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Concern for the Neighborhood I Love: The Future of the “New” East Liberty

With so much giddiness and excitement around "revitalization" and "development" in East Liberty, 1839 publisher janera solomon asks, "Where's deeper thinking about art, public space, and community?"

In August of this year, Jamie Wallace (owner of the now-closed Abay) posted a Pop City video from three years ago featuring several folks, myself included, talking about why we love East Liberty. We talked about what makes East Liberty cool and vibrant. While some of what we talked about remains, so much has already changed in just three short years. And I am afraid that much of what we were celebrating will be lost.

Today in East Liberty, there is a lot of conversation amongst residents, people who work here, and small business owners about keeping East Liberty cool – creative, diverse, independent, local and unique.

Watching the video Jamie posted reminds me of an article I read about São Paulo, Brazil. The writer described the metropolitan landscape there as “…an incessancy of high- rises, as though, someone had invented the high-rise and then forgotten to stop.”

There is so much giddiness and excitement around “revitalization” and “development” in East Liberty that I fear we will someday be saying we had “forgotten to stop” and think about art, creativity, public space, green space, diversity, inclusion, local, independent — community.

Urban planner Maria Rosario Jackson’s work tells us that revitalization efforts that fail to include “provisions for people’s cultural and artistic realization” are inherently incomplete. There is more to life than gyms and high-end restaurants.

I hate to say that because it automatically sounds like an attack on developers. It is not. I respect Steve Mosites. He’s forward thinking. I don’t know the Walnut Capital guys as well, but perhaps if I did, I would respect them too. I shop at Whole Foods and Bakery Square. If my daughter had it her way, we would go to Target everyday!

And yet, I know shopping, eating, working out, or church, does not a life make. East Liberty’s success is not only about building more residential for young professionals. What about families? Or entrepreneurs? What about artists? And seniors? And social change makers – teachers, nonprofit/social enterprise, social workers – will they be able to live here? Or shop here? Or eat? Vibrancy in neighborhoods comes from diversity.

I know I don’t have to make a case for art or for the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Everyone gets it. An art institution matters. Increasingly, though, it seems a case for economic and cultural diversity, as part of the fabric of the new East Liberty needs to be made.

I love East Liberty. I love Zeke’s Coffee, Union Pig and Chicken, the Shop and Impressionz Caribbean restaurant. I’m not a fan of Capri, but the young folks on my staff love the pizza and wings!

My focus isn’t development led by architects; I'm talking about cultural plans led by [East Liberty] citizens.
I love the neighborhood guys. Folks who are here everyday know who I mean–the older gentlemen who are on Penn Avenue everyday, saying, “Good morning, how are you today, keep your head up, smile.” But diversity (like tolerance) is messy. I can see the growing economic gaps between the people I see in Zeke’s and the people I see in the street. And it’s unsettling.

If citizens in East Liberty had a say, what would they say about how quickly development is happening in our neighborhood? My focus isn’t development plans led by architects (again, no offense, to architects). I am talking about cultural plans led by citizens.

I am thinking out loud, here, expressing simmering concerns for a neighborhood I love. Word on the street is that landlords are pricing for future markets, the ones they hope to come, preventing enterprising creative entrepreneurs from bringing new ideas to the avenue and adjacent streets. We want a diversity of commerce, of activity, here.

I got into this work to produce art. I am not a community organizer. What I care most about is making people feel as though they belong, that their lives matter and that life is made richer by each new person you meet. These encounters are magical. They cannot be manufactured. Bridging cultures is organic to East Liberty. We simply need to make room, make space for them – squares, gardens, music cafes, Sunday brunch, events, galleries, studios, and so on.

And those unexpected moments when you connect with someone you didn’t expect to, in a cafe, or bar, at the farmers’ market, or an art class, or performance, those are the best. That’s living. That’s East Liberty.

About the Author

janera solomon is the executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, a historic live arts venue in Pittsburgh now in its seventh year of presenting progressive, evocative new works in dance, music, film, education and cultural programming. janera was recently featured in Pittsburgh Magazine’s “50 Most Powerful People in Pittsburgh.”  She is the publisher of 1839 magazine.

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  • http://www.chartword.com/ ChartWord

    excellent article – thanks for sharing

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