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3 Facts About Fishtown You Probably Forgot

Posted on Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 at 12:56pm.

View of Center City skyline from East Girard Avenue in Fishtown. Photo by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia.Fishtown offers residents and visitors more than just a pretty view of Center City. It's a proud neighborhood, rich in history, that's gotten a new lease on life thanks to new arrivals who have discovered its strong bones and many charms. But how did Fishtown become Fishtown? Read on. Photo by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia.

Longtime Fishtowners point with pride to the neighborhood's intimate character and industrial heritage. All that has been joined more recently by an influx of new residents with an entrepreneurial spirit and a broader outlook on the world. The new arrivals have made Fishtown a happening place, but we'll bet they have very little idea of all the things that have happened here already.

Longtime Fishtowners can probably rattle off all three of the facts below. The rest of you might want to read on.

"The Treaty of Penn with the Indians" by Benjamin West, 1771-72, in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

 Map of Kensington in 1854, showing Fishtown
Map of Kensington in 1854, showing Fishtown. Image from Fishtown Online.

Fishtown is where Pennsylvania began. Or so legend has it.
Only it wasn't called Fishtown back then. The original residents, the Lenape nation, called it "Shackamaxon" - the place where the clans that made up the Lenape installed their chiefs. A handful of Swedes, who were the first Europeans to settle in present-day Pennsylvania, had made their homes in this area when William Penn arrived in 1682 to take stock of the territory King Charles II had granted him. Upon his arrival in his new colony, Penn quickly established peaceful relations with the Lenape. According to legend, Penn negotiated a treaty with the Lenape chief Tamanend beneath an elm tree near where Beach Street meets Delaware Avenue today. No physical evidence of the treaty was ever found, but the "never written, never broken" treaty endured for a century and enabled Penn's colony to grow without conflict. The plot of land where the elm tree stood is today's Penn Treaty Park. A descendant of the Treaty Elm, which blew down in a storm in 1810, was planted in the park in 2010.

 

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Fishtown fish sign
Homes and businesses all over Fishtown sport these signs that pay homage to the shad, Fishtown's reason for being. Residents can buy one from the Fishtown Neighbors Association.

The shad is the reason Fishtown is Fishtown.
Shackamaxon got its current name when German fishermen settled along the Delaware riverbank in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  The Germans obtained the rights to fish on the Delaware from Trenton south, and the shad, a relative of the herring, were plentiful along the stretch of the Delaware that flowed past lower Kensington. The shad fishery along the Delaware in lower Kensington was so productive, residents began calling the area "Fishtown" in recognition of the importance of fishing to the local economy. Industrialization and pollution destroyed the shad fishery, but the Delaware has been cleaned up to the point where shad can once again be found in it. Since the 1980s, annual festivals celebrate the neighborhood and its historic roots by the river; the current big one is the annual Fishtown River City Festival, which takes place in October. (Interested in seeing more shad so that you might be able to catch some from Penn Treaty Park? You might want to check out the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association; though most of its members live upstate, they're devoted to restoring the entire Delaware shad fishery to good health. Here's hoping for a return of the Fishtown Shadfest!)

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Greensgrow Farms entranceSince 1998, an East Cumberland Street lot that once housed a steelmaker has been producing something far tastier, namely, fresh produce, thanks to the efforts of the staff of Greensgrow Farms. The pioneeing urban farm has won numerous "Best of Philly" awards for its efforts to introduce Philadelphians from all walks of life to healthier eating and farming practices. Photo from Greensgrow Farms.

It's home to one of the country's premier urban farms.
Among the transformations the more recent arrivals have wrought upon Fishtown is that they have made it a burgeoning hub for creativity and fresh thinking. Speaking of fresh, Fishtowners and others can enjoy the freshest produce possible, beautiful flowers and more thanks to Greensgrow Farms at Fishtown's northeast corner. Philadelphia's first and best-known urban farm was launched as an experiment to see whether agriculture could be used as a tool for urban revitalization and community-building. The experiment has proved to be a success, spawning similar enterprises here and elsewhere as well as a West Philadelphia branch for the pioneer.  Along with Yards Brewing Company on the Delaware waterfront, Greensgrow signals the return of Fishtown as a contributor to the city's rich food scene on the production as well as the consumption end.

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