The latest entry on Philadelphia YIMBY’s First Anniversary Countdown, which looks at the most frequently mentioned article categories over the course of the past year, found North Philadelphia‘s Northern Liberties neighborhood at the 18th place, out of the 1,800+ categories surveyed. Yesterday’s entry outlined at the neighborhood’s history and general composition. Today we look at Northeast Northern Liberties, a former industrial hotbed turned no-mans-land that is now rapidly transforming into a major urban hub, and some of the challenges that the emerging district still needs to address.
Northern Liberties, one of the city’s oldest precincts, spans from Vine Street to the south, Girard Avenue to the north, the Delaware River to the east, and North 5th Street (or North 6th Street) to the west. But despite its singular designation, today it is effectively comprised of three separate, if intertwined, neighborhoods. Southern Northern Liberties, a district of sprawling suburban-style warehouses and strip malls, stretches from Vine Street to Spring Garden Street, or perhaps to Green Street one block to the north. The area above is roughly divided in two around North 2nd or North 3rd Street. The northwest quadrant, which stretches from North 2nd or North 3rd to North 5th or North 6th streets, is traditionally residential in character, and has retained much of its prewar building stock. Being an integral part of Northern Liberties, it lacks a specific name and may be best described as Northwest Northern Liberties.
Similarly, the term Northeast Northern Liberties is not as much a neighborhood name as it is a geographical designation for an area with its own distinct character and relevance that sets it apart from the rest of the greater neighborhood. However, the awkward moniker is the one that we must use for the time being, for lack of a better term. The district may be described as one located between the Delaware River to the east; Southern Northern Liberties (sometimes described with the controversial SoNo portmanteau) to the south, starting around Spring Garden Street; Girard Avenue to the north, where Fishtown and Olde Kensington begin; and North 2nd or North 3rd Street to the west, where a predominance of prewar residential stock marks a palpable shift in neighborhood character.
Numerous neighborhoods across the city were ravaged by postwar disinvestment, and industrial areas were hit particularly hard. Among these is the former manufacturing district that comprises what we refer to as Northeast Northern Liberties. The former industrial dynamo, situated just off the Delaware River waterfront, was brought to its knees with a three-strike combo in the postwar period. Modern facilities required large, single-level spaces that were becoming increasingly difficult to find in traditional urban neighborhoods, so they shifted out to the suburbs in a process that was facilitated via a reliance on trucking and the highway infrastructure. Most old piers, built for break-bulk cargo shipping, were incapable of handling containers that now dominated maritime trade. Lastly, manufacturing generally shifted overseas during the period, vacating blue-collar neighborhoods across America.
By the turn of the millennium, entire blocks in Northeast Northern Liberties laid vacant. Most notable among these was the former site of Schmidt’s Brewery, which still holds the record as the largest brewery in Philadelphia’s history. The docks along the waterfront sat in an equally derelict state, further disenfranchised and separated from the neighborhood by the massive viaduct of Interstate 95.
Over the past 30 years, Northeast Northern Liberties developed in starts and fits. In the 1990s, a series of dramatic skyscraper proposals were made at the waterfront, yet all fell through. The neighborhood’s fortunes improved by the turn of the millennium. Large developments such as The Piazza (located at the former Schmidt’s Brewery site), the Rivers (former Sugarhouse) Casino, and the three-towered Waterfront Square all took place around the late 2000s.
After an extended lull in development, the district is finally surging forward again. A mix of low-, mid-, and high-rise projects that are adding thousands of apartments and ample retail. The Piazza and the adjacent Liberties Walk offer public amenities such as open space and retail and eventually became a catalyst for the district’s current development boom. In a few years, Northeast Northern Liberties will become the central hub for the entire eastern section of Lower North Philadelphia and southern Kensington, manifested both at the street level with vibrant cultural, nightlife, and retail offerings, and at the skyline level, with multiple towers ascending above the area’s predominantly low-rise cityscape.
Below are some of the notable projects currently in progress or on the drawing boards in the area.
Piazza Terminal, 1075 Germantown Avenue
The Beverly, 1102 Germantown Avenue
North Liberty Triangle,1115-27 North American Street
Bypassing the Barrier of the Interstate 95
As the waterfront continues to see new development, the hulking Interstate 95, combined with the elevated Market-Frankford SEPTA line below Germantown Avenue, will remain a serious barrier between it and an interior neighborhood. At the moment, the city has yet to present any serious plans to address its presence and how to reconnect the neighborhood to the waterfront. In the meantime, you may take a look at a conceptual scheme, suggested by the article author around ten years ago, which seeks to reconnect both halves of the neighborhood in a seamless manner.
Clearly, in reality the plan would have to address potential issues such as highway noise for residents. However, the intent is to showcase possible opportunities of constructive connective urban fabric over, under, and around a major piece of infrastructure, without requiring the astronomical expense and difficulty of removing a viaduct that holds both a major interstate highway and a subway line.
To reiterate, the following is only a conceptual vision that was never considered in any capacity as a concrete proposal.
An Emerging Identity: Cohocksink, perhaps?
For over a decade, The Piazza and the adjacent Liberties Walk have served as a hub of cultural activity and a popular venue for markets, festivals, and other events. Already far removed from its recent, derelict, post-industrial past, Northeast Northern Liberties is already already holds a special place on the Philadelphia cityscape. The is rapidly becoming a shared focal point for adjacent areas such as the rest of Northern Liberties, Fishtown, the greater Temple University area, and Center City. Furthermore, it is perfectly poised to act as North Philadelphia’s primary gateway to its long-neglected waterfront.
The incoming development will extend Liberties Walk in either direction and solidify it as a public destination with new retail and open space. Thousands of new apartments will further establish the district as a dense, round-the-clock neighborhood.
The urban node continues to develop its own identity distinct from the surrounding neighborhoods, yet it still lacks any particular designation aside from our (admittedly awkward) Northeast Northern Liberties moniker. Time will tell what the area will eventually be called – perhaps Schmidt’s (after the former brewery at the site), NoENo (as a questionable callback to the emerging SoNo portmanteau for Southern Northern Liberties), Downtown Nolib (another admittedly weak suggestion but the pickings are slim), or any other name that may emerge.
Until then, Northeast Northern Liberties, bounded by the Delaware River, Spring Garden Street, North 2nd (or North 3rd) Street, and Girard Avenue, remains a district with an ever-growing sense of identity yet still no hint of a coherent name. However, instead of applying forced neologisms, perhaps we ought to look back to the area’s roots and let it take the name of Cohocksink.
The designation would continue the city’s and region’s long-standing tradition of honoring the local Native American legacy; names like Susquehanna, Allegheny, and others spring to mind. In this case, the neighborhood name would come from Cohocksink Creek, named by the local Lenni Lenape Native Americans and translating as “pine lands.” The creek meandered through the area until it was put into an underground culvert in the 1850s. The stream continues to flow to this day, following the serpentine course beneath Bodine, Laurel, Hancock, Allen, and Canal streets, beyond which it joins the Delaware River just to the south of Waterfront Square.
Although the area retains a number of manufacturers, the industrial heyday of Northeast Northern Liberties has sailed into the past, much like the masted ships that once lined its piers. In its place rises a brand new urban hub that is bound to delight locals and visitors alike for years. Yet as we look forward to a bright new future, when it comes to choosing a name for the emerging district, perhaps we ought to take up one that has been here all along, right beneath our feet.