Considered Philadelphia’s first suburb, Northern Liberties for many years was a thriving manufacturing hub and a diverse, middle-class community. After the economic decline of the 1950s, it was left a desolate slum until artists who couldn’t afford to live in Old City began filtering in during the ’70s.
The area was so cheap at the time that artist Frank Hyder purchased the property now home to Projects Gallery for less than $15,000.
Its current exhibit, “Northern Liberties: A Transformation,” showcases the works of 10 local artists to tell the story of how the neighborhood came to be the vibrant, yuppie/hipster haven it is today.
Jennifer Baker has been documenting the destruction and rebirth of the neighborhood from her studio on Green Street since 1978. In her collection, she directly contrasts the old and the new—her dark oil paintings of the Burk Brothers Tannery demolition are followed by a bright landscape portrait of Liberty Lands Park, which now occupies the site.
While most of the featured artwork seems critical of NoLibs, capturing scenes during the uncertain early stages of its revitalization, there’s also a resounding sense of hope. In a blueprint-like painting of the area, artist Bruce Pollock shows the streets as green tree branches with the exception of one—presumably undeveloped—section, where they remain brown.
Giving a voice and some historical context to the artwork, the gallery commissioned a short documentary by former resident and semi-professional filmmaker John Thornton in conjunction with the exhibit. Befittingly titled Northern Liberties: Destitute Urban Carnival Reborn, the video offers glimpses of the neighborhood through its quirky characters and community spaces. Urban activist and planner Nathaniel Popkin delivers one of the film’s most poignant messages: “I have this theory that any city is a ruins and all we do is come in and adapt to that ruins and build to that ruins.”
With all its new multi-million dollar commercial/residential developments, NoLibs may seem far from “ruins.” But much of the neighborhood’s best attributes today are reminiscent of its character some 200 years ago. Still, it continues to be a close-knit community and one of the city’s most vital sources of creativity.
Through July 30. Projects Gallery, 629. N. Second St. projectsgallery.com