I've never spent much time in Northern Liberties, and my loathsome anxiety towards hipsters aside, after an evening in this unexpectedly dynamic neighborhood, I have to wonder, why? It doesn't make conventional sense. Sure, it's moderately convenient to transportation, but how did this neighborhood bound by I-95, urban blight, and the Spring Garden canyon come to rival areas that directly border Center City?
It's clear that urban newbies, artists, and starter families seeking a hip city lifestyle and low rent drove the Northern Liberties craze. Sex and the City can be praised for putting cafes on our sidewalks, and abhorred for putting the obnoxious skanks in the chairs, but this trend was carried across the nation. What's unique about Philadelphia, and Northern Liberties, is that a neighborhood at arm's length from our core, was not completely paired with successful infill in between.
Similar unexpected phenomena occurred in Graduate Hospital, Passyunk Square, and Fishtown. While young couples bought starter homes in blighted neighborhoods, opened up boutiques, pubs, and coffee shops, South Broad Street, Spring Garden Avenue, and the Loft District remain desolate, littered with surface lots, and largely abandoned.
Northern Liberties is overflowing with art studios and massive loft apartments, successfully leased as far as Cecil B. Moore Avenue, while Callowhill, within spitting distance of City Hall, sits on a half dozen underutilized or completely vacant warehouses with million dollar views. Prohibition Tap Room on 13th Street gets a great neighborhood crowd. Cafe Lift is packed for brunch. But where is the competition? Why doesn't 13th Street look like 2nd Street in Northern Liberties or Passyunk Avenue?
A number of variables have caused the splotchy development. As much as I want to think we're on par with New York and Chicago, we're not. We enjoyed moderate success from the condo bubble. Unfortunately the Callowhill's close proximity to Center City is also its crutch. Property owners are willing to sit and wait for another wave of prosperity, and with no land usage tax, the Heid Building and Divine Lorraine are allowed to sit vacant. Instead of developing prime locations like Broad and Washington with affordable apartments that attract the kind of business we see in Graduate Hospital, they sit unused.
The pot addled Reading Viaduct vision may be gaining legitimate traction. While realistic funding is still a mystery, 6 ABC has given it mainstream publicity. As it is, the rusted carcass that weaves its way through a series of surface parking lots and Bubonic meadows in Callowhill's Loft District does little more than inspire dreamers. But as a park, could it attract the kind of money Callowhill needs to be the first class neighborhood it should be?
It's hard to rationalize spending money on a park that would require the kind of maintenance needed by an elevated park. Similar parks in other cities are too new to really see how well it works. And Callowhill isn't SoHo. Its warehouses and row homes are surrounded by parking lots and vacant land that could themselves make potential parks that require little upkeep beyond community interaction and a lawnmower. The Reading Viaduct is a structure, and the city has a difficult time maintaining the structures we need and the parks that have nothing below them but dirt and bodies. Can Callowhill generate enough tax revenue to maintain another potential money pit?
If only Broad and Washington had an industrial relic to attract a debate to tackle its surface lots and suburban fast food joints. Oh wait, it does. And it would make a great farmer's market.