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Northern Liberties: From Edgar Allan Poe and ‘lowlifes’ to Bart Blatstein’s Piazza and boutique dining

It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, community centers and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love the Northern Liberties? Buy the stuff.

Welcome to Northern Liberties, the neighborhood northeast of Old City that’s become ground zero for the real estate boom in the last decade. Once a home to “lowlifes” and Edgar Allan Poe, then a manufacturing hub, Northern Liberties — “NoLibs” — was hit hard in the mid-20th century when factories and plants shut down or moved locations.

But a few decades later, Northern Liberties is now one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Philadelphia after a few housing booms and some determined developers took the neighborhood to a new place. Now, hundreds-of-years old row homes are surrounded by public green space and metallic-y modern houses. Pubs, boutiques and dining options line the well-traveled corridors on 2nd and 3rd streets, and public art covers walls.

Here’s a snapshot of Northern Liberties:

Boundaries

The Northern Liberties Neighbors Association defines the neighborhood as N. 6th St. starting at Callowhill St. and ending at Girard Avenue to the west, Girard Avenue to the north to Front Street where the border turns south down Front Street to Laurel Street, and then east the length of Laurel Street to the Delaware River. The eastern border runs down the Delaware from Laurel Street to Callowhill Street, and the southern border is Callowhill Street to N. 6th St.

A note: The data in this post includes the area between Callowhill Street and Vine Street because of how census tract boundaries fall.

Population

6,112

Population 20-to-34

3,081 or 50.4 percent

Racial Composition

Rent vs. own

58.9 percent renter-occupied homes and 41.1 percent owner-occupied homes

Home price

Berkshire Hathway reported that in May, median home price was $380,000 year-to-date. That’s an increase over the median home price in 2014, which was $329,000. Trulia reports that the average price per square foot for homes in Northern Liberties and Fishtown is $218, which is about 64 percent higher than the average price per square foot for homes in all of Philadelphia.

Name origin

When William Penn settled in Philadelphia, he went along with traditional British land sale customs that stipulated that those who purchased large tracts of land in Philadelphia received a bonus: Free “liberty lands” in rural areas that were technically outside city limits. The Northern Liberties were founded as those lands where people were encouraged to use for farming and development.

History

After Penn handed out land in this area like candy, “it became occupied by laborers, artisans and lowlifes who lived practically on top of one another,” according to the book Northern Liberties: A story of a Philadelphia River Ward by Harry Kyriakodis. Before the area was incorporated with the rest of Philadelphia in 1854, it was among the list of America’s top 10 largest cities with more than 30,000 residents by the 1830s.

For the next century, Northern Liberties grew and became — like much of the rest of Philadelphia — a home to manufacturing. It was a working class neighborhood that was a haven for European immigrants and was defined by brewing, food processing and leather tanning. It proved a fantastic home to factories because of large creeks that brought in water to supply the mills, according to Kyriakodis.

Among the factories that took up residence in Northern Liberties, according to Hidden City: The Jack Frost sugar refinery, the Ortlieb’s and Schmidt’s breweries, Burk Bros. Tannery, Charles Ritter Poultry, Cooper Barrel and Pearl Pressman Liberty Printing. But deindustrialization ravaged the neighborhood in the mid-1900s and, according to Kyriakodis, the neighborhood was a shadow of its formal self. Plants shut down or left the neighborhood and what amounted to about 30 percent of the neighborhood around Spring Garden Street was effectively leveled. The rest of the neighborhood was spared.

Burk Brothers Complex

Burk Brothers Complex that was torn down in 1995. Jennifer Baker via PlanPhilly

By the beginning of the 1990s, many of the factories were already torn down, and the population stagnated at just over 3,000 people. But the real estate booms and a few developers changed all that for Northern Liberties after its potential was realized in the early 1990s. Its proximity to Old City and Center City makes the neighborhood attractive to people young and old who work in the city.

Twenty years, hundreds of structures and a few real estate booms later, Northern Liberties stands as one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Gentrification drove up housing prices for the last two decades and now rent prices in the neighborhood are right up there with Logan Square, Rittenhouse and Old City.

Those rising prices are making it even difficult for the artisans who moved there in the 90s to be able to afford what were once for middle-income renters and buyers. The neighborhood that was for a long time “up-and-coming” is now defined by an increasingly affluent type of resident that have increased the number of gastropubs, restaurants, boutiques, parks and gardens.

Some of the 200-year-old row homes remain in the area that were once occupied by “lowlifes,” but now they’re surrounded by everything from modern, metallic townhouses to rehabbed churches used for office space.

Alumni

Edgar Allan Poe

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R. KENNEDY FOR VISIT PHILADELPHIA

532 N. 7th St.: Located just a block outside of the technical borders of Northern Liberties is the Edgar Allan Poe house, the site where one of the nation’s most famous writers lived and wrote for about a year. Poe, the poet made famous for penning “The Raven” and a litany of other poems, lived in this home in 1843 before he moved to New York, and this is the only one of his Philadelphia residences that remains today. You can tour the historic site on weekends.

What Used to be

Manufacturing and demolition that’s turned into upscale housing and modern architecture. A couple examples:

4th and poplar 1978

Photo: 4th and Poplar Streets in 1978. Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Archives.

Today, that same intersection in Northern Liberties looks like this:

4th and poplar now

Google Maps

Hidden City Philadelphia put together a great post in 2012 showing the before and after photos of some of the intersections and development projects throughout the neighborhood. Check it out.

The art

It’s difficult to mention Northern Liberties without paying homage to its history as a haven for artists and makers. It’s where artisans first settled outside the city, and it’s where some of the city’s most eclectic public art is.

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Mural was constructed in 2006 with birdhouses, a cut-out face and bees. Via PhilArt

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This one sits on 2nd and Poplar streets

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Also visible from 2nd and Poplar streets

Controversy

Pretty much everything that has happened at the Piazza at Schmidt’s, ranging from concerts that turned into drunk, sex-filled shitshows and Eagles stars leaving tiny tips at a burger joint there, has been controversial. But most importantly: The construction of the massive complex proved to be contentious in itself, as some who lived in the neighborhood saw the developer as imposing on the area and continuing to drive up already-rising housing prices.

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Credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia

Northern Liberties super-developer Bart Blatstein had a hold on dozens of acres worth of property in the neighborhood for more than a decade in the 90s and 2000s, constantly getting into disagreements with residents over properties and aiding in gentrification. Of course, the most massive of his projects was the Piazza at Schmidt’s, a more-than-80,000 square foot, mixed-use complex that features hundreds of apartments along with shops, restaurants and public space. It’s in many ways one of the most recognizable parts of Northern Liberties today.

Blatstein, then known for developing strip malls, acquired the property near 2nd Street and Girard Avenue in 2000 — it was the area that used to be owned by Christian Schmidt and Son’s Brewery. The complex that included hundreds of apartments and additional townhouses opened in May 2009, despite calls from some in the community to halt the development.

What to check out

Yards Brewing Company

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Credit: C. Smyth for Visit Philadelphia

901 N. Delaware Ave.: The Northern Liberties-area brewery originally opened in Manayunk in the mid-90s and has since expanded greatly. Its craft beer has become a favorite across the city, and the Philadelphia Pale Ale was ranked by the New York Times as one of the top pale ales in the country. Stop by the brewery for a free tour on weekends or check out the tasting room any day of the week.

Holy Trinity Rumanian Church

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Credit: Google Maps

220 Brown Street: Built in 1810, the building is considered one of the most important examples of neoclassic architecture in the United States. In 1983, Holy Trinity was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Liberty Lands Park

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Credit: Uwishunu

926 N. American St.: This park was developed in the 90s from reclaimed vacant urban land, and it now features a community garden, local artwork, a playground and is a central location for the social life of the neighborhood. Check it out in the summer for free movie screenings.

Community gathering spaces

The Northern Liberties Community Center – 700 N. 3rd St., 1st Floor

Orianna Hill Park AKA The Dog Park – At Poplar and Orianna streets

Instagram this

The intersection of old and new can be found throughout the architecture in Northern Liberties.

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