The rise and fall of East Liberty is a familiar story in Pittsburgh. In its "golden era" in the 1940s and 1950s, East Liberty exemplified a vibrant commercial center and a tight-knit residential community. Pittsburgh's "second downtown" declined rapidly in the 1960s after an ambitious urban renewal program designed to remake East Liberty so that it could compete with the new suburban markets and shopping malls.
East Liberty's Early History
Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the region now known as Western Pennsylvania, thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Settlers came in covered wagons from the East, acquiring property and building houses. They also cultivated family farms or large gardens. By 1780, both East Liberty and Highland Park had orchards.
In the early 1800s, East Liberty was at the center of travel from east and west. The Negley family was the first group of permanent European settlers in what is now East Liberty. They built several homes in the neighborhood, and established institutions like schools, hospitals and churches.
Over the next fifty years, a single-track railroad from Pittsburgh, through East Liberty to Philadelphia was created. Travel time from Pittsburgh to East Liberty was reduced to hours, and this brought more people to the area to build homes. With the influx of people came businesses and churches.
"Growing" is probably the best way to describe East liberty between the end of the Civil War and the end of the 19th Century. A racetrack, stockyards and businesses lined Penn Avenue and the adjoining streets. During this time, the residents of East Liberty had busy lives that included dancing, skating and visiting the circus. The Zoo opened in 1897. East Liberty was reportedly the richest suburb in America, with families with names such as Carnegie, Heinz, Hunt, King, Lockart, Mellon and Westinghouse all living in East Liberty.
The early decades of the Twentieth Century were the peak of progress for East Liberty. Industry was booming, schools were being built and the social life of the community flourished. Automobiles arrived at the beginning of the century. By 1906, there were 12 auto dealers in the East End. Of the 3,000 automobiles in Pittsburgh, 2,000 were in the East End.
The opening of the Bijou Dream Nickelodeon Theater in 1913 began the great theatre era in East Liberty. The Cameraphone, Regent, Liberty, Empire, Triangle, Haltis and Sheridan Square Theaters soon followed the Bijou Dream. The Enright also followed, and seated 3,200. Dick Powell opened at the Enright, with Gene Kelly and his brother Fred performing. In addition to the Kellys, musicians Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner, Billy Eckstine and Mary Lou Williams claimed East Liberty as home.
Businesses in East Liberty included the National Biscuit Company, Isaly’s, Stagno’s Bakers and the first Sears & Roebuck Company store in Pittsburgh. The Salvation Army (open in East Liberty since the late 1800s) was joined by other nonprofits, including the Boy Scouts, the YMCA and YWCA, and Kingsley House, which opened in 1919.
World War I and the Great Depression brought hardships to East Liberty, but by the mid-1930s construction had resumed in the East End. From the 1930s through the 1950s, East Liberty’s holiday parades were favorite events for all residents. In 1936 the Christmas parade was declared the largest in the nation, outdoing New York and other cities. The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary was dedicated in 1954. However, the prosperity from earlier years began to diminish. Fires destroyed several landmarks, including the Commerce Building.
Boasting movie houses, department stores, a roller skating rink and many retail shops, East Liberty was a booming regional business district until 1958. At that time, faced with the first commercial vacancy in decades, increasing vehicular congestion, lack of parking and competition from the suburbs, East Liberty's business leaders began to call for change. While founded on the desire to maintain East Liberty's strength, that change became one of the nation's largest urban renewal projects, and ultimately brought about the demise of the once-vibrant community.
Attempting to mimic suburban development, these well-intentioned local and regional leaders deconstructed the tightly knit urban fabric to make way for large one-story retail buildings and wide access roads. Neighborhood streets and entire blocks of houses and commercial property were demolished and replaced by a highway-sized ring road called Penn Circle and vast parking lots around the commercial core. The central streets of the business district were converted into a pedestrian mall. More than 1,000 rental apartment units were built to anchor each end of the business district, replacing a long tradition of neighborhood home ownership. Bulldozers outpaced new construction, leaving a net loss of one million square feet of real estate.
Spanning ten years, the disruption from construction and dislocation hastened the decline in both the commercial and the residential communities. The new traffic patterns effectively took people around and away from the district. Retail life in the heart of the community was choked off by its inaccessibility. No longer able to attract enough customers, businesses closed or moved. Entire families relocated to adjacent neighborhoods or suburbs. The new government-subsidized housing became a nuisance as it fell into disrepair over time. Most of the new suburban-style development around Penn Circle failed, leaving a moat of vacant buildings and empty expanses of cracked pavement.
Once it was apparent that the project was a failure, the rest of Pittsburgh seemed to forget about the neighborhood, and East Liberty quietly survived with a few remaining local businesses and dedicated longtime residents. Community leadership was fragmented, unable to agree on a strategy to reverse the decline. While there was always the potential for recovery, failure to come together as a community made it impossible to attract private investment and public redevelopment dollars.
In 1979, the East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce formed the nonprofit East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) to facilitate redevelopment efforts in the neighborhood and begin the process of reversing the effects of urban renewal. The group focused on reopening Penn Avenue, Highland Avenue and Broad Street to vehicular traffic. ELDI also worked with partners to restore and redevelop buildings along Penn Avenue. Private development came to the neighborhood in the late 1980s with the development of Motor Square Garden as a boutique retail mall. The project closed in the early 1990s.
By the end of the 1990s many projects had occured in East Liberty, but without a unifying strategy. Some succeeded; many did not. The neighborhood was perceived as unsafe. Many residents felt that the city had abandoned them. During this same period, racial and economic change created rifts in the neighborhood and deepened the divide between business owners and residents, between homeowners and renters and between old and young.
Finding Leadership and Direction
In the late 1990s, new leaders in East Liberty brought a sense of urgency to tackling old problems. They recognized that overcoming fragmentation and division by developing an aligned neighborhood had to be a top priority. Through a community-driven process, stakeholders developed A Vision for East Liberty.
This 1999 community plan set the stage for the next generation of revitalization. The plan highlighted community initiatives that represented the beginning of local investment and success, which became the building blocks for change. East Liberty was deteremined to reposition itself as a successful, self-sustaining community once again.