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There Were Zombies in NoLibs Before Bart Came Along

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In the July issue of Philadelphia magazine, Steve Volk, staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and author of the Fringe-ology, doesn't ask if Bart Blatstein's goals for the city are Icarus-like dreams. Instead he tries to deconstruct the personality of "the most creative and visionary developer the city has seen in a generation." Volk speaks first to Larry Freedman, zoning chair of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, who likes Blatstein very much when he's warm and engaging but knows he can shut down. "You don't want to be on that side of him," Freedman tells Volk.

The idea of "two Barts" comes up a lot around Blatstein. And if he had that reputation only as a person—of being mostly warm with some nasty cold spells, like San Francisco—that would be one thing. The issue is that fairly or unfairly, Blatstein's reputation as a developer is still being defined. There's the practical Bart Blatstein, who once built a lot of ugly boxes on Delaware Avenue, enlivening a moribund strip of the city economically while lending it all the charm of an Ohio suburb. Then there is the ambitious, sophisticated Blatstein who built the Piazza—the European-style gathering place that is now Northern Liberties' public identity, and one of the finest additions to Philadelphia in decades . There are some, as we've seen in the last few weeks, who might argue with that characterization of the Piazza, but those who complain may not remember what it was before.

In 2000, when Blatstein first acquired the old Schmidt's brewing site, the entire area noth of Poplar Street was urban void—abandoned industrial buildings haunted by squatters, junkies, prostitutes, drug dealers and sneak thieves. "If you walked through there," remembers Freedman, "you had to be careful not to get pulled into the dark. Because there were, like, zombies." Blatstein changed all that so that now:

In sum, Philadelphia happens here, in all its permutations. And the space is so welcoming—the architectural alchemy so right—that the Piazza has forced people to use different words in connection with the once-mediocre Bart Blatstein: words like "magic" and "visionary." .... Not even a trio of murders ... have detracted from the Piazza's success. Such is the evident cose, it seems, of erecting a new neighborhood on the Philly frontier.

As for Blatstein's future plans for North Broad, there's an interesting mix of excitement, pessimism, disbelief and anticipation surrounding the proposals. On the one hand, the Inquirer's architecture critic Inga Saffron thinks Blatstein's a little off his rocker with all of it. On the other, she tells Volk, "Bart, more than our mayors or the city planning commission, is determining just what kind of city people will be in when they walk through Philadelphia 50 years from now."
· Bart Blatstein Archives [CPHI]

The Piazza at Schmidt's

North Second Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123