Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Peak: Renewal in various forms

I guess the Post-Gazette headline writer and I have a different take on “vibrancy.”

East Liberty becomes a vibrant community

I just don’t know about that.

East Liberty has gone from being a neighborhood in need of someone to invest private money to being a beehive. Sixteen developers are at work there currently. Two new hotels are coming, the first hotels in decades. The Eastside complex that includes Whole Foods is expanding. Hundreds of new homes are being built, and a green-infrastructure plan will bring geothermal heating and cooling to about 800 of them. Storm water sequestration plans are in the works, as is a European-style town square.(P-G)
That certainly sounds like a beehive, and as someone who has lived near East Liberty for the past six or seven years, I’ve been pretty close to a lot of those recent revitalizations and have watched them with great interest. Because whether I was driving to East Liberty - for the McDonald’s, naturally - or through East Liberty - to reach points east - I was always intrigued by this neighborhood with its gateway high-rises and main drag full of wig shops and clothing outfitters and peculiar traffic pattern.

In fact, I once fancied myself a very wise civic observer when I stated to anyone who would listen that Penn Circle was like a noose, suffocating East Liberty until it had lost all life.

Yeah, I was pretty proud of that one.

Largely that image came to me after purchasing a copy of Pittsburgh Then and Now, a fascinating photographic study of the changes in this city over the past 100-plus years. The premise is pretty simple but probably time-consuming to produce:

Take a photo from a long time ago - could be the 1970’s, 1960’s, 1950’s, 1940’s, or before - and then take a current-day photo of the same location from the same angle. Then juxtapose and voila; you have a pretty entertaining and enlightening photographic history of the city, or at least a document of the changes in the city.

There is all kinds of interesting stuff in the book, but the section on East Liberty may have had the biggest impact on me. On one page, a photo from June of 1937 showing shops lining the street and the Pgh. Curb Market (for “fancy fruits and vegetables”) on the corner; in the same location in August 1987, a giant high-rise built over the street.

Or another photo from May 1936, when a street in a business district seems to stretch as far as the eye can see; in its counterpart from August 1987, another high-rise - the one that was recently imploded - climbs out of the photo’s frame.

It continues. From February 1935 we have a photo of a healthy strip, with a Hay’s market/pharmacy and a Cameraphone Theater (showing movies for 25 cents at night); in that same location in August of 1987 stands the big bus stop in the east end of Penn Circle.

And perhaps the most heart-breaking photograph from the East Liberty collection is a shot from the sidewalk on Penn Avenue near that bus stop in the east end of the Circle. This photo isn’t notable so much for the architectural differences between “then” and “now” - although those differences do exist - rather, the photos from 1935 and 1987 are contrasted most for what’s happening in them.

In 1935, there are people. People walking, people talking, people shopping, people smiling. In 1987, a solitary soul stands by a tree and another lurks on a corner in the distance.

So after spending a lot of time driving through East Liberty and also seeing what the neighborhood used to be, I started thinking a lot about what revitalization would/could look like. How could a once-thriving business district - often referred to as Pittsburgh’s second downtown - that had undergone misguided renewal already, renewal that thoroughly destroyed the neighborhood’s vitality, regain its life and become vibrant once again?

Right around the time I moved into the Penn Avenue corridor in the east end, Whole Foods opened at the so-called Eastside complex along Center Avenue, and this was hailed as a step toward revitalization for the jobs it would provide.

But, once again donning my clever civic observer hat, I pondered aloud, “Doesn’t anyone see the ugly symbolism here: the jobs will go to African-Americans from the neighborhood, and they will be employed serving rich white people.” I thought I was very clever for that observation (of course, it would turn out that the jobs also went to hippies, so I wasn’t completely accurate on that).

Revitalization continued on the eastern outskirts of East Liberty with the Bakery Square project - still in progress and still reeking of government-developer stank - and Trader Joe’s, and once again I asked: Who are these projects for? Who shops at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods? Who will frequent Bakery Square, provided it maintains an aura of safety? Are these things really for the community? Or is revitalization being used synonymously with “bring in white money”?

Because if bringing in money from Shadyside and some of the more affluent surrounding communities is the key behind East Liberty’s revitalization, I’m not sure if I buy it. I don’t know if building destinations for out-of-towners is the best way to build a neighborhood and community. That was the premise behind the ill-conceived renewal of the 1960’s, and the results were disastrous (although the problem at that time wasn’t the intentions; it was the plan and the execution).

But then I read more about the history of the neighborhood.

In 1868, the City of Pittsburgh annexed what is now East Liberty. Thanks to its favorable location and Mellon's guiding hand, East Liberty became a thriving commercial center in the following years. East Liberty's merchants served many of Pittsburgh's industrial millionaires, who settled in nearby Shadyside and Point Breeze. Professionals in Highland Park and Friendship and laborers in Bloomfield and Garfield also shopped in East Liberty. By 1950, the area (now often called 'Sliberty) was a bustling and fully urban marketplace. )Wiki)
And then it hit me:

East Liberty was always a shopping destination for the white people who live outside the area. So by building Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and the Richard Chen restaurant and Target and Bakery Square, East Liberty’s revitalization is being historically accurate.

Historically accurate revitalization: urban renewal with book-smarts.

So maybe I should just get off my high horse and accept that East Liberty’s renewal is what it is. Ideally, the influx of income will have a positive impact on the neighborhood and perhaps even provide an opportunity for local business owners to flourish as well (I’m particularly hopeful that the new retail space on the west end of the Circle will house some local businesses).

And I shouldn’t completely disregard some of the things East Liberty Development Inc. is trying to do. They’ve got a number of green initiatives in place, and I think the East Liberty Town Square idea - which seems to carry a much more organic tone than Bakery Square - is a good one, since it should make the main Penn Avenue corridor more pedestrian-friendly.

I guess we’ll see what happens. Perhaps bringing in stores like Target and Whole Foods can be the impetus for change on a more community-based scale, and I certainly don’t know enough about city planning/urban renewal to say that’s not the case. But doesn’t it feel like real renewal, real revitalization, would take a different form?

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