Museum exhibit looks at Northern Liberties' transformation

The Northern Liberties exhibit has photos, videos, and artifacts.
The Northern Liberties exhibit has photos, videos, and artifacts. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 16, 2014

PHILADELPHIA This week, one of the Philadelphia History Museum's galleries looked like little more than a barren bedroom. Its walls were white, its floors were littered with paper scraps, and its glass-enclosed cases were empty.

But by the week's end, the hipsters were taking over. The 400-square-foot community-history gallery, spruced up by colorful photos and decades-old memorabilia, had started to tell the history of a neighborhood.

On Thursday night, the Center City museum will launch an exhibit with a lengthy title that says it all: "Northern Liberties: From World's Workshop to Hipster Mecca and the People in Between."

The exhibit tells the story of Northern Liberties from the time it was a working-class neighborhood with factories within walking distance from residents' homes. After the factories and warehouses were shuttered, the artists moved in, and they were followed by gallery owners, high-end furniture vendors, developers, pricey real estate, nightclubs, and lots of young people in shades and skinny jeans.

The gallery's overnight transformation - which was not unlike the rapid cycle of deindustrialization and development that Northern Liberties has seen over the last half-century - was the vision of painter and sculptor Jennifer Baker.

Baker, the exhibit's curator, opened an art studio in Northern Liberties in 1978, a time of turmoil for the neighborhood. But the studio space was good and the rent was cheap, and she's still there.

Baker, 57, came up with the idea to curate the history of Northern Liberties soon after the museum, long known as the Atwater Kent, reopened in September 2012 following a major renovation. The museum's community history gallery, a small space set off near the side of the building's South Seventh Street entrance, is designed to showcase the history of city community groups, schools, and nonprofits.

The gallery has hosted exhibits on the history of the city's murals and on the LGBT community, but never one on the history of a neighborhood.

"I don't want people to think we're just the three-cornered hat, the American Revolution, and done," museum director Charles Croce said. "The city's story continues today, and the Northern Liberties story certainly isn't finished."

This week, as Philadelphians were making their way through the slushy slop outside, Baker was inside, putting the final touches on the exhibit.

"It's starting to look like something," the artist said Tuesday as she hung a photo of a devastating 1986 cotton warehouse fire. That photo, a centerpiece of the gallery's main wall, was surrounded by dozens of other images showing the neighborhood's struggles in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.

There's the beaten-down bowling pin from North Bowl, a popular bowling alley. And there's the video footage from noteworthy longtime residents, including Joseph Ortlieb, who sold his family-owned brewery in 1981.

"That was a big transition period for the neighborhood, and we would have had to pour millions into the business to keep" the brewery running, said Ortlieb, 85, now of West Chester. "It wasn't worth it."

Inside the gallery, wooden mallets hang high on the walls, symbolizing work and industry. Postcard- and poster-size photos, of the neighborhood new and old, line the walls, while glass cases in the middle of the small room hold an eclectic mix of objects: an old pin that reads "I Love Northern Liberties," a blouse from years ago, newspaper clippings from town events.

The exhibit, while paying homage to the neighborhood's newly acquired hipster label, aims to move beyond what some Northern Liberties leaders say can be an unfair stereotype.

"Because of our meteoric rise, we've become a creature of the real-estate section of the newspaper, and that paints only a partial picture," said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, which helped Baker with the exhibit. "There's a whole neighborhood with a rich fabric that doesn't get a lot of attention."

Baker, who calls the hipster reputation a "humorous touch," agreed.

"There's a lot more history here than most people realize, and hopefully we can tell it," she said.

The Philadelphia History Museum, 15 S. Seventh St., is open Tuesdays through Saturdays. For information:

215-854-2619 @szweifler


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