The provocation is in the name: Northern Liberties: From World’s Workshop to Hipster Mecca and the People in Between.
Exhibited in Philadelphia Voices: The Community History Gallery—a small enclave in the newly renovated Philadelphia History Museum—it uses photographs, artifacts, and video to chronicle the neighborhood’s history. Organized by the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association and curated by artist Jennifer Baker, the exhibition spotlights community memories of a once-thriving industrial corridor.
The exhibition traces history through architectural evolution. It highlights industrial powerhouses: Burk Brothers Tannery (est. 1855) and Schmidt’s Brewery (est. 1860)—large factories that brought thousands of immigrants, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, into the area to work and live. By the mid 20th century however, the industries began to fall. Businesses moved elsewhere and residents moved out. The city razed buildings and fires became frequent, as the old brick row houses fell into dilapidation.
Just as Northern Liberties fell, Old City rose. As local artists could no longer afford the rising rents and soaring taxes in Old City, they moved the few blocks north. For the Northern Liberties residents who had stayed, the influx of artists brought revitalization, such as Liberty Lands Park on the former site of Burk Brothers Tannery, but also conflict.
This is when the story sounds all too common: Artists move in when the neighborhood is still rough, renovate buildings, establish public spaces—they do the dirty work of stabilization. They pave the way for others to move in, for businesses to open, for value to go up. Developers take note, condos are built, the neighborhood becomes hip, and tourists abound.
Filmed conversations with residents echo this narrative, their voices enabling memory, both as reflections on the past and anxieties for the future. It is from them that anecdotes about ice cream parlors, jazz houses, and the nail man are shared, but also where frustrations and fears are voiced. As one neighbor explained: “People are moving in with the attitude that locals don’t belong.”
Today, Northern Liberties is the icon of gentrification in Philadelphia. The Piazza, a multi-purpose outdoor plaza with retail at ground level and luxury apartments above, designed by Erdy McHenry Architects, occupies the former site of Schmidt’s Brewery. While The Piazza is a marker of architectural innovation in the city—it also signifies social division. Concerts and upscale flea markets take place in the interior, promoting a space for the young, hip, and wealthy. Meanwhile longtime residents are confronted with rising taxes and increased rents as they negotiate whether they want to—or can—be part of the changing face of Northern Liberties.
While celebratory, the show is inevitably cautionary and appropriately concerned with the potential of history lost. Consequently, the show reveals the urgent need for documentation and public conversation. This is reflected in a table topped with paper and pencils and an invitation to “Tell Your Northern Liberties Story.” Ultimately, the success of the exhibition rests on its timeliness. It comes at an important moment when other Philadelphia neighborhoods, such as South Philly, Fishtown, and Kensington, are following in Northern Liberties’ footsteps and while larger discussions about gentrification permeate the national dialogue. Northern Liberties: From World’s Workshop to Hipster Mecca successfully narrates the history of the neighborhood, while acknowledging that history is always in a process of negotiation.