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East Liberty Now: Poised for renewal, seeing some results

A Story of Renewal: Second of five parts

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

By Carey Checca, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Residents, business owners, volunteers and a mayoral aide surrounded a table under a long fluorescent lamp. Gathered on the second floor of the '60s-style East Liberty branch of Carnegie Library, the group was locked in a dispute: Who should speak for East Liberty?

 
  Maelene Myers became director of East Liberty Development Inc. four years ago, arriving from Cleveland. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

The group, like the community it is trying to represent, is in a state of flux.

Some said the fledgling neighborhood council should welcome voices from the entire East End.

"Planning and coordination depends on help from nearby neighborhoods," said Malik Bankston, director of the Kingsley Foundation.

East Liberty resident James Hall took a more exclusive view and the one that finally held sway. He said the council should include East Liberty residents only.

They were attempting to forge the next link in the latest community plan, which brought the February opening of The Home Depot store and calls for more national retailers as well as new public housing and restoration of existing homes.

 
    A Story of Renewal: The PG's look at Pittsburgh's history of urban renewal

East Liberty Then: Initial makeover had dismal results

Tomorrow: Pittsburgh's second downtown.

Earlier story:

In East Liberty and elsewhere, Pittsburgh's dominant public policy tool didn't work out as planned (5/21)

 
 
It isn't the first plan for East Liberty. Another, dreamt up and executed in the mid-1960s, was supposed to save the area. Funded by the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority and backed by business owners, the ambitious urban renewal effort attempted to preserve neighborhood shops and a thriving business district. It knocked down houses, built a pedestrian mall and created Penn Circle, a four-lane road that rings the business core.

It also ended up driving away business.

Now, East Liberty is struggling to come back.

Beginnings

Maelene Myers stands back, head slightly cocked, listening. Her tightly braided brown hair reveals her bright tan face. Her hands, tucked into the pockets of her trademark khakis, are at rest for the moment.

When she signed on as director of East Liberty Development Inc. four years ago, the streets were trashy and the air was thick with hostility. The area was known for high unemployment, drugs and alcohol and dilapidated housing.

And her nonprofit, which had seen two directors resign within a year, was under attack for ignoring the people it was supposed to represent. Myers had just come from Cleveland for the job. She was stepping into an organization that expected her to fail.

It was something she had faced before.

Tired of water pooling in the basement of her subsidized apartment in Akron 20 years ago, Myers organized tenants to march and demand that the property be fixed. Her loud mouth, she says, earned her a place on a subsidized housing committee and, eventually, a community development job with the North American Cultural Center in Cleveland.

It's a good thing she has a reputation for tenacity, because the problems her community faces could be daunting:

26 percent of families live below the poverty level.

The average household income in 1998 was $22,239 -- $13,000 less than the county average.

In 1998, 21.4 percent of babies born in East Liberty were to teenage mothers. During the same year, 8.5 percent of all county births were to teens.

In order to change those realities, Myers' nonprofit developed a new plan. With the help of other agencies, many of its goals are under way.

New apartment buildings have replaced the '60s-era Pennley Place projects; Penn Circle may become a two-way street again; negotiations soon are expected to begin on plans to tear down the 17-story, low-income high-rise that straddles Penn Avenue; and national retailers Kmart and Whole Foods want to open shop.

For now, however, many of those plans are still just plans.

Street Level

People standing around, waiting for appointments at local social service agencies leave the impression that East Liberty's core is currently more of a social service hub than a business district.

 
Fred Aikens, a volunteer with the East End Cooperative Ministry's soup kitchen in East Liberty Presbyterian Church, gets ready to eat after working the lunch shift. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette) 

Agencies catering to the poor include the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, which is headquartered there. Foster care and adoption agencies have set up shop close to a coalition for low-income housing, a food pantry and two abortion clinics.

Half a block away is a plasma center, where people sell their blood for $20. A few doors down is a liquor store. Both are busy.

East End Cooperative Ministry spent $2.5 million last year to fund a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, food pantry, free medical clinic and employment programs in the neighborhood.

The ministry provides food to the poor and each year teaches a few hundred East End residents more lasting lessons: How to behave at work, manage money and better provide for their families.

Renters outpace homeowners 5 to 1 in East Liberty -- in contrast to the overall Pittsburgh metropolitan area, where owners outnumber renters more than 2 to 1.

When Ed Gainey, a part-time real estate agent, was growing up, longtime homeowners were like aunts and uncles. They watched over playing children and kept the neighborhood clean. After college, Gainey moved back hoping to find the close community he left.

"Section 8 changes have brought people into the community who don't have a sense of pride," he said. Federal Section 8 programs provide rent subsidies to people living in privately owned buildings.

Pride, however, is coming back. Residents living on the west side of the district are watching their blocks. Arthur Campbell, a soft-spoken Jamaican immigrant who has lived in East Liberty for 14 years, is one of them.

He said that in the last few years, homeowners on his street have repainted and repaired homes. The city has helped the rejuvenation by tearing down vacant houses that were fire hazards and havens for vagrants. And block watch members have pushed landlords to clean up properties.

Despite the renovations, problems remain, including the perception of continuing drug activity. As Campbell said, "That's the only thing that makes me want to move to the suburbs."

Opportunities

Business and property owners in East Liberty see the same assets that generations before them saw: flat land, a central location, dense population and good public transportation. Forty percent of households in a three-mile radius earn between $25,000 and $75,000 a year.

Many would like a variety of new businesses, including niche market stores and a few big and medium-size national retailers, to serve the area's mixed-income market.

But to draw shoppers to the district, everyone knows that the perception of East Liberty as a crime-ridden neighborhood has to change.

No one is deluded into thinking that East Liberty will become a sophisticated, boutique shopping district like Shadyside's Walnut Street.

But that's fine with Myers: "I don't want to be Downtown. I don't want to be Shadyside. I want to be us, East Liberty."

"The reality has to be that there can't be a lot of crime," Mayor Murphy said. "And the more activity we bring in, the less there'll be. And the perception is already changing."

Myers and Murphy agree that tearing down the HUD-subsidized high-rises will eliminate some crime. The mayor said negotiations soon will begin with Federal American Properties, the Florida company that owns the buildings.

"We've seeded [East Liberty] with Home Depot and housing at Pennley Place," Murphy said, "and that's turned loose a new sense of optimism."

Asked how long it will take for the turnaround, Murphy said, "Five years," and then paused and added, "maybe three."



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