Manayunk is a neighborhood in the northwestern section of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States. Located on the banks of the Schuylkill River, it contains the first canal begun in the United States (although not the first completed due to budget problems). The area’s name comes from the language of the Lenape Indians (later called the Delaware Indians by Europeans). In 1686-dated papers between William Penn and the Lenape, the Lenape referred to the Schuylkill River as “Manaiung”, their word for “river”, which literally translates as “place to drink”; the word was later altered and adopted as the town’s name.
Although historically a working class community, in recent years the neighborhood has been substantially gentrified. While there is still a working class population within the neighborhood, the population has shifted to younger upper middle class professionals and families. Additionally, the nightlife in Manayunk draws visitors from all over the Delaware Valley and as well as some international visitors.
History of Manayunk
Manayunk was originally a community in Roxborough Township, Philadelphia County, situated near the Schuylkill River, south of the Wissahickon Creek. The land that would become Manayunk was first bought from William Penn in 1685-1686 and then transferred to the family of William Levering. A large part of that land was then sold to Levering’s son, Jacob, in 1716. Soon, the younger Levering built the first house in Manayunk, on the north side of Green Lane, west of Silverwood Street. The growing town was known as Flat Rock in 1810, from a peculiar flat rock lying on the lower side of the bridge. This was subsequently called Flat Rock Bridge. The bridge was part of the Flat Rock Turnpike connecting Roxborough Township with Merion Township.
The settlement got its nineteenth-century identity from the construction of the dam, canal, and locks by the Schuylkill Navigation Company. The Manayunk section was finished at the end of 1818. Since the power provided by the water was extensive, the Navigation Company sought lessees of the power for use in mills and factories. In 1819, Capt. John Towers opened the first mill that used the canal’s water power. After that, purchases of water-power and the erection of mills and factories greatly increased. The area became important as a manufacturing village.
Manayunk was populated by a mix of German, Irish and Polish immigrants as well as numerous African Americans. Several immigrant groups established and maintained their own Catholic churches, including: St. John the Baptist (Irish), St. Lucy’s (Italian), St. Mary’s (German) and St. Josaphat’s (Polish), giving rise to Manayunk’s “church steeples in a hill town village” character. There are also several historic Protestant churches in the neighborhood. The Episcopal Church of St. David’s, Manayunk, was founded December 3, 1831. The Josie D Heard AME church was founded in 1924 to serve African American residents. Other residents traditionally attended church services at the numerous congregations found in nearby Roxborough.
Inhabitants became dissatisfied with the name “Flat Rock” and held meetings on the topic of changing the name. On one such occasion in 1824, Greek revivalists wanted to call it Udoravia (“place by the water”), but this was later overturned in favor of the Lenape word for river mëneyung or manaiung (“where we go to drink”). For ease of spelling the “i” was changed to a “y” and the “g” to a “k”.
The first Manayunk census was taken by the Rev. C. Vancleaf, pastor of the German Reformed Church, in March 1827. His count indicated 147 families; 550 males, 548 females; of which 244 were men, 306 women, 282 boys, and 266 girls, for a total of 1,098 inhabitants.
On June 11, 1840, Manayunk was incorporated as a borough. It was no longer considered part of the “Township or Borough of Rocks” (Roxborough).
The borough would last only 14 years. Manayunk and the rest of the boroughs, townships, and districts comprising Philadelphia County were disbanded and merged into the City of Philadelphia, through the Act of Consolidation, 1854. Although Manayunk was no longer a separate entity, the community maintained its identity as a self-contained neighborhood.
Near the end of the American Civil War, a Canonicus-class monitor was launched as USS Manayunk. However, when she was commissioned four years later, the ship was renamed USS Ajax by the prominent Philadelphian Secretary of the Navy Adolph E. Borie.
Manayunk continued to be one of the manufacturing centers of Philadelphia for the next 100 years, but in the 1980s, Manayunk suffered from the decline of manufacturing jobs. It had many empty storefronts along Main Street, its primary commercial district. In the 1990s, Manayunk’s revitalization began with the opening of several upscale restaurants on Main Street, which were backed by developers who promoted the neighborhood as a place to visit.
Manayunk retained its small-town charm with its small two- and three-story row homes, cobblestone paving, and hilly streets. Many who visited decided to stay and renovate the small row homes characteristic of the area. Increasing demand for housing in the area has led to the conversion of former mills into loft apartments, and replacement of empty storefronts and mom-and-pop stores with upscale shops. In 2004, a new condominium tower was built on part of Venice Island. In 2005 there were plans to build more condominium towers to replace the closed soap and paper factories. Manayunk has become a popular nightlife destination for college students and business commuters due in part to the many bars and restaurants in the area, a fact that emphasizes the historical meaning of the borough’s name.
Main Street continues on to Umbria Street when heading north. Umbria Street was once known as Washington Street. The name was changed to reflect a large influx of Italian immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. Italian-American heritage is still evident on storefront signage along the southern side of the neighborhood, such as the well-known Consolo’s Bakery on the corner of Hermitage and Smick Streets, now closed.