So Long 'Sliberty

Chris's digital media filter beat my analog media filter, so he posted first about today's NYT relatively upbeat story about commercial redevelopment in East Liberty. For real estate developers and the companies than afford their space, the neighborhood is on a modestly upward trajectory.

I liked the story, but as someone who has heard and read the history of Pittsburgh but not lived it, I didn't come away feeling all rosy about the result. Virtually all of the good news about contemporary East Liberty, at least the good news reported in Times, conveys the impression that the area is being transformed into a generic upscale suburb, with the big box stores, higher end retailers, and chic restaurants preferred everywhere by real estate developers and middle-aged cupcake-eating hipsters. (Not only am I not going to let the hipster meme go, I'm going to link it to the Cupcake Class!) I may be the most unlikely person in the world to make this point, but: What happened to the "Pittsburgh" in East Liberty as a Pittsburgh neighborhood?

A couple of weeks ago, I went to dinner at Jimmy Tsang's Chinese restaurant, on Centre Avenue. I was part of a group hosting a speaker on campus, and apparently the speaker - a Pittsburgh native who no longer lives here - remembered the restaurant from his youth. I am told that Jimmy Tsang's was once a great place to go. Our dinner was just a notch above a disaster. The food was adequate. The service was a 0 on a 1 (low) to 5 (high) scale. And the restaurant was nearly empty.

Maybe the lesson of my Jimmy Tsang's dinner is that the "Pittsburgh" in this "Pittsburgh" neighborhood is gone for good. As Chris points out, East Liberty's population loss has been staggering.


30 Responses to "So Long 'Sliberty"

Unknown said... 3/03/2010 9:01 AM

Jimmy Tsang's sucks so the neighborhood is going to hell? The last time I ate there was three years ago and it sucked then. The places that have moved into East Liberty are better than anything on Ellsworth or Walnut. Dinette is awesome and Kelly's is still a great bar.

BrianTH said... 3/03/2010 9:50 AM

Why isn't Kelly's Bar and Lounge "Pittsburgh"? The Shadow Lounge and Kelly-Strayhorn Theater? Maybe new apartments in a Daniel Burnham highrise across from an elaborate church built with Mellon money?

Generally, my understanding is that East Liberty was once the place East-Enders went for upscale retail, and as such I suspect in this period it was whatever East-Enders wanted it to be. If it becomes that again, why is that not Pittsburgh? Why can't Pittsburgh be a living, breathing, trying out a new hair-style thing, as opposed to an embalmed thing in a dusty museum case?

And yes, this does seem like a running battle now. Are Pittsburgh and upscale/hip really antonyms? Or can Pittsburgh put its own spin on upscale/hip without losing its soul? Let the battle rage on.

Mike Madison said... 3/03/2010 11:44 AM

Going to hell? No one said going to hell. ;-) But the NYT story about the East Liberty's upward mobility is conspicuously silent regarding the continuing role of long-time neighborhood institutions.

BrianTH, I like how you put your concluding question. Is Pittsburgh the Faust of cities?

C. Briem said... 3/03/2010 12:23 PM

More like the Godot.

johnnyg said... 3/03/2010 9:14 PM

But at least we have lots of Parking Chairs to sit on whilst we wait!

Anonymous said... 3/04/2010 9:08 AM

Eastside was developed to make a profit. National chains pay the highest rents. Certain chains have been more likely to locate in urban areas, especially where there are concentrations of wealth. Concentrations of subsidized housing were removed because they hindered commercial development. Mosites and the City’s Planning Department did a nice job with the urban design. Some national retailers were marketed as hipper than others. But why, with a set of national retailers following their business models, would you expect a uniquely Pittsburgh community to result?

Chris is right. While there were some modest levels of accommodation, this was not a community development project that attempted a new and more equitable relationship with the city’s poor and mostly African-American population. Nor was East Liberty used as a platform to develop the talents and aspirations of a unique and valuable group of Pittsburghers. Instead, it was developed to bring in national retailers, so that we could have a place as good as any other, indistinguishable from Silver Spring or Chicagoland. All that benchmarking got us to the point where we only saw what was elsewhere.

In many ways East Liberty was among the easiest of areas to change. After all, there was little there that held regional value. The East Liberty of nostalgic memories, the “third largest retail center in the state” that has been quoted in countless documents, is held by very few as a living memory. Forty + years of urban planning and architecture education have been railing against the sins of mid-century urban renewal in general, and East Liberty’s urban mall in particular. Few saw the towers as a decent way to house the poor. But would simply clearing the remains of a sixties urban renewal project necessarily result in the blossoming of a traditional community?

A significant challenge for Pittsburgh remains. How is the city going to reconcile its relationship with those who have been historically disadvantaged? There are institutions in the region that have been extremely vigilant in protecting the bricks and landscape of Pittsburgh’s past. They’ve been quite creative in figuring out how to adapt these structures to new uses. Where are the institutions that have this same agenda with Pittsburgh’s social heritage?

Mike Madison said... 3/04/2010 9:50 AM

What he said. And what I said to the same point, here.

MH said... 3/04/2010 10:50 AM

For me, I see how much Whole Foods has improved the variety and quality of food I can get. The improvements in Giant Eagle and the Trader Joe's all started from that. And now I can find a good selection of wine without driving to Aspenwall. (If somebody could please kill the state store system, that would be even better.)

Developing the "talents and aspirations of a unique and valuable group of Pittsburghers" is nice enough, I suppose. But I don't see how challenging a local monopoly isn't a sufficient improvement by itself.

ChrisP said... 3/04/2010 7:21 PM

"Nor was East Liberty used as a platform to develop the talents and aspirations of a unique and valuable group of Pittsburghers."

Is it possible that by dropping Whole Foods and, more importantly to my thought, Home Depot at a central location they were hoping to attract the eds & meds crowd to consider snapping up some of that great old housing stock in Pt.Breeze/Morningside/Friendship instead of waiting in vain until they got tenure to buy in Squirrel Hill or Shadyside, or head to the suburbs?

C. Briem said... 3/04/2010 9:37 PM

Not to knock Whole Foods at all, but the first mover here was indeed Home Depot in a sense. Was just talking to someone who knows the whole story about Tom Murphy literally kidnapping the Home Depot founder when he was in town to pitch the idea. But a topic for another day.

Anyone else remember that the Whole Foods site was originally slated to include Whole Foods and a Krispy Kreme... I can't make that up, it's true. Gotta be a cupcake joke in there somewhere.

Anonymous said... 3/05/2010 7:55 AM

The business model of Whole Foods is to locate in areas of significant education and wealth. Because of their larger footprint than most retail, they tend to locate on the fringes of established urban areas. They ae often confused as being a pioneer use, but they are not. There is nothing inherently wrong with this from a market perspective. The store is nice and well run. And from what I understand, the market decision worked out quite well.

The financing package for the project included a number of subsidies, including a very competitive and valuable HHS grant that is designed specifically to help the poor. Few of those grants come this way. I doubt that the poor in the area would have prioritized an upscale grocer within a stone's throw of two existing grocers as a use of limited subsidy. But that wasn't the point.

Home Depot was supposed to prove that unsubsidized development was possible in East Liberty. Whole Foods started a cascade of subsidized grocery store development along Centre Avenue. Subsidy for these projects affected what got built, or not, in other areas.

Dean Jackson said... 3/05/2010 8:53 AM

Pizza Sola, Kelly's, Abay Ethiopian, and Dinette are all amazing places.

The "upscale suburb" effect started with the Home Depot going in in the 90's; before then, East Liberty was (more or less) an urban blight, screwed over by "urban redevelopment" gone awry in the late 60s.

(Hint: it used to have shopping everywhere, and then they closed all traffic through the neighborhood for several years to build the traffic circle and the projects)

Tearing down the projects dropped the crime rate to something commercially bearable, the Home Depot moved in because land was cheap, and Whole Foods, Borders and company followed suit... because land was still cheap. Sounds like Target intends to move into the spot, and Whole Foods was at least considering an across-the-street move into a new larger building.

I wish we were getting back the mom and pop stores we lost... but barring that, I'll take redevelopment of a neighborhood back to better days in a heartbeat.

MH said... 3/05/2010 9:40 AM

That is actually a fairly small Whole Foods compared to the others I have seen. The others I have seen have also been more centrally located, though they were stores acquired through purchasing existing groceries of the same type. And they sold wine, which I realize is something neither Whole Foods nor the city can control.

John Morris said... 3/05/2010 1:54 PM

I think it's a pretty sad statement about Pittsburgh and it's future that a bit of drive up retail is about all people can see for this area.

If we take, the pretty self evident fact that the colleges are the city's greatest asset and leveraging them it's highest prority; then the flat elevated land along main streets and transit routes would be the some of the most valuable land around.

What's needed here is very dense and intense transit oriented development to feed off the colleges with large office complexes, R&D, dorms, retail and lots of high density residential.

Quite likely all of this could be easily supported by a free or low cost shuttle service linking Oakland to East Liberty.

Not all of this needs to be built out at once but it's critical that more wasteful car oriented junk is not needed. The chances of a few even very succesful big box retailers paying enough sales taxes and property taxes to create a sustainable budget is close to zero.

MH said... 3/05/2010 2:25 PM

What's needed here is very dense and intense transit oriented development

That exists in something like a half-dozen places in the U.S. All of them have a much greater population. Obviously, Pittsburgh needs for density to function well, but that is just part of the problem of losing 1/2 your metro population.

Quite likely all of this could be easily supported by a free or low cost shuttle service linking Oakland to East Liberty.

See "Port Authority Buses."

The chances of a few even very succesful big box retailers paying enough sales taxes and property taxes to create a sustainable budget is close to zero.

I'm not sure what to make of that. For starters, the chances of any sustainable budget for Pittsburgh are close to zero. Also, when it comes to property taxes, you need to consider how much property taxes are paid on fallow land. As for sales taxes, customers pay that.

John Morris said... 3/05/2010 3:21 PM

I don't have time to go into detail here but it's very much a chicken/ egg problem.

Pittsburgh has a far lower population to a large extent because of highway construction and car oriented zoning policies that have helped waste and destroy the value of urban land.

I think the article stated the very, very low office vacancy rate in Oakland and the generally higher residential rents and home prices in the neighboring areas also reflects pretty good demand. In fact, Pittsburgh is pretty legendary for the student slum conditions in the areas near Oakland.

There are also a good number of proposed office, hotel, retail and apartment proposals on the table for the Baum corridor or East Liberty.

What's needed now is to center all the bordering areas around good transit links using some method of value capture.

FYI--historically, this is how mass transit was originally funded.

John Morris said... 3/05/2010 6:03 PM

Thank god the country is going broke. I mean it's not a good thing, but it will help concentrate the mind and get us thinking about land use in a rational way again.

A few years ago I did a post on the metroblogs about Hong Kong's transit system which is run by a private company that makes lots of money as a property developer. I would have been beating the drum about this, but honestly, it was like I was in outer space. Nobody thought this way.

People just assume transit can't make money and is a "right"/ charity case that must always be require government funding and management even though the origins of mass transit in places like NYC and Chicago all involved private companies and land developers.

Yes, we have a bus transit system and one that has no chance of ever breaking even. This is because all of it's routes and plans are created by political and not economic logic.

Anyway, Onerato's idea of taking bids for projects funded by private property development sound like the first semi rational things I've heard in a long time. I don't know any details of this, but a high frequency connection between Oakland and East Liberty might be the best candidate for this concept.

Land use, zoning and property development are intricately linked to transit and walkability.

I really think Pittsburgh needs a lot more informed discussion about land use, zoning and parking issues that go a bit beyond bikes.

C. Briem said... 3/05/2010 9:49 PM

within a stone's throw of two existing grocers

Speaking of which... does anyone have a date with even odds for when the Shakespeare Street Giant Eagle will close.

John Morris said... 3/09/2010 4:10 PM

I really rest my case here. It should be more than self evident why this is some of the most critical and valuable land in the city.

Heard the weather? First, the snow and the cost of plowing, salting every little road up every hill in Pittsburgh and now the flood and mudslide risk for every steep hill and hollow.

Meanwhile, here is flat, elevated land, right near Pittsburgh's most valuable assets--it's colleges, and hospitals and people are talking about a little high end retail.

This is the critical land where the might finally meet the road and all the tech and med start ups could be feeding off the college energy;land that would fill in the space between what are already viable, if not perfect neighborhoods. Perhaps Pittsburgh's best immediate shot at place where modest transit investments would really pay off.

ChrisP said... 3/09/2010 6:59 PM

There's already a busway to get from town to the area in question, and the 71A/C (if not more) to get from Oakland to the area in question. What more public transit options are necessary? Of course, the 71s are "scary" to the eds/meds crowd because they also continue on to the places where the lower tax brackets live. Maybe the best transit investment would be surface parking so people could drive and avoid the buses like most Pittsburgh natives do :-)

MH said... 3/09/2010 9:35 PM

I'd think anybody afraid to take the 71s from Oakland to East Liberty during daylight hours has already moved to Iowa. But I agree that more transit options might not be best. If they'd clean the buses and run more of them at rush hour, that might help. And if they'd make everybody pay at boarding, they'd avoid the "crush past 40 people in the aisle to exit" problem.

Mike Madison said... 3/09/2010 10:18 PM

I smiled at the Iowa reference. I assume that Chris P's reference to "lower tax brackets" is largely a reference to race; MH's reply is coded for the same theme: Iowa is white; Pittsburgh's lower tax brackets are not. But ... if you haven't been out to the Middle West recently, then you probably haven't noticed that Iowa is, on the whole, about as racially and ethnically diverse as Pittsburgh, and in some places probably a bit more so.

MH said... 3/09/2010 10:25 PM

Iowa is 96% white (I just looked at Wikipedia). Outside of Iowa City and Des Moines, diversity means both Germans and Norwegians.

Mike Madison said... 3/10/2010 8:27 AM

Stereotypes, stereotypes. Instead of looking at Wikipedia, you should look at Iowa (I do, at least once a year, and sometimes more than once).
The "90% white figure" obscures some interesting and important distributional points.

Des Moines is about 80% white (it is about 8% black and 4% Hispanic). Roughly the same numbers apply to Waterloo and Davenport. (Iowa City is unrepresentative, of course, because of the university.) There are significant non-white populations in Davenport and Waterloo (and make sure that you pronounce Waterloo like the locals do).

Out in the country, you will drive for miles and miles before you will see a non-white person. (Be careful about those Norwegians, though; you're thinking of Minnesota. In Iowa you'll find a lot of Dutch and Danish and Swedes!)

The black population is relatively concentrated in a handful of urban areas, so yes, the white/black percentages in Iowa as a whole and in Iowa's urban areas mean that Iowa is "whiter" than Pittsburgh.

Iowa's Hispanic and Asian populations are significantly larger as a percentage of the statewide population than corresponding populations in Pittsburgh, and Iowa's Hispanic and Asian populations are distributed more broadly across the state than its black population. For example, you can find sizable Mexican and Vietnamese communities in Storm Lake, for example.

What this means is that when I travel around Iowa, I am, on the whole, far more aware of being in a racially and ethnically mixed community than I generally am in Pittsburgh -- unless I make certain neighborhoods my Pittsburgh destinations. I'm not in LA, or San Francisco, or New York, or Texas, obviously, but but my experience is visibly different. I have lived in Iowa and on both US coasts; I have never lived in a place of decent size that struck me as "white" -- and as segregated -- as Pittsburgh.

The visibility and percentages are only indirectly the point of all of this. Different patterns of race and ethnicity in Iowa suggest different experiences of economic development and immigration. Like Pittsburgh, Iowa has suffered from population loss in recently decades. Unlike Pittsburgh, Iowa has experienced significant recent population inflows of nonwhite groups. By and large, those groups have been attracted by low-wage and in many cases dangerous jobs. But over time, they (the groups) have gotten modestly more wealthy and have built stable communities. Back in Pittsblog's archives, there is a lot more discussion of race, ethnicity, demographic patterns, and immigration.

MH said... 3/10/2010 8:53 AM

Instead of looking at Wikipedia, you should look at Iowa

I do have stereotypes of Iowa. I've mostly seen the parts of Iowa that you see from I-80 while on my way to Nebraska. Generally speaking, I will avoid packing plants as I've smelled enough pig dung to last a lifetime. I have lived in a place where I knew the last names of the entire non-white population, thought that place did not qualify as "decent sized".

But, perhaps Pittsburgh does not seem as white and segregated to me because I work in the medical-industrial complex part of Pitt. This appears to be what draws most of the immigrants Pittsburgh does get.

Mike Madison said... 3/10/2010 10:12 AM

Retrospective apologies for a poorly edited comment above.

I hear you on the smells from hog farms. I lived for a little while downwind from the old Sioux City stockyards. Yikes!

MH said... 3/10/2010 11:16 AM

For a summer job, I worked for a guy who installed hog confinement equipment, mostly for small scale operations. Where I grew-up is around 100 miles west of Sioux City, right off U.S. 20.

Anonymous said... 3/15/2010 11:14 AM

A debate about Iowa racial demographics at a blog named for Pittsburgh. Too bad.

BTW, according to the city's map of East Liberty, Tsang's is on the Shadyside side of the borderline of East Liberty, at the very farthest western corner of the neighborhood. Using Tsang's as an indicator of anything related to anyone's 21st-century conception of East Liberty is a real stretch.

Anonymous said... 3/15/2010 11:16 AM

Actually, my point about Tsang's is that it has never been considered a part of East Liberty.

Mike Madison said... 3/15/2010 12:16 PM

That's probably the first time that I've ever seen or heard anyone distancing themselves from Shadyside because it isn't as upscale as East Liberty.

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