Nestled between Old City and Fishtown is the neighborhood of Northern Liberties. Its boundaries are set by Delaware Avenue to the east, Sixth Street to the west, Spring Garden Street to the south and Girard Avenue to the north. A faded sign on the corner of Third and Spring Garden streets welcomes you to what was originally the first suburb of Philadelphia.
In 1854, when Northern Liberties was incorporated as part of Philadelphia, it cemented the neighborhood as a contributor to the urban culture of the city, which it does considerably today.
The neighborhood changed from a farming community, to a booming manufacturing area with countless breweries and lumberyards, to a desolate area of abandoned buildings in a post-industrial period. The area has since experienced an unparalleled period of revival that has helped it to develop into its own microcosm where starving artists and yuppies converge to live, work and have a good time.
Heather B., lead singer of the rock band The Sugarskulls, credits the 700 Club as the catalyst for the area’s change and growth.
“It’s amazing how much the area has changed in the past 10 years. It used to be an area you wanted to drive through as quickly as you could,” Heather said. When her dad was working on the renovations of an old corner grocery store, which is now the 700 Club, she witnessed rapid growth and regeneration.
The 700 Club is now a two-level club that offers an intimate pub setting on its first floor, but those yearning for an old-fashioned house party just have to head upstairs to find a bar. The upper level is complete with vintage couches and a DJ spinning old-school hip hop from his booth, which is actually a gutted out tub fixture. Everybody gets really sweaty up there, and the smoke is so thick that it can be tough to breathe as the windows fog up around you, but nobody seems to mind.
If you’re looking for a more laid back atmosphere, head up the street to the Standard Tap, which offers local beers on tap, great pub fare that is a welcome treat, a juke box that just won’t quit and servers who are perennially pleasant despite your level of intoxication. Ortleib’s Jazzhaus, located on 847 N. Third St., offers a deviation from your typical bar scene. The façade may put you off but once its doors are open to you, you’re drawn into a world that transcends time and place and where appreciation and ability for the music makes one blind to race, age or gender.
The one place that has established itself as the mecca for artists, musicians, filmmakers, the children of Northern Liberties’ revolution, is the Abbaye. Although it’s only been there for about two years, it redefines the idea of a place where everybody knows your name.
Locals and hipsters alike meet here where the bartenders, who are also frequent patrons, will pour you a crisp Belgian beer or an intense shot of Heaven Hill. The atmosphere provides the perfect arena to debate about many topics, usually about politics, while music that spans the spectrum from indie and classic rock to pop, soul and back again provides a backdrop for merriment.
For those who consider themselves more mainstream, there is no lack of entertainment in Northern Liberties. Finnegan’s Wake is a staple, remembered by some as the site of an old casket manufacturer, but will be forever remembered by many as the place where they had their 21st birthday or bachelorette bash. It’s where union bosses in bed with big name city politicians, Fire Administration guys from across the street, and Irish dignitaries mix with the guys from the Local 98 and girls pile in by the busload to sing and dance around to well-known tunes played by first-rate cover bands on its main floor or traditional Irish music on the bottom floor.
The area’s legacy is rooted in the brewery tradition. Perhaps one of the most famous breweries in the area was Schmidt’s Brewery at Third and Girard.
Its splendid edifice and advanced technology enabled it to survive everything from Prohibition in the 1920s to the Beer Wars of the 1960s, but it couldn’t survive a downturn in the economy and was forced to close its doors in 1986. But Schmidt’s of Philadelphia beer will always be a home-town favorite.
The demise of breweries in Northern Liberties provided an entrée for developers, like Bart Blatstein, the veritable godfather of the area’s reconstruction, who have accommodated the influx of people by erecting condos and loft-style apartments on land that had once been the site of a thriving open-air farm market. According to some accounts, property values have quadrupled in the past five years alone.
But the culture and historical traditions of Northern Liberties are preserved by residents new and old. The artistic renaissance is promoted by restaurants that display artist works, galleries that cover Second Street and home owners who look to provide a sanctuary for blooming artists by renting apartments that are usually accompanied by some sort of studio space.
Anyone looking for inspiration can visit Edgar Allen Poe’s house on Seventh Street, where the renowned author of horror tales lived and worked for about a year in the mid-1800s. Indeed, inspiration abounds here, evident in the rebirth of its economy and in the hearts of its residents.
A local painter and bartender Dave Deitch says of Northern Liberties, “It’s the best neighborhood I’ve lived in so far. It’s still in the city but has the feel of a small town.” If you visit, you may find you agree.
Brooke Honeyford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.