North of Market
The term once referred to the Quaker district along Arch Street, and then to a larger district that had its heyday after the Civil War, industrialized, declined, and is now our worst urban problem area.
|The Northern Liberties|
In 1999, the American Friends Service Committee was repaid $50,000 by a Quaker volunteer group who had been working to rehabilitate the Northern Liberties area of the city. The debt was fifty years old. Not a word of reminder had ever been sent to the debtor group, and in truth, the Service Committee had pretty well forgotten about the matter. But the Quakers who borrowed the money hadn't forgotten and would have been appalled at any sly suggestion that they just wait and see if someone pursued them for it. The other thing this quaint little story illustrates is the discouragingly long time the slums of Philadelphia have remained slums, and what a long disheartening process it may be to reverse the decline of a neighborhood.
The Northern Liberties section of town is best described as Ole City, extended, on the North side of the traffic lanes feeding the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The North-South streets go under the bridge, but it's sort of dark and forbidding under there. The riverfront area, which once looked like something out of Charles Dickens, has been cleared away. Girard Avenue gives the Liberties a northern boundary, and the tracks of the former Reading Railroad establish a Western limit. At least half of the buildings in this area have been torn down, a few blocks of low-cost housing have been put up, and the rest is a little island of modest housing of the vintage of 1840-50. The people in this area look at you as though you were potentially a scout for the Iroquois Indians, but if you have a greeting to them, they are immediately very friendly.
This area was just outside the boundaries of Penn's original city, and got its name, Northern Liberties, from the fact that sailors from the harbor were directed over the line if they were looking for strong beverages and lively companionship. Taxes and tariffs were probably an issue as well, and Second Street is an ultra-wide boulevard with slanted parking because it was a market street, with stalls running down the center of the street. Second Street is where the bars and restaurants, shops and art galleries, are starting to reappear. It's gratifying to feel the enthusiasm of these young kids, risking their time and savings in a great shared adventure. Some may get rich and some will surely fail, but the sense of adventure is palpable.
Like all kids, nowadays, they talk about real estate prices constantly. Anyone who lived through the 1930s has to shudder at what they call a marvelous bargain price for real estate. Anyone who lived through the 1960s listens to their description of "normal" real estate prices in Boston, coming away re-convinced that people who live in Boston must be stark raving mad. But these entrepreneurial kids are the life-blood of America, and may God Bless their undertakings.
The main steadying, adult influence in the area seems to come from the little bank. It's a branch of a bank headquartered in Newtown Pennsylvania, with eighteen branches in the rural counties and the developing areas of Philadelphia. These are real, old-time bankers, doing old-time banking. The branch manager knows the young people in the neighborhood, knows who pays his bills, watches who keeps his roof fixed. By learning to tell a good one from a bad one, the bank manager is able to stretch the credit limits for some and tighten them for others. The bank holds everybody's money; the whole region will fail if the bank is unwise with it. In an era when a successful bank must be either global or local, re-developing regions need banks of the style of 1840, likely now to be found in Newtown, West Chester, and Georgetown. As if to emphasize the point, you will find a horse farm on Third Street, within easy walking distance of the Ben Franklin Bridge. The horses come over to the chain fence looking for handouts of candy and canter away if it is not forthcoming. They are gentle, their business is pulling carriages around Independence Hall. In their trade, they must have acquired a great deal of misinformation about the Revolutionary War, as indeed have the rest of us.
It was 90 degrees the other day, and something had to be done to ward off heat stroke. The bar mistress was asked if she knew how to make Fish House Punch. Never heard of it, but eager to learn. The bar had a computer, "Philadelphia Reflections" supplied the recipe, and the local congregation enjoyed a round of what must have been the first Fish House Punch -- in Fishtown -- in two hundred years. The flavor seemed to live up to the novelty, and the idea might just catch on.
One enthusiastic young redeveloper relates that the City has a tax abatement plan. No taxes for ten years if the lot had been vacant or the building unoccupied. No taxes on the improvement, that is, but regular taxes on the underlying land. Why that's the Henry George system. The young redeveloper didn't know about all that, but it seemed like a good system. Imagine the later surprise to see that the horses are grazing on George Street! There's a story there, and a story about Saint John Neumann Lane, a block away.
Photos were taken of the scabrous buildings and the weed-filled vacant lots. Those are the "before" of the before and after.
Originally published: Thursday, September 11, 1997; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2019
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