Since I moved to Philly in 2010, Northern Liberties has been the preserve of those from a similar demographic as myself - young, mostly white, middle to upper class - but with a little more money. It's got good bars, restaurants, and dance halls, and I am rarely there when the sun is up.
It was not always so. Starting Thursday, 36-year Northern Liberties resident Jennifer Baker traces the neighborhood's evolution in a new exhibit at the Philadelphia History Museum. In 1978, when Baker first moved in, the aroma of brewing hops would waft through her window from the Ortlieb's and Schmidt's breweries (both now closed and demolished, the latter the site of the mixed-use apartments at the Piazza). The noxious smells seeping from a nearby tannery served as a reminder that industrial capitalism isn't all good union jobs and cheap American beer.
Unlike in mono-industry cities like Detroit, Philadelphia neighborhoods were home to a diverse array of manufacturers and artisans. In the end it didn't matter, though, as industrial capital fled both Detroit and Philadelphia. A few years after Baker arrived, the Reagan recession put a stake through the heart of Philly's remaining manufacturing. By then the artists had already started moving in to Northern Liberties in search of cheap rents.
"Northern Liberties changed from a neighborhood where people made things to a neighborhood with a service economy," says Baker. "It's a microcosm of what went on in the larger city, and in other cities." Now the artists have been priced out, and move north to Fishtown and Kensington, while younger families and the more monied varieties of hipsters have taken up residence.
The exhibit, "Northern Liberties: From World's Workshop to Hipster Mecca and the People in Between," includes photos (some from The Inquirer's archives), video interviews with residents filmed in 2009, a slideshow of art produced in the neighborhood, and artifacts from its industrial days. The show is in the Community History Gallery, a new addition to the post-renovation Philadelphia History Museum.
The museum, at 15 S. Seventh St., is open 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admittance is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $6 for students and teens. For more information, visit www.philadelphiahistory.org.
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