by Larkin Page-Jacobs, 90.5 WESA

Once a vibrant commercial district, Pittsburgh’s East Liberty businesses began losing ground to suburban malls in the 1950s and 60s. Officials tried to reverse the trend by remaking the community: bulldozing property, reconfiguring traffic patterns, and building high-rise rental units. The changes only accelerated the neighborhood’s deterioration and it was not until the 90s that stakeholders began to slowly turn the tide.

Penn Circle South (Public Source Photo/Larkin Page-Jacobs/90.5 WESA)

The years of community planning, political will, and private investment have made East Liberty one of Pittsburgh’s success stories. However, as the neighborhood changes, long-time business owners and residents are considering what the transformation means for the community and there is no clear answer.

The Highland Building on South Highland Avenue, which sat dormant for decades, is now undergoing major renovations; it is only the latest development near the Centre Avenue/Penn Circle corridor that has become the new heart of commerce in East Liberty. Big name stores like Whole Foods and Target and smaller specialty shops like Vanilla bakery and Pizza Sola occupy the once desolate area. As the surrounding blocks become more desirable to businesses and homebuyers, real estate prices are rising.

Darren Belajac with the nonprofit East Liberty Development Incorporated said the trend toward gentrification is complicated, but has some benefits because as rental and housing prices go up, longtime homeowners benefit. “People who have lived in East Liberty for 30 years have these big beautiful Victorian homes that 15 years ago they couldn’t sell for $40,000, $70,000, even if they’re in immaculate shape. All of a sudden their house is worth $150,000 or $200,000 and they have equity in their homes. And for most Americans their number one asset is their home. So if you can get equity in your home, that’s real wealth building.”

Still, about 1,100 of East Liberty’s 3,500 housing units are subsidized through vouchers, tax credits and other programs. East Liberty Gardens sits on Broad Street in the shadow of the new Target store, and is one of the few remaining older housing projects.

24-year-old Quenesia Castapheny has been living in the neighborhood her whole life, and in the Gardens for the past few years. She and her neighbors want to stay.

“We’re more concerned about us not being a part of the community when it’s revitalized and what are they going to bring into this community? We want to be a part of it also,” said Castapheny.

East Liberty Gardens’ residents recently gathered next-door to Castapheny’s home in Evelyn Brooks’ living room to discuss a rumor that their development is going to be torn down.

It is a reasonable concern – ELDI’s 2010 East Liberty Community Plan includes redeveloping the Gardens to include mixed income rental and for-sale ownership housing. Brooks and others say they worry about being displaced. “We are concerned people that live here. Even though we are low income, we are concerned about what’s going to happen to us, and where we’re going to go.”

A number of residents recalled when some of East Liberty’s biggest housing projects were demolished; a number of people never returned. “They just got lost in the sauce,” said Brooks with a shake of her head.

Andre Fleming owns the barbershop East Liberty Kutz. He has no intention of getting lost. A few years ago he moved his business from a side street to North Highland Avenue for greater visibility. He likes the new East Liberty. “I’ve been here since 2001 when there used to be a lot of vendors, vending clothes and CDs and it has changed a whole lot since that time and I think it’s basically changed for the good of the community because it’s now more of a melting pot cause you’ve got different ethnic groups coming together.”

An East Liberty Kutz customer who goes by T-Mac, Tom Sol or Tom Solomon disagreed. He insists he prefers the old East Liberty.

“Now they want to turn East Liberty into Shadyside, what’s up with that?”

But then he reconsidered, noting that more development means more attention from law enforcement.

“So there will be a greater police presence to keep the crime rate down.”

Gary Schmitt opened the apparel shop Ace Athletic on Penn Avenue 21 years ago and said he loved the place from day one but he has watched the population decline and is frustrated by what he sees as misallocated city resources. “It’s aggravating to me, you can’t just take care of the people here, instead you build a pretty building and maybe somebody will move here.”

And what about the benefits of new businesses and more foot traffic? Schmitt said it is not showing up in his sales receipts, “it’s less than a wash.”

Miller Frame shop is less than 200 yards from Ace Athletic, but owner Wendi Miller is having a very different experience. After 30 years at the Penn Circle South location, business is better than ever. Miller’s biggest grievance is that there is not enough parking to keep up with customer demand. “You can’t complain if your bread is buttered on both sides.”

Nobody was talking about bread and butter 30 years ago. Over the past century East Liberty neighborhood weathered the depression, flexed its muscle as a shopping Mecca, and in the more recent past made headlines for its crime and blight.

Darren Belajac of ELDI thinks to be against the latest changes, and in favor of keeping things the same is to lose sight of the fact that East Liberty has also been predominantly poor. “I for one don’t romanticize that. There are a lot of really great things about those communities. But I can’t imagine that it’s an enjoyable thing to have no equity in your home. To not be able to confidently invest in your neighborhood without feeling like you’re just throwing money down the drain,” said Belajac.

The community plan includes a commitment to the area’s 5,800 residents to balance newfound economic prosperity with the neighborhood’s historic identity. Or as resident Evelyn Brooks would say, without its East Liberty-ness getting lost in the sauce.

(Larkin Page-Jacobs is a reporter, host for 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station. Larkin got her start in radio as a newsroom volunteer in 2006. She went on to work for 90.5 as a reporter, Weekend Edition host, and Morning Edition producer, before taking on her current role in 2009. An Oakland, California native, she’s a die hard A’s fan, listens to hip-hop, and consumes way too much news. Larkin also curates a public radio news blog, which highlights great reporting from local stations around the country.)

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