Within the last few years, two establishments along the Olde Richmond/Fishtown border of York Street have marked their territory with new names for their enterprises. The Mugshot Diner, located at York and Gaul streets, proudly renamed itself the Fishtown Diner, boasting its neighborhood pride. Around the same time, the Port Richmond Village shopping center, located at York Street and Aramingo Avenue, also changed its name to Fishtown Crossing. Sandwiched between the two, at 2636 E. York St., lies a blue warehouse that is slated to be demolished and turned into a 5-story apartment building and it, too, if developers get their way, is hoping to plant its flag in Fishtown. How so? By putting up a giant vertical sign along the York Street side of the building emblazoned with the word “Fishtown.”
At a recent Fishtown Neighbors Association zoning meeting, developers from the RiverWards Group met with residents to discuss the sign. The proposed sign, which is 5 feet wide, requires a variance from the zoning code, which allows only signs that are 4 feet wide. (The building itself does not require a variance.)
At the meeting, some neighbors were met with skepticism. Take, for example, this exchange between Fishtown resident (and former FNA board member) Joe Kain and the development team’s zoning attorney, Adam Laver.
KAIN: “The sign is going to actually say Fishtown? It’s not going to say the building’s name or anything like that? It’s going to say Fishtown?”
KAIN: “And that leaves me to my final question and that is … why? What is the purpose of the sign? Why is it there? Why are we going through the trouble of ZBA hearings and whatnot for a sign that says ‘Fishtown’?”
“It’s pride in the neighborhood,” Laver said, stroking the Fishtowners’ collective ego. “It’s pride in what you and others have built upon and a nice way to mark this particular property.”
It didn’t work on everybody.
“Following what Joe had said, I’m not really sure why it just says Fishtown,” said resident Venise Whitaker. “My entire neighborhood is summed in one building.”
It did work on some, however.
The sign reminded longtime resident Maggie O’Brien of the days when other Philadelphians thought of Fishtown as a not-so-nice place to live despite Fishtowners being proud of their neighborhood.
“We were proud of being from Fishtown,” said O’Brien. “Fishtown was plastered not only all over the neighborhood but on every T-shirt that every kid wore. It’s a source of pride for those of us who have lived here for a long time. Everywhere you would look – Fishtown. It was all over.”
RiverWards Group Managing Partner Larry McKnight, who grew up in Fishtown, said that when he was growing up, people often didn’t know where Fishtown was on a map of Philadelphia.
“Part of the reason for the signage [that says] Fishtown is because, quite frankly, we might know where Fishtown is and we might be part of Fishtown, but the rest of the city doesn’t really know where Fishtown is,” he said. “But the other reason for the word Fishtown is because this corner is truly the gateway to Fishtown. It’s got two major intersections, it can be seen from I-95 going northbound and southbound.”
He added that the reason the proposed sign was so big was so people wouldn’t be distracted by “the ugly gas station that’s in front of it” – referring to the Exxon on the corner of York and Aramingo.
“We didn’t want to name it the building, we didn’t want to call it something else to promote the building,” McKight said. “We wanted to actually promote the neighborhood itself. “
“I think it’s advertising for Fishtown as a destination, and it’s not really about neighborhood pride in my book,” Kain said in response to others’ “neighborhood pride” arguments. “I don’t need a sign to be proud of Fishtown.”
In addition to the sign that is slated to hang from the York Street side of the building, the word “Fishtown” will be etched into the top of the building, near the cornice line. For resident Bill Newbold, that was too much.
“I like the sign, I like the painting that says ‘Fishtown,’ but I think it’s overkill,” he said. “I think you’ve got to go one or the other.”
In renderings provided by the development team, the sign says the word “Fishtown” in bright yellow letters, but McKnight notes that the sign will usually reflect a “soft white” color.
“But we will have the ability to change the colors based upon what’s happening in the world,” he said. In other words, they can make the sign green for a big Eagles game or red for a Phillies game, much like the skyscrapers in Center City do.
FNA board member Jerold Grupp had the most unique argument of the meeting, opting not to try and dictate what the sign says in the name of free speech.
“At some level we are a quasi-governmental agency and to tell them what they can and cannot write on a sign, which is neither offensive nor pornographic, I think that’s not our role,” said Grupp. “We need to judge the sign based on the physical dimensions of it and the placement of it and the aesthetic values, but not the words on the sign. I think that would be out of character.”
The Fishtown sign saga is set to go in front of the ZBA on Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. For information about how to attend the meeting, visit phila.gov/departments/zoning-board-of-adjustment.