Jennifer Baker once found artistic inspiration in the wreckage of a neighborhood.
Now, she’s working on uncovering its history, with the help of other residents.
Baker, an artist who lives in Swarthmore but whose studio is located on Third and Green streets, lived on American Street in Northern Liberties years ago with her husband.
“The neighborhood was burning down around us, literally,” she said, referring to a 1991 fire that laid waste to what was once the American Street Tannery.
From her vantage point of the blaze, Baker created her first painting of the neighborhood. She then continued painting images of Northern Liberties, like the demolition of the Burk Brothers Tannery, where Liberty Lands Park is now, as well as churches, schools and other neighborhood landmarks.
From that work, Baker said, grew a desire to learn more about the vibrant history of Northern Liberties.
Which brings her to present-day, where from within her sprawling, sunny studio, Baker excitedly shows off decades-old neighborhood artifacts and photos — yellowed images of 1940s NoLibs streets, tissue-thin envelopes with addresses scrawled in nearly ancient ink, even a search warrant for a Poplar Street home, which in 1933 was “a dwelling used as a speakeasy.”
Baker is curating an exhibit about the history of Northern Liberties for the new Community History Gallery at the Philadelphia History Museum — formerly the Atwater Kent Museum — that will open in mid-February and run for approximately three months.
She said the exhibit will focus on the last 60 years and the transformation of the neighborhood from an industrial and residential one to what she said is now a “post-industrial” one.
Baker said she also wants the exhibit to focus on how these changes have affected the people who live in Northern Liberties.
“Northern Liberties has changed very rapidly and very dramatically — buildings are ripped down, there have been fires, people moving in and out…this [neighborhood] is a little microcosm of the city,” she said.
The working title of the exhibit is, “Northern Liberties: From World’s Workshop to Hipster Mecca and the People in Between.”
Through the backing of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, Baker proposed her exhibit — which she makes clear is a historic exhibit, not an art exhibit — to the museum. She’s collected many historic artifacts, but is asking for the neighborhood’s help in gathering more that will be used for the exhibit.
Baker’s own take on the neighborhood is that it’s a rather mixed bag — she said she sees positive and negative in the changes that abound in Northern Liberties. She likes to see, she said, things like Liberty Lands, volunteers helping out with cleanups, and the work of community groups. But with the rising prices of the neighborhood, she said she worries about who has had to leave it.
“There are fewer and fewer artists in this neighborhood. Most artists have been forced [priced] out, but artists really helped to transform it,” Baker said.
To represent those neighborhood pioneers in the exhibit, she said, she’ll include an “artists’ book”: she’s looking to represent in the book every artist she can find who has any connection to the neighborhood. Any artist who lived or worked in NoLibs is asked to submit a page with an image of his or her artwork, along with a paragraph about their relationship to the neighborhood.
Baker has 30 artists’ pages finished, and said about 30 more people said they’ll be sending their information along.
The exhibit is meant to be an ever-expanding multimedia presentation; during its duration, artists can continue to add to the book, and residents with stories of the neighborhood can write their experiences in a notebook that will be included. That way, no one’s story will be left out, Baker said.
Artifacts, photos, neighborhood maps and more will be included in the exhibit, and Baker said she hopes it will expand visitors’ horizons.
“I think people who are interested in putting down roots, and the wellbeing of this neighborhood, will be interested in this exhibit,” she said.
Baker continued, “I want people to think about their environment in a way beyond their own convenience,” she said. “I want the stories of how the physical changes of this neighborhood affect real people.”
Another exciting part of the exhibit: video interviews with neighbors. Back in 2009, neighborhood residents Wendy Daughenbaugh and George Miller created a series of video interviews with people in the neighborhood, about their own experiences living or working there — they collected almost 16 hours of footage. Baker is working with Temple University interns to edit the footage into a presentation for the exhibit.
The exhibit will also feature links to podcasts by Anne Waginger and mixed and edited by Larry Freedman, chair of the NLNA zoning committee. The podcasts also feature interviews with neighborhood people — like Joseph Ortlieb, Baker said — as well as the simple sounds of the neighborhood. You can check them out now at http://www.nlna.org/podcast/.
“There’s a reason I stayed here. I love this neighborhood,” Baker said. “This exhibit is really about people’s stories. It features just a few of many stories about the neighborhood.”
To get involved in helping with the exhibit, or to donate artifacts, photos or stories, contact Jennifer Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her work, like many more paintings of Northern Liberties, at www.jenniferbaker.us. ••