There’s a sort of privilege in listening in on the conversation between Ira Upin, Jennifer Baker, Anda Dubinskis and Dino Pelliccia in Baker’s bright, sprawling studio at Third and Green streets. The kitchen is filled with laughs, sighs and “Oh, what was that guy’s name?” memories. It’s the discourse of old friends who have spent years living, working and making things together. When they moved to Northern Liberties in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it wasn’t because it was hip, trendy or near the Piazza. Decades ago, tumbleweeds blew down Second Street, and the neighborhood was a cheap place for artists to thrive.
The four — painters and sculptors — are just a few of the 70 artists represented in an artists’ book that is part of “Northern Liberties: From World’s Workshop to Hipster Mecca and the People in Between,” a historical exhibit curated by Baker that opens today at Center City’s Philadelphia History Museum.
Creative types like these four were a driving force in Northern Liberties’ shift from a desolate, crime-filled expanse to an artists’ haven. When artists started moving in, the area was filled with dead and dying industrial spaces — vacant warehouses perfectly suited for artists to convert into studios. Nearly four decades later, uttering “Northern Liberties” evokes farmers markets and baby yoga classes. These four artists are some of those “people in between” who both catalyzed and witnessed this gradual, immense shift.
“There were feral dogs roaming around,” says Dubinskis, who moved to the neighborhood with Pelliccia, her husband, in 1983. “People would park in front of our building because it was such a desolate street, and we’d stand on the fire escape and watch them shoot up.”
“I remember being on the fire escape … I look down, and here’s a guy bending the lid of my van up, stealing the battery,” recalls Upin, who moved to the neighborhood in 1977. The memory comes with a grin, though — “I’m chasing him down the street, and he puts it down and kind of just … struts away.”
The area, they say, was full of diverse personalities. Upin’s page in the artists’ book elaborates: “It was made up of a wildly eccentric group of characters,” it reads. “From Harry Shur, ‘The Nail King,’ to ‘Mr. Kitchens,’ the local pyromaniac, to ‘Mr. Big Balls’ (use your imagination).”
As the others reminisce about the time some poor sap got thrown into the street with no clothes on after a business deal gone bad, Dubinskis leans over. “This show is,” she says, “in a way, an experience of our youth.”
The exhibit, conceived under the auspices of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, focuses on the last six decades in the area. Baker says she hopes the exhibit’s artifacts (decades-old roller skates, bottles from a factory, the deed to a home used as a speakeasy, et al.), photos, maps and multimedia elements will highlight its transformations.
Baker explains she intends the exhibit to lend insight into how the changing landscape has affected those who’ve lived there for years. The change hasn’t been without its tensions.
“Some drunk guy one night when I was walking down the street started yelling at me about being a carpetbagger,” Upin says. “I said, ‘Fuck you, “carpetbagger?” — I moved into an empty building and I’m living there with no windows!’ … I get the sense of more aggressiveness about things changing from people who have only been here for 15 years. They move in, and then it’s like, ‘Let’s close the gates.’”
“I think we’re happy to see it develop because of the amenities,” Dubinskis says. “But the new people coming in, they’re so different from who we all knew, because we were all making things.”
Was NoLibs an artists’ neighborhood in those earlier days? “Absolutely,” the group replies as one. And now?
“People are living in these places paying $30,000 a year, they all have two Audis or two BMWs and they’re in their 20s and 30s. More people with disposable income are moving in,” Pelliccia says.
“It’s just the natural progression of urban things. That’s how it goes,” Upin says with resignation.
These artists helped change the neighborhood, and now the change continues. But they've got their memories.
“I just really love Northern Liberties,” Dubinskis says. “I love the fact that it was always a rogue part of the city.”
“Northern Liberties: From World’s Workshop to Hipster Mecca and the People in Between,” through Aug. 31, $10, Philadelphia History Museum, 15 S. Seventh St., 215-685-4830, philadelphiahistory.org.