How Fishtown, Philadelphia Became America’s Hottest New Neighborhood
Every Friday afternoon at 5:30 pm the doors of “the El”—one of America’s oldest elevated subways—swoosh open at Girard and Berks Street stations, unleashing a stampede of Millennials, yuppies, hipsters, entrepreneurs, and empty nesters onto Front Street.
As fast as the doors close, they scatter east down a maze of narrow streets swirling with trash, bumping shoulders with the occasional heroin addict and scrappers pushing shopping carts piled high with salvaged sheet metal. Nobody blinks.
A half dozen blocks away from their newly-built, half-million dollar townhomes, the lines twist out the doors at Pizzeria Beddia and Frankford Hall, two of Philadelphia’s hottest foodie spots. Across the street, Johnny Brenda’s is already packed—hosting as they have for over a decade one of America’s hottest indie rock bands. Mothers pushing strollers window shop past Lululemon along Frankford Avenue’s buzzing retail corridor fronted with wine bars, coffee shops, couture boutiques, yoga studios, a vintage motorcycle joint, and an Argentinian tango dance school.
Visually the dichotomies are jarring. Culturally the contradictions are even more confusing. Yet when the El disgorges its “New Fish” every afternoon it epitomizes the driving forces behind Fishtown’s warp-speed transformation, and the demographics fueling America’s new urban revolution.
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The El links Fishtown with downtown Philadelphia in less than nine minutes. When it was built in the early 20th century the El was the city’s transportation crown jewel, threading together a booming corridor of working class neighborhoods made up of mostly Irish Catholic and Eastern European immigrants. As many of them de-populated with suburbanization in the 70s and 80s, the El fell on harder times. The cars smelled like piss and cheesesteaks on the weekends. Underneath the tracks, Front Street and Kensington Avenue became two of Philadelphia’s most crime-infested drug corridors.
Today, the El is held up by local politicians, developers, and the media as the foundation of Philadelphia’s new model for Transit Oriented Development. It’s also magnetizing a new generation of Millennials, Baby Boomers, and young professionals who are summarily rejecting suburbia, car culture, and food deserts in favor of independently-owned retailers, farm-to-table restaurants, and the new self-supporting micro-economy to move back downtown again.
Everything about Fishtown’s resurgence makes sense when you look at it on Google Earth.
It’s wedged into Philadelphia just north of downtown like an anvil at the first sharp right turn in the Delaware River. The El hems in its western border. To the east, I-95 connects Fishtown to New Jersey, New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. in less than two hours. Trolley and bus routes fan out in every direction from there through a checkerboard of community gardens, dog parks, and green space.
When you zoom in closer, the blocks harden into tidy grids of brick and brownstone row homes. Density on this scale a few decades ago fueled Philadelphia’s urban flight. Today, Fishtown’s mass and disconnected connectedness are the envy of every American neighborhood trying to reinvent itself. So are the real estate stats.
Home values here have nearly tripled since the Great Recession. Most single-family houses have an accepted offer in less than four weeks. Many sell in bidding wars. The current sale to list ratio is a scorching 98.8%, going toe to toe with Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and Washington, D.C. Two decades ago Fishtown was a dirty Philadelphia real estate word. Now every realtor in the city is trying to bolt another neighborhood onto it.
The national accolades are even more eye-popping. In 2015 Bon Appetit ranked Pizzeria Beddia America’s best pie. Philly Style Bagels’ Classic Lox Sandwich took home the magazine’s prize for the country’s best sandwich the following year. Last summer Jay-Z tapped local bake shop Cake Life to make Beyonce’s birthday cake. Zagat just anointed Lebanese-themed SurayaPhiladelphia’s hottest new restaurant opening. Most recently, Wm. Mulherin’s Sons was crowned America’s best new hotel.
Think about that for a second: a four-room, retro-chic neighborhood hotel reclaimed from an old whiskey distilling factory barely a year ago—fifteen-feet from the rumbling El—just beat out the newest launches from Waldorf Astoria and Ritz Carlton on the beach.
Not surprisingly, the outside money into Fishtown has started pouring in. Small-scale flippers are all of a sudden getting squeezed out by New York City developers snatching up every warehouse left for sale. Demand shows no sign of slowing down. At the rate things are going there won’t be an empty lot left by 2020.
The new normal is making some locals nervous. Newcomers don’t want the secret getting out. Older residents fear the parking wars to come as rumors swirl that 19125 is about to be annexed as New York City’s “6th Borough”. Other long-time residents who’ve owned their parents’ houses mortgage-free for decades, however, are laughing all the way to the bank.
Part of Fishtown’s boomerang is simple supply and demand.
As Philadelphia’s downtown rents have climbed steadily for decades, entrepreneurs, start-ups, and artists have been increasingly forced out of center city. The first wave moved into Northern Liberties fifteen years ago, Fishtown’s southern neighbor. Forward-thinking investors always knew that Fishtown was next.
The other part of Fishtown’s explosion, however, is something that’s harder to put your finger on. There are a dozen other neighborhoods closer to downtown Philadelphia with an established historic housing stock and vacant lots that still can’t quite get it together.
Fishtown’s boom raises complicated questions about how urban revitalization works in some places and not others. Why Fishtown? Why now? And more importantly how did a historically working-class neighborhood shoved up against an industrially developed river become the new American model for making a neighborhood thrive again?
Fishtown didn’t always look like this.
When Rick Miller moved to Fishtown’s fringe twelve years ago just off Front Street, his second purchase after his house was a pit bull. His neighbors on either side were entrenched dealers who catered to a steady stream of heroin addicts.
“This place was rough,” Miller, a home building executive, tells me. “But it was the only neighborhood where my wife and I could find a house in Philadelphia with a yard, three bedrooms, and street parking for under $200,000. There were hookers and drunks outside our door almost every morning. But the neighborhood was also full of families who’d been here for years. It was stable and sketchy all at the same time.” Today Miller’s neighbors across the street are Ph.D. students and stock analysts who live in newly built townhomes with designer kitchens and roof deck views of Philadelphia’s skyline.
Fishtown’s core never got as dicey, even in the late 70s and 80s when the factories started shutting down. There were the occasional addicts and pimps. Gangs from neighboring Kensington or Port Richmond sometimes tried to elbow in. But “Old Fish” always held the borders and self-policed. Bad seeds didn’t last. Problems got solved. Often with a pipe.
Fishtown’s fists-up, survivalist identity has been genetic for more than two centuries. It boomed and busted a few times, mostly in step with the larger economy. But it was never not a neighborhood, nor fell into irrecoverable, architectural disrepair. It was always a place where parents raised families on blocks where everyone knew each other, whose kids played together in the streets, who in turn married other Fish and raised new families a few houses away.
For outsiders, some of the pipe-and-heroin stereotypes persist. But Fishtown’s essential identity as a safe, cohesive, creative, working neighborhood isn’t something that planners or politicians can conjure into being out of thin air. Not surprisingly, its resurgence doesn’t surprise any of the locals who’ve lived here the longest.
Cass Sparks was born in Fishtown in 1934. Her grandfather immigrated here from Ireland in 1890 and joined the Navy. Her father was a cop who worked the beat. Today, she’s the matriarch of four generations of Old Fish most of whom still live within a few blocks of one another.
Sparks’ memories growing up here are typical of those who were raised in blue-collar East Coast neighborhoods during the Great Depression and WWII. Men worked the factories and docks. Women raised the children. Neighborhoods stuck together like clans. At the time, Fishtown was an American industrial powerhouse, including Stetson Hats, the Slinky, and Penn Reels. Sparks’ friends and neighbors were the immigrants who defined the early 20th century American Dream and kept it humming in the trenches.
“People didn’t leave Fishtown because they couldn’t afford to,” Sparks recalls. “But if you wanted a new job, you could just quit and walk next door and find a better one. We looked after each other. We kept things clean. We kept the neighborhood safe. We took pride in what we had and what we made. There was always something special about this place, and everyone knew it. That’s never changed.”
When Sparks moved out of her parents’ home in 1957, she bought her first house with her husband for $12,000. When I ask her about the new half-million dollar townhomes going up across the street, Sparks responds simply that America’s greatest resilience is adaptation.
“The improvements here have always been brought about by the people who live in the neighborhood. It’s always happened house by house, block by block for generations. The new people who are moving in now are doing the same thing all over again,” she says. “They’re the new immigrants. Change is inevitable.”
In this way, Fishtown’s story isn’t about a Renaissance or reinvention. It never needed a makeover in the first place. Fishtown’s story is about a distinctly American kind of demographic change—and how neighborhoods organically and purposefully evolve to retain the best of themselves, yet at the same time become more diverse, prosperous, and economically sustainable over time. For other cities seeking to re-imagine their own historic downtowns, it’s also a political playbook on how to leverage a community’s existing, working fabric without tearing the old-school threads apart.
No matter who you talk to Paul Kimport and William Reed are roundly credited with making the first move that put Fishtown back on the map.
In 2003 the duo who already opened Northern Liberties’ Standard Tapdecided to buy an old boxer’s bar at the corner of Frankford and Girard Avenues. At the time Johnny Brenda’s was a legendary local dive in the best sense of the word. It started serving shots to the nightshift crew at 7:00 am. By mid-afternoon the neighborhood kids hustled outside for six-packs and smokes. After work it catered to the Bud and broken pool stick crowd. Brawls frequently spilled into the street.
But in “JBs”—and in Fishtown—Kimpton and Reed saw an opening to do something transformative. Like they had in Northern Liberties, they saw a neighborhood that was changing, and a new demographic looking for more than Schlitz and sucker-punches. The location was perfect. So was the building.
“The biggest challenge for us when we first bought the bar was figuring out how we could get locals and newcomers to come together without beating each other up,” Kimport recalls, “Fishtown was always a tight, local neighborhood. But in the early 2000s there were also a lot of new people moving in here. We ultimately realized that everyone basically wanted the same thing. And if we could create that, this place would be a success.”
That “same thing” turned out to be much more than just another corner bar. After re-vamping JB’s interior, which included running underground piping to put dozens of local micro-brews and wines on tap, and gentrifying the menu guided by an executive chef (that would be Kimport), Kimport and Reed bought the two buildings behind them in 2006, busted through the walls, and turned Johnny Brenda’s 2nd floor into arguably America’s hottest small-scale indie rock venue.
JBs’ music quickly became a magnet. Within a few years, the road to success for every up-and-coming indie band and DJ in America at some point ran through JBs’ sound booth. JBs’ notoriety also attracted the attention of developers throughout Philadelphia and beyond, who quickly saw what Kimport and Reed had already learned: Fishtown’s geography was inevitable, the neighborhood was bullet proof, and the potential was huge.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing in Fishtown or what our goal for JBs was when we bought the place,” says Kimport. “But we always knew that the fundamentals here were perfect. Fishtown just needed time to be rediscovered.”
It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when any neighborhood turns. Gentrification and de-population often grind away imperceptibly like glaciers. Kimport and Reed never set out to transform Fishtown on a grand scale. It was a young, up-and-coming developer named Roland Kassis who did.
Kassis clocks in at 5’7”, a buck forty, mildly pugilistic, and kinetically relentless. When you roll around town with him in his Range Rover there’s no one he doesn’t know. In the same sentence he can be both charming and brawlish. Which is precisely why Fishtown let him in.
Kassis grew up in the 1980s splitting his time between Lebanon and Liberia, swapping one civil war for another. At 16, he immigrated to a small city just north of Philadelphia where he lived with an aunt and uncle who he barely knew. Last year, Philadelphia Magazine ranked him one of the city’s 100 most influential people and the “Developer To Emulate”.
Kassis put his first roots down in Fishtown in 2006 in the fast and furious days before the Great Recession. Downtown Philadelphia was booming. Word about Johnny Brenda’s was spreading. In Fishtown, however, most of Frankford Avenue and Front Street still looked like a post-industrial badland. As a developer at the time, Kassis was green. But his long-term optics on real estate were always framed through a wider lens. Kassis intuitively foresaw buildings as living things that could transform neighborhoods through human experience. Profit would follow if you did it right.
Kassis acquired his first Frankford Avenue property in 2006—a mash-up of three old industrial storefronts. Early the next year, he bought an abandoned brewery across the street without a roof that looked “like a bombed out building in Beruit”.
“I was new to the commercial real estate world back then,” Kassis tells me. “But real estate was booming everywhere in Philadelphia. So I started buying up everything I could in areas that I had a good feeling about. I always had a good feeling about Fishtown.”
Kassis’s monopoly game came to a screeching halt in fall 2007 when the Recession hit. Unexpectedly, it gave him a timeout to pause, sort through his principles for adaptive re-use, and think about what a vibrant vision for Fishtown might actually look like.
“I remembered growing up in Europe that cities are like villages, just on a larger scale,” Kassis recalls. “Neighborhoods don’t grow in a vacuum. Villages become sustainable when there’s a commercial core at their heart. Everything grows outwards from there. Fishtown was an urban village waiting to happen.”
When the Recession started to thaw, Kassis doubled down. He borrowed hard money, quietly snatched up dozens of vacant warehouses and empty lots along Frankford and Front, and consolidated the ones he already owned. He started knocking down the walls, dropping in skylights, and reclaiming the 100-year old trusses and beams from one warehouse to renovate another. Before anyone knew it, Kassis owned over half of main street Fishtown for more than eight blocks north and south of Johnny Brenda’s.
At the same time, Kassis the salesman took the hard sell to every up-and-coming business and entrepreneur in Philadelphia who would listen: Fishtown is about to go big.
Kassis’s tipping point happened in 2010 when he pitched restaurant-whisperer Stephen Starr on re-imagining his bombed out Beruit-style hole on Frankford into an open-air, German-themed beer garden. Kassis repointed the brick walls, sent his architect to Bavaria, and sought out the finest German micro-brews and bratwurst in town. After finally seeing Fishtown’s potential and Kassis’s concept for himself, Starr got on board. They opened Frankford Hall together in 2011. It’s now Philadelphia’s most iconic foodie-brew destination in the city that helped to put the American ‘biergarten’ experience on the map.
Frankford Avenue’s floodgates opened shortly after that. Fette Sau, another award-winning Starr-Kassis collaboration inspired by whiskey and boutique, barbarian-style BBQ, filled in the adjacent property in 2013. Mid-century themed Root launched next door in 2015, followed by Cheu Fishtown, offal-heaven Kensington Quarters, Fishtown Social, and Cake Life up the street, which was started by Lily Fischer and Nima Etemodi who were Finalists on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars.
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons opened its rustic-chic Italian bar and restaurant on Front Street a year later in fall 2016, shattering every record for what Fishtown could charge for a plate of anything while packing tables every night. More than two dozen award-winning-in-any-other-neighborhood joints now fill in every block in between Front and Girard—including the likes of Martha , KraftWork, Sketch Burger, Soup Kitchen, Evil Genius Brewery, Loco Pez, and the Balboa Supper Club. To call Fishtown Philadelphia’s most energetic and innovative foodie neighborhood might piss some other hoods off. But it wouldn’t be an overstatement.
Food always played an outsized role in Fishtown’s resurgence.
More recently, a thriving new entertainment and entrepreneurial ecosystem has backfilled in behind the cuisine. Sugarhouse Casino launched first in 2010, staking out a highly visible corner at the base of Frankford Avenue on the Delaware River. The Fillmore Philadelphia and comedy club Punch Line Philly opened up their doors up the street a few years later. Post-apocalyptic restaurant Mad Rex went live late last year, filling in one of the last wedges left at Fishtown’s southern apex. Sugarhouse just completed a major renovation last year including a new entertainment venue and steak house. Two new museum openings are planned for 2019 just up the street.
Urban economists like to call this kind of interconnected, organic growth the new ‘micro-economy’. What it means practically is that Frankford Avenue’s dozen blocks extending up from the Sugarhouse now comprises one of the lowest turnover urban corridors in America, including headquartering national firms like La Colombe, HoneyGrow, Blue Cadet, and O3. Further downstream it’s also incubating dozens of other small-scale start-ups and retailers—like craft distilleries, brewers, organic markets, apparel and graphic designers—who are in turn attracting new talent, fresh ideas, and investing back into the neighborhood’s creative, intellectual drive train.
Painting Fishtown as an urban panacea would be misleading, however. Some streets look like the trash hasn’t been picked up in weeks. There are still growing pains to come. But trash isn’t an intractable problem. Fear of change, enmity towards newcomers, and resentment about revitalization are.
Fishtown has largely avoided these pitfalls—mostly because the people who first invested in its re-development knew they didn’t have a choice. When Kimport, Kassis, and Randy Cook of Wm. Mulherin’s Sons wanted variances for outdoor seating, late night hours, and hotel rooms, community groups like the New Kensington Community Development Corporation and the Fishtown Neighbors Association convinced them to knock on doors and ask for input. They held public meetings. In the process, they earned the neighborhood’s trust. Fishtown’s new commercial biodiversity means that the neighborhood is more inherently resistant to long-term environmental shocks regardless of how the demographics keep changing. Everyone here now seems to agree that’s a good thing.
In this way, what’s instructive about Fishtown’s resurgence isn’t just what it did. It’s what it didn’t do. Large-scale developments and by-right zoning changes pushed by outside real estate speculators have been universally shot down. National retailers have been hosed out. The democracy of re-development has often been raucous, table-banging, and sometimes physical. But no one person’s vision about what was right for the neighborhood ever unilaterally prevailed. Which is exactly how everyone involved and invested here always expected it to play out. Because that’s what always made the neighborhood work in the first place.
As for Fishtown’s future, the bull market shows no sign of deceleration. Single-family housing is tightening. Prices are surging. Newcomers looking for a last piece of the early action are quickly realizing that Fishtown’s window is closing.
Commercially the pace is moving even faster. Randy Cook is opening his second restaurant next door to Wm. Mulherin’s Sons next month. A few blocks away Kassis is about to break ground on a boutique, 135-room art-inspired hotel gutted from an old brewery building with a glass infinity pool cantilevered off the roof next to Frankford Hall in partnership with NYC architect Morris Adjmi and entrepreneur Avi Brosh, who’s been pioneering the luxury extended-stay hotel model on the West Coast for years.
Fishtown’s political winds are shifting as well. Last year Kassis convinced Philadelphia and Pennsylvania state officials to consider designating parts of Fishtown a Keystone Opportunity Zone, which would stimulate further commercial development and local entrepreneurship by providing business incentives and tax relief. Fishtown Co, a collaboration of local businesses and entrepreneurs, just launched last month to promote Fishtown’s cultural resurgence to the rest of Philadelphia and the world. The NKCDC and FNA are more engaged than ever.
If there’s a single visual symbol of Fishtown’s comeback, it’s under the rumbling El. All along Front Street between the Girard and Berks Street stations, the pimps and dealers are gone—replaced by velvet ropes and valet parking on the weekends and a real estate frenzy every day in between. New mixed-use residential/retail developments are filling in empty lots that were abandoned as recently as six months ago. Uber surge pricing is standard. Local markets now stock gluten-free pasta and cruelty-free honey.
Onion Flats, a long-time sustainable developer which previously made its name in Northern Liberties, is leading the charge north up Front breaking ground this month a 28-unit apartment building designed to Passive House net-zero energy standards across the street from Berks Street El station. Right next door the design-development firm is simultaneously renovating two historic bank buildings that are arguably the most architecturally significant landmarks left in the neighborhood. One of them has high-end steakhouse written all over it.
“Fishtown always had the ingredients of a great neighborhood,” says Wm. Mulherin’s Sons’ Cook. “It just needed some people to take a risk on it again. Look at what’s happened here in just a few years. Look at the names who are involved here now. This place used to feel like the edge of the world. It used to be under the radar. Now it feels like the center of Philadelphia.”
Note to Fishtown: The secret is officially out.