In Amsterdam, it’s called De Wallen. In London, it used to be King’s Cross. And in Pittsburgh, in the 1970s and ’80s, it was Liberty Avenue, the red-light district of Downtown, the center of vice and crime. Prostitutes and gang members worked the streets. There were strip clubs, gay bars, adult novelty stores and movie theaters showing X-rated films. But that was Liberty Avenue in the ’70s and ’80s.
During the pre-industrial era, Liberty Avenue was the most desirable residential area of Pittsburgh. It had become the center of city’s trade activities, hosting local brewers, small manufactures and food suppliers. In 1894, the construction of the Joseph Horne Co. department store marked a new era for Liberty Avenue and Downtown — the advent of retail in Pittsburgh.
Industrialists, such as Henry Phipps, invested into building Downtown. The gigantic Fulton Building, the Clark Building, the Midtown Towers, the Second National Bank and others fascinated the eyes of Pittsburghers, especially newspaper photographers. These new grandiose constructions were punctuated by inception of the cultural life in the area — the Stanley Theatre, the Lowe’s Penn and the Harris Theatre. In their own right, they were an early effort to transform Downtown into a cultural center of the city.
But then came the 1930s with the Depression, then the famed St. Patrick’s Day Flood. Liberty Avenue, as a result, endured significant damage and subsequent decay.
In 1984, the hope for Liberty Avenue renewed when The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust started working to transform much of the area into what it has become today — a center for the arts — the Cultural District.