By Herb Shallcross IV
Those of you who only know today's Fishtown cannot imagine the neighborhood I grew up in during the '80s and '90s. There were no bearded men in denim cut-offs and flannel shirts riding fixed-gear bikes, no community gardens or art galleries. Fishtown was a tough Irish Catholic neighborhood. Although I was half Irish and was born in Fishtown, I had little interest in being Catholic or a tough guy. In short, I was an outsider.
I was never lonely, though, as I fell in with some like-minded friends who likewise did not feel entirely at home in our rowhouse neighborhood. We played stickball and KING (a handball variant) like the rest of the kids, and regularly carved up the Rec's old hockey rink on our rollerblades. But the similarities only went so far.
Other local kids valued Fishtown's homogeneity as an asset worth protecting, and they pounced like guard dogs when outsiders intruded, particularly when those outsiders were black. On more than one occasion I saw black kids beaten and run out of the neighborhood by a pack of white Fishtown kids in baggy shorts and backward hats. These Fishtown kids were infatuated with the hip-hop scene, and though many of their heroes were black, they
could not tolerate black people in their neighborhood. This is one of many ironies that seemed to define my neighborhood growing up, and which are part of its identity even today.
Since I have moved out of the neighborhood, and out of Philadelphia altogether for the time being, I have developed a new found appreciation for the old 'hood.
I used to find the fact that all the crossing guards knew my name and wanted to know how my mother was doing unnerving, Now, living in New York, where nobody knows anybody, that memory is redolent of a place that is quaint, welcoming and worth cherishing.
My parents still live in the same house on Susquehanna Avenue they raised me in, and it is the largely unchanged, though my mom has worked wonders with the garden. Still, every time I come home I find the neighborhood transformed since the last visit, just a few weeks or months removed. Donsider "the forks," where Susquehanna meets Norris and Cedar. Once one of the most rowdy, rundown, drunken corners in the neighborhood --where you were as likely to be offered dope as harassed for a handout -- the intersection now represents just how lovely a redbrick neighborhood can be with a little vision and care. There's a stately flower shop and a new Mexican restaurant. Around the corner on Frankford Avenue is a strip of art galleries that are abuzz with crowds on First Fridays. It is a scene that is utterly bizarre to anyone who remembers the neighborhood of just a decade ago.
As much as I considered myself an outsider growing up here, I can't imagine settling down anywhere but Fishtown. The suburbs are dead. Downtown is hollow. Fishtown is alive and so full it's almost too much to take in. So I care about what happens to my old neighborhood. Yet, even as I find myself identifying more and more with the Old Fishtowners, I still find their loyalties vexing. Many of those lifers -- and families with chains of lifers many generations long - rallied in support of the proposed SugarHouse casino, now open and operating nearby on the Delaware River. They argued that it would return jobs, wealth and relevancy to their neighborhood. So the Old Fishtowners are not entirely allergic to change. Yet many of these same people dislike the hipster influx that has hit Fishtown in the last decade. Many of my old friends see the new gastropubs, community gardens and art galleries as surefire signs that their neighborhood is deteriorating. Tough-guy Fishtown, they fear, has gone soft.
They aren't wrong. It's just that some of us like the idea of coming home to a little softness. When I took my dad out for his Father's Day lunch, we walked to Kraftwork for some good mussels and better beer, then staggered home, visibly buzzed off just two barleywines each. Not long ago, the only food options on Girard Ave. were cheesesteaks and scrapple, and a Yuengling was the best you could hope for to wash it down. (I love lager, but it's nice to have other options beyond Bud Light.) Walking home, we passed a vibrant dog park that had been an abandoned lot for most of my life.
Some of the obscure loyalties of my fellow Fishtowners make more sense as I grow older. Others I will never be able to reconcile with my own beliefs. I was recently walking back to my parents' house with my wife when I ran into an old buddy and his friend. This buddy is bona fide old school, with Fishtown-for-life tattoos across his knuckles. When I told him we were headed back from a friend's show at Johnny Brenda's, on of the new taprooms, he said he would never set foot in that place again, that the beer was overpriced and that they didn't even let you smoke. His friend reminded him that he would not be allowed to return even if he wanted to, due to the lifetime ban. My buddy addressed my wife, who is Vietnamese, and uttered a string of sentiments - untenable and completely wrong in my view -- but which seem to sum up the views of many Old Fishtowners.
"I'm not racist," my friend said, "but hipsters are worse than niggers. At least niggers put their heads down and keep walking. These hipsters will talk to you!"
Having crossed swords with this friend before, and realizing that neither party was likely to change views any time soon, I did not bother arguing. My wife and I simply walked on, our heads raised. I showed her the shortcut home.
I was once again a proud Fishtowner, and once again a proud outsider.
Herb Shallcross is a graduate of Central High and Drexel University. He now lives with his wife and their pet parakeet in Queens, where he works as a freelance writer. Herb's mother, who loves Fishtown very much, is going to kill him when she reads this.