A few months ago, colorful banners popped up on light poles along Fifth Street, just south of Spring Garden. They proclaimed, in big block letters, something new was coming for this largely industrial section of the city, something called “SoNo.”
And just like that, it seemed the area had a new name — South of Northern Liberties. Or did it? Some developers would have you believe it had been called something else, and they could point to their website and video branding the area Callow East.
Then there’s the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. Their city-registered boundaries stretch south beyond Spring Garden, down to Callowhill Street. SoNo? Callow East? Sorry, the area is already claimed.
“We’ve had Callowhill,” said Matt Ruben, president of NLNA, “for at least 13 years.”
The name game and Callow East
These few blocks just outside of Old City and below the most popular parts of Northern Liberties comprise one of the last undeveloped sectors near downtown, and it’s open season as to what this area could end up being called. Don’t call it a fight — Ruben has no issue with the SoNo folks — but the changing area provides a high-profile example of the way neighborhoods can become neighborhoods.
For as important as they are to Philadelphians, neighborhoods have mostly unofficial boundaries and names, and the City Planning Commission doesn’t delineate them. One person’s Eraserhood is another person’s Chinatown North. Some people in Point Breeze would never use the name Newbold, but it’s stuck after being created by developer John Longacre. And some people in Point Breeze would simply call the area South Philly.
Even Center City is nebulous. Historically, most people have considered its boundaries to be river-to-river between Vine and South streets. But the Center City District, the organization that promotes economic development for the area (and plans Sips!), consider Core Center City to be from Vine to Pine. They consider Greater Center City to stretch from river-to-river all the way from Tasker to Girard.
The results get skewed even further when realtors and developers get involved. That’s when you start hearing terms like NoFish and Port Fishington and, now, Callow East.
The Callow East movement was started by development group Colliers International. It owns a handful of properties just north of Callowhill Street on the east side of Philly that are mostly within the NLNA’s boundaries. It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn they are attempting to sell these properties, and to do so are using terms like “vibrant” and “confluence.” A short video on the website explains, “the elements are in place for a new neighborhood to rise up.” The name Callow East then pops up on a map.
Michael Barmash, senior managing director and principal for Colliers International, did not respond to a request for comment. Ruben had plenty to say.
“It’s ignorance in the extreme to try to label that area Callow East,” he said. “It makes no sense. I would take issue with any realtor or developer trying to call it Callow East. It’s Northern Liberties and that’s what they should call it.”
‘You could convince the end use we were an extension’
SoNo began as a multi-use project launched by Alliance Partners HSP. They purchased the defunct Destination Maternity warehouse at Fifth and Spring Garden and were planning to have creative office space. The project has changed to now feature the new Yards brewery, a Target and a City of Philadelphia building.
SoNo was intended to be the name of the workspace. It was hatched during a brainstorming session by Alliance Partners’ Rich Previdi and Matt Handel and Olivia Freeland, now the real estate project manager at Columbia University.
“One of the things we were trying to figure out was: Where was the energy that we were trying to attach to our project?” Handel said. “For us it was Northern Liberties. There was so much going on there you could convince the end user we were an extension of that but a little different.”
Though the original SoNo workspace project is gone, the name survives. The banners happened in large part because of Eric Berger, president of Color Reflections. He recently moved his printing company from a location north of Spring Garden to its current location just south of the street.
“I think it’s as good a name as any,” Berger said of SoNo. “The boys across the street had done some marketing and art. I said, ‘Let’s do some banners and I’ll pick up the cost.’”
He said Mark Rubin, whose Willow Management Corp. owns properties along Third Street, was interested in hanging some SoNo banners, too. Rubin did not respond to an interview request.
Said Handel: “If people want to call it SoNo, that’s great. It sounds good to us.”
Northern Liberties is all relative
Matt Ruben, the NLNA leader, said he didn’t think “chopping up neighborhoods into smaller names” was productive for the city.
“Would I prefer their banners say Northern Liberties? Absolutely,” Ruben said. “I think our neighborhood traditions are incredibly important.”
But he cuts the SoNo group some slack because he likes them and their ideas and investments for the area. And there’s no indication SoNo or Callow East will end up sticking. After all, nobody says NoFish. When buildings get sold and redeveloped and this part of the city transforms over the next few years, it could easily still be called Northern Liberties.
Last Friday, Brittany Hennessy was out on the sidewalk in SoNo (?) enjoying some sun. She’s worked in the area for five years. She’d barely noticed the banners and couldn’t imagine SoNo lasting.
“But before this was Northern Liberties,” she said, “it was North Philly.”