From Factories to “Maker Spaces,” Has Fishtown’s Next Working Class Heyday Arrived in Yoga Pants?
There’s something I really don’t get when people say that Fishtown is ‘gentrifying.’ I mean, I know what they’re saying. They’re saying that people are moving here and that rents and property taxes are going up. I hear that, and I empathize with anyone who’s struggling in that regard. But what I don’t get is the underlying tone that gentrification is generally a bad thing for a working class neighborhood like Fishtown, or any of the Riverward neighborhoods. In fact, I’d argue that gentrification is generally a good thing and that many of the new people moving here are the next generation of working class Philadelphians. Let’s call them the maker class.
I am not one of those new people by the way — a fact which shouldn’t matter, but in conversations like these tends to hold up my opinion to some. I was born in what used to be St. Mary’s hospital on Frankford Avenue, across from Palmer Park. And I grew up on Belgrade Street, between Susquehanna and Norris. I still live in Fishtown today because… well, where else would I possibly want to live right now?! I’ve seen my neighborhood go from one where you had to drive to access almost anything you needed, to living a 5-10 minute walk to a coffee shop, a butcher, a pharmacy, a yoga studio, a gym, a bakery, a grocery store, a pet clinic, countless restaurants, and plenty more things opening up all the time. Almost none of these places existed when I was a kid, save for a few pizza shops and corner stores where you could grab a bag of chips and a soda. But when I talk about Fishtown today, it’s starting to sound a lot like the neighborhood my grandfather is always talking about.
My grandfather was also born and raised in Fishtown. His first job was at the age of 16 working for GE Lighting off Frankford Avenue (or so he best remembers). He worked in various factories for most of his adult life and raised a family of four with my grandmother on Montgomery Avenue at Thompson. When he talks about the old Fishtown, he talks about a place with a movie theater on Girard Avenue. A neighborhood full of working people equipped will all the things working people need and want, like a home goods store (also on Girard) where he got a great deal on TV once. And that seems to be the neighborhood Fishtown is beginning to become once again. Only now with less factories, and more, how do you say… maker spaces.
So what the crap is a “maker space?” Well, the way I see it, maker spaces are like mini-factories that focus less on mass production and more on carefully created goods. It’s almost like we’re ebbing and flowing back to how they made things before the Industrial Revolution. Almost. Across the Riverwards today there are spaces like MP Design Shop, which makes custom lighting; Felt+Fat, a manufacturing studio which makes fine dinnerware; Print Fresh, one of the region’s leading surface design studios; Farmhaus Modern (pictured), which makes furniture from reclaimed materials; and I’d even include the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym (also pictured) in this list, a community studio that offers its members/small businesses access to a wood shop, metal shop, jewelry shop, forging area, ceramics area and a mold-making and casting area, as well as classes to help people learn how to make the best use of these tools!
As more maker spaces move into the Riverwards’ old factories, the more working/maker class people move back into our neighborhoods, and the more my Fishtown starts to look like my grandfather’s Fishtown. Only now with indoor plumbing! Yes, some of the new people might ride fixed gear bikes. And yes, some of them might even do yoga. But at the end of the day, these new maker spaces bring real interest and opportunity to the Riverwards. (And hopefully their tax dollars can be used to address our schools, but that’s a WHOLE ‘nother article.) Are maker spaces the answer to decades-long loss of industry jobs? Of course not, but they’re not a bad start. Call it gentrification if you like, but I think it’s a pretty good thing.