Harry Kyriakodis said he didn’t know why there was never a book written about the history of Northern Liberties, so he decided to write one himself.
Kyriakodis, 47, is the proud author of his second book, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward, which was published Oct. 17. His first book, Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront, is now in its third printing through publisher The History Press.
The author is also a contributor to the website Hidden City Philadelphia, and has lived in the Penn’s Landing area since 1997. It’s where, he said, he found inspiration.
“I’m just very interested in the city,” he said.
He was born in Philly, and moved to the suburbs as a teenager before moving back.
“I’ve been biking around Northern Liberties for the past ten years, and I started to wonder about all the older buildings and empty lots.”
He said as he explored the area and dug through the hundreds of books about the city. He found some answers.
“A lot of important things were in those empty lots,” he said.
A lot of important things could be found all over the neighborhood, in fact. The book explores the neighborhood’s past as an important shipbuilding area as well as its railroads — one of the first railroads in the state ran through Northern Liberties — its religious houses and its place on the national political stage.
“Before it became part of Philadelphia, it was [known as] ‘the city next to Philadelphia.’ It was one of the largest cities in the United States,” Kyriakodis said.
Its history though, like any city, isn’t all squeaky-clean.
“I talk about [in the book] the early years of Northern Liberties, when the area was a really dangerous place,” Kyriakodis said. “It’s always been a place where industry and people resided together. That seems to generate a place where there seems to be a lot of drinking, debauchery and decadence.”
“It was not Society Hill; it was not Rittenhouse Square,” he continued, and added that it still isn’t. “It’s not a prim and proper place.”
“Yet,” Kyriakodis wrote in the book’s introduction, “This varied panorama of history is precisely what gives Northern Liberties its peculiar air.”
Kyriakodis had worked for the American Law Institute for 26 years before he lost his job on Oct. 26. He said, though, he hopes he can now find a new career that’s more focused on his passion for Philadelphia’s history.
Perhaps, he said, the book could help him as much as he intended it to help locals.
“I did write the book to help people in the neighborhood learn more about it,” he said. “What I chose to put down was that the place was a great panning center, a great brewing center … most of the newcomers, the ‘gentrification set,’ I suppose, might not know about it. It’s important they know about it.”
And immigration into the neighborhood, he said he discuses in the book, is nothing new. In the past, Northern Liberties was home to immigrants of German, Irish Catholic, Russian, Jewish, Slavic and African American backgrounds.
“[Now] the immigrants are coming from New York City, San Francisco, Boston,” he said. “I think it’s important to realize that the place has always been a place where immigrants have come from other places, and made it their own.”
In the last three chapters of the book, Kyriakodis said, he discusses the changes in the neighborhood over the years.
“I get the sense that many neighbors are nervous about all this gentrification stuff, but it seems to be part of the revolution of the entire town,” he said. “The neighborhood seems to be going through this cycle every so often of rebirth and renewal and decline — now it’s on an upward swing.”
He said that, although there’s no telling how long that upswing will continue, it’s nice to know it’s not confined to this particular time period. There have been, he said, good times and bad times throughout the entire history of Northern Liberties.
Northern Liberties Neighbors Association president Matt Ruben wrote the book’s foreword. In it, he wrote:
“No one knows if our present will end up looking as colorful as our past, or if we’re witnessing the end of something special about the Liberties. My hunch is that it’ll be a wash: we’ll lose and gain a lot of what we love and a lot of what we don’t.”
In the introduction of “Northern Liberties, The Story of A Philadelphia River Ward,” Kyriakodis wrote:
“Standing atop the tower of Philadelphia’s City Hall is a monumental statue of William Penn … Some say that the 27-ton bronze sculpture was positioned to look northeastwards in the direction of Tacony … while others say that it faces Penn Treaty Park…”
The author makes one thing clear—
“… Either way, though, William Penn gazes first at Northern Liberties.”
Star Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.