Jennifer Baker opened the heavy, weathered door to a light gust of warm wind. With a warm smile, Baker extended her hand in greeting as she stood elevated on the door’s platform before leading the way to her art studio.
Baker, a longtime Northern Liberties resident, moved to Philadelphia from New York to go to art school. She attended both the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia College of Art. In 1978, Baker moved to Northern Liberties, which at the time was nearly unrecognizable to the upscale urban bubble that it has now become.
“I wasn’t coming to the neighborhood to hang out with other artists,” Baker said. “I was coming out here for a place to work.”
Baker experienced a neighborhood inundated with aging buildings of the industrial era, relics of a storied time from Philadelphia’s past. Those buildings, both vacant and inhabited, made up a majority of the neighborhood’s architectural infrastructure.
It wasn’t until one memorable day in 1990 Baker began viewing her neighborhood as a source of artistic inspiration — an inspiration she stumbled upon accidentally.
“There was a huge fire in the tannery that was a block away from my house,” Baker said. “It was so frightening and dramatic, and it made me look at the neighborhood in a different way. It made me want to record what was going on around me.”
Using snapshots from her camera and quick sketches as a reference, Baker embarked on a journey that would extend through three decades.
Through the smoke, Baker created a monoprint depicting the fire.
Monoprinting is an art form where ink is transferred from a plate to a secondary surface and Baker’s pieces are a combination of both monoprints and paintings.
“In that transfer process you kind of affect the textures and the final look of the piece,” Baker said.
Despite working on this project for nearly 30 years, only a few of her paintings and monoprints from the series remain in her studio in Northern Liberties. Baker recently had an exhibition at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA) in Loretto, Pennsylvania.
Vanessa Houser, executive director of SAMA, explained why a museum nearly 200 miles away embraced Baker’s Northern Liberties collection in the Rust Belt region.
“While we certainly have neighborhoods that have enjoyed that have endured that type of industrial changeover and have arrived through the re-imagination and repurpose of what that industry created within the region and community,” Houser said. “There are also certainly communities that are still struggling with finding their identity through that evolution.”
That strong thematic connection between two places hundreds of miles away is what made Baker an excellent fit for Loretto.
Dr. Scott Dimond, the curator for the exhibition and the former visual curator at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, looked for possible connections between the themes of the museum and in Baker’s art.
“Her work is about paying attention to neighborhoods that have been overlooked, and the importance of these working neighborhoods has played in the formation of our country,” Dimond said.
Dimond said every city has a neighborhood caught up in a similar circumstance and believes people undervalue older buildings as a fundamental part of America.
He drew parallels between the steel and coal industries of the greater Pittsburgh region and the industrial neighborhoods within Philadelphia.
“It could possibly make people look at their own neighborhoods under a new light,” Dimond said.
However, Dimond asserted that is where Baker has found her niche — highlighting the mundane as a valuable thread of a neighborhood worth preserving.
“The whole story of the neighborhood is kind of being erased,” Dimond said. “It’s the same story where [SAMA] is.”
It was after the 1990 fire in Northern Liberties when Baker first sought to understand the predicament of her neighborhood and why buildings were abandoned. However, the story of the abandoned buildings began to change as the population boom occurred in the 2000s.
According to Pew Trusts’ Philadelphia State of the City Report for 2019, from 2000 to 2017, Northern Liberties experienced the largest growth of a single neighborhood in Philadelphia with a more than 40% growth in population. From 2010 to 2018, home sale prices in the neighborhood increased by more than 50%.
Baker’s perspective of Northern Liberties as the barren neighborhood filled with architectural relics changed dramatically.
“There was real desperation for investment and development,” she said. Baker believes developers took things way too far.
Gesturing out the window toward an adjacent residential property, Baker explained zoning restrictions were weakened and developers took advantage by exceeding maximum height limits for new buildings.
“For a long time, people thought that any development was a good thing, but this is so extreme and so much of the original visual landscape is gone,” Baker said. “There was no thought of preservation. Very few of the old buildings have been preserved and reused.”
She does acknowledge some of the demolition of the aging buildings has allowed spaces for parks such as Liberty Lands to be created. She described the park as a positive presence within the community and sees the latest influx of breweries as a mini-revival of a small industry, even if it is part of a “larger cycle” of hyper-development, as she described it.
In contemporary media, the reputation of Northern Liberties as one of the hubs for the city’s artists has been widely accepted. Baker knows from her acquaintances this has not necessarily been the case.
“I would say that this sort of reputation of a certain neighborhood with an art scene is a marketing tool,” Baker said. “By the time Northern Liberties had this reputation, a lot of the artists were long gone.”
Baker described how the changes have affected not only many of the neighborhood’s established artists but many longtime families who had called Northern Liberties home.
“[Within] the past 10 years, most of the artists that I knew who lived in the neighborhood left,” Baker said. “If they owned buildings, then they could not afford the taxes anymore. If they rented, then they could not afford the rent.”
Dimond wrote an essay, An Imperative of Remembering: The Art of Jennifer Baker, in Baker’s exhibition catalog.
“Community lies at the heart of Baker’s commitment to Northern Liberties,” Dimond said in the opening pages of the catalog. “Upholding and preserving it forms the overarching message of her work. Much, she acknowledges, is already gone. Yet if this seems to be a losing battle, Baker is determined that it will not be forgotten. Memory has its own power and it persists when all else has disappeared.”
He also alluded to the responsibility Baker has assumed.
“Buildings and neighborhoods may be destroyed; the old may give way to dubious new, but none of it is truly lost so long as even one person is determined to remember,” Dimond wrote.
Baker understands rising property values can be a good thing, but she feels it has primarily benefited developers and those actively looking to sell their property. Although she acknowledges that not all of the newer residents are “superwealthy people.”
“The real downside is that so much of the visual landscape has been demolished,” Baker said. “I guess in a way I am trying to record or preserve the history of the neighborhood and document its change.”
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