The Northern Liberties: Building on "Ruins," a Walking Tour Guide

by Nathaniel Popkin for PhilaPlace

Carry the guide with you! Read and download the full version here.

William Penn was a regionalist. In Philadelphia, he envisioned a "great city," with its port and institutions of religion and governance, connected to large plantations and farm communities in the hinterlands, or liberties. The symbiotic relationship between city and liberties lasted well beyond Penn, as the Northern Liberties took on a more open, and in some ways more tolerant, character than the city itself. And by the early 1800s, with its huge Second Street market (3 miles long!) and numerous inns, mills, and workshops, it too became one of the largest cities in the nation.

The mills and workshops grew up around the streams and ponds of the Cohocksink Creek: this was marshland in the early days of Philadelphia, a haven for ice skating and swimming. Early on, it was also a place of freedom for African Americans who founded a pair of vanguard churches, African Zoar and Mt. Tabor. By the mid-1800s it was becoming an immigrant haven: German Jewish immigrants moved here to be near German Catholics and Protestants then later came a succession of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Romanians, Russians and Jews from those same countries. A relative sense of openness and tolerance gave residents a sense that it could be a place to make one's own. Meanwhile the Northern Liberties remained a place of technological innovation and invention and industry grew rapidly after 1850.

The mid-1900s brought deindustrialization, suburbanization, and racial flux. The neighborhood was depopulated even as Urban Renewal brought stable middle-class housing for African Americans and as the emergent Puerto Rican community into West Kensington, at the edge of greater Northern Liberties. By the 1970s, much of this section of the city was empty — it was a modern ruins. This tour is about living in, responding to, and ultimately crafting contemporary urban life from the ruins.

On the Tour:

It was Many and Many a Year ago, in this Kingdom by the Sea E.A. Poe and the enduring civilizations of Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Quakers. Tour begins: Edgar Allan Poe House, Seventh Street above Spring Garden Street

That Was Our World Vision and evisceration: Marshall Street, Mt. Tabor, urban renewal and the end of time. Tour begins: 900 N. Marshall Street (at Poplar)

Toil and an Act of Faith Creating space: Liberty Lands and the promise of neighborhood life. Tour begins: 5th and Poplar Streets

We Have to Rethink Everything Onion Flats and the Piazza: Space, sustainability and the new city. Tour begins: Hancock and Germantown Avenue

I Fought New Life to Find The Crane Building and Al-Aqsa Mosque:mirrors on the emerging world. Tour begins: American Street and Girard Avenue (Quixote statue)


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