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As Fishtown businesses boom, one 116-year-old nonprofit has found support from its new neighbors

The Lutheran Settlement House has operated in the heart of Fishtown for 116 years. These days, the social service agency lives next to trendy bars and restaurants — businesses that have become strong supporters.

People watch an ice sculpture carving demonstration at the Lutheran Settlement House Saturday, December 8, 2018. Many in the Fishtown community have rallied to support the house. MARGO REED / Philadelphia Inquirer
People watch an ice sculpture carving demonstration at the Lutheran Settlement House Saturday, December 8, 2018. Many in the Fishtown community have rallied to support the house. MARGO REED / Philadelphia InquirerRead more

A century ago, immigrants who arrived in Fishtown from Eastern Europe found themselves at the doors of the Lutheran Settlement House on Frankford Avenue, an urban ministry that helped families acclimate to their new lives.

The nonprofit agency, which has never moved from the stately building where it was founded in 1902, now stands on a stretch of prime real estate, amid converted condos and artfully lit restaurants selling $15 cocktails.

The rapid changes have forced the organization, which provides shelter, education, domestic violence support, senior services and more, to reflect on its role in the new Fishtown, said Erica Zaveloff, director of development.

But the revitalization has also brought generosity from the businesses that now line Frankford Avenue, which have become among its most reliable donors. Fund-raising events regularly draw contributions from restaurants like Frankford Hall, Bottle Bar East, Joe’s Steaks, Johnny Brenda’s, and Wm. Mulherin’s Sons.

“The population in Fishtown, by and large, doesn’t need us anymore,” said Zaveloff, adding that the organization has been doing outreach at schools in Kensington and beyond. “What does that mean for us? Does that mean we should move to where the need is?

"But at the same time,” she continued, “it’s pretty awesome being here right now, because we get so much support. We have these people who want to give back, and rather than push us out, they want us to stay.”

Developer Roland Kassis and his sister Nathalie Richan are two of the house’s largest individual donors, Zaveloff said, with Kassis offering the use of his business connections as well as money. Kassis, who spearheaded projects like La Colombe and Stephen Starr’s Frankford Hall, and who with Richan is part of the team behind the hit Lebanese restaurant Suraya, has been instrumental to Fishtown’s transformation.

“They’re part of the community. Before anything ever came, they were here,” Kassis said. “Our philosophy has always been, make it better, but integrate everyone. And they bring amazing energy to the area.”

The building at 1340 Frankford Ave. was once affiliated with a Lutheran church. The early 1900s saw an influx of immigrants to the United States, and the settlement house provided food, clothes and assistance with putting down roots in the neighborhood.

Today the organization’s largest program is a 100-bed family shelter in North Philadelphia, the only program not anchored in Fishtown. The shelter operated out of a building in West Philadelphia until last summer, when the property owner decided to sell. A replacement building was found, but the deal fell through two weeks before the move-out date.

Kassis stepped in, Zaveloff said, and with help from him as well as the city, the settlement house secured a former halfway house to move into.

“He really went above and beyond to make sure we didn’t lose that program," Zaveloff said of Kassis. “I think he sees the value of this place, its history, and with the population that’s here now and wants to invest in the community, knows that it’s important to have something for people to give back to.”

The settlement house also operates a bilingual domestic violence support program that includes a hotline, counseling, crisis intervention, transitional housing, and more. It offers adult education in literacy, GED prep and career training. The organization trains people in medical advocacy, caregiver support, and nutrition.

One of the remaining ways it serves the Fishtown community is through a senior center, which offers activities such as bingo, cooking classes, lunch, arts and crafts, and computer literacy. About 45 people attend daily, Zaveloff said, many of whom have lived in Fishtown or Kensington all their lives. Some who frequent the senior center were brought there as children by mothers who attended adult-education classes in the building.

The organization is always in need of financial help. But in recent years, as nearby businesses boomed, the donations have diversified.

Beer garden Frankford Hall has provided food for hundreds who attend an annual event aimed at getting men involved with domestic violence prevention. La Colombe donates coffee and pastries to events. Joe’s Steaks has sponsored the group’s annual Women of Courage breakfast ceremony, which honors community leaders and advocates.

Other donors include Weckerly’s and Little Baby’s ice cream shops, Philly Style Bagels, and the Amrita Yoga studio. SugarHouse Casino has donated Thanksgiving meals and percentages of lunch sales, and has bought tables at fund-raising events. Bottle Bar East donates beer, as well as a portion of the profits from FestivALE, a summertime beer festival on Frankford Avenue. Johnny Brenda’s has provided DJs for events and hosted happy hours.

Cake Life Bake Shop co-owner Lily Fischer this year donated hundreds of hand-decorated, individually wrapped shortbread cookies as favors for Women of Courage attendees. “It’s nice to be able to support something that’s been here forever, and keep it anchored here as a beacon for the community," she said.

For the recent Fishtown Freeze, an event with ice sculptures and carving in front of local establishments, business development group Fishtown Co. provided an ice sculpture and live carving event. The donation helped representatives of the house meet neighbors and teach them about the group, potentially lining up future volunteers and donors.

And this month, when the house held its first Beer and Bingo fund-raiser in the building, about 50 Fishtowners attended, mostly 20- and 30-something professionals with jobs in fields like marketing or IT, along with a few who were born in or near the neighborhood. The event, which served donated beer from Goose Island Brewery and gave away prizes like liquor from Philadelphia Distilling and gift cards from local restaurants, raised about $1,500, Zaveloff said.

Mike Kellett, a former co-owner of Bottle Bar East, knew Fishtown was on the rise when he opened the shop six Decembers ago. Still, he sometimes cringes when he thinks about longtime residents and establishments like the Lutheran Settlement House, whose employees and clients must now battle traffic, bar patrons who park illegally in their lot, and street closures for beer festivals several times a year.

“It’s a privilege to do business in this neighborhood,” Kellett said. “But as a business owner, you want it to hold its balance. It can’t be all bars and restaurants. And you want to do what you can to support that."