Northeast Times

What’s your NoLibs story?

Artist Jen­nifer Baker is cur­at­ing an ex­hib­it about the his­tory of the neigh­bor­hood, with an em­phas­is on res­id­ents’ per­son­al ex­per­i­ences.

  • Jennifer Baker in her Northern Liberties studio, where she keeps many paintings of the neighborhood. MIKALA JAMISON / STAR PHOTO

  • Jennifer Baker in her Green Street studio, along with her paintings. MIKALA JAMISON / STAR PHOTO

  • Baker’s first neighborhood painting, of the 1991 American Street Tannery fire.

  • Baker shows off an old deed to a Northern Liberties property, which she could include in the exhibit. MIKALA JAMISON / STAR PHOTO

  • Baker points out decades-old artifacts meant for the exhibit. MIKALA JAMISON / STAR PHOTO

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 jlp­baker@gmail.com. Check out her work, like many more paint­ings of North­ern Liber­ties, at www.jen­niferbaker.us. ••

You can reach at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

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