By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
When looking back at the past century of Pittsburgh’s history, one of the most defining characteristics is development.
The mid-20th century saw several neighborhoods experience massive renewal projects meant to boost areas that were perceived as blighted and unsafe. These projects run the gamut from the wildly successful development of the downtown Cultural District to the decimation of the Lower Hill District.
But certainly one of the poster children for the effects of urban renewal is East Liberty. Sitting at the heart of the East End, East Liberty has experienced a roller-coaster history marked by high highs and low lows.
The neighborhood first developed as a tavern town in the mid-19th century, and grew largely independent of Pittsburgh proper due to the five mile distance between East Liberty and downtown, which took several hours to traverse in those days. As a result, the neighborhood developed its own institutions independent of Pittsburgh, including East Liberty Presbyterian Church, which still dominates East Liberty’s modern skyline.
Beginning in the 1890s, East Liberty began on a path similar to neighboring Bloomfield and Friendship. Upper-middle class Pittsburghers saw the East End as a place to escape the pollution of downtown’s heavy industry, and moved there in great numbers. An explosion of new home construction resulted.
“You see East Liberty truly become Pittsburgh’s second downtown by 1910 or so,” said Justin Greenawalt, a board member with the East Liberty Historical Society.
The 1930s, however, sowed the seeds for East Liberty’s later struggles in two ways. The first was the unpreventable circumstances of the Great Depression, which stagnated growth in the area and put considerable pressure on the neighborhood’s large working class population. The second was a phenomenon called redlining, which affected low income and majority African American neighborhoods nationwide.
In 1934, the U.S. federal government would pass the National Housing Act, which was intended to make homes more affordable as the Depression wore on. This resulted in greater government involvement in mortgage support.
To better determine where to allocate mortgage funding, several government-sponsored agencies did surveys of cities across America and broke them up into districts ranging from Type A, the most desirable to lend to, to Type D, which were deemed “hazardous.” Type D neighborhoods were often working class, African American neighborhoods. East Liberty was categorized in a 1937 map as Type D.
These redlining practices meant mortgage funding for neighborhoods like East Liberty was almost entirely choked off. With little funding to make repairs, homes in the neighborhood fell into a state of dilapidation, and some properties were abandoned entirely.
Compounding this, the accessibility of the automobile and rise of the suburbs after World War II created a steady stream of residents moving out of East Liberty to the North and South Hills.
“Post-World War II, that’s when you begin to see this mass exodus to the suburbs,” Greenawalt said. “Suddenly, the automobile is accessible to the average person, and you have people saying, ‘Why am I staying here?’”
This exodus eventually became too great for East Liberty’s Chamber of Commerce to ignore, and in the 1960s, they appealed to the city government for funding to revitalize the region. The end result was the largest urban renewal project in the history of Pittsburgh at that time, with over 350 acres affected.
The plan was incredibly ambitious, meant to compete with new suburban shopping malls and inspired by similar concepts in Fort Worth, Texas and Toledo, Ohio. The business district was to be consolidated onto Penn Avenue, and then closed off to automobile traffic to create an outdoor pedestrian mall. Surrounding this mall would be new apartment towers, parking garages, and three ring roads that would allow those with no business in East Liberty to bypass it.
This plan, unfortunately, was flawed from the ground up, and failed for a number of reasons. A major factor was a failure to take the existing East Liberty community into consideration. The project was intended to attract those leaving the neighborhood to come back, but did not think about those who were still living nearby.
“What happens when you take a neighborhood that’s 200 years old and completely reconfigure it? People get very disoriented and eventually, they just stop going there because it’s confusing and they don’t like it,” Greenawalt said.
Another contributing factor was ripple effects from the other major projects happening at that time. The new apartments built as part of the East Liberty project were intended for middle-class families, a captive audience for the shopping district. What the designers did not account for was the impact of the Civic Arena project that leveled most of the Lower Hill District.
“These apartment buildings were built for middle income families, but with the demolition of the Hill District, people were being displaced to East Liberty, and they put them in these towers,” Greenawalt said. “Well, the people that lived in these towers couldn’t afford to shop at the shops in East Liberty.”
The cumulative effects of redlining policies and botched urban renewal left East Liberty in stark condition. The two decades from 1959 to 1979 saw the number of businesses in the area plummet from 575 to 98. The neighborhood quickly became perceived as an unsafe, blighted area that those who did not live there actively avoided. East Liberty would languish in this state for the remainder of the 20th century.
The start of the 21st century saw the beginning of East Liberty’s renaissance. With the help of the city government and neighborhood business leaders, 2005 saw The Home Depot open between Station Street and East Liberty Boulevard. This economic shot in the arm paved the way for more urban big box stores, including Whole Foods and Target.
In less than two decades, the neighborhood transformed from a commercial desert to one of Pittsburgh’s trendiest neighborhoods. Boutique restaurants and large modern apartment buildings opened at breakneck pace, but at a cost that not all are comfortable with.
The legacy of problematic development projects in East Liberty continued when in July 2015, more than 200 residents of the Penn Plaza apartment complex were given eviction notices and informed the building was to be demolished. Planned for the site was a mixed-use facility, with a new Whole Foods as the centerpiece of the project.
“They all got a 90-day notice for evacuation of the premises,” said Crystal Jennings, an activist with Penn Plaza Support and Action. “It came out of nowhere.”
Zach Gumberg, principal and managing member at LG Realty, the owners of Penn Plaza, said in an email that “Penn Plaza had reached the end of its useful life,” and that it would have “required millions of dollars to address all the repairs and renovations projects necessary to continue its operation.”
Gumberg also said they had “four years of conversations, with lots of community input” regarding the decision. But that is not reflected in the response of residents to the eviction notice. They organized a tenant’s union and pushed back, getting the attention of Mayor Bill Peduto, who was able to negotiate a deal allowing the residents more time to find alternate housing.
Penn Plaza was largely Section 8 housing. 95 percent of its residents were African-American. One of these residents is former Pittsburgh Public School Board Member Randall Taylor, an activist with Penn Plaza Support and Action.
“I very much enjoyed living there,” Taylor said. “I think most of us enjoyed living there, close to East Liberty, close to transportation. Rents were affordable for many people.”
While Taylor was employed and eventually able to find housing outside of East Liberty, he knew that other residents of Penn Plaza would not be so fortunate.
“I had very, very big concerns about some of the seniors and other people who had lived there,” Taylor said. “I had very grave concerns for how things would turn out for them.”
Those concerns were far from unfounded.
“There were a lot of residents who did not find affordable housing and are still couchsurfing now,” Jennings said. “Four of them that I know of are living in shelters or on the streets.”
The saga of Penn Plaza has become symbolic of the problems with gentrification, and thanks to the help of activists and their supporters, has propelled affordable housing to a top priority issue in Pittsburgh politics. While there may be much more to do, East Liberty has made its mark and hopefully the neighborhood’s struggles will pave better roads for the future of city planning.