By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Like many city centers, Downtown Pittsburgh has had a storied and checkered history. It is a history that has earned it a reputation with many as either a sleepy neighborhood that dies after 7 p.m., or as a seedy area that those with children should avoid.
But that reputation is now a misconception, as Downtown has seen an unprecedented renaissance over the past two decades. That revitalization is, in no small part, thanks to the Cultural District.
Spanning fourteen blocks along the south shore of the Allegheny, the Downtown Cultural District is the heart of Pittsburgh’s arts and culture scene. More than a dozen of the city’s largest arts organizations call the Cultural District home, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Benedum Center and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company.
Art and culture have long held an important place in the neighborhood, even going back to the early 20th century.
“Back in the ’30s and ’40s, this was Pittsburgh’s entertainment district. This was where people went to go to the movies,” said Kevin McMahon, CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
This film legacy can be seen in some of Downtown’s largest theaters. The Benedum Center, Byham Theater and Heinz Hall were all originally built as cinemas, and Pittsburghers by the thousands congregated Downtown to watch their favorite stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age on the silver screen.
The rise of suburbanization after the second World War, however, would bring an end to this idyllic era and pave the way for a dark shift in Downtown culture.
“When that all fell apart, and suburbia started to explode, and malls and cinemas were built, people no longer came Downtown to see movies, because it wasn’t as convenient and they didn’t need to,” said McMahon.
The movie theaters of Downtown, unable to keep up with suburban cinemas and the rise of television, either shut down or shifted focus, sitting partially empty for decades and falling into a state of neglect. This decline was paired with the advent of a very different type of entertainment in Downtown, one that earned the area its dubious reputation.
“This was Pittsburgh’s notorious red-light district,” said McMahon. “Twenty years ago, this place was atrocious. People were afraid to walk in the Cultural District.”
From the 1960s to ’80s, Downtown fell into a state of blight, a blight exacerbated by the decline of Pittsburgh’s steel industry. Residential flight away from the city increased over this time and the dire situation of Downtown became too large for many wealthy Pittsburghers to ignore, particularly philanthropist Jack Heinz.
“One of the great things about Pittsburgh is its civic leadership,” McMahon said. “We weren’t started by the city or county government, we were created by a group of private citizens.”
Heinz, along with other famous Pittsburgh families and corporations, came together in 1984 to form the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The goal of the Cultural Trust was to create a world-class arts district, intended to draw more people to the neighborhood and change public perception. Part arts organization and part real estate managers, the Trust bought up more than a million square feet of property around the old movie theaters and worked to restore each building to its former glory.
“They put together…the Cultural Trust and helped to seed the money necessary to renovate the Benedum Center and Byham Theater, build the O’Reilly Theater and begin to market and program those things,” said McMahon. “The idea was if we had a district, rather than just a building, it would promote more economic development, because restaurants would follow, people might even start to live Downtown, and the Trust could be in the background and support all those efforts.”
Those efforts were met with enthusiastic success. More than a million people visited the Cultural District in 2004. Today, that number has grown to 2.2 million visitors annually, resulting in an economic impact of $385 million.
“[It is] one of the country’s, and arguably the world’s, best examples of helping redevelop a Downtown through the arts,” said Mitch Swain, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.
Today, the Cultural District is home to art of every variety, and celebrates Pittsburgh’s artistic legacy. The August Wilson Center for African American Culture showcases the contributions of African American artists from across the country and the world, bringing in rotating exhibitions and hosting performances that speak to the black experience in America. Named for famed Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson, the Center works to embody the values of Wilson’s work, and to celebrate the rich culture of the African diaspora.
In addition to the massive theatrical venues that Downtown is famous for, smaller independent theaters have flourished, thanks in large part to the Cultural Trust. One of the greatest success stories in this regard is Arcade Comedy Theater, the only nonprofit theater in Pittsburgh with a focus on the comedic arts.
“Being part of the Cultural District has always been part of our identity… because part of our mission here has always been elevating the art of comedy,” said Abby Fudor, managing artistic director at Arcade.
With the help of subsidized rent that the Cultural Trust could provide, Arcade has blossomed into a hotspot for all things comedy, hosting everything from improv and sketch comedy shows to drag queen cabarets. They also host a comedy school to raise the next generation of Pittsburgh comedians. Its success, Fudor believes, can be partially credited to its Downtown location.
“What I love about being in the Cultural District is that we are among other elevated art forms, and it gives me a goal to achieve, to be worthy to be among them,” said Fudor.
Visual arts have also found a home Downtown. Wood Street Galleries, SPACE Gallery and 707-709 Penn, just to name a few, all host exhibitions from Pittsburgh’s multitude of local artists. Periodic gallery crawl events, as well as the Pittsburgh Public Arts Festival, both organized by the Cultural Trust, give these artists a large platform to display and sell their work.
The culinary arts are also a prominent feature of the Cultural District. The past ten years has seen a boom of new restaurants, including the multi-level Sienna Mercato, Butcher and the Rye, and tako.
Development in the Cultural District moves at a breakneck pace, and shows no signs of slowing. The Cultural Trust is currently working to build a six-screen cineplex in the District, harkening back to the neighborhood’s early days as a movie theater hub. Also in the works are more apartment buildings and condominiums to further encourage those who love Downtown to stay a while.
“I’ve worked in the Cultural District now since 2001, and have really seen great change,” Swain said. “It’s become a wonderful place for people to live and work and enjoy their lives.”