A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I managed to
hoodwink be fortunate enough that my parents agreed to watch our kids so that we could go out for Valentine’s Day dinner. I selected the new restaurant called The Whitfield located in the lobby of the Ace Hotel, a recently renovated boutique hotel in East Liberty. It is difficult to imagine, even just seven years ago or so, that there would be a trendy boutique hotel in East Liberty. But new job creators, such as Google, have created that demand. Prior to us having two kids under the age of two, my wife and I used to go out for dinners somewhat frequently to sample the burgeoning food scene occurring in Pittsburgh. Now, that has been curtailed. But for one night, we returned to an area that was an early adopter of Pittsburgh’s ascendancy in the national food scene — East Liberty.
It was told to me many years ago that the first step to revitalizing a neighborhood is to attract artists who will take advantage of the cheap rents and plentiful spaces to create and draw attention. East Liberty did this through the creativity of food. One of the earliest restaurants was an Ethiopian place called Abay that was in business for 10 years until 2013. The cudgel has been taken up by its spiritual successor, Tana. When Eastside was built, with Whole Foods as the anchor, it spurred on other chef-driven restaurants like Sonia Finn’s Dinette, Richard Chen’s restaurant (which morphed into present-day Plum), Red Room, and Brian Pekarcik’s Spoon.
Now it was fashionable to come to East Liberty, even after the sun went down, to eat dinner. But aside from stores here and there, there wasn’t a lot of shopping. And there certainly weren’t a lot of renovated places for people to live. You ate dinner and left.
The neighborhood of East Liberty became hip and trendy, which is the siren call for this generation’s most divisive demographic — the hipster. Allow me to get out my broadest of brushes from my paint kit here…hipsters are a group of men and women that want to be individuals and find the hottest trends — so they all look alike. For men it is dark-rimmed glasses, beards, possibly handlebar mustaches, porkpie hats, maybe some suspenders, dark shoes. For women it is dark-rimmed glasses, muted color dresses that look like they were bought at a thrift store but actually cost $100, chunky shoes, dark makeup. A love of craft beer and artisan-created, fair-trade products is shared between them.
But here’s the thing…hipsters are generally single and have a good amount of disposable cash, so they’re moving the needle on housing markets (like Lawrenceville) and are now causing a mini-housing boom to occur in East Liberty. There are renovated lofts, newly constructed apartment buildings, and higher-end units such as East Liberty Place South and the under-construction Emerald on Centre.
Perhaps the most integrated development though is the Eastside III Apartments, being constructed right now. They are adjacent to the newly renovated East Liberty Transit Center, a multi-modal transportation station that serves 800 buses per day, good pedestrian access, and space for bikes as well.
All of this new housing is well and good. Anything to improve a vital neighborhood in the core of Pittsburgh is a positive change. But will East Liberty start to gentrify in a way that forces out the existing lower-income residents? We discussed this in a previous article about Larimer’s revitalization due to Google’s presence, but the same concept applies here. As long as there is adequate affordable housing units that are built to help replenish the existing stock, then all age and economic groups can exist together in harmony.
And now here we are in 2016, as I’m eating braised rabbit over gnocchi and my wife is dining on carrot risotto at a rejuvenated YMCA. We are clearly the only people in the restaurant that have two little kids sleeping peacefully at home, awaiting our return. Hipsters can even buy salmon-colored pants in the same neighborhood they live in now. What a time to be alive.