Neighborhood Histories: Northern Liberties

The Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia was created by William Penn himself, only it wasn’t originally part of the city. The earlier Northern Liberties Township came from large tracts of rural land available in the area in the late 1600s. The “liberty lands” were allotted to settlers based on the size of their land purchase. Created as a less dense alternative to Center City, Northern Liberties was deemed “Philadelphia’s first suburb”. The neighborhood was officially annexed into Philadelphia in 1854.

The aptly named Liberty Lands park is a point of pride for the neighborhood.

Given its situation just outside the city’s core, it makes sense that Northern Liberties has a rich manufacturing history. Industry of all sorts flocked to the spacious tracts in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The types of factories included mills, breweries, tanneries, chemical and paint works, tool manufacture, and iron and stove foundries.

A former medicine factory on Fairmount Ave. converted into apartments over the last few years with some accompanying new construction.

The 19th century settlers of the neighborhood were mostly German artisans. Later, the early 20th century brought an influx of Eastern European immigrants, namely Slovakian and Romanian. These populations are still present today in their respective churches, St. Agnes Slovak Roman Catholic Church at 4th & Brown Streets and the Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church at American & Brown Streets, both of which remain active (although under a different name in the latter’s case).

The Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church (now St. John’s Church) at American & Brown Streets (above) and St. Agnes Slovak Roman Catholic Church at 4th & Brown Streets (below).

Nestled amongst the former factories and other industrial buildings, Northern Liberties also portrays some significant historic architectural styles, with many blocks of rowhomes still intact. The architectures that dominate the area are Italianate, Greek Revival, and Federal. The abundance of these blocks is at least partially due to the creation of the Northern Liberties Historic District in 1985 and the fact that many buildings have made it onto the National Register of Historic Places.

Some gorgeous twins on 5th Street with mansard roofs (above), and some rare Federal style rowhomes on Fairmount Ave (below).

It is for this reason that Northern Liberties has maintained its historic charm and character even while undergoing some drastic changes. In the past few decades the neighborhood has experienced significant development and an influx of new residents such as young professionals, students, and artists. Given the proximity to Center City – you can be downtown in under ten minutes by subway, bus, or car – the attractiveness of the neighborhood to people of all occupations makes sense. In Northern Liberties you can experience all the convenience of living close to downtown, while also having a close knit neighborhood feel, more space, and lower housing costs compared to Center City neighborhoods such as Rittenhouse Square, Fitler Square, and Society Hill.

As a result of the large swaths of land left open by de-industrialization in the mid- to late-1900s, redevelopment of the neighborhood was able to happen with exceptional vigor. While Northern Liberties does have plenty of historic rowhome architecture, the collection of styles has always been more eclectic than, say, the uniform rows of homes in South Philadelphia neighborhoods. Since the landscape was already quirky and diverse, the new construction, often hulking in some areas, meshes better here.

The eclectic nature of Northern Liberties architectural styles (above and below).

Today Northern Liberties has an exciting array of housing types, with the grand, old three story rowhomes still intact amongst new construction condos and townhomes. There is also a bustling commercial corridor to be found along 2nd Street where new restaurants, coffee shops, and stores are popping up everyday. The neighborhood still maintains its distinctive character and intimate feel, despite its booming growth and inflow of new residents.

A wheel winner: Bikes lanes make motorists safer too

A recent article on the benefits of bike lanes caught our attention. While some of the benefits listed are widely known, such as increasing the number of cyclists and improving safety for cyclists, this one in particular caught our eye: adding more bike lanes improves safety for motorists. Here’s how:

A study in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio found that without a marked bike lane, car drivers veer so far away from bicyclists that they swerve into the next car lane 90% of the time.

The researchers concluded that this is because the drivers don’t have lane lines to determine the appropriate amount of space to give cyclists, and are unable to gauge that amount of space sans bike lane.

When there was a bike lane on the other hand, fewer drivers veered away from the bike lane, and when they did, they only veered 40 percent as far as those who veered without a bike lane.

Here in Philadelphia, we have a solid and growing system of bike lanes, but there’s room for improvement yet. To see our current bicycle infrastructure, look out for the latest print version of the Philadelphia Bicycle Map, which will be released later this month (in the meantime you can use this online version).

However, the process of adding new bike lanes in Philly is challenging. In 2012, City Council passed a bill requiring a resolution from Council to create any new bike lanes that remove a parking or driving lane.

The City has seen at least one much-needed addition to the bike lane network thwarted due to this law: 22nd Street in the Fairmount neighborhood.

In the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (BCGP) blog post about the demise of the proposed bike lane, they too mention the fact that the bike lane would have improved safety for motorists as well as cyclists.

As we wrote about in our blog post on parking, infrastructure decisions such as these about parking or bike lanes boil down to whether the City will accommodate more cars, or more people (some of them on bikes).

We can either design the city to prioritize more people (some of them on bikes) or more cars
We can either design the city to prioritize more people (some of them on bikes) or more cars

At Solo, we are definitely in the “more people” camp! Luckily, some Council members are as well. Councilman Henon introduced a bill to add a buffered bike lane on Tyson Avenue from Frankford Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard, which will require the removal of a traffic lane in each direction.

Philadelphia was also recently awarded federal and state funding to add multiple new protected bike lanes. Here’s a handy visual guide to and analysis of all the different methods to “protect” a bike lane; the new lanes being installed in Philly will use the second option on the list, flexible plastic delineator posts.

Another heartening sign came recently on Bike to Work Day (May 22nd) when three Councilpeople joined a group of about 50 cyclists biking down west Market Street. All three expressed support for adding a protected bike lane to the 5-lane wide arterial. The ride terminated at Dilworth Park, where Mayor Kenney himself spoke about the importance of bike infrastructure.

For the safety of motorists, cyclists, and even pedestrians, we hope the bike lane network in Philadelphia continues to expand. We’ve been saying as much here on the Solo blog for years.

We also practice what we preach! Solo is developing condos at 1326-1332 N 5th  Street with parking for bikes instead of cars, and currently house the headquarters for the City’s Indego Bike Share program in one of our buildings.

If this blog post has piqued your interest, check out the BCGP’s guide of where they believe bike lanes should be added in each Council District, and how to contact your Councilperson to advocate for them!

2nd image courtesy of Pixabay.

Moving Trucks are Philly-Bound

Between the Pope visit, 2016 DNC, the growing population and economy, Philadelphia’s renaissance is real. Need another affirmation of this fact? Moving trucks are heading to the City of Brotherly Love/Sisterly Affection in record numbers. Continue reading for a fun infographic illustrating this fact, and, more importantly, why!


U-Haul, one of the largest truck rental and moving companies in the country, recently published its annual list of the Top 10 moving truck destinations. This year Philadelphia moved up two slots to #8 after making the Top 10 for the first time two years prior.


So, why?


In the past decade, the city has come into its own. U-Haul cites the following factors as evidence of the city’s success: a comprehensive and growing public transportation system, new skyscrapers springing up along the skyline, shops and restaurants populating formerly vacant commercial corridors, innovative public space and walkways, and music and entertainment festivals of all kinds enlivening the waterfront piers.


Not to mention the 8,000 jobs added in 2014, which also marked the eighth year of consistent population growth for the city.


At the root of all these assets U-Haul identifies the city’s walkability and affordability, particularly in relation to its competitor cities, as the driving forces behind Philadelphia’s recent growth.


So if you didn’t already know it, Philly’s a place to Love Where You Live! We’ll let the infographic do the talking from here:




Opening image: “leaving zion” by Kai Schreiber – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/genista/47620113/in/album-903925/

Purchasing Power Goes Further in Philly

What can $1 million buy you in Philly? A lovingly updated, historically preserved, 6,000 square foot mansion in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the City. What can that buy you in other cities? Well, you’ll have to keep reading to find out, but, spoiler alert: Philly wins this one hands down.


A pending sale in Philly caught our eye recently. At $999,900, 999 North 6th Street offers 6,800 square feet of ornate original detailing and modern amenities.


Included in the sale is a carriage house with 3-car parking below a 2-bedroom apartment and an additional property behind the main house.


999 North 6th Street is a classic Philadelphia mansion recently listed for sale for $1 million


It probably comes as no surprise that a property that is simultaneously a historical, classic style mansion and updated with desirable modern amenities is hard to come by at that price elsewhere.


In New York City $1 million will buy you, for example, a 750 square foot apartment on the Upper West Side, or a 1,300 square foot condo in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.


$1 million will buy you this 750 square foot apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan


For a property comparable in size and historical style in New York City, you are looking at a bill of at least $16,000,000.


In Chicago’s Lincoln Park, for the exact price of 999 North 6th Street, you could purchase a 4,350 square foot, 4-bed and 3.5-bath, new construction.


In Chicago, this new construction is going for $1 million


These properties don’t quite compare to 999 North 6th Street, with 8-bedrooms and 4-baths, a wine cellar, cupola room with a stained glass skylight, custom-made walls in wood and Lincrusta throughout, multiple working fireplaces, beautifully updated chef’s kitchen, and private garden.


Updated chef’s kitchen (left), and “office” room (right) featuring one of the many fireplaces in the $1 million Philly mansion


Put in context of the property being situated in Northern Liberties, one of Philadelphia’s trendiest neighborhoods, Philly is the place you will get the most for your budget.


Getting more for less in Philly doesn’t come at the expense of your surroundings and opportunities either. The Greater Philadelphia Area, if it was its own country, would have the31st largest GDP in the world—larger than that of France. So skip the Parisian chateau and see how your money will get you a whole lot more than just Brotherly Love in Philly.


Images of 999 North 6th Street courtesy of Philadelphia Magazine, Manhattan apartment image courtesy of amNew York, and Chicago new construction images courtesy of Zillow.

How Philly Can Maintain #1 Ranking for Bike Commuting

Despite lagging behind in biking amenities, Philadelphia was recently revealed to have the highest percentage of bike commuters among the largest U.S. cities. If the City steps up its bike infrastructure, could we become a contender for best bicycling City worldwide? The key word is “if.”

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (BCGP) released an impressively comprehensive study of Philadelphia’s biking infrastructure and its influence on attracting new riders and on existing riders’ behavior.

The information is particularly apt as Philadelphia plans to roll out its first bike share program, which the Solo Blog detailed a while back. With a bike share comes many cyclists biking in the city for the first time, and as the BCGP report reveals, proper cyclist amenities help produce proper cycling behavior.

What are proper cyclist amenities and behavior, you might ask? As for amenities, bike lanesare good, buffered bike lanes are better, protected bike lanes are best, and “sharrows” (share-the-road painted road markings) don’t cut it.

Philly’s quarter-mile of protected bike lane (left) on Delaware Avenue, and a bike “sharrow” (right) in Fishtown

Proper bicyclist behavior includes biking with the flow of traffic, not biking on the sidewalk, and wearing a helmet.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia does not yet have enough bicycle amenities to have cyclists on their best behavior all the time.

Yet despite falling behind some major cities in bike lane installation, protected bike lanes in particular, Philadelphia still has the highest percentage of bike commuters. Which means if the City installs more bike infrastructure, it is likely to retain and even expand upon that #1 ranking. This is because with bike infrastructure, if you build it, new cyclists will come–studies have shown as much.

Let’s keep them coming, then! This is an opportunity for Philadelphia to continue to distinguish itself among U.S. cities. Perhaps most importantly, biking in Philly is fun! Here’s to making it even more so, and encouraging more people to join in that fun.

Opening image courtesy of bicyclecoalition.org.

Big Changes Coming to Philly Skyline

It seems like every week developers announce plans to build a major new residential project in and aroundCenter City. All this construction has the potential to bring big changes to Philadelphia.


The week from February 12th and February 19th, 2014 was an extraordinary one for Philadelphia’s real estate sector. In those seven days, not one but three plans for large residential projects were made public. Between designs for a 32-story apartment tower at 16th and Vine, an 8.5 acre, multi-story residential complex at 23rd and Arch and a 429 foot residential/commercial development at 7th and Market, these projects (if approved) would add hundreds of new apartments to Philadelphia at roughly the same time.


These announcements come on the heels of nearly a dozen other major highrise residential projects that are either under-construction or in the works. This, coupled with literally dozens of smaller low-rise developments, suggest Philadelphia is entering a building boom the likes of which it not seen in decades.


Before you reach for the antacids, let’s note that all signs point to the strength and potential of the local real estate market. A recent survey of sales and investments in central Philadelphia neighborhoods for the year 2013 confirmed this. While the residential rental vacany rate in Center City has increased slightly over the past year due to more supply, the rate of 3.3% is still very healthy. Developers then are likely trying to strike while this iron is hot (which it strongly appears to be).


Of course, in a city with such a rich cultural and architectural legacy, we have to hope this new building fits in with and encourages the growth of Philadelphia’s unique urbanism and beauty. Critics have pointed out that not all these projects achieve those goals.


These projects, if completed, could have myriad effects – some bad, some good. While too many new apartments could depress the rental market, too few could slow the growing investment in Philadelphia. One thing is for sure though: it’s becoming clear that our skyline will look very different in just a few years time…


Opening image “Comcast Center construction” by Cool890. Original uploader was Cool890 at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : Cool890). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Comcast_Center_construction.jpg#/media/File:Comcast_Center_construction.jpg.

Does Philadelphia Have a Williamsburg?

Gawker, a popular New York-based blog, recently stirred up controversy in Philly by declaring which neighborhoods in our city are equivalent to the NYC hipster havens Williamsburg and Bushwick. But does an exercise like this do more harm than good?


Let’s start by saying that placing one neighborhood into the context of another is a natural way to build a frame of reference in an unfamiliar place. We should also note that Gawker did not make these selections on their own, rather doing so by polling their readers and making similar comparisons between other U.S. cities and the Big Apple.


But given Philadelphia and New York’s close, complex and sometimes fraught relationship, making public comparisons like this has far more implications than Gawker might have thought.


Yes, some communities in our cities feel very similar: Rittenhouse Square’s brownstones are almost identical to those in Brooklyn Heights or the West Village. Other areas though, like Society Hill, have no equivalent as Philadelphia has preserved its colonial architecture in a way that New York has not.


The Gawker readers then who selected Northern Liberties to represent gentrified Williamsburg and Kensington to represent grittier, post-industrial Bushwick weren’t incorrect, but they were playing into an unproductive game of NYC navel-gazing.


For one thing, although New York City certainly plays an incredibly important role in urbanism, its neighborhoods are not the end-all-be-all of American cities: Northern Liberties and Kensington have their own stories to tell too.


Indeed, life in a city is so much richer than living in a cookie-cutter suburb precisely because each neighborhood has its own unique structure and culture. Thus, we do a disservice to all cities (even the Big Apple) when we try to force non-New York communities to ignore what makes them special and define themselves in New York terms.


Of course, this diversity is especially important when it comes to the relationship between Philadelphia and New York. As New Yorkers come to Philadelphia for our top-tier universities and low cost of living, so too do Philadelphians go to New York to shop and do business. That give and take, separated by a mere 90 miles, positively impacts both cities in too many ways to count. In the end then, we are likely better off focusing on the benefits of our differences rather than trying to make Philly and New York the same.

24-Hour Subway, 24-Hour City

SEPTA announced that it’s not yet bedtime for their 24-hour weekend subway service pilot program. Is this a step towards Philadelphia becoming a 24-hour city? If ridership remains high, the City of Brotherly Love may soon have a lot more nightlife to love.


Originally scheduled to end after Labor Day, SEPTA has extended the program through November 2nd. Making this service permanent would be a huge leap towards making Philadelphia an around-the-clock city, with both a booming daytime tourism industry and a happening after hours scene.


It would also put Philadelphia on par with Boston, which is also piloting 24-hour weekend service, and ahead of San Francisco and many European cities, including Paris, which lack 24-hour subways.


So far, Philadelphians have jumped at the opportunity to take the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines at all hours of the night. Ridership is up 50% during the extended hours, an indicator that the city’s late-night scene could grow substantially if the all-night service remains in place.


The presence of transit police on the trains during overnight hours has kept operations running smoothly, and no safety issues have been reported.


Late-night riders wait on the platform (left) and a poster (right) promoting the extended subway service. (Image courtesy of I SEPTA Philly)


The true test will be running the pilot between Labor Day and November 2nd, when the summer heat fades and universities are back in session. If ridership holds strong, proving that the extended service is financially feasible, SEPTA will consider running 24-hour weekend service beyond the pilot’s conclusion.


So go for that late-night screening, secret DJ set, or last call at your favorite bar—if you play the night owl, the City may follow your lead!


Opening image courtesy of Andrew Bossi.

Guard Our Beer Gardens!

In Philadelphia, pop-up beer gardens appear like oases amidst the urban heat. However some legislators are demanding the closure of the loophole in the liquor code that makes them possible. Will Philadelphians be forced back indoors to enjoy their summer shandies and IPAs?


The PHS (Pennsylvania Horticultural Society) pop-up garden and the Eakins Oval beer garden are two of these temporary outdoor bars. On a given day you’ll find them dotted with hammocks, furniture cleverly crafted from repurposed objects, and full of people.


It’s not just the hammocks that draw the crowds; the pop-ups are also places where Philadelphians can legally purchase and drink alcohol in an outdoor space.


This is possible via creative interpretation of the stringent Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s (PLCB) liquor code, the recent publicizing of which is causing some to wonder if these watering hole oases will soon be merely a mirage.


On July 17th, four state legislators wrote to the PLCB demanding the closure of the loophole that allows pop-up beer gardens.


Proponents of closing the loophole argue that liquor licenses cost businesses upwards of $85,000, substantial amounts of red tape and a headache. Meanwhile, the loophole allows applicants to receive liquor licenses for temporary beer gardens for $500 and through a one-page application.


Undoubtedly, the discrepancy is unfair, but so are many facets of Pennsylvania’s puritanical liquor code.


Ideally, instead of repealing the amendment to the code that facilitates the loophole, the pop-up beer garden debate would lead to an examination and overhaul of the code itself. Philly’s pop-up beer gardens are a wonderful example of the benefits that a fresh perspective on state liquor laws can bring.


The PHS Pop-Up Beer Garden at 15th & South Streets

Beer gardens activate underutilized spaces in Philadelphia, of which we have many. In the case of the PHS Pop-Up Garden, the venue is an otherwise vacant lot.


When happy hour hordes and cocktail connoisseurs flock to beer gardens instead of disappearing into bars, they are contributing to the public life and vibrancy of the city.


Notably, nearby eateries and bars alike report spikes in sales and beer garden operators report that neither neighboring bars nor residents have complained.


Sounds like a win-win that we’d hate to lose.