Richard Wagner looked nothing like what we expected. When he arrived 40 minutes late at the designated meeting spot, pulling his large white van up behind our compact car, our suspicions of the day’s events grew.
The morning began with dark skies and heavy rain, which put a damper on our moods and the video equipment we were carrying. Shortly before 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, three journalists sat in a car, the windows clouding from our hot breaths, though our bodies shivered from the unexpected cold temperature.
We felt as if we were involved in a sting operation, like maybe we were journalists in the back of a police car waiting for something to go down. But we were in a blue-green compact car, sitting inside a door that sometimes works and always squeaks. We were three journalists waiting for what we hoped was a reliable source.
The wait grew more unbearable and the source seemingly more unreliable as we sat in an idle car at the corner of 32nd and Master streets, an intersection that is hard to find at best and frightening at worst. We were meeting Wagner, a self-proclaimed Philadelphia brewery expert at an intersection wedged between train tracks, old brewing companies and a new housing development – the crux of a neighborhood in transition.
Wagner showed up at 11:40, about 10 minutes after we agreed to wait a little longer and three deep into a pile of compilation CDs mixed during our camera woman’s early high school days. He climbed down from the driver seat wearing a heavy coat, work pants and a day-glow orange baseball hat over his shoulder-length gray hair. He topped off the look with large, silver, wire-rimmed glasses and a folder piece of paper in his hand. He didn’t look like an expert of any sort, but his appearance was more welcoming than that of the driver who held a wad of money out his window when we pulled along his car earlier, hoping it was Wagner.
The rain stopped briefly enough for the first part of our interview. Wagner, a Pennsylvania brewery historian, opened the paper in his hand – a large map of Brewerytown, circa 1890 – and began to prove himself a reliable source.
We stood behind the former Bergner and Engel Beer Brewery at 32nd and Master streets. Gustavas Bergner and Charles Engel employed 65 people and sold 120,187 barrels of lager, ale, porter and stout in the late 1870s. Pennsylvania’s largest brewers and the nation’s second largest, Bergner and Engel, were giants in the small North Philadelphia neighborhood that, at the time, catered exclusively to brewing, bottling and labeling. The only people who lived in Brewerytown during its brewing heyday were the brewery owners and their employees. The remaining land was used to create manmade caves, or cellars, to keep the beer cold.
Beginning in the 1850s, Brewerytown had the densest population of breweries in the state, with almost nine complete blocks of the factories owned, operated and maintained by the neighborhood’s predominantly German population.
Just three blocks from where Bergner and Engel made their livings, sat a stretch of land, which was home to, among other things, the J&P Baltz Brewery. Owned by brothers Jacob and Peter Baltz, the brewery produce a tangy, light lager – a result of the corn the brothers preferred to use. J&P Baltz continued brewing with much success until Prohibition after which production ceased forever.
For many breweries and bottling companies, Prohibition, which ran from 1920 to 1933, marked the end of a successful industry and a booming neighborhood. Much of Brewerytown’s history between its factory days and the present is lost, Wagner says. Partly because the story of a once-booming factory town has been told one too many times to matter. And partly because, unless a person seeks out Wagner, or one the state’s few other brewery historians, the story of old Brewerytown does not get told. It has its own history, separate from the likes of Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in both geography and meaning.
But Richard Wagner seeks to preserve that meaning, and after showing us several old breweries, he gave a walking tour of what’s left of the neighborhood’s history. There are a few physical landmarks, including brewery owners’ former homes, but most have been replaced by new housing developments.
Parts of the former Baltz and Bergner and Engel properties have been cleared, and are now being used by Westrum Development Co., the developers responsible for Brewerytown Square – the former home of several ice houses and storage facilities – and the future site of the Flats and Brewerytown, which will sit on land formerly owned by Baltz, Bergner and Engel. There is talk, even, of a supermarket at 31st Street and Girard Avenue; a significantly different facility than the small German shops and produce markets where Brewerytown residents used to get their groceries.
Though Brewerytown has a full history between its days as a leading brewing community and its present revitalization, these two time periods share a common thread: a growing economy Richard Wagner. Wagner is the bridge between Brewerytown’s oldest and newest states.