Northern Liberties Then & Now

 

As Nathaniel Popkin pointed out last Friday in his Possible City column, Northern Liberties’ road to gentrification has been an especially long one that began back in 1976 when artists first moved into the neighborhood. Change was incremental until seven or eight years ago, when the pace picked up dramatically thanks to the Piazza at Schmidt’s development, and in short order the Northern Liberties that was a surreal combination of the post-industrial and the bucolic became a thing of the past.

The neighborhood had been changing all along, of course, with the big factories the first to be shuttered. The Jack Frost sugar refinery, and the Ortlieb’s and Schmidt’s breweries closed in the 1980s. Yet those complexes and the massive Burk Bros. Tannery weren’t torn down for another decade or more, (Ortlieb’s alone survives) and gave the neighborhood a post-apocalyptic quality that tugged at the imagination. Meanwhile, a number of small distributors and manufacturers such as Charles Ritter Poultry, Cooper Barrel, and Pearl Pressman Liberty Printing soldiered on into the early 2000s.

Nature reclaimed so many vacant lots that the neighborhood had a strangely pastoral atmosphere as well. The small streets west of 3rd like Leithgow, Myrtle, Orkney and especially St. John Nuemann looked more like country lanes, and the anachronistic clatter of horses’ hooves filled the air as carriages made their way back and forth to the stables on Bodine Street, just north of George.

That Northern Liberties is getting harder and harder to recall, (or imagine if you didn’t see it back then), such is the power of the present, its sheer physical fact, to dominate our understanding of place. Fortunately we have photographs–memory’s best friend–to help us conjure up this not-so-distant past.

The fittingly named William H. Cooper Barrel Works, 320 Brown Street, was torn down in 2006. The company, founded in the 19th century, moved north to Feltonville….

The same site today….

The Charles Ritter poultry plant on Brown and American Streets in 2006. In business 92 years and still owned by a Ritter, it’s now down near Pattison Avenue in South Philly. On warm days it smelled and on cold days there was some slippery substance (congealed fat?) on the concrete next to its loading dock…

Today…

Photo: jponte12533

Christian Schmidt & Sons brewery in 2000, shortly before it was torn down. The massive complex was acquired by Bart Blatstein at Sheriff’s Sale for $1.8 million….

Nature started to reclaim the land after Schmidt’s was torn down. There was a giant mound of dirt dubbed “Mt. Schmidt” by locals that was good for urban off-roading…

A vision of things to come. It took a couple more years….

The Piazza at Schmidt’s and a Superfresh are complete, with the last third of the property awaiting development.

Laurel and Hancock Streets, just south of the Piazza in 2000. The building at left was a steel spring factory and later home to the International Printing Ink Co…

Both brick buildings were redeveloped as loft apartments by Blatstein’s Tower Investments. The stucco wall at right is the back of Tim McDonald’s Thin Flats project…

Still from Mary Dankanis’s 1982 video,  “Northern Liberties is on the Move.”

The Burk Brothers Tannery, built between 1855 and 1913, on 3rd St. just north of Poplar. It would become Liberty Lands park…

Another shot of the complex, which remained a tannery until the mid-20th century. Its last use was as a record factory. A plan to turn it into lofts fell through, which turned out to be a lucky break…

Photo: Neil Kohl

After Burk Brothers was torn down…

Liberty Lands today. The  Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association owns the park, which has become one of the most vibrant public spaces in the city…

Across from the park, on the west side of 3rd Street, was Pinnacle Foods…

What got built looks pretty much the same as the rendering…

2006

A little further north on 3rd just past Wildey was this lonely survivor.

Today…

This small complex of industrial buildings on Front Street between Wildey and Girard housed a wide variety of businesses over the years: mill, distillery, coffee roaster, furniture and appliance wholesaler and cabinetmaker.

The property, which was owned in part by Blatstein’s Tower Investments, had not been properly secured and was a haven for scrappers and junkies. It burned down last month...

Clarification: The L.H. Parke fire on July 10, 2012 destroyed a complex of connected buildings that had two different owners: 1118-1130 N Front St. is owned by Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments, and 1132-1140 N. Front St. is owned by John Galdo. The fence behind Galdo’s 1132-1140 parcel was frequently breached by trespassers over a number of years, allowing access to a courtyard on Galdo’s property, as well as Galdo’s building at 1132 N. Front St. Licenses & Inspection cited the 1132 N. Front St. property for being “unsecured/unsafe” in 2007, 2009 and 2011. Trespassers also repeatedly accessed Blatstein’s buildings through unknown means.

Part of the massive National Sugar Refining Company plant was in Northern Liberties and part in Fishtown. Laurel Street is the dividing line. The refinery was torn down in 1997…

And today…


5 Comments


  1. St. John Neumann Way never looked like a “country lane.” 800 block of N. Orkney in some ways still does…but was almost over-the-top bucolic when my former partner Mike and I first landed here in the late 70’s.

  2. Great post! Been here for over 5 years and didn’t know about a lot of the changes and what were here before. Thanks!

  3. Hey Mitch–

    You’re right–“looked more like country lanes” is a bit strong. “Suggested” is probably closer to the mark. And the 800 block of N. Orkney is indeed much more verdant than St. John Neumann Way. I think the way St. John Neumann cuts diagonally across the grid from Poplar to Orianna was what made it seem less city-like to me, rather than the vegetation.

  4. You should document the corner of Green and 2nd near SpringGarden–the “old” Penn Herb Co and the new Penn Herb Co. Word on the “street” is this is being torn down momentarily (I’m a friendly next door neighbor and we were told August 12th was the date, yet barrels of materials just arrive today and it’s the 14th). Would be an amazing before/after. The old “PHC” building butting up against route 95 (formerly Peach street in the days of our forefathers when this land was all old colonials) and now the new Penn Herb Co which faces 2 street. Give it sixth months and the whole corner will look different (and I bet we’ll all be priced out of the neighborhood–but so it goes…upward and onward!)

  5. wow, some people see progress in a much different way than i, a tear drips down my cheek as i see the before and after…………..

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