Throughout June, we will be highlighting neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia, the people and places that make our city unique and strong. By the close of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia was recognized as both the "Workshop of the World" and a "City of Neighborhoods." Since that time, waves of economic and social change have continually re-shaped the city into the metropolis we know today. We look forward to sharing the backstory of several of our city's neighborhoods in the weeks ahead.
Port Richmond
Castor Avenue to the northeast, I-95 and the Delaware River to the southeast, York Street to the southwest, and Trenton Avenue to the northwest.
Prior to 1840
Before the arrival of European immigrants the area now known as Port Richmond was part of the extensive lands of the Lenni Lenape American Indians. Soon after William Penn arrived, European settlement began along the Delaware River.

In 1728, William Ball purchased Hope Farm, a rural, riverside estate north of Philadelphia, from Anthony Palmer, the founder of Kensington. Ball built a large mansion on the property, which he renamed Richmond Hall—possibly in honor of the town of Richmond, outside of London. After William Ball’s death in 1740, his family continued to own much of the land along the river north of Gunner’s Run, a creek now buried under Aramingo Avenue. By the early 19th century, two small villages formed on Ball family land—Balltown, near Norris Street and the river, and Richmond, centered on Richmond Lane and Point-no-Point Road (now Ann and Richmond Streets). These villages were then part of the Northern Liberties Township, and in 1830 there were only about “20 dwellings, 2 taverns, and a small store” in Richmond.
1840 – 1890
In the early 1840s, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad built a terminal at Richmond with miles of track and multiple wharves to facilitate the transfer of trainloads of anthracite coal mined in Schuylkill County to ships which would in turn transport it up and down the East Coast. In 1847, owing to the region’s industrial and commercial growth and surges in population, Richmond was incorporated into a district. The Richmond district would grow to 5,750 residents by 1850, and in 1854 the district was annexed by the City of Philadelphia (as were all boroughs, districts and townships comprising Philadelphia County, per the Consolidation Act of 1854).

The Reading Railroad’s facility was named “Port Richmond,” a moniker soon adopted by the surrounding neighborhood. Almost overnight, Port Richmond exploded in size, with hundreds of frame and brick houses being constructed north and south of the Reading’s tracks. Irish coal heavers moved to Port Richmond from what is now the Fitler Square neighborhood, where they had worked on the Schuylkill Canal’s coal barges, and founded St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Lehigh Avenue. During the mid-19th century, the neighborhood was a mix of railroad boom town and busy port, with many businesses catering to sailors from the sizable fleet of cargo ships which would dock at the coal terminal’s wharves.  

By 1862, Port Richmond was shown on maps with fully planned streets extending into Kensington to the northwest and Bridesburg to the northeast. Most of the development was still densely concentrated around the wharves and rail line.
1890 – 1950
Reflecting immigration patterns of the era and a concerted recruitment by the Reading Railroad, Port Richmond saw an influx of Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, and Russian Jewish immigrants from the closing decades of the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th century. As the neighborhood grew, filling farm fields and marshlands with blocks of rowhomes interspersed with the occasional factory or fraternal hall, it spread north and west. The industry in Port Richmond equally diversified, with dye and glue works and chain and iron works. Later diversification would lead to hosiery, carpet, and paper mills as well as pottery and leather works developing in the area.

Allegheny Avenue, running west from the Delaware River, soon became a showcase of Port Richmond’s ethnic diversity, with the spires of St. Adalbert’s, Nativity BVM, and Our Lady Help of Christians churches catering to Polish, Irish, and German congregations respectively. Closer to Richmond Street were the Lithuanian Music Hall and the Polish American Association’s clubhouse. A number of Port Richmond’s legacy businesses were founded during this period, including Czerw’s Kielbasy and Swiacki Meats, Tacconelli’s Pizza, and Stock’s Bakery. The rail terminal and industry grew as well, eventually claiming most of the riverfront land east of Richmond Street. Here the PGW’s gasometers and the Reading Railroad’s grain elevator dominated the skyline. In 1924 the Philadelphia Electric Company built its Richmond Generating Station, still a notable landmark of the neighborhood.

In a 1926 newspaper article, the neighborhood was described as follows: “Despite the barricades of the railroads, which crossed the region with total disregard of its future needs, [Port Richmond] is now one of the most thickly populated areas in the city. In all its history, it has not known as much constructive activity, public and private, as in the past decade or two” ( Philadelphia Evening Bulletin-Post , 1926).
1950 to the Present
I-95 sliced through Port Richmond in the mid-1960s and the neighborhood underwent drastic change. The interstate led to the demolition of approximately 30 square blocks of residential and industrial buildings. The route for the expressway was approved in 1947 and construction was expected to be completed by 1960. However, construction of the expressway didn’t begin until 1959 and major work did not reach Port Richmond until 1963. Construction was eventually completed in 1969.

Throughout the late 20th century, a strong ethnic community sustained Port Richmond. In the 1960s and 1970s, when many Philadelphia neighborhoods were seeing shifting demographics, Port Richmond remained relatively unchanged. The close-knit community is served by locally owned businesses, restaurants, and professionals that serve a large Polish population.
These neighborhood descriptions are not meant to represent the comprehensive story of these neighborhoods and places. They are more so vignettes, intended to highlight and recognize the varied places across Philadelphia that contribute to our shared built environment. The places which have been intentionally or unintentionally preserved in the past and which deserve further preservation today.

Watch from the safety and
comfort of your own home! 
Tuesday, June 30, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM
Eastern State Penitentiary - Behind Walls!
Presented by Sally Elk, President and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary.

Have you been to Eastern State Penitentiary since 2014? Sally Elk will take you there via her illustrated talk about her tenure as President and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary. After 20 years of abandonment, Eastern State reopened for tours in 1994. Sally's challenge has been the stewardship of this National Historic Landmark and ensuring its future. Hear about contemporary programming and why people pay money to be scared in the dark. You won't want to miss a virtual tour of this amazing site, learn about its amazing success, and hear how it is poised for the future.  
Tuesday, July 7th, 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM
What Just Happened? Twenty Years of Transformation in Philadelphia
Presented by Inga Saffron, Architecture Critic, Philadelphia Inquirer and author of  Becoming Philadelphia: How an Old American City Made Itself New Again . Rutgers University Press, 2020. 

Inga will discuss the policies and physical changes that have shaped Philadelphia over the past two decades.
Inga's lecture is included in the Building Philadelphia full speaker series pass. Email if you aren't sure if you need to purchase a ticket for this or not.