Port Richmond: A cornucopia of smaller neighborhoods

The first in a con­tinu­ing series about Port Rich­mond his­tory.

Port Rich­mond is a Phil­adelphia river­ward neigh­bor­hood con­tain­ing sev­er­al oth­er small pock­ets of loc­ales formed by groups of people who had com­mon­al­it­ies of race, re­li­gion, work, geo­graph­ic­al, or so­cial as­pects.

Some of the loc­ales still ex­ist today; some have been dis­rup­ted by the rav­ishes of his­tory, de­vel­op­ment, and so­cial change. The his­tor­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance of these places is one that should not be ig­nored, and can be used to demon­strate the pride that res­id­ents em­braced for the places where they lived.

The reas­ons be­hind the names spread from pop­u­lar cul­ture and from the found­a­tion of the loc­ale it­self. The bound­ar­ies of these en­claves are flu­id and have changed sev­er­al times since the in­cor­por­a­tion of Port Rich­mond as a Phil­adelphia neigh­bor­hood in 1852. For pur­poses of his­tor­ic­al con­text, the bound­ar­ies of Port Rich­mond can be con­sidered to be the Delaware River to the east, Frank­ford Av­en­ue to the west, Lewis Street to the north, and Le­high Av­en­ue to the south.

Here are some for­got­ten neigh­bor­hood nick­names:

Back Street (ca. 1890-present) is a col­lec­tion of “Fath­er, Son, and Holy Ghost houses”  — tiny three-room “trin­ity” row homes unique to Philly — on Seltzer Street, just south of Somer­set Street, between Sal­mon and Bel­grade streets. The south side of Seltzer Street con­tains no houses, as it is the prop­erty of the rail­road. The area is called Back Street be­cause of its prox­im­ity to the rail­road and isol­a­tion from the rest of Port Rich­mond.

The loc­al­ity is geo­graph­ic­ally the south­ern bound­ary of Port Rich­mond’s Little Italy (Somer­set), which makes Back Street a neigh­bor­hood with­in a neigh­bor­hood with­in a neigh­bor­hood.

• The Girders (ca. 1920-1965) was loc­ated on Seltzer Street near Ara­mingo Av­en­ue and was called this be­cause of the dis­carded steel girders dumped here by the rail­road. Of­ten­times a gath­er­ing place for rail­road it­in­er­ants and loc­al teen­age party­go­ers, the Girders was littered with hun­dreds of broken bever­age bottles.

• Somer­set (Port Rich­mond’s Little Italy, ca. 1890-present) loc­ated between the area of Somer­set and Mon­mouth streets from Mel­vale Street to Trenton Av­en­ue, be­came the set­tling place of hun­dreds of Itali­an im­mig­rants at the turn of the 19th cen­tury. Somer­set is anchored by Moth­er of Di­vine Grace Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church, foun­ded in 1925 (also known as the Itali­an church), at Thompson and Cam­bria streets, and is still a vi­brant force in the com­munity. The Sons Of Italy, North­east Lodge 610 is loc­ated at 2537 E. Mon­mouth St. and en­cour­ages Itali­an cul­ture in Port Rich­mond.

• Smearo or Smears­ville (ca.1910-1965), loc­ated on Ven­ango and Tioga streets and Castor Av­en­ue between Ara­mingo and Trenton av­en­ues, ac­quired its name from the slaughter­houses (“glueys”) and ren­der­ing com­pan­ies in and near its bound­ar­ies. The In­de­pend­ent Mfg. Co., Ara­mingo Av­en­ue and Wheat­sheaf Lane; the F. W. Tun­nel Glue Co., Weat­sheaf Lane and Bel­grade Street, and the M. L. Shoe­maker Fer­til­izer and Oils Co., Ven­ango Street and the Delaware River, are three of the 10 com­pan­ies that in­flu­enced the nam­ing of the Smearo. Smear is a ref­er­ence to glue, waste mat­ter, and the smell that per­meated the neigh­bor­hood from these “glueys.” Many slaughter­house work­ers lived in this area.

• Git­neys (ca. 1915-present) is a ref­er­ence to the rent­al prop­er­ties loc­ated between Mon­mouth and Cam­bria streets and Gaul and Chath­am streets that offered low cost hous­ing to Port Rich­mond res­id­ents. The Octavia Hill As­so­ci­ation built the prop­er­ties in 1915 and con­tin­ues to man­age them today. Phil­an­throp­ist Octavia Hill was in­volved in many activ­it­ies to help the poor with af­ford­able hous­ing. The word “git­ney” is a slang word that means nick­el or five-cent piece. At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, om­ni­buses and trol­leys of­ten charged a five-cent fare and ac­quired the name “git­ney” which con­noted af­ford­able trans­port­a­tion.

• “The 102” (ca.1890-1920) refers to the 3300 block of Agate Street where there were 51 houses on each side of the street in­stead of the usu­al 100. The ad­di­tion of two 1/2 ad­dresses (3398 1/2 and 3399 ½) ac­coun­ted for the two ex­tra prop­er­ties. Col­on­el John McK­ee, a Civil War hero, en­tre­pren­eur, hu­man­it­ari­an, and be­ne­fact­or of the Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church, pur­chased prop­er­ties on both sides of Agate Street and provided hous­ing for hun­dreds of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans from the South. ••

Fred Cim­ino is the un­of­fi­cial pop­u­lar his­tor­i­an of Port Rich­mond. He has pub­lished sev­en books about Port Rich­mond. His nov­el, In These Streets: a Port Rich­mond Sum­mer is due in the spring of 2011. He can be reached at marblesteps@ve­r­i­zon.net and seen on You Tube. He in­vites you to share with him your know­ledge of Port Rich­mond’s neigh­bor­hoods.

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