Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rust Belt Chic Goes Mainstream, or Hip and Hipsters in Lawrenceville

Rich Florida still has a soft spot in his heart for Pittsburgh, after all these years:  He put Lawrenceville on his USA Today list of up-and-coming urban neighborhods across the country.

Not long ago, I stirred up an entertaining little blogospheric firestorm with this post that argued that Lawrenceville  - like the rest of Pittsburgh -- isn't hip (which is neither here nor there with respect to Florida's point).

But what does Lawrenceville have that the rest of Pittsburgh doesn't have?

I suspect that Lawrenceville is pulling together Pittsburgh's old and new in a particularly positive way.

On the one hand, Lawrenceville isn't changing at all.  There are broad swaths of Butler Street and adjacent blocks that look, to me at least, very much like they have looked for decades.

On the second hand, Lawrenceville has changed quite a lot, at the hands of urban and semi-urban adventurers.  There are lots of younger people - professionals, artists, professional artists, others - buying up inexpensive houses and in many cases, renovating them.  Starting businesses.  Restaurants.  Galleries.  Other things.  Two years ago, when a European news crew came to Pittsburgh to film a segment about the renaissance of the city, the reporter and producer had heard a bit about places in Pittsburgh that featured sidewalk cafes, much as you might find in grand cities of the Continent.  Did the crew zero in on Downtown?  No.  They shot in Lawrenceville.

On the third hand, there has been some massive capital investment in Lawrenceville; not all of the important changes in the neighborhood are associated with restaurants, the arts, and residential renos.  The new Children's Hospital, which is a striking building no matter how you slice it, anchors, symbolizes, and signals the proposition that Lawrenceville is not tied to some fixed idea of Pittsburgh authenticity.  Nor is that investment tied principally to global homogenizing retailers.  At both large and small scales, Lawrenceville is mostly local.

On the fourth hand, this development has been a long time in the making, and local government support played a role.  Way back in 2004, near the dawn of Pittsblog, I posted a quick note about the 16:62 Design Zone.  The Lawrenceville Corporation had something to do with that.  The New York Times took note of the neighborhood's emergence back in 2007. "," a URL that politely evoked the neighborhood's history as an independent town, has been shortened to, which signals nothing, except perhaps that insiders "get" the shorthand and outsiders should brush up on their inside-knowledge quotient.

Go-to urban and semi-urban destinations risk tipping into preciousness, either because they attract visitors and money and get tacky and sterile, or because their custodians get self-absorbed and protective of what they think is special.  Sometimes both.  Elsewhere online you can find a feature story in which I am made out to argue that Mt. Lebanon, of all places, is Pittsburgh's Brooklyn.  I didn't argue that; it isn't true.  But Lebo has Brookyn's sometime sense of overdone self-awareness.  Lawrenceville has to walk a fine line to maintain whatever it's got, and whatever it's getting, and to keep from developing a related snobbery.

1 comment:

BrianTH said...

Lawrenceville is large and varied enough that at any given moment different parts can be anywhere along the pristine, hip, trendy, passe progression.