History of Fishtown hints to Kensington’s Future

In an effort to predict the future of Kensington, it is helpful to look to the history of its similar next-door neighbor Fishtown.

Kensington wraps around Fishtown in an L-shape, with the hard boundaries still being fuzzy to anyone who doesn’t live there. Fishtown gentrified when the population in Northern Liberties spilled into the neighborhood’s borders during its own wave of gentrification. Now Fishtown is overflowing into Kensington and some are anticipating that it’s next on the list to gentrify.

Once a place where heroin addicts and prostitutes roamed, now Fishtown houses young professionals and the artistically inclined. Trendy bars, art galleries, and retail shops have blossomed in the previously troubled neighborhood, resulting in a higher demand for housing. Those who can no longer afford Fishtown are pushed into neighboring areas like Kensington. If the pattern is to be believed, Kensington might soon be filled with up-and-coming businesses.

But is predicting Kensington’s future as easy as looking to Fishtown’s past? Comparing the two districts does, in fact, reveal a number of similarities.

Fishtown has experienced its own roller coaster of success and downfall over the years. During the 19th century, the industrial revolution was alive and booming in Fishtown. In an 1870 industrial census, more than 200 industrial factories were recorded as operating out of Fishtown. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the neighborhood experienced a decline of industry leaving many of its residents out of work.

According to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, the decline of industrialization in Philadelphia’s River Wards coincided with an increase in poverty and crime.

           “The worlds of white and black Philadelphia slowly converged during the late 1960s, as a collapsing economy and growing heroin use destroyed working-class neighborhoods.  Heroin users fueled a dramatic increase in burglary, larceny, and robbery, which largely unskilled and uneducated young men used to support their habits.  White flight, already apparent in the 1950s in response to African American migration and the lure of the suburbs, accelerated in the 1960s as the crime rate rose and abandoned factories drained the value out of nearby row houses.  Philadelphia’s homicide rate increased by 300 percent between 1965 and 1974, the same decade the city lost about 40 percent of its industrial jobs. Racial tension, job loss, and increased gun ownership resulted in frayed personal relations and a spiraling homicide rate.”

For several decades, crime and heroin dominated the neighborhoods, giving them a dangerous reputation. It wasn’t until the highly publicized Sweeney trial came to national attention that the community in Fishtown banded together to initiate change in their neighborhood.

The Jason Sweeney murder trial drew attention to Fishtown’s drug problems in the early 2000s particularly because of the shocking nature of the murder. Four teenagers had bludgeoned their friend Jason Sweeney to death to acquire his paycheck and spend it on drugs. The trial garnered attention because of the shocking lack of remorse and understanding on the part of the accused. Following the trial, nearly 200 Fishtown residents gathered with public officials to address the drug problems within the neighborhood.

Since then, slowly but surely, Fishtown has vastly improved. And now, in many ways, Kensington seems to be following in its neighbor’s footsteps.

The history of Kensington is somewhat identical to that of Fishtown. Initially, Kensington was also home to an abundance of industrial factories that produced glass, pottery, wagon and machine works, and textiles. By the mid 1800s, more than 120 textile factories completely dominated the neighborhood with a majority of the Irish, English, Scottish, and German immigrant workers living close by. However by the 1960s, the number of factories and mills had decreased significantly, leaving many of the old factory buildings vacant or abandoned.IMG_2824 2

Similarly to Fishtown, a decrease in jobs and introduction to heroin lead the neighborhood into decline.

Recently, the Kensington Strangler terrorized the women of Kensington and lead to a crackdown on drug use by local law enforcement. Following publicity generated by the Strangler, a push against open-air drug markets and prostitution has occurred. Many community groups are working toward cleaning up the neighborhood, some even installing lights in the once thought to be doomed “Needle Park.”

Though the Sweeney murder and the Kensington Strangler’s crimes were inherently different, a pattern is emerging between the way the neighborhoods are reacting to the crimes.

Still, some Kensington locals remain skeptical. Lisa Lewandowski, who was born and raised in Kensington, doubts that the neighborhood will ever gentrify.

“I never remember Fishtown being as bad as [Kensington],” Lewandowski said. “Whoever said it’s going to get like Fishtown is lying. They are just trying to make [Kensington] seem cool.”

Nonetheless, recent documentation of the housing prices in Kensington is showing a general rise in property value. PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.com cited that the median sales price of homes from July 2014 to October 2014 increased by $24,000, according to Trulia, a real estate guide. The number of construction permits issued in Kensington increased 12.7 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Though the future of Kensington is still unclear, it’s a neighborhood with a rich history and rumblings of growth potential.


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