Gentrification. Revitalization. Stabilization. All words that come to mind when you’re thinking about what to do, exactly, with declining urban neighborhoods. But at the core of ‘what to do’ with declining urban neighborhoods is a mindset that urban planners (myself included) are often guilty of – at the end of the day, we can’t ‘do’ anything with property we don’t own, at least not easily or without great cost (financial and otherwise) to the community. This is often why the best examples of neighborhood revitalization and stabilization are usually organic ones – perhaps steered by community development corporations, neighborhood plans, or local planning departments – but at their core driven forward by people on the ground willing to take risks, pour their money (and those of their investors) into a place, develop a business plan, make connections, and hope it sticks.
Here in Pittsburgh, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the East Liberty neighborhood for years. Once the third largest shopping district in Pennsylvania, this neighborhood has great history, fantastic architectural gems, a decades-long period of decline, and some fantastically awful centralized planning decisions. Due to hard work and boots on the ground (and decidedly NOT due to anything our backwards local government planning department has done or not done, since they’re only now writing a comprehensive plan for the city) by the neighborhood CDC and countless other stakeholders, this area is hopping once again. Bookended by big box retail in the large spaces surrounding the urban core, the smaller spaces have for the most part been slowly rehabbed and are a mix of established and relatively new businesses.
And here’s the sticky part – who’s the most important stakeholder in this process? The neighborhood resident who’s seen the decline and rebirth? The chamber of commerce, who doesn’t necessarily have the best track record with supporting the small businesses? The CDC, who’s busted its butt trying to get vacant buildings filled with a sustainable mix of tenants only to get flack because they’re the ‘wrong kind’? The mix is critical to success, but everyone is always critical of the mix.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I frequent businesses in East Liberty. So many are food-based (yes, I am finally talking about food) – two Ethiopian restaurants, a Jamaican place, the cupcake bakery, the pizza shops, the Parisian bistro, the hip local dive bar, the waffle-centered performance art space, the conflict kitchen, the barbeque place, the hot dog shop, the burger bar, the modern American restaurant. As I write this list off the top of my head, I’m struck by the fact that most of these places are relatively new. One of the pizza shops is a long-time business (though frought with its own issues); the rest have been operating a decade or less. And although most business owners are happy with any patrons, for the most part the clientele seems to be young, non-minority, hip, with disposable income. I think it’s safe to say that the immediate neighborhood residents would not fit that description. So East Liberty is back to being a destination – which, to be fair, is its historical role. And what’s the alternative – predatory businesses (there is a check cashing place in the area, I believe), or no businesses at all?
A conversation with a fellow local food blogger started this whole thought process (and that conversation devolved from a lovely brisket recommendation). What level of investment in a neighborhood is appropriate for someone to come in with? Does that level change if they’re from the neighborhood, the city, the region, or a complete outsider? What about if they bring with them a certain caché, a cult of personality, a track record for excellence in the culinary world? Local foodies know by now that I’m talking about Kevin Sousa and his East End restaurant trimvirate (two of which are in East Liberty, and one in the urban core of the neighborhood). His first restaurant, Salt of the Earth in nearby Garfield, earned major accolades from the broader culinary community (Food and Wine and the James Beard Foundation, among others) and has been lauded locally. Rehabbing the building was seen as a Good Thing too, turning a historic Harley Davidson dealership from the 1920s that most recently was a vacant home decor place into a hot spot on a stretch of Penn Avenue that sorely needed some eyes on the street at night.
He’s followed that up with two restaurants opening almost simultaneously: Station Street Hot Dog Shop, and Union Pig & Chicken, and the grumbling has grown along with his foodie empire. I just don’t get it. The hot dog shop had been vacant for over a year, and is carrying on the tradition of a hot dog shop in that general vicinity (with that name) since 1915. The barbeque place bore the brunt of the complaints, both because people are very opinionated about their barbeque expectations and because a white dude from McKees Rocks is cooking barbeque in the ‘hood (haven’t heard it in quite those terms, but that seems to be the general sentiment).
Food questions aside (though I admit to being an avid fan of Kevin’s cooking), I ask these naysayers these questions: what would you have put in their place? Both of those storefronts were vacant. Both places are continuing the traditions of their locations (a rib joint failed a few years ago in the spot where Union is now). While neither place is the cheapest place I can get a hot dog or some fried chicken, it’s not massively overpriced. When a quarter pounder at Mickey D’s now costs $3.84 for processed crap that’s only recently become pink-slime free, and I can get a hot dog with standard fixings, all made by hand and really good quality product for $4 plus tax, how is that pretentious? If $22 is too much to pay for a really good rack of ribs, why would you willingly pay $20.99 at Damon’s for a mediocre rack?
And if you don’t want a Local Boy Done Good to bring restaurants to your vacant storefronts, where should he go? He’s a successful businessman with a solid following who chose to try new things in a neighborhood that needed it, and said they wanted it (one of the goals in the neighborhood plan is to become a dining destination, after all). He could have rested on his laurels and replicated his brand in the suburbs, and he didn’t. Why all the crap for someone who’s willing to take a chance? Isn’t *that* the American way?
Me, I’m happy to support a local businessman who serves food that I feel comfortable feeding to my kids in an area of the city that I love. Obviously, a lot of other people feel that way too. This debate isn’t unique to East Liberty, or Pittsburgh. I lived in another city neighborhood a decade ago whose parochial blue hairs tried to run the Hispanic businesses off the main street – apparently they liked vacant storefronts more. But if you alienate the small business owner, who is supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, sooner or later you’ll end up in a chain store (or vacant window) wasteland. That’s not what I’m interested in, at all.
*an odd title, I know, but it combines the names of the three Kevin Sousa restaurants: Salt of the Earth, Station Street Hot Dog Shop, and Union Pig & Chicken