PITTSBURGH — Neighborhoods across this city have been through lots of change over the past several decades, but perhaps none more so than East Liberty.
A thriving commercial district throughout the first half of the 20th century, East Liberty went into 30 years of decay in the late 1950s after city planners launched an urban renewal project that “ultimately failed to make the East Liberty Valley the destination that it had once been,” according to the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce, as businesses shut down or moved away.
Change happened again in the early 2000s when major commercial developments brought life back into a neighborhood now home to retailers like Whole Foods, Target, and Home Depot. The revitalization caught the attention of outsiders — “A Neighborhood’s Comeback,” wrote The Wall Street Journal; “Slumbering Pittsburgh Neighborhood Reawakens,” said The New York Times.
In 2010, Google made a big splash when it became the anchor tenant within the Bakery Square development inside an old Nabisco factory that once exuded sweet scents of Nilla wafers throughout the area. The tech giant now employs 500 in the building and is part of Pittsburgh’s reinvention from an industrial powerhouse to technology hub. Co-working spaces like Beauty Shoppe and startup accelerators like AlphaLab also set up shop in East Liberty, where several new restaurants have opened.
While East Liberty goes through another transition period, some long-time residents worry about gentrification and displacement. Affordable housing advocates voiced concern, for example, when the Penn Plaza apartments were demolished this past summer to make way for a redevelopment project. The uproar caused Whole Foods to back out of plans to build a new 50,000 square-foot store and sparked a revised agreement between the developer, the city, and neighborhood groups.
As part of our month-long GeekWire HQ2 project, we spent a Sunday walking and riding the bus from Lawrenceville to East Liberty — S’liberty, as it’s known to locals — to understand more about this changing neighborhood that sits five miles east of downtown Pittsburgh.