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Image Credit: Projects Gallery
EXHIBIT: "Northern Liberties: A Transformation" @ Projects Gallery
By: CLARE FORAN
June14, 2011, 2:00 PM
Once home to a diverse immigrant community of merchants and craftsmen, Northern Liberties was a vibrant and fairly prosperous community during the 19th and early-20th centuries. The neighborhood’s vitality significantly declined, however, when large numbers of residents left the area following construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. With a dwindling population, NoLibs took a turn for the worse as residences were increasingly left vacant and local businesses struggled to stay afloat.
Where others saw blight, however, longtime NoLibs resident Jennifer Baker saw opportunity. Drawn to the area by the lure of cheap housing prices, she set up a studio in Northern Liberties in 1978 and began documenting the changes taking place in the neighborhood through oil painting. Nine of these works make up “Northern Liberties: A Transformation,” the current exhibition at Projects Gallery that depicts the rise, fall and regeneration of the neighborhood through a series of works by Baker and ten other local artists like Ira Upin, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, Ray King and John Thornton.
The pieces displayed on the cherry red walls of Projects Gallery's front room range from oil on wood panel and mylar to monoprints on rice paper – a type of printmaking where a single imprint is made from an etched plate or block. Many of the works show the exterior of various buildings or public spaces in Northern Liberties at different stages in the neighborhood’s development. One work, titled Inside the Tannery, 55 Gallon Drums, depicts massive steel drums presumably filled with chemicals used to tan leather sitting somewhere inside the Burke Brothers Tannery, which used to stand on American Street in Northern Liberties. Another oil painting, Liberty Lands, shows the community-owned park built on the site of the old tannery after the building was condemned by the city in the 1990s. Each work portrays some aspect of the history of Northern Liberties while also chronicling the transformation currently going on there.
In addition to displaying assorted works by artists living and working in the community, Projects Gallery commissioned a 30-minute documentary on the evolution of the neighborhood by filmmaker John Thornton. Taking a more critical approach to the subject, the film — titled Destitute Urban Carnival Reborn! — does not hesitate to point out the potentially negative impact of “urban renewal.” As Thornton shows, many of the area’s former residents have had to leave, unable to keep pace with rising property values. Another consequence of the neighborhood’s turnaround has been the movement of property developers into the community. One such developer, “the evil Bart Blatstein” — as one area resident refers to him in the film — has caused controversy for creating the Piazza at Schmidts, built on the site of the old Schmidt’s Brewery.
While some residents see the Piazza as a positive addition to the community, others view it as imposing and overwrought. Whatever the advantages or disadvantages of new development in the area, however, it is certain that further construction will contribute to rising property values and increase the overall cost of living.
By bringing together multiple artists exhibiting work in a variety of medias, Projects Gallery presents a fairly comprehensive picture of where Northern Liberties came from and where it's going. The exhibit addresses the benefits, challenges and problems associated with urban renewal, casting both a loving and critical eye on the community.