There are no tumbleweeds drifting across the vast, desolate expanse of the Schmidt's Commons when I visit on a Saturday night. Standing in is a group of five teenagers, practicing wheelies and other dazzling, reckless feats.
This is late-stage gentrification in Northern Liberties, where developer Bart Blatstein swept in with massive amounts of development over the last two decades, then sold off the bulk of the property to Jared Kushner's real estate company and, as a coup de grace, recently closed off the large lot that had at least provided ample free parking for weekend crowds.
Blatstein had originally named the centerpiece of his development blitz the Piazza, after Rome's Piazza Navona, and filled it with tiny art galleries and boutiques and hip bars with outdoor seating. Now, it's hard to imagine a Roman would recognize the space, with its dollar store, its vacant storefronts, and the darkened facade of Crabby Cafe & Sports Bar, which court records indicate was evicted last year for nonpayment of more than $32,000 in rent.
Still, there are glimmers of the good old days in a Jinxed vintage store, the tenacious Creep Records (the only original tenant in what was the Piazza), and in Urban Village, a brewpub that opened in June. The latter is the passion project of Dave Goldman, owner of Landmark Americana and a longtime home brewer who finally decided to go pro.
So far, he says, it's working out. As I step inside around 7 p.m., I'm surprised by the lively crowd, heavy on sports jerseys and baseball hats, some watching the Phillies game and already, apparently, many drinks in.
It's a sociable kind of sloppy, though.
A man in an oversize hoodie gets political. "Are yous guys Republican or Democrat?" he asks his neighbor. "I'm a Republicrat." Next to him, a group of young women are debating where to go next, struggling between ambition and inertia. "I got those French fries to go. Truffle, though!" a young woman shouts. She ends up eating them right there at the bar, from the to-go box. "I literally love you," she tells the bartender when he delivers more ketchup.
I can't say the pizza inspired similar feelings in me — but almost. The Kelly ($15), a white pie with kale, Pecorino, mozzarella, pistachio pesto, and pickled onions, is crisp, rich, and satisfying, and complements my favorite of the house-made beers, the pleasantly hoppy and super-maturely named Sofa King IPA ($2 for a 4-ounce taste or $6 for a pint). The house wines are from draft-wine pioneers the Gotham Project, and the cocktail menu sticks to local spirits with offerings like the refreshing Rowhouse ($12), made with gin, lemon juice, and sweet and dry vermouth.
There are also limited-edition experimental brews — a witbier made with ReAnimator coffee; a quad aged in New Liberty whiskey barrels — all developed by Goldman in the brewery visible behind windows that line one wall.
"My friend owns a pallet yard, so it's incredibly affordable," Goldman said. "I would concede it's a little overdone."
Still, like pizza and beer, he figures, it's a formula that works.
He thinks what's left of the Piazza, now the Schmidt's Commons, is working well enough, too. Sure, it's bleak now. But he promises in summer, when he can open his extensive patio, the place will really come into its own.
Urban Village Brewing Co.
1001 N. Second St., 267-687-1961, urbanvillagebrewing.com
When to go: It's worth keeping an eye out for specials, which include $3 pints and half-price pizza at happy hour, from 5-7 p.m. Monday through Friday. It's open Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight, and Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
What to order: If you're not a beer person, try the Rowhouse or odd coffee-and-lemon-infused Bees Knees. The most popular beer, Huntingdon Drive IPA, was kicked on my visit. "I've been struggling to keep it on tap," Goldman said.
Bathroom situation: A long row of tidy, any-gender, single-stall units.