The Visitors Guide to East Liberty
East Liberty needs no outside comparison. Within its own boundaries, its lively contrasts are as different as night and day.
Daytime is pure commerce, a mix of funky urban shops, high-end home décor, and newly minted chain retail which now includes Trader Joe's along with Whole Foods, two powerhouse grocers with no other locations in town. At night, stow the shopping bags for a classy, low-key evening in one of the neighborhood's locally owned restaurants and bars, from famed neighborhood pizzarias to creative cuisine.
Besides its spendy delights, East Liberty also has a worthy arts and civic-life heritage, with recently restored spots like the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater joining old and revered amenities like nearby Highland Park and the Frick Art & Historical Center.
Many of Pittsburgh's historic neighborhoods – Lawrenceville, or South Side, for example -- tell a story of sweat and steel. Their intimate rowhouses cling to the hillsides above the riverbanks that once held the city's industry.
This stirring industrial saga is not the story of East Liberty.
Far from the rivers and hills and sitting high on the East End's plateau, East Liberty and its surroundings show off the wealth that industry made. Not only was the neighborhood itself well off, but its commercial center also served the affluent areas that surrounded it -- Highland Park, Point Breeze and Friendship. Yet with that wealth and power came the hubris to drive through a demolition-heavy urban-renewal scheme in the 1960s, a misguided makeover that East Liberty is finally shaking off.
It's this pre-urban renewal boom that longtime resident Alethea Sims is thinking of when she recalls, "East Liberty was the second downtown of Pittsburgh. There were several department stores. You could buy anything you wanted in East Liberty. In the present, you still can – but not to the same extent."
Unlike the department stores, Sims adds, East Liberty Presbyterian is still here. "It was started by the Mellons [and] he's buried in there," she adds, referring to Thomas Mellon, founder of Mellon Bank. "Go in, take a look at the building. When I saw the bowling alley, I was floored."
Though central East Liberty was – and still is – densely commercial, its elegant, monumental side is an important part of its story.
Whole Foods' 2002 arrival on Centre Avenue (just south of Penn) arguably did more than anything else to raise East Liberty's citywide profile – and real-estate repute -- in recent years. The prestigious natural-foods retailer might have picked an affluent suburb. Instead, it bought property on East Liberty's Centre Avenue next to railroad tracks and a taxicab barn.
Today, the store—and that section of East Liberty-- is booming. Whole Foods had been armed with data showing that East Liberty is at the center of the region's densest income cluster. The taxi company has moved across town, and its vast lots now bear the $30 million development Eastside, which has already opened up a Walgreen's and a Starbucks, and will soon include a Borders superstore, Eva Szabo day salon, Trek Bike, mooi organic children's clothing store and more. All this and soon-to-come, Target, too, joining Home Depot which opened in 2002 and set the stage for future development. Across the street, even the neighborhood Goodwill has gone "upscale."
The latest attraction, and a real coup, is the area's first Trader Joe's which just opened last week to the cheers of many throughout the region.
With Eastside, special attention has been given to pedestrian access both to and through the new development, says architect Chris Minnerly of Design Alliance Architects. Eastside will also be a transit-oriented development, tying in with the East Busway's Highland Avenue stop and numerous bus lines, and will even feature a new bikes-and-pedestrians bridge paralleling South Highland across the railroad's ravine.
And why not nudge tenants toward urban design? After all, Eastside's popular urban neighbors have valuable cache. The new development abuts a pocket of eating, drinking and merrymaking centered on the Centre-Highland and Baum-Highland intersections, just off the main shops on Penn. The first of these establishments remains the most unique. Then an energetic 21-year-old, Justin Strong founded the Lounge in 2001, taking literally the city's "How can we retain the youth?" hand-wringing. Since then, Shadow Lounge has grown from an informal teahouse and do-it-yourself venue into a bona fide nightclub (with a bona fide bar and public-address system). Planning to both capitalize on East Liberty's boom and create a division of labor between the Lounge's performances and patrons' desire to simply lounge, cover-free, Strong has just opened Ava as a classy next-door neighbor.
Around the corner from the Shadow Lounge are two fairly new restaurants that have critics and customers raving: Abay Ethiopian Cuisine and Red Room Café and Lounge. The new Royal Jamaican Carribean restaurant just opened next door and the new Tana Ethiopian restaurant will soon join the little grouping with a spot on Baum. Further afield, there's the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium on Friendship and St. Clair, as well as the time-tested Capri and Vento's pizzarias on North Highland, and a little-known Jamaican spot on Broad Street, Flavors, which specializes in chicken curry.
Crossing Highland from the Red Room corner, a block of Centre Avenue still bears its urban-renewal name, Penn Circle South. Nevertheless, there sit a number of interesting establishments, including the Abyssinia gift-shop, the Panache boutique, Le Tapisseur interiors and the Miller Frame shop.
Finally, we wind down our tour at a bar whose look and feel unites East Liberty's present resurgence with its 1940s heyday: Kelly's. The classic cocktail-bedecked neon sign out front gives you a clue, but nothing matches the view from the door's porthole window. Though its music selections are usually post-1960 (jazz and soul DJs on Tuesday and, on Wednesday, rare old punk), Kelly's celebrated décor is original, with a noir-reminiscent bar, padded booths, and a Lucky-Strike-red glow throughout. The bar's 12 rotating taps are to be commended, as are their individually baked mac n' cheese bowls. In this way-back atmosphere, you can't help but picture Humphrey Bogart slumped at the bar. "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world," he'd say, "she walks into mine."
To counteract the effects of the wealth of restaurants, head for Club One, considered to be the best facility in town with two pools, three circuits, and top-notch trainers. Members swear by the place.
And how's this for diversity? Another favorite place, among the baby set that is, is Babyland, located on Penn Ave. In business for more than 50 years, it has a complete line of any and everything needed for babies.
Downtown East Liberty
From mid-morning to late afternoon and especially on Saturdays, downtown East Liberty is a bazaar. When the main drag of this largely African-American neighborhood is open for business, it's loud, lively and creative. Although the variety ranges from the body (Naka Fitness) to the mind (inspirational books and even God-repping t-shirts), the blocks around the Penn-Highland intersection tend to specialize in trendy, youthful, urban-style clothes – jerseys, sneakers, sequined jeans. Other offerings on Penn veer from the standard teen uniform into more flamboyant territory, like Penn Fashions' fluorescent-green jumpsuit … with fringe!
Known citywide as a standout in East Liberty's de facto garment district is SneakerVilla. In its well-stocked, two-story space, the tennies-mecca sells both popular and exclusive brands of shoes and clothing, says store manager Eugene Tyler. "We get everybody coming over because of what we carry," especially the merchandise that "you can't get just walking into Foot Locker."
If decking out your feet isn't enough, check out the new Scooter World on the first floor of the historic Liberty Bank building. And for quieter contemplation, let yourself be lured away to Animal's Place pet store, whose bubbling koi pond is a surprising oasis amid the bustle of Penn Avenue.
Another kind of serenity can be found in the cool vibe of 720 Records, especially when tucking into a soft set of headphones for a sample listen. Specializing in vinyl but also carrying CDs, 720 is well known to local DJs and even nationally, with a substantial online business supplementing its East Liberty sales.
Finally, while checking out the scene, don't forget to look up: On what was a huge blank wall at Penn and Beatty, artist Jordan Monahan created "Lend Me Your Ears" (2004), a stunning, perceptive piece identified by its central image of three boys on bicycles. Both this piece and "Worm's Eye View" by Kate Bechak – featuring a whimsically street-stylin' pigeon on the Centre Avenue wall of Whole Foods – were funded by the Sprout Foundation, a local arts grantmaker.
Served by the following bus routes: 77D Highland-Friendship, 77F Morningside-Friendship and 77G Stanton Heights-Friendship offer service to Downtown along Friendship Avenue, while 86B Frankstown serves as a link between Penn Avenue and Downtown via the Strip District. 89A Garfield Heights connects a portion of the Penn Avenue Arts District to East Liberty's shopping destinations, including Giant Eagle and Trader Joe's, and offers convenient service to the Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway.
For more information on East Liberty visit the PopCity:
- Moving Guide
- Investment Guide
Directions to East Liberty
From the North:
Take I-279 South and merge onto I-579 South via Exit 8A toward Veterans Bridge. Take the 7th Ave/6th Ave exit and take the ramp toward Mellon Arena. Turn left onto Bigelow Blvd and then stay straight to go onto N Craig St/PA-380. Turn left onto Baum Blvd/PA-380/Baum Blvd Bridge and continue to follow Baum Blvd/PA-380. Arrive in East Liberty.
From the East:
Take I-376 W/US-22 W toward Pittsburgh. Merge onto PA-8 via Exit 8B toward Wilkinsburg. Stay straight to go onto Penn Ave/PA-380 and arrive in East Liberty.
From the South:
Take W Liberty Ave/US-19 Truck North and continue to follow W Liberty Ave. Turn slight right onto Liberty Tunnels - Liberty Tunnels becomes Liberty Bridge. Stay straight to go onto Crosstown Blvd and take the Bigelow Blvd/PA-380 exit. Merge onto PA-380. Turn left onto Baum Blvd/PA-380/Baum Blvd Bridge and continue to follow Baum Blvd/PA-380. Arrive in East Liberty.
From the West:
Take I-279 N/US-22 E/US-30 E toward Pittsburgh. Merge onto I-376 E/US-22 E/US-30 E via Exit 6A toward Monroeville. Take the Forbes Ave ext, Exit 2A, toward Oakland and stay straight to go onto Forbes Ave. Turn Left onto S Bellefield Ave and turn right onto Centre Ave. Centre Ave becomes Penn Cir S/PA-380. Arrive in East Liberty.
East Liberty Presbyterian and sculpture
Frick Art Museum
Abay Ethiopian Cuisine
Kelly's Bar and Lounge
"Lend Me Your Ears" by Jordan Monahan
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except Kelly-Strayhorn © Tom Altany