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Kensington becomes Fishtown

Kensington was founded by Anthony Palmer, an English merchant from Barbados, in the early 1730s. Palmer purchased what was called the Fairman Estate, about 190 acres in Northern Liberties Township, just north of the City of Philadelphia. Palmer sold many parcels of his land to German immigrant fishermen and to shipbuilders who were outgrowing their riverfront lots in today’s Old City, Southwark, and Society Hill neighborhoods.

The original Kensington is now more commonly called Fishtown because shad fishing became the dominant industry there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early 19th-century occupational listings show that more than half of Fishtown residents earned their living as shipbuilders, shipwrights, ship joiners, ship smiths, or ship carpenters. “Shipyards” is printed across the entire Fishtown waterfront on an 1843 map. 

Explosive Development

After the Civil War, Fishtown—and modern-day Kensington, to the north and west—became an industrial powerhouse. By the late 19th century, Kensington was a booming center of the U.S. textile industry, especially carpet manufacturing. In his 1883 manufacturing census, Lorin Blodget described it as a “densely built up city” where there had been empty fields only a decade before. By 1912, historian John James MacFarlane wrote, “From the tower of the Bromley Mill at Fourth & Lehigh Avenue there are more textile mills within the range of vision than can be found in any other city in the world.”

Kensington was a diverse hub of working class Philadelphia. Recent Irish, English, Scotch, and German immigrants, as well as more established workers and owners, lived close to their work sites or worked from home. The diversity came with tension. In May 1844, anti-Catholic sentiment sparked “nativist” riots against the growing population of Irish immigrants in Kensington. That summer, over a thousand U.S. militia confronted nativist mobs in Philadelphia, killing and wounding hundreds.

Decline & Redevelopment

The nation’s deindustrialization took hold of Kensington and Fishtown in the 1950s, leading to a significant loss of population, economic decline, high unemployment and a glut of abandoned homes and factories. In the early 21st century, the nation’s spiraling opioid epidemic became an additional burden on many Kensington neighborhoods.

At the same time, Fishtown and parts of Kensington have enjoyed rapid redevelopment, although rising rents and real estate taxes have stressed many longtime residents. With resistance, Kensington neighborhoods of historically European immigrants have became home to many African American, Hispanic and Asian families, creating some of the most racially and ethnically diverse communities in Philadelphia. In 2018, Forbes magazine pronounced Fishtown “America’s hottest new neighborhood.”

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