Fairhill was first settled in 1718 when Issad Norris, a prosperous Quaker merchant, constructed his large country estate on 900 acres of what today is the Fairhill neighborhood. Shortly before Norris purchased his 900 acres, William Penn granted George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, land for a meeting house, burial ground and garden nearby. For the Quakers who lived in the Fairhill area, the meeting house eliminated the need to travel all the way to center city Philadelphia, a time consuming journey in the 1700s.
The area remained mostly undeveloped save a few wealthy landowners who built large country estates into the early 19th century. While the rural nature of the area continued until the mid 1800s, when the easy availability of coal by 1850 caused disruptive changes in all of Philadelphia by fueling its industrial development.
By 1883 the Quakers finished a new larger meeting house and enlarged their small existing burial ground emulating the design of the ‘Rural Cemetery Movement’ that was popular at the time. This rise in industrial capacity necessitated the need of a larger workforce and immigrants from Europe started to emigrate into Philadelphia to take advantage of the industrial jobs. The large estates that had characterized the Fairhill area until the mid 1800s were sold off to developers and a neighborhood of row houses was built to accommodate the large number of arriving workers.
While the Quakers had established the first religious presence in Fairhill, they were soon eclipsed by the religious beliefs of newly arrived immigrants. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia bought land to establish a German Catholic Church in 1889. When parishioners outgrew this small church a new church, convent, school and rectory was designed by Philadelphia architect Edwin Durang and completed in 1906.
For almost a century St. Bonaventure’s Parish became the center of life for many who lived in the neighborhood caring for the spiritual, educational and social needs of the large German Catholic community. Around 1920 African Americans from the South started to trickle into Philadelphia in search of employment in Philadelphia’s many industries and settled just south of Fairhill.
The change in the ethnic nature of the neighborhood accelerated in the 1940s with the influx of Puerto Ricans as well as more African Americans. Just as these great numbers of unskilled workers flooded the job market, Philadelphia started to lose its industries as they moved South and overseas. As a result, Fairhill and adjacent neighborhoods experienced an increase in poverty and rise in crime.
Changing demographics and economics impacted established religious institutions as their existing parishioners moved away. Ultimately, by the 1990s both the Quakers and the Archdiocese were forced to sell to other congregations because they were unable to adequately maintain their sites.
2000 – Present
Today Fairhill is the poorest zip code in the city of Philadelphia, its local schools’ record is the lowest in the school system. The main commercial corridor is in great need of revitalization. There are approximately 30 small congregations scattered around the neighborhood that have replaced the earlier established religions.
Fair Hill is a post-industrial community that has suffered from socioeconomic problems for over 30 years. The area has a rural nature with Germantown and Lehigh Avenues serving as the once vibrant commercial corridors.