President, Northern Liberties Neighbors Association
“Live like you’re in a four-star hotel.” The sleek, glass-walled storefront stops me in my tracks. It’s practically the middle of the night, but the place is open, an attractive young woman sitting amid the modern furnishings, waiting contentedly for someone to wander in. I don’t have the nerve, but I peer in, squinting.
This is Tower Concierge Services, catering to residents of the five hundred new apartments that prominent developer Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments has built in the past ten years. On what used to be a dirt lot, in the midst of the worst economy in eighty years, you can “Elevate Your Lifestyle” with laundry service, auto detailing, personal shopping, or an in-home massage.
Welcome to the latest, dizzying chapter in the 330-year history of Northern Liberties. It’s a tiny hamlet, just over a half-mile in area, but until the 1850s it was among America’s largest cities. It borders the Delaware river, directly adjacent to the original city of William Penn, and yet from the beginning it was off the grid, a comical stepchild of colonial grandeur. In 1682 Penn tempted potential large investors in Philadelphia with free estates adjacent to the city’s northern boundary (Vine Street). Thus was born The Northern Liberties, America’s first “yours free with minimum purchase” community.
By the 1830s thousands of laborers, artisans and lowlifes lived practically on top of each other. On the neighborhood’s dirt streets, urban historian Nathaniel Popkin writes, “voices of gypsies and hucksters competed with the sounds of sea gulls swirling above. Goats and chickens wandered between the buildings.” It got incorporated into Philadelphia, grew for another century and then, like much of urban America, stagnated. By the end of the 1990s, barely 3,500 people remained.
A couple of real-estate booms later, though, and Northern Liberties is the fastest-growing neighborhood in Philadelphia, where affluent (or parent-subsidized) young singles live cheek-by-jowl with elderly couples, new families, empty nesters, abandoned buildings, and the last vestiges of 20th century manufacturing. They live, and sometimes work, in two-hundred-year-old rowhouses, brand new metal and glass townhomes, rehabbed churches and factories, hyper-modern mid-rise apartment buildings, and a log cabin. They ride around on bikes and in Beamers, on scooters and in SUVs, in beat-up old pickup trucks and brand-new electric cars.
Like much of America, Northern Liberties reflects the seismic shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, but here the ironies are perhaps more readily apparent. An industrial, working-class neighborhood defined by brewing, food processing, and tanning has become an increasingly affluent neighborhood of gastropubs, restaurants, and clothing boutiques, dotted with postindustrial parks and gardens. Bricks and Belgian blocks from the old factories form paths and patios in many backyards.
Demographically, gentrification has made the population more Caucasian and affluent, but it remains home to a diverse group of people: first generation Eastern European immigrants who still sweep their sidewalks and can tell you the difference between Polish and Ukrainian perogies; African-Americans who grew up here with nicknames like Worm and Hackadoo, and think of “Northern Liberties” as little more than a fancy euphemism for North Philly; artists who streamed in during the 1970s and ’80s to rehab buildings and create what Popkin calls “the greatest artists’ colony in the state”; young couples who settled down in the ’90s and now gather in Liberty Lands, the two-acre community owned park, to commiserate about their kids going out on first dates; empty nesters who’ve been trickling in as part of the suburban reverse-migration; and of course the young hipsters everyone reads about, who might or might not be interested in those concierge services.
The question now is whether all this vitality will thrive in the crucible of change, or be consumed and snuffed out. The rising property values that have spurred revitalization also have shrunk the great artists’ colony and made it difficult for even middle-income people to buy homes. The old churches are here to stay, as is Liberty Lands, and the log cabin. But horse stables, artists’ studios, and other thriving and unique amenities have gone in the past few years, replaced by a more homogenous selection of residential and commercial uses. No one knows if our present will end up looking as colorful as our past, or if we’re witnessing the end of something special about Northern Liberties.
My hunch is that it’ll be a wash: we’ll lose, and gain, a lot we love, and a lot we don’t like. In the end Northern Liberties will likely remain what it’s always been: not a colonial artifact, an internal suburb, or a bedroom community, but rather a slightly unkempt urban village, a place of work and function and the present tense.