The Remarkably Long Journey To Bart

 

Photo: Hidden City Daily

The way it was told to me, and the way I told it in Song of the City, is that the urban pioneers started coming to the Northern Liberties in 1976.

The rest of the story, at least as its understood in the mythology of cities, is that the neighborhood took off from there. But that’s a bit of nonsense, for the road to the Northern Liberties we experience today–the place that’s become a gold commodity on the balance sheet of contemporary Philadelphia–has been long and complicated. Bart Blatstein’s enormous investment and its significant impact on the neighborhood and the entire city, in other words, wasn’t inevitable or even likely, given the societal tide of disinvestment and disinterest in old urban neighborhoods.

I was thrice reminded of this this week, first by Mitch Deighan’s comments on his experience as a Northern Liberties pioneer on our My Favorite Place video about the 800 block of North Orkney Street, then by news about the redevelopment of the Integrity Bank building at Fourth and Green (Color Reflections) and progress on Onion Flats’ long-imagined Stable Flats, and by this 1982 video, “Northern Liberties Is On The Move.”

In its celebration of both pioneering artists and federal investment in small projects around the neighborhood, the video clarifies how extraordinarily immense–Sisyphean, even–the task is of reversing long-standing and powerful economic trends.

With its strong tradition of innovation and openness, the Northern Liberties indeed obliged pioneering new folks like Deighan and Jennifer Baker and Karl Olsen and Ira Upin and Frank Hyder, who had, in the vast emptiness, space and materials to create a world of their own.

And yet despite the millions of accumulated investment, and the occasional large project like the late-1980s townhouses at Fourth and Poplar, the neighborhood remained a fragmented mess, still a ghostland, and nothing like a functional place.

And while neighborhoods like Queen Village and Powelton Village settled into their new lives as post-Modern, eclectic urban enclaves, the Northern Liberties thrashed along, still a post-Apocalyptic, fire-ravaged ruin of industrial failure, addiction, and dysfunction.

Hancock and Laurel Streets in 2001,  just south of what is now the Piazza at Schmidt’s | Photo: Patrick R. Ward

Then came folks like William and Jim Reed, who opened the Standard Tap in 1999, and the McDonald Brothers, who transformed Capital Meats into the neighborhood’s first contemporary-minded live-work spaces (and went on from there to create the green design-build firm Onion Flats). What would the neighborhood be without either the McDonalds (developers of Stable Flats) or the Reeds, who later opened Johnny Brenda’s, visionaries who saw a place like none other in the city, possibly the nation.

But that still wasn’t enough. Even the epic work of Dennis Haugh and Jesse Gardner in forging Liberty Lands wasn’t enough: in a city still recovering from the collapse of its economy the love and investment could create only islands of brilliant civilization, islands that in a certain strange way only reinforced the fragmented nature of the city itself.

So indeed it took Bart, or someone like him, to take all that love and make some big money off of it. Would the neighborhood have continued its rise? Sure (and quite a lot of people wish it had been allowed to keep its slower pace). But without the heft of Blatstein’s accumulated projects, the Piazza most emphatically, it wouldn’t have become the hinge that connects Center City up the River Wards, the keystone that’s made the El relevant again, the sometimes breathtaking reminder that this city can be fun, and even a little sexy.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



7 Comments


  1. Nice reflection, Nathaniel.

    I remember remarking to others throughout most of the past two decades or so, just about ever since the now-shuttered Liberties restaurant opened in the mid-1980s, that Northern Liberties “was, is and will always be Philly’s next big neighborhood.”

    Then, all of a sudden, it was, and it seemed to happen overnight while no one was looking.

    I do think that Bart Blatstein played a huge role in making that happen, and that Liberties Walk was his dress rehearsal. I also, however, have a great deal of respect for the local civic association, whose members seem to me to be unusually knowledgeable about urban design matters. At the meeting where the Integrity Bank project came back up for review, one committee member remarked on the rather long and tortuous process, involving three different architects, that finally produced the Piazza as we know it today. Something tells me that the fake-Italianate design first presented to the NLNA would not have created quite the sensation the Erdy McHenry complex has.

  2. While Jim Reed(and a lot of other folks)did indeed help his brother William open Standard Tap, William’s business partner and the co-owner of the Tap/Johnny Brenda’s is actually Paul Kimport. Just for the record.

  3. These are the issues I’m dealing with in my next book, yet while incorporating the history of the NoLibs’ **distant** past. Northern Liberties, Philadelphia: A Brief History (History Press), will be out by winter…

  4. Now that they’ve opened a food store in the area, I keep expecting the announcement of the NoLibs Space Program to put a gastropub on the moon.

  5. So glad you wrote this, answered some unanswered questions of mine. I just went looking online for pictures of Northern Liberties in the 1990s and found this small photo set on flickr:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/xnedski/sets/72157616465615466/with/2393077151/

  6. When my girlfriend and I first moved here, we wanted to check out this Northern Liberties neighborhood that everyone in Philadelphia was talking about. We came down and walked around, but all we could find was a few trendy bars, some new rowhouses just like we’d seen everywhere else in the city, and loads of parking lots. We even went through the Piazza; I figured it was undergrad housing for some nearby school I’d never heard of. Over our next few months here, we gradually realized we had indeed seen the NoLibs in all their glory. But that just left me more confused.

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