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KENSINGTON HISTORY — Orinoka Hulton Dye Works, c. 1920, partially redeveloped as Orinoka Civic House and NKCDC offices

Kensington becomes Fishtown

Kensington—and all of Philadelphia—is the ancestral home of the Lenape, American Indians whose territory stretched along the East Coast from present-day Delaware to New York. Some descendants of the Lenape still live here; some are members of the Lenape Nation in Oklahoma. Although Pennsylvania prides itself on a story of harmonious relationships between Indians and Quaker settlers, many of Pennsylvania’s first residents were pushed out of Pennsylvania by European land claims, violence, and disease.

The Kensington name came from 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.

In the 1920s and 30s, Philadelphia was a destination in the Great Migration as Northern factories called for more laborers and Southern Black people moved to fill the need. “In the 1950s there was a similar rise in the Puerto Rican population through Operation Bootstrap, for the same purposes,” NKCDC Executive Director Dr. Bill McKinney wrote in The Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and the City.

Decline & Redevelopment

As many African Americans and Hispanics arrived in Philadelphia, the jobs that drew them were coming to an end. With the passing of the Highways Act in 1956 and the development of the surrounding suburbs, much of the city ’s manufacturing moved away. Between 1947 and 1965, Philadelphia saw a 25% decline in employment. From 1955 to 1975, three-quarters of its industrial jobs left.

White immigrant groups who had come to Philadelphia earlier often had multiple generations to work, get an education, and access the social welfare system created for them, before creating enough social and economic capital to move beyond “landing neighborhoods,” like Kensington.

Many people of color who arrived later “were essentially abandoned on their journey to the American Dream due to a lack of opportunity,” McKinney said.

Stepping into the gap were social service organizations, with some of the city’s largest Latino agencies founded in the 1960s and 70s, including Concilio, Congreso, and Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM).

Today Kensington is one of Philadelphia’s most diverse neighborhoods, with about 25% identifying as Black, 50% White and 20% Mixed race on the U.S. Census, and more than half naming Hispanic ethnicity. Kensington is also one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, regularly posting the highest numbers for violent crime and the lowest for education, employment, and positive health outcomes.

Kensington’s abandoned industrial buildings and convenient access to transportation have made it a center for the illegal drug market on the East Coast. At the same time, Fishtown and parts of Kensington have seen feverish land speculation and rapid redevelopment, with rising rents and real estate taxes stressing many longtime residents. In 2018, Forbes magazine pronounced Fishtown “America’s hottest new neighborhood.”

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