Confession: I’m Black, and I Used to Be Afraid to Walk Around Fishtown

Sandy Smith: African-Americans long knew to avoid this neighborhood. But times, and attitudes, are changing.

This September marked the start of my 32nd year of residence in this city. And for all of those previous 31 years, I’ve treated this place as my oyster. It’s part of my nature: No matter what city I’m in, I want to take it all in, or as much of it as time will allow. Thirty-one years is a lot of time, and in that time, I’d set foot in every neighborhood in this city.

With — until pretty recently — one big exception.

Like most black Philadelphians, I had heard stories about Fishtown. It seemed that we weren’t welcome there. I’d read stories about blacks getting harrassed, and worse, when they moved into the neighborhood.

And I wasn’t alone.

Journalist Bobbi Booker, who came of age in South Philly during the years of racial strife in the 1970s and ’80s, had a similar recollection of the place. “There were areas of the region I was disallowed to traverse because of my race, and Fishtown was notorious for those restrictions,” she said. “And it wasn’t just black folk; the disallowed included gays and any non-Irish. Because of my gender, I had a ‘pass’ of sorts and was able to (tensely) travel in and through Fishtown in the years mentioned above.”

Nor was this just a black thing that others wouldn’t understand. Once upon a time — okay, about nine years ago — this happened to a white acquaintance of mine:

“I was looking for houses in Fishtown. At the first house I visited, I was told by neighbors that it was a nice neighborhood because there were ‘no blacks or anything.’ At the second, as I was leaving, two white dudes were screaming to each other in the street. ‘Hey Frank! You seen Jimmy?’ ‘Jimmy’s the n—-r?’ ‘Naw, man, Jimmy’s a sp-c. He just looks like a n—-r.’”

My acquaintance decided to wait until he had saved up enough to move to South Philly instead. And so I avoided setting foot in Fishtown for years for much the same reasons.

But no longer, for that Fishtown seems to have been drowned under a tidal wave of newer, younger residents with far different attitudes. This Fishtown — the one I now roam in search of interesting development stories to report on, and where I knock back drinks with the Urban Geeks at Frankford Hall — is more open, more welcoming, and more diverse.

It has charming residential blocks, cool hangouts, interesting places to shop and dine. And while census data suggests it is still predominantly white, it has black folks living there, at least according to one white Fishtowner who reports that half the residents on the block where he recently bought a home are black.

MY PERSONAL SENSE of what’s behind this change is a well-documented newer wave of people who have embraced the neighborhood. You know, the kinds of people who opened establishments like Johnny Brenda’s, the M Room and so many coffee shops — and the millennials who frequent them. A Pew Research Center survey found that whites of the millennial generation are far more likely to have friends of other races than whites of previous generations, and are also more approving of things like interracial marriage, reversing the pattern of previous generations where blacks overall approved of interracial dating and marriage while whites tended to object. The folks who opened those Fishtown establishments were likely just looking for space they could afford where they could create the kinds of places they’d feel comfortable hanging out in, but they appear to have brought with them more relaxed attitudes regarding cross-racial social interaction.

As a result, those spaces have proved equally welcoming to a lot of non-millennials, many of whom didn’t share the narrow-minded insularity of those residents my white friend encountered. I’d seen attitudes like that before, in South Boston — the only other neighborhood I ever refused to enter in any city where I’ve spent significant amounts of time.

I read not too long ago that “Southie” too has become something I wouldn’t recognize, and the same crowd has played a key role in its transformation, namely, young millennials with more of a live-and-let-live attitude.

Kate Harwan, the current president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, told me that, in contrast to my — and others’ — previous impressions of the neighborhood, her group welcomes anyone and everyone interested in making Fishtown even better. “Here at the FNA, we’re focused on working with all neighborhood folks, together, to make Fishtown the best neighborhood it can be,” she said. “Whether folks have an hour a week or an hour a month, whether folks have lived here all their lives or are recent residents, whatever one’s age, occupation, language or background, we value and welcome the overall community’s participation and input.”

The FNA probably counts Keith Scandone among that number. Scandone moved his interactive design firm O3 from Northern Liberties to Fishtown in the spring of 2012 because, as he put it, he “wasn’t just taking a chance on a neighborhood, but taking a chance with a neighborhood.

“We recognized that by being a trailblazer of sorts by setting up shop in an unproven neighborhood, business-wise, that it would potentially attract more businesses like us over time,” he said. “But it was as much our responsibility to build up the neighborhood as it was the developers and other tenants in the area.” And he has thrown his energy into doing so, donating time and services to local institutions as well as supporting his neighbors on and near Frankford Avenue with his own business.

People like Scandone, working with people like Harwan, have made a big difference, but I suspect that some of the change I sense comes from within. It’s quite likely that the folks hanging out in those new bars include many Fishtowners of long standing, too, and it’s surprising how often the attitudes of a relative few can taint an entire community. Perhaps had that white friend of mine ventured onto a third Fishtown block, he would have found attitudes in sharp contrast to the bigoted ones he did encounter.

But that wasn’t the impression painted by news reports, with stories of black residents getting bricks through their windows and more when they chose to make Fishtown their home. Those stories have completely disappeared from the media now, and I don’t think it’s because reporters have gotten tired of the subject.

Which is all for the good. Philadelphia is better and stronger when we all work to build bridges rather than walls and when our shared goals transcend our individual or group differences. It appears that the newcomers to Fishtown have managed to bring out the best in the old-timers too, and I for one am glad they have, because it really is a nice neighborhood. You should visit it sometime if you haven’t yet.

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