From World’s Workshop to Hipster Mecca

An ex­hib­i­tion high­light­ing the his­tory of North­ern Liber­ties will open at the Phil­adelphia His­tory Mu­seum this week.

  • Photos and artifacts line the walls of the exhibit. “It’s almost like looking at a different world,” said NLNA President Matt Ruben, referring to the dramatic changes the neighborhood has gone through over the years. CAROLAN DIFIORE / STAR PHOTO

  • Curator Jennifer Baker has lived and worked in her Northern Liberties studio since 1978. CAROLAN DIFIORE / STAR PHOTOS

  • Photos and artifacts were loaned by Northern Liberties residents. PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER BAKER

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.” 

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