East Liberty in the 1950s
From its early roots as pasture lands and orchards where the Negley family had homes to its heyday as a booming business district and sharp decline following urban renewal redevelopments, East Liberty has a vibrant and dynamic history. Honoring that history and keeping its memory alive is a vital part of community development—because knowing where we want to go requires understanding where we come from.
That’s why we were delighted to receive a message from one of our newsletter subscribers, Mike Price. Born in 1947, Mike grew up in East Liberty in the 1950s and 60s, and as such, bore witness to a pivotal moment of East Liberty’s history right before and through urban renewal. Mike witnessed firsthand how East Liberty transformed from a thriving city center to a vastly different landscape marked by a highway sized ring road and parking lots.
Mike does a better job of telling the story than we ever could, so we’ll let him do the talking in our short Q&A with him below.
Can you tell us about when and where you lived in East Liberty?
I think that my East Liberty life was a unique experience shared by only a handful of people. Our family of four lived in a third-floor apartment right in the heart of the thriving East Liberty shopping/dining/entertainment center. We were at 5902 Penn Avenue at the intersection with Beatty Street. The Enright Theater was right across the street from us, until it was torn down. The stretch of Penn Avenue that extended from Negley Ave to the Liberty Theater was our world. We lived there from 1952 till 1964. I do not recall other apartments on that “main drag”. My Sister and I walked to SS. Peter & Paul Elementary school every day, and we frequented the Carnegie Library that was nearby. Our bedroom windows—looking down on the bustling Penn Avenue activity—were our windows to the world. We spent a lot of time observing street life.
Our bedroom windows—looking down on the bustling Penn Avenue activity—were our windows to the world.
What was the general feeling among people in East Liberty about urban renewal?
People were apprehensive. Residents were concerned from the outset that the radically changed traffic pattern, requiring shoppers to park a distance away from their shopping destinations, was going to hurt business. The “old-timers” living in the residential areas around us felt like the vibe of East Liberty as a “village” was going to be spoiled due to the wide-scale demolition and altered car and pedestrian traffic.
What was the feeling after urban renewal?
By the time that urban renewal was well underway, my family had to leave our apartment due to the pending demolition of the building. We relocated to an apartment in what once must have been a grand home, at 540 Sheridan Avenue. We were right across from a rear entrance to the grounds of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. By this time, it felt like the desire to shop and seek entertainment and dining along Penn Avenue had simply disappeared. We felt that the thriving district was past its prime.
It felt like the desire to shop and seek entertainment and dining along Penn Avenue had simply disappeared. We felt that the thriving district was past its prime.
What were the biggest changes you noticed in day-to-day life before and after?
After we moved to Sheridan Avenue, my sister was going to Peabody High School, and I would ride the 73 Highland streetcar to Central Catholic High School. We would only rarely have a shopping goal in our old stomping grounds. We would still frequent the Sears store on Highland Avenue because it was close by. This was the time that suburban shopping malls were coming into their own, and that seemed to be the preferred shopping choice, not only for my family but seemed like for almost everybody. It was a novelty. The East Liberty renewal happening at the same time as the rise of shopping malls was the worst timing for East Liberty businesses.
When was your building demolished?
An extensive area on our side of Penn Avenue was demolished as part of the renewal. My family stood across the street and watched the wrecking ball destroy what had been our home for 12 years. The building we lived in had three storefronts and three floors of apartments. The addresses were 5900, 5902, and 5904 Penn Avenue. When I visited Pittsburgh in 2007, I found a new building on the location, with the single address of 5900 Penn Avenue. I am now aware that the building is the location of Duolingo, which, ironically, I used to learn some Italian before a vacation trip to Rome back in 2019.
Did your family stay in East Liberty for long after urban renewal?
I went to college and grad school at the University of Pittsburgh, got my M.S. in Geology in 1970, got married, and moved to the North Hills. I commenced a career in the oil industry which required us to move every few years. We ended up where we are now, retired in Florida, south of Daytona Beach. My sister married and moved to Brookline, but then her husband’s work required them to move to Birmingham, Alabama, where they remain today. My parents eventually left the Sheridan Avenue apartment and moved to Harmarville. My Grandmother and an aunt and uncle and their family lived in a row house on Harvard Street at Whitfield Street, and left East Liberty for a house with some land in Dorseyville. So, I guess the answer to your question is that, once East Liberty lost its “charm,” we all migrated elsewhere.
Once East Liberty lost its “charm,” we all migrated elsewhere.
Have you been to East Liberty recently? What do you think of its redevelopment and new stores and restaurants?
I returned to Pittsburgh for visits in 2007 and again in 2013. So, to be honest, the actual way that I have kept abreast of the “new” East Liberty is by reading on the Internet, including Facebook, and following newsletters, such as the one from your group. Based on what I have read, both in your newsletter and elsewhere, it seems that East Liberty is in the process of another rebirth—this time a successful one! An influx of high-tech businesses, quality retail shopping, office space, improved housing, and even cool hotels are clearly adding to an exciting vibe. I do have a bit of concern over the possible effect of “gentrification” on the cost of rent.
Has it regained the “charm” of yesteryear that you felt was lost during urban renewal?
I don’t think that the charm of the peak years of the 1950s could ever be recaptured, but it is clear that East Liberty now has carved out a new, fresh personality, and it is a draw to both business and residential life.
Finally, a few personal reminiscences from Mike:
Each September, when the new car models came out, and people would come from all around to walk “auto row” on Baum Boulevard. It was quite an annual event. Some of the dealers would actually have Hollywood-type Kleig lights out on the streets sending beacons up into the sky that we could see from our fire escape.
Steve and Pat, the two cops who walked their beats on our portion of Penn Avenue with smiles on their faces while twirling their nightsticks and a friendly greeting to those who they recognized each day.
The Army Surplus store on the first floor of 5900 Penn Avenue, where I would root through boxes of embroidered Army uniform unit patches to add to my collection.
Having a choice of half a dozen vibrant movie theaters to see a double feature and even “17 cartoons” on a Saturday afternoon.
Cutting through Mansmann’s Department store, with its comfortable smell of old wooden floors.
The glory days of SS. Peter & Paul Catholic Church. It was truly a grand structure.
Sun Drugs, where my mother would take me to the old fashioned soda fountain for my favorite, a cherry soda, with real whipped cream and a cherry on top.
The original Station Street Hot Dogs, where the delicious hot dogs snapped when you bit into them.
Pizza Heaven, opened by a young veteran on Penn Ave, between Euclid Avenue and Negley Avenue, near where we lived. Great pizza!
The glorious Christmas garland and lights that would be strung across Penn Avenue each holiday season. One would actually be hung right outside my bedroom window—how special they made the holidays.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea; I loved my boyhood in the heart of East Liberty along Penn Avenue.
A big thanks to Mike for sharing his memories with us!
Do you have memories of East Liberty that you’d like to share? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.