The city is now taking more drastic steps for East Liberty’s renewal and redevelopment plans, with massive constructions going on in the investor-attractive area; but already-established citizens may not be the people benefitting from them.
The area has seen, in the past few years, a resurgence of retail and business presence. Huge businesses like Target, Whole Foods, Giant Eagle Market District, and the many upscale stores in the BakerySquare complex show a positive interest in the central East Liberty area.
All of the new stores could offer jobs and convenience to those interested. Beautiful mixed-income apartments have been built and continue to expand. Though these developments show that investors and business-owners are interested in taking their money to the East side, some sacrifices have been made and it’s certainly not from their end.
While some developments are targeted toward a mixed-income community, with the biggest developments it seems that Shady Side is spilling over into East Liberty. This raises an issue of East Liberty simply being repurposed for a new population, rather than a genuine effort to renew what was once distinct and lively about the existing community.
The historically ignorant displacement of citizens in buildings dubbed as harmful to the neighborhood, with no replacement housing to offer, alone shows the lack of a careful helping hand. Instead, these new attractions are bringing in people from the wealthy neighborhoods surrounding East Liberty—not those that have already been living there.
The reason is simply, because much of the development is high-end and is affordable to those outside of the low-moderate income demographic of East Liberty. The adjoining neighborhoods to East Liberty (Shadyside, Friendship), according to New York Times writer Christine O’Toole, “contain the city’s wealthiest and best-educated households.”
Some city-run projects are offering benefits to nearly everyone, however. The mixed-income housing will hopefully introduce a stable housing network and family presence. The transit stop near the new target is an addition to Pittsburgh’s fairly sparse public transportation, encouraging that it is now easier to live in East Liberty and get to its attractions. City planners are now even attempting to right the wrongs of the failed mid-century attempt at adding suburbia to this urban neighborhood. The botched job that was the widening of central roads are now under construction to be turned into more effective traffic flows and the transit system is underway to be made even stronger.
To hash out the complex positive and negatives of the East Liberty development efforts happening now, Justin Strong, former owner of Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, weighed in on the issue. As a business owner for over a decade, he provided explanations on the economic changes happening on the East Side. When asked about the benefit of big corporate business moving in to revitalize an area, according to Strong, much of the economy in Pittsburgh has changed from entrepreneurial to managerial. This results in a “lack of examples of ownership,” he says. He also stresses the need for community members to become assets in their own neighborhood.
Whether intentional or unintentional—neither of these can be proven just yet—it seems the high-end push will put pressure on the lower-income areas, possibly driving out the poor when real estate prices rise. Strong explains that “there is a way for new populations and old populations to coexist.” This should be the goal. But with the types of developments happening, are city officials and urban planners paying attention to this?
East Liberty has a historically rough past with urban development efforts. In the fifties and sixties, the area underwent a revitalization effort that largely divided the neighborhood that was once a thriving business center. The real plans for this mid-century project are outlined completely in the 1960s book “Stringtown on the Pike” by John Fulton Stuart Collins, Jr. The pages are accompanied by prototype drawings of dreamy futuristic buildings “with columns and domes of shining steel.”
What changes were actually executed were mostly new community-oriented buildings, (like a Carnegie Library branch) big businesses, and suburban landscape. Some of the buildings still stand and function, but much of the change was detrimental to the neighborhood. With the excessive widening of roads and the breaking up of the close-knit businesses and housing formations, the area was essentially plucked apart. Businesses started feeling the stresses of misdirected traffic flows, their stores being passed by.
The negative effects on the community led to more projects in the 90s and 2000s, some of which caught controversy for their displacement of citizens. Chris Ivey, Pittsburgh filmmaker, created a documentary called East of Liberty on the issues after he was assigned to cover the teardown of a high rise apartment complex, East Mall. Seen as dangerous and undesirable to members of the community, the building was torn down, an event celebrated by townspeople, while its tenants were forced from their homes.
Ivey also explained in a 2010 New York Times article that the most recent retail additions and some earlier project were successful, but a tripled rent ousted many small business owners. Addressed in his documentary and still a controversial part of East Liberty’s existence is the phenomenon of gentrification, or the systematic removal of lower-income residents by those wealthy enough to buy up and transform properties.
Both sides of the argument are covered in the film—that the gentrification will bring opportunity to the area, and that it will also push out the poor and minority populations. Both seem to hold some truth, but the latter is where the issue lies. With paying so little attention to how the low-income residents get along through these developments, the cycle of poverty and crumbling neighborhoods threatens to resurface over and over.
When kicked out of their homes with little time and funds to find a fitting replacement, most of the displaced leave their community and go elsewhere to acquire affordable housing. This can result in a vicious cycle—that the next neighborhood, in this case, Larimer, which is considered almost completely blighted, becomes the next East Liberty. The poor are simply shifted over, instead of being included in community improvement decisions.
The same situation happened with tenants in earlier redevelopment projects. According to Violet Law’s Tribune Review article published in 1963, the executive director of city housing authority, Keith Kinard, was quoted saying that “relocating 300 families unrealistic” when asked about the replacement housing plans. Certainly, even if redevelopment efforts will be helpful in the future, if they are displacing citizens at that time, they cannot be considered successful.
In-person interview with local business owner Justin Strong
All photos taken by Sam Leon
NY Times, Tribune review, Stringtown on the Pike
East of Liberty documentary