Editor’s note: We first published this story on one of Pittsburgh’s hottest neighborhoods in 2013. In the time since, the revitalization of East Liberty has continued, and we found more photos worth showing off of its up-and-down past. Take a look.
It prospered. It failed. And now it’s on a rocket trajectory again.
Modern Pittsburgh dwellers recognize East Liberty as one of the city’s neighborhoods, but back in 1780s it was an undeveloped grazing area situated east of the upcoming young Pittsburgh. ‘Liberty’ it was — a plot of common land on the outskirts of the town.
In 1850 East Liberty started growing into a commercial center. Thomas Mellon, an ambitious lawyer, who married land owner Jacob Negley’s daughter with a hefty endowment, was determined to make a transportation hub out of East Liberty. And he succeeded. Some of the first trolley lines in Pittsburgh passed through East Liberty.
In 1868 East Liberty was annexed as part of Pittsburgh. It became a bustling market center for folks from Point Breeze, Friendship, Bloomfield and Shadyside, the shopping area, second only to Downtown in size and popularity.
But in 1960s, urban redevelopers predicted East Liberty’s demise caused by the growth of Pittsburgh’s suburbs and saw an opportunity to transform the area before it went bust. They devised a plan which required the demolition of approximately half of the 254 acres that comprised East Liberty; many small businesses abandoned the neighborhood for good. “Forced to wait through six years of construction work and unable to get much help with relocation costs, more than 280 merchants closed their doors, one study estimated.”
The plan was that some buildings would be rehabilitated, and some would be demolished. New apartments and townhomes would flank new department stores. A four-lane road would loop around a new pedestrian mall, and the new road would connect to a new highway, freeing the center of East Liberty from congestion and allowing drivers to park, walk and shop.
The plan was a total flop. As one Post-Gazette reporter wrote: “The story of East Liberty’s decline exposes the thin line separating good intentions from unintended consequences. Developers tried to do everything right in East Liberty. Yet, nearly everything went wrong.”
Before renewal the neighborhood was an attractive destination. The redevelopment scheme, however, caused a massive exodus from East Liberty, which drove the area, as the New York Times put it, “into a 40-year coma.” In 1959, there were drug, liquor, hardware, department, clothing, shoe, jewelry and auto parts stores. ”We didn’t have to go Downtown for anything,” said Floyd Coles, who lived in the neighborhood during renewal. After renewal, things got worse before they got better. According to some reports there were some 575 businesses in East Liberty in 1959, only 292 of them were left in 1970 and just 98 in 1979.
Recent commercial developments, however, are putting East Liberty back on its feet. Now, a converted Nabisco bakery space hosts Google. National retailers are also aplenty in East Liberty these days: Home Depot opened in 2000, Whole Foods on Center Avenue has been welcoming shoppers since 2002, Target opened its doors in 2011. There is a lot of interest in the district. As the Post-Gazette reporter Diana Nelson Jones wrote in 2009, “East Liberty has gone from being a neighborhood in need of someone to invest private money to being a beehive.”