Northern Liberties is Philadelphia’s version of New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. It is a diverse, eclectic, and thriving neighborhood located north of Philly’s Center City. Old row houses and warehouses have been reconfigured into beautiful living and workspaces for artists, students, professionals, and young families. The streets are lined with popular bistros, Internet cafes, bookstores, quaint markets, fashion boutiques, and community gardens. Property values and medium incomes in Northern Liberties are some of Philadelphia’s highest.
It wasn’t always that way. Not too long ago, the neighborhood was considered the slums.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Northern Liberties was a hub of manufacturing. Mills, breweries, leather tanneries, paints and chemical works, tool-making factories, and iron and stove foundries lined the neighborhood. German and Irish immigrants lived in tiny row houses adjacent to their places of work.
After World War II, deindustrialization took hold of Northern Liberties leading to economic decline, high unemployment, and significant population loss. As manufacturing jobs crumbled away, this once-vibrant, blue-collar community became filled with abandoned buildings, brownfields, and derelict housing by the 1970s.
Private investment and smart growth strategies have lead the way to the neighborhood’s turnaround. Over the past 15-20 years, a variety of local companies and organizations have redeveloped older properties and built newer ones throughout Northern Liberties. The key players include The Reinvestment Fund, a community development financial institution or “CDFI” in Philadelphia that provided capital to revitalization efforts; local mega-developer Bart Blatstein, founder and president of Tower Investments; Tim and Pat McDonald of Onion Flats, LLC, builders of environmentally-friendly residences; and the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, a grassroots community group.
One of the prize gems to the Northern Liberties neighborhood is The Piazza at Schmidt’s. Located on 2nd Street at Germantown Avenue, a former brownfield of derelict buildings, is now a beautifully landscaped, 80,000 square foot open-air plaza. It is surrounded by three new buildings, four new restaurants, 500 apartments, and 50,000 square feet of office space. The Piazza at Schmidts is a hive of activity all year round with free festivals, concerts, and farmer’s markets. The Piazza also features a theatre-sized flat-screen that shows Phillies and Eagles games. It’s the kind of place where parents can grab a beer and the kids can have a safe place to run around. There’s something for everyone. The Piazza is also home to 35 art galleries and boutiques that surround it. They are all privately owned, making this area a home for many young entrepreneurs.
Liberties Walk at 1000 North 2nd Street, adjacent to the Piazza, is a four-square block mixed-use development with a village-like feeling. Filled with shops, cafes, restaurants, and apartments, the inverted layout runs cross grain to the grid of streets offering people a walkway from the western part of the neighborhood through to the adjacent plaza. Many of the shops are owned by first-time and women business owners.
Liberty Lands Park on 926 North American Street is central to the social life of Northern Liberties. The two-acre site, where the American Street Tannery stood, was given to the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA) in 1995. NLNA turned this former Superfund site into a green oasis that supports an array of community activities. Liberty Lands Park includes a community vegetable garden, a stage, and a water run-off system designed by the city water department and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Rain water flows through a natural filtration system of rocks and gardens, then into underground cisterns capable of storing 12,000 gallons of water on site. The captured rain water is used to water Liberty Lands’ lawns and flower gardens.
The revitalization of these properties, among many others, have helped Northern Liberties rise above its blighted past to become one of Philadelphia’s most popular commercial and residential destinations.
Northern Liberties is served by SEPTA’s Market-Frankford El with stops at Spring Garden and Girard. The station at Spring Garden is unique for being in the median of I-95. The elevated line’s tracks then break away from the expressway’s right-of-way to tower over Front Street through the neighborhood as it heads north away from Center City. In 2005, service resumed on SEPTA’s long-delayed Girard Avenue trolley at the northern boundary of the neighborhood.
Northern Liberties contains two privately owned but public parks, both established and owned by non-profits run by the neighbors. Orianna Hill Park is known as an off-leash area for dogs; the other, Liberty Lands, is a 2-acre park and playground.
Northern Liberties History
In 1985, the Northern Liberties Historic District was created, dedicated to preserving the Italianate architecture, Greek revival, and Federal style buildings which characterizes the area. It was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 too. The district encompasses 209 contributing buildings. Sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places that are located in Northern Liberties are the Daniel Boone School, Burk Brothers and Company, Integrity Title Insurance, Trust and Safe Deposit Company, Thomas Jefferson School, Mifflin School, and St. John’s Church.