North Philadelphia is a large area north of downtown Philadelphia that includes many neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties, Kensington, Fishtown, Fairmount, Spring Gardens, Templetown, Nicetown, and Tioga. Companies such as Midvale Steel of Nicetown, founded in 1867 as Butcher Steel; the large textile mills and tanneries of Kensington; Cramp Shipbuilders of Port Richmond; and hundreds of other factories and cottage industries spread across North Philadelphia created the vast product range and supported the mercantile culture that earned Philadelphia the nickname “The Workshop of the World”. In the 18th century, as Philadelphia grew in importance and, consequently, population, pastoral North Philadelphia became an attractive alternative to the burgeoning city. Philadelphia was one of the most important manufacturing centers in the world between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, and North Philadelphia is one of the sections of the city whose landscape was most deeply shaped by the industrial era.
The decentralized cities of North Philadelphia were gradually integrated into an extensive network of ubiquitous Philadelphia townhomes. Philadelphia's population growth outside the city center in the 19th century increased the number of townhouses, businesses and churches in North Philadelphia. The increase in urban blight and the general decline of Philadelphia in the late 20th century even saw the decline of many of North Philadelphia's strong black communities. Philadelphians also invested in North Philadelphia to create other types of community centers with the intention of helping the poorest residents of the area better establish themselves in American society.
Prior to its incorporation into the city proper, North Philadelphia was little more than a collection of mainly agricultural municipalities above the original city of Philadelphia. Automobiles became a prominent force in Philadelphia's development, and at the end of World War I, Philadelphia's car line extended from Spring Garden along North Broad Street to Girard Avenue. Mural Arts Philadelphia works such as James Burns' North Philadelphia Beacon Project and Meg Saligman's Common Threads have become attractions for themselves. North-South Avenue is the same name as SEPTA's Broad Street Line, an efficient subway line that connects North Philadelphia to the South Philadelphia stadium complex through a midpoint at City Hall.
Latino restaurants, wineries, cultural institutions and street murals in Spring Garden, Fairhill, Kensington, Frankford, Olney and, more especially, in the “Gold Center” area of North Philadelphia (located around the intersection of Fifth Street and Lehigh Avenue), document the strong Latino influence rooted in large swaths of North Philadelphia. These homes have improved neighborhood conditions in sections of North Philadelphia, but they have also been criticized for not accommodating the city's poorest residents and for being architecturally incongruous with the townhouses that dominate much of North Philadelphia. North Philadelphia retained the flavor of European immigrants until the early 20th century, when African Americans from the southern states began migrating en masse to Philadelphia and other industrial centers in the north, establishing many of the neighborhoods of North Philadelphia as important centers of black population culture. These regions are (from north to south) Olney-Oak Lane, Upper North Philadelphia and Lower North Philadelphia.
For a time, the North Philadelphia station became the second busiest train station in the city, and Olney Ave station the most used subway stop.