Pictured (left to right): Edward J. Lesoon III, Jonathan Lesoon, Edward Lesoon II.
Community leader Eddie Lesoon reflects on his 50+ year investment in East Liberty’s revitalization
“It’s just a matter of time.” Eddie Lesoon is quoted saying in a 2011 Pittsburgh Business Times article discussing the rebirth of East Liberty.
And that time has finally come.
Lesoon is the president of Asia Carpet and Decorating Co, a family-run floor-covering business on Broad Street in East Liberty started by his grandfather and father back in 1933. He’s also a real estate developer who began buying property in the neighborhood in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Over the years, Lesoon has been a pillar within the East Liberty community, dedicated to restoring the neighborhood to the thriving community and business district it was before urban renewal. To that end, he has restored and maintained several historic buildings to prevent them from decay and retain the character of the neighborhood, including Keystone Plumbing, VFW Post 166, Walsh’s Bar, The Original Brass Rail Restaurant, Sun Drug Store, Kelly and Cohen Appliances, Alexanders Men’s Clothing Store, Murray Meats, National Record Mart, and Henne Jewelers. Lesoon was a founding member of East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI) and is currently a board member of the East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce (ELQCC).
As ELDI’s executive director Maelene Meyers remembers, “Even when East Liberty was bad, he always defended it. No matter how bad it got, he acted like the godfather. It was our bad to fix.”
We sat down with Lesoon to hear his perspective. He shares stories from his long history in the community, explaining what it took to transform East Liberty and why he always had faith that things would eventually turn around.
To start, can you tell us about Asia Carpet and Decorating Co, including the products and services you offer and how it all got started?
My grandfather and father started the company in 1933. It was originally opened in the heart of East Liberty, at the corner of Penn Avenue and Beatty Street (now, the new Whole Foods). The company, called John Lesoon & Son at the time, was located in a storefront rented from the Enright Theater (they rented out several storefronts of their building). East Liberty was thriving at the time; the MC of Enright Theater was Dick Powell, a man who later married Betty Grable (the Hollywood actress whose legs were famously insured for a million dollars). Our company only stayed in that building for two years before moving to Baum Boulevard where my father bought a house with a storefront. They renamed the company Asia Carpet (because they were in the oriental rug business) and we stayed on Baum Boulevard from 1935 until 2016 when we moved back to East Liberty. Today, we’re a commercial and residential floor covering company. We sell wood, carpet, rugs, tile — basically anything that goes on the floor.
When did you start to see East Liberty deteriorate from a thriving community to an abandoned community?
In the 1960s. The City redeveloped the heart of the East Liberty business district to make it walking-only, so you would park your car in the rear and walk to go shopping in the front. Cars weren’t even allowed on Highland Avenue, only buses. It looked great, but it wasn’t good for the neighborhood. Most business owners didn’t weather this transition well and many closed up shop. Some residents who lived in this center could afford to move elsewhere and they did. Others who could not afford to re-establish their lives elsewhere were forced to re-settle in new high-rise Section 8 housing nearby. So, here you have this beautiful looking business district on paper, but there were very few businesses, very few residents, and increasing poverty because of bad housing policies.
What was East Liberty like in the 1980s and what was your role in helping turn it around?
Around 1980, East Liberty was at its worst. The East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce got a few people together that were invested in the community. It was really Ward Olander (Real Estate Enterprises) who pioneered this. With his encouragement, Eve Picker A.I.A. and I got on board. In 1981, a group of us, 12 chartered members in total, founded ELDI, with Dave Thomas of Mellon Bank as our chairman. That’s when a few of us became small developers. We continued investing for a good 10, 15, 20 years as ELDI became stronger, more influential, and more nutritious for the community. ELDI helped create consistency in East Liberty. It really took off when developers like Walnut Capital and Mosites changed the neighborhood’s entire image by developing large buildings with the help and support of ELDI.
Between us restoring the small buildings — and we got a lot of help from ELDI and the URA who lent us money to redevelop the buildings, put new facades on, and eventually bring in new types of tenants — and ELDI, who bought some of the big buildings, East Liberty has gone from one extreme to the other. Now, there’s practically no crime, and it’s a very healthy community. And for that reason, we decided to move our company from Baum Boulevard, about a mile and a half away, back to the heart of East Liberty.
At what point did you start buying property in East Liberty?
We started buying a few properties in the 1970s and early 1980s. Some buildings were so deteriorated that we bought them just to stop them from physical decay. We purchased the buildings and boarded them up one by one, and then restored them from the inside out. And finally, we started to rent them out to new businesses who were excited about building a new East Liberty with us. And we’re still doing it today.
Where did your motivation to restore and revitalize East Liberty come from? Just your love for the neighborhood?
Yes, it was basically that. My father, who lived in Highland Park at the time, would drive through East Liberty to get home from our Baum Blvd store. We witnessed together how East Liberty was decaying. He would always say, “We should do something about this.” So, during his life, he and I began to invest in the community together. Today, we’ve got a good balance of restored and new buildings. We have a nice younger generation of people coming in, and they are making changes and creating new things, new jobs, and new businesses. It’s unbelievable.
Did you and the other small developers have a strategy as you began to buy real estate in East Liberty?
Our philosophy at the beginning, as small businesspeople, was that the big developers would be on the outside coming in, so we should go right down the middle and expand out. The core was the worst part — crime-wise and deterioration-wise — but we took on the task of coming into the core, primarily on Broad Street, and restored it with new sidewalks, new facades, and the first historic lights outside of Downtown Pittsburgh. We just totally brought it alive, and we came and met the big guys on the outside.
What were some lessons that you learned through your experiences in East Liberty?
You can’t do anything unless you commit to the whole community — everybody.
We need everyone’s input as to what’s going to be created in East Liberty. You can’t just go out there and start to develop and hope that the people will come.
No, the people have to drive the development. You have to listen to what their needs are, their demands and requests. When you do that, then you can build a healthy community.
Do you remember any specific moment that stands out for you as a turning point for the neighborhood?
I’d say about eight years ago, when an international tech company leased some space from us. Even though the neighborhood looked nice, I didn’t think somebody that big would come in. This company, with over 100 employees, produced a lot of foot traffic in the center core of East Liberty which really gave way for other businesses to open nearby.
What gave you the faith that East Liberty would eventually turn around?
As corny as it may sound, I’ve always taken that Don Quixote mentality of “dream the impossible dream.” If you work hard enough, you can make it happen. Well, we worked hard on it one step at a time. It was only natural that this place would come back to life again.
Can you explain the difference between the East Liberty Quarter Chamber of Commerce (ELQCC) and East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI)?
The ELQCC supports all businesses in East Liberty. If you are a local business owner, you can reach out to the ELQCC for support in advertising, beautification projects, organizing a festival (like the East Liberty Wine Festival), or anything else you need. ELDI worked with the community to develop a vision for the future of the neighborhood, as outlined in the 1999 and 2010 East Liberty Community Plans, and they have supported the realization of those plans by supporting the construction of major development projects in East Liberty. Although they serve different purposes, both the ELQCC and ELDI support the economic life of East Liberty’s central business district.
What are your thoughts on the future of East Liberty?
Any community is guided by its people, and as long as a diverse set of people come into East Liberty and help guide it, the neighborhood can only continue to grow and succeed. So, if Maelene retires and I retire, it’ll continue on. She established a very strong foundation for it, and I helped a little bit along the way. East Liberty, as we see it, is here to stay.