Friday, 11 p.m. The Garage’s roll-up doors are wide-open, and crowds spill onto the patios and sidewalks along Girard Avenue. Across the street, twentysomethings line up for Joe’s cheesesteaks and Weckerly’s ice cream sandwiches. It doesn’t matter that winter temperatures dip below freezing; on weekends, droves of people from New Jersey and all over Philly come by train, car, and Uber to the hopping Riverwards neighborhood of Fishtown.
Named in the 1800s for its booming shad fishing industry, Fishtown became a manufacturing sector filled with shipyards, lumber, and textiles when the fish ran out. Eventually, Fishtown fell into blight, surviving as a working-class neighborhood full of dilapidated warehouses, shuttered storefronts, and frequent drug abuse. In the early 2000s, the narrative began to change.
Bisected by the El’s Market-Frankford line, the epicenter of Fishtown’s action is where its rebirth began: the corner of Frankford and Girard Avenue. Here a neighborhood bar named Johnny Brenda’s changed ownership in 2003 and put this crossroads on the map. Others followed, drawn by vacant buildings and cheap rent.
But it was Frankford Hall, Stephen Starr’s indoor-outdoor beer garden, that brought Center City crowds in 2011. Eight years later, Fishtown has become a destination in its own right—instead of an afterthought to the nearby and already successful Northern Liberties. And as its restaurants and bars receive awards and rave reviews, the change keeps coming, with new rowhomes and restaurants rising by the day.
However, Fishtown’s success comes with a cost: rising real estate prices, new businesses replacing old favorites, and the tearing down of many structures to make room for progress. Fishtown residents have begun to wonder if they’ll lose the neighborhood they’ve come to love. But Fishtown is different. In a time when America’s suburbs all start to look the same, its residents have fought to preserve its character even as corporations seek to cash in.
Fishtown is located in Northeast Philly’s Riverwards along the Delaware River, but where exactly it starts and ends is unclear. The parameters set by the nonprofit Fishtown Neighbors Association say Fishtown runs “from the Delaware River to Laurel Street, Laurel Street to Front Street, Front Street to Norris Street, Norris Street to Trenton Avenue, Trenton Avenue to Frankford Avenue, Frankford Avenue to York Street, and York Street to the Delaware River.” Easily accessible by the El’s Market-Frankford Line, it’s less than a 10-minute ride to Center City and walkable to Northern Liberties and Old City.
A Neighborhood’s Evolution
Seventeen years after Johnny Brenda’s kickstarted Fishtown’s rebirth, the bar still anchors the neighborhood with delicious eats, an upstairs concert venue, and Citywide Specials (Philly’s beloved beer-and-a-shot combo).
When we first moved to Fishtown six years ago, Frankford Avenue was a bit of a dark, dead, not-so-safe walking zone between Frankford Hall and the opposite end’s Pizza Brain. But when La Colombe opened its flagship roastery, it pushed the progress of the street on with Heffe Tacos, Kensington Quarters, and Philly Style Bagels opening soon after, and row after rowhome rising along its corridor.
Now-vibrant Frankford Ave. is home to Suraya, an all-day Lebanese café and restaurant that critics (and regular folks) agree is Philly’s best, along with other faves such as Cheu Noodle Bar and izakaya bar Nunu. On the adjacent alley, Pizzeria Beddia (long a two-man operation that sold just 40 pies a day) has returned with a new 120-seat, sit-down space, making some of America’s best pizzas that are now paired with wine, soft-serve, and salads.
And while much has been torn down in the name of new construction, other historic sites and classic businesses remain. When the long-vacant Ajax Metal Company was converted into Philadelphia Distilling’s gin lounge and an East Coast Fillmore concert venue, preservationists cheered. Evil Genius Beer Company found an abandoned auto mechanic shop on Front Street and remodeled it into an ’80s-themed beer bar—repurposing some of the old auto body equipment into a chandelier.
Neighborhood haunts like Murph’s, an Irish bar with a basement chef, still serve up some of the area’s best Italian, and classic dives such as El Bar and Fishtown Tavern continue to thrive. But swanky establishments have found an audience in Fishtown too. Wood-fired pizzas and handmade pasta star at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, an Italian eatery in a long-abandoned whiskey bottling shop, and 20-course, sake-paired meals (that cost as much as an airline flight) are served at Hiroki, a neighboring Japanese omakase restaurant. You can sip cheap happy hour Old Fashioneds at Fette Sau or chic craft cocktails next door at R&D. All coexist, catering to the different Fishtowners who can’t get enough of this evolving neighborhood.
Farther down Frankford, axe throwing, arts and crafts workshops, breweries, fitness studios, and mommy and me fitness boutiques have gentrified the region—with lauded bar Martha elevating this neighborhood’s food and drink offerings. And even though it seems like every vacant shop and empty lot is taken, the area is still developing at breakneck pace. This month, the new Corridor Contemporary art gallery opened on Frankford, and Fabrika, a long-awaited cabaret-style dinner theater, is hot on its heels.
But a community is growing here too. Charity events like the Chili Cookoff gather neighbors together and raise funds for the Fishtown Neighbors Association, and residents pitch in to pick up trash at cleanups fueled by free pizza and beer. Fishtown Beer Runners, the area’s running club, has made the neighborhood nationally recognized as it’s grown the club across the country and even launched the filmed-in-Fishtown movie, Beer Runners.
The Next Brooklyn?
Philadelphia has already been nicknamed Manhattan’s sixth borough as tides of New Yorkers move south. And where do many of them land? Fishtown. Seeking a Williamsburg-type experience, many Brooklynites resettle in this neighborhood where a couple can still afford a home. As accolades pour in, foodie walking tours and unfamiliar faces become more common sights. The media is catching on too. Forbes named it “America’s Best Neighborhood” in 2019, Condé Nast Traveler called it “Philadelphia’s best neighborhood” in 2017, and the Wall Street Journal even noted that its historically affordable housing market is fast rising.
With the honors come corporations looking for a slice of the success, but the neighborhood residents and business owners remain committed to maintaining its hyperlocal focus—while continuing to improve the area. You’ll find nary a Chipotle, Walmart, or big-box retailer on Frankford Ave., with unique, home-run establishments ranging from fancy restaurants to old dive bars filling the block. And even as its popularity soars, there are only two hotels: the Lokal Hotel, with six apartment-style rooms, and Mulherin’s Hotel, which has just four suites, leaving visitors to ride in on the train or book an Airbnb and experience Fishtown like a local.
Culture over Corporations
But corporate giants are closing in, much to the dismay of Fishtownies. I grew up in Salt Lake City in the ’90s, and we once boasted a hip, Fishtown-esque neighborhood called Sugarhouse, which was packed with consignment stores, coffee shops, and unique boutiques. But as the buzz grew, the wrecking balls came, bringing chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and Barnes & Noble to fill new shopping centers. As a Fishtown resident, I’m grateful the community believes in growth and change, but not at the risk of losing its Riverwards soul.
When Starbucks came knocking with hopes of opening a “local-centric” store in a new building on Frankford Ave., the neighbors fought back. Starbucks had to present its concept to the Fishtown Neighbors Association—thanks to the Central Delaware Zoning Overlap, which mandates that restaurants and nightclubs meet with communities to make sure proposed businesses fit into the context of the area. Despite plans to cover the place in fish murals and host local events, the neighborhood wasn’t having it.
The Fishtown Neighbors Association voted overwhelmingly (12 for, 40 against) in opposition to the proposal, a win for those set on protecting the corridor’s character by keeping corporations out. The coffee chain was denied a special exception under the Central Delaware Zoning Overlay and is expected to appeal the decision. But for now, the neighbors hold sway, keeping La Colombe and neighboring Steap and Grind as the block’s prevailing coffee shops.
Sure, there’s no Target in Fishtown and no Starbucks to over-caffeinate us, but we don’t need it. Fishtown isn’t perfect. But it’s ours. A hipster haven filled with makers, moms, and regular folks dreaming and creating only-in-Philly businesses that survive and thrive.
And when you think you need that Frappuccino, swap it with La Colombe’s draft latte from its Frankford flagship. While you’re at it, grab a Philly Style salt bagel topped with homemade cream cheese—just don’t ask them to toast it.