington and Allegheny Avenues that’s still used today.

“It’s important for the community to claim the name and have their own identity,” Farrell-Pakstis said. “Kensington has gotten so huge, and people need to stand apart. I’m trying to teach people that we own neighborhood, and we can take pride.”

The civic association now defines Harrowgate as a pentagonal shape between Trenton Avenue and H Street bounded by Allegheny to the south and Sedgley Avenue to the north.

One thing stacked against the mission is the diminishing number of landmarks within those borders.

Beyond the shopping center and PAL Center, Farrell-Pakstis points to the Harrowgate Boxing Club, the Harrowgate VFW, and, of course, the capacious Harrowgate Park. The Free Library’s historic map collection shows a number of other namesakes once existed, most of the them surrounding the hot springs attraction. There was a Harrowgate Hotel, a Harrowgate Tavern and even a Harrowgate Lane that cut across the territory.

Shifting demographics, shifting names

Geographers, historians and urban planners in Philadelphia tend to agree population shifts are the driving force behind adoption of new neighborhood names and extinction of old ones.

Sometimes forced gentrification is cited as the main driver for these rebrandings — like what happened with South Philly’s Newbold, which overlaps with the better-known neighborhood of Point Breeze. A Kensington-area developer was roasted in 2017 over his ill-fated campaign to rebrand sections as “Stonewall Heights.”

But the name Harrowgate wasn’t actively replaced so much as it fell out of style as the neighborhood’s demographics shifted, triggered by industrial decline and white flight.

In the late 19th century, the area attracted Irish, German and Scottish immigrants with its then-booming textile factories. Through the heyday of urban manufacturing, these Harrowgaters developed a company town, walking from their rowhouses to industrial plants where they labored in often harsh conditions.

The second half of the 20th century saw these hardscrabble quarters fall into a decline. Factories closed and jobs went overseas. Beginning in the late 1980s, Harrowgate and its neighbor Kensington saw a wide-scale racial remapping.

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In 1990, the census tract that contains Harrowgate Park was reported as 97 percent white. That population dropped over the next decades: By 2010, whites made up just 25 percent.

Meanwhile, this same slice of Harrowgate went from having virtually no black population in 1990 to being 27 percent black in 2010. It also went from about 2 percent Hispanic to 46 percent Hispanic, census data shows.

Many of the Harrowgate-name proponents like Farrell-Pakstis are descendents of the European immigrant families. But in the more racially varied neighborhood of today, she says, the civic group’s efforts are helping drive a proud resurgence of the name among many classes and ethnicities.

“Neighbors come to our meetings and start to get involved,” Farrell-Pakstis said. “Then they start calling it Harrowgate, and they take a liking to it. Now they’re meeting people who also say, ‘Hey, I know where Harrowgate is.’”

Councilman Squilla’s office has also noticed the effect. More residents than before use the name when they call with questions or comments, an aide said. (And he knows what they mean now, too.)

Farrell-Pakstis said she recently came across a news article that referred to the neighborhood by its “proper” name. Granted, it was a report of a nasty car accident on Frankford Avenue. But the civic leader was no less pleased.

“If we wanna push Harrowgate,” she said, “you gotta take the good with the bad.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...