Jennifer Baker moved to Northern Liberties more than three decades ago, along with many other artists who took advantage of the recently vacant, cheap open studio space.
Big changes were coming to the neighborhood, which was transforming from a working-class factory town into a haven for artists, painters and sculptors.
Baker’s interest in this metamorphosis led her to propose an exhibit at the Philadelphia History Museum. On Thursday, Feb. 20, her dream will become a reality.
The exhibit, entitled “Northern Liberties: From World’s Workshop to Hipster Mecca and the People in Between,” will be on display in the museum’s Community History Gallery from Thursday, Feb. 20, until the end of August.
“I want people to understand why this change occurred and how it affected real people,” said Baker, referring to the dramatic change that took place in the neighborhood during the second half of the 20th century.
“It started out as a worker’s paradise with small factories,” Baker said. “Now it’s more of a service-oriented neighborhood, with bars and restaurants. The people who live and work here are consumers rather than makers.”
Baker proposed this exhibit to the Philadelphia History Museum last spring and turned to the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association for its support.
Matt Ruben, NLNA President, said the organization was happy to help Baker from the beginning, aiding in promoting the event through social media and their extensive email list. He said he is excited for people to gain a new understanding of the neighborhood through this exhibit.
“This is a story about a neighborhood that became a center for the arts,” Ruben said. “She [Baker] is a part of the story.”
Ruben said the history of Northern Liberties isn’t well known by many people.
“It’s been considered an up and coming, trendy area for a while,” he said. “But there are a lot of people who live in Northern Liberties who don’t know the real story behind where they live.”
Baker said dozens of locals loaned photos and artifacts for the exhibit.
Included in the loaned items are tools, old books from social clubs and records that were unearthed during the construction of Liberty Lands Park, which now stands in place of the Burk Brothers Tannery, formerly on N. 3rd Street. In addition to the exhibit, there are several Northern Liberties themed events at the Philadelphia History Museum in the coming months.
On Saturday, March 8, “Northern Liberties in Words and Film” will feature readings about the neighborhood from various authors who have published works about Northern Liberties, as well as a short film on the topic.
This will be followed by “Tell Your Northern Liberties Story” on the evening of Monday, March 24, at the Rodriquez Library, where residents can come and tell their own story about living in the community.
As the weather gets nicer, Baker said there would also be the possibility of walking tours of the neighborhood.
So far, the exhibit has generated a lot of excitement. Registration for the opening reception sold out almost immediately, Ruben said.
“We were pleasantly surprised in the level of interest in the event,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to allow everyone across the city to learn the full story of Northern Liberties.”