The Rust Belt Neighborhood in the Middle of Philadelphia

Meet the people transforming post-industrial Fishtown into a haven for artists and writers.

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Courtesy of VIsit Philly

Fishtown, Philadelphia, got its name during the early 19th century, when neighborhood families dominated the booming shad runs of the Delaware River estuary. The fishery collapsed under the pressures of overfishing and pollution, and the area turned to other modes of making and manufacturing: shipyards, lumber, textiles. Eventually Fishtown fell into blight, its industrial buildings vacated and boarded up. But recently a new generation of industrious residents is has turned to urban farming of a sort, growing everything from community gardens to local writers, the latter by way of a modern-day farmers' almanac.

A small publisher and writers' workspace, The Head & the Hand Press, has just published Rust Belt Rising Almanac, a literary quarterly showcasing snapshots and essays on life in industrial American cities (including, of course, Philadelphia). The volume invites "Courteous Readers" to read about escapes, remains, and models of growth, and is at turns cheeky and earnest, with such section titles as "On Reverse Pioneering," "On the Anatomy of Coal-Fired Power Plant," and "On the Collective and the Communal."

The Head & the Hand Press was founded by Nic Esposito last year, and holds daily writing hours and a monthly Wednesday night cocktail discussion; all are open to the public, and there is now a regular rotation of about 30 writers from the community. Esposito, a writer and farmer who worked with AmeriCorps in post-Katrina New Orleans, moved back to Philadelphia in 2009 to spend time with his grandfather, who was ill. He runs what he calls an "urban homestead" with his wife in the area, raising chickens, bees, and seasonal produce (they grow 2,000 pounds of food a year, distributed to the neighborhood by a suggested donation of time or money, or through the nearby soup kitchen). Recently I visited the workshop, and Esposito answered these questions for Cities.

Fishtown has a rich fishing and agricultural history, and also an industrial one; in recent decades it has fallen into blight. How did you settle upon Fishtown as the place to make something of your own?

I came back to Philly, happy to be home, but depressed that I would not be on a farm. But I discovered the amazing urban farming scene in Philadelphia, especially West Philly. Being that I could live in a city and grow food, I was sold on staying. I lived there for three years, doing farm projects. I ended up moving to Kensington [the larger neighborhood boundary that includes Fishtown] after meeting Elisa, who is now my wife. I kind of left West Philly kicking and screaming, partly because I would miss the trees, porches, and parks, and because Kensington always represented that depressing working-class environment I grew up in. But now that I’m back in it, and Elisa and I have the urban farm, we see the opportunity Kensington has.

What’s the mission of The Head & the Hand?

To connect both writers and readers to the process of book publishing. As I learned in my farming life, it’s dangerous when people are disconnected from the production of food. Farmers don’t do as good a job, and consumers don’t value the product. So in this time when the book industry is re-imagining itself, we feel that the writer can no longer be just the artist who relies on some overarching industry to produce the books, and the consumer needs to feel a deeper connection with the author and the company putting out the books. We have been able to find great partners and work with them to keep producing print books. This is progress because we’re able to mix our ideas of innovation with the practices and systems of the parts of the established book industry that we share a common vision with.

Tell us about the genesis of Rust Belt Rising.

We wanted to do a quarterly of short stories, poetry, and art, and curate the stories in an interesting way that went beyond just a theme. We wanted to make the format unique. Being from Philly, you learn about Ben Franklin before you learn about any other historical figure. H&H editorial director Linda Gallant suggested we go down to the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia -- it’s a treasure trove of old and obscure books. We found a ton of almanacs and were sold on the idea. The reason we picked the Rust Belt as our focus is because we live and work in a post industrial urban environment and we know the scope of great stories that can be found here. As Alexander Barton puts it in his piece "Cleveland is a Vocation," it’s a unique situation when a city has to ask itself why it is a city. We’re doing that in the Rust Belt and the answers make some great stories, and it’s those stories we wanted to capture to show people that they don’t need to leave these cities to create something of value. They can stay put and do it in the Rust Belt.

Courtesy of Emerald Street Urban Farm

What, for you, was the most surprising (and telling) contribution to the almanac?

Most surprising was "Little Baby’s Ice Cream Manifesto." Little Baby’s is a great ice cream shop that was not only founded by a group of guys who used to be in a bunch of Philly bands, but they also make some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had, which is a great story in itself. But seeing the creativity that still exists in their Manifesto reminds me why I love living here.

The most telling contribution was Jeffrey Stockbridge and Liz Moore’s photo essay "Nowhere But Here." Jeff has been doing a project called Kensington Blues where he takes photos of life underneath the El train (prostitutes, drugs, etc.) for five years. Liz Moore’s essay shows the realities that exist in a post-industrial landscape. Although we were very cognizant to avoid what is called "ruin porn," we did not want to make this collection a bunch of stories of all the cool young people moving the Rust Belt. We wanted to tell an honest story and Jeff and Liz certainly did that, while still giving dignity and humanity to their subjects.

How have Fishtown’s longtime residents responded to you and your project? From some of the pieces in the almanac, it seems clear that there’s a friction between the old and the new.

Fishtown is that weird place where arts and poverty have always intersected. Although there’s a lot of poverty here now, this was a working-class neighborhood where the kids in the 70’s (who are now the adults who either live in the suburbs or on the stoop outside the corner bar in the neighborhood) were still listening to rock music and getting into the counterculture. There’s still the cliché of the drunk at the bar who can quote poetry. I think the best piece on that is the interview we did with Fishtown artist Dennis Boyce and his depiction of being an artist in the 70’s in Fishtown, and all the struggle he had -- and what he thinks of the neighborhood now as all the new artists move in. 

Sometimes, of course, innovative ideas can come out of that intersection. Examples, or thoughts on that?

What I love about what’s happening in Fishtown and Kensington is that it’s not just bars and cafes and restaurants. We have the H&H co-writing space, we have The Philadelphia Sculpture Gym [an artists’ studio/workshop that operates like a gym membership], we have the Circle of Hope church and community center, we have urban farms, there’s even talk of a sculpture garden miniature golf course opening up. It’s not just about creating an avenue where people can "go out." It’s about improving people’s quality of life through art and creativity. 

Finally, what’s it like to have an "urban homestead" in Fishtown? Two highs and a low, please.

One would be the amount of food that we can grow and consume. I walked into Whole Foods the other day for toothpaste and saw a whole display of basil bouquets. I couldn’t imagine buying basil right now. The other is that opportunity for connecting with people from our community, the kids, the old timers, the new people moving in.

My low is that it is sometimes depressing when I look down to the garden beds and see this beautiful setting, and then look up past the fence and see storm drains clogged with trash, vacant lots overgrown with weeds, and drug dealing. It is really hard to keep beauty going when there is so much decay around you. But on Mondays, when we open the farm to the public and invite everyone in for farm day, there’s a great energy in the neighborhood. It’s a great mix.

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