During junior year at Peabody (Class of ’68) when my art teacher, Mrs. Fineman, required a research report on an aspect of architecture, I did not deliberate. With my family’s livelihood dependent on our retail record store located on East Liberty’s flourishing Penn Avenue, I wanted to understand how the plan to divert cars, turning our neighborhood into the first urban mall, was going to effect our lives.
The year before, learning to drive, I had made many excursions to the newest retail center, The East Hills Shopping Center. Our store, along side the anchors of Joseph Horne’s and G. C. Murphy’s, was a pleasant winding drive out Allegheny River Blvd and Nadine Road, to a wide open accessible parking lot and the promise of meandering car-free shopping.
Yet, I wasn’t sure. I remembered with great fondness Saturday afternoon matinees at one of three movie theaters; my cheeseburger grilled to order at the Brass Rail; a perfect selection of yard goods and notions at Mansmann’s; and way too may shoe choices between Baker’s and Beck’s Shoe Stores. How could East Liberty’s redevelopment maintain it’s down-home qualities, personal selections and still step up its game to compete with the newer suburban shopping centers?
My father arranged for me to sit down with the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce where I go detailed plans: a circle created around the center corridor of Penn and Highland; newly paved parking lots along its perimeter; and walking paths with easy access to the store fronts. I reported back to my class and my family showing elaborate diagrams and maps touting a more competitive pedestrian-friendly traffic-savvy East Liberty.
It never worked. The creation of Penn Circle marked the beginning of the end of the “second downtown Pittsburgh”. Our store closed in the 70s and we ended up donating the property to a non-profit. It simply got worse and worse and worse-until today.
There is no doubt in my mind that my Dad would shake his head in wonder at today’s new “Eastside” that began with the gentrification of bringing in Whole Foods in 2002. Actually, not only my Dad’s disbelief, but my mom’s, my brother’s, my family’s, my school’s, my neighbor’s, my community’s and even my own, the teenager who learned about architecture from Mrs. Fineman’s Art History Class.