Community vibe makes East Liberty shine

Jen Cardone

Drive up Bigelow Boulevard., hang a left on Baum, and East Liberty Presbyterian Church is straight ahead.

The cathedral towers over surrounding buildings, boldly standing out as a masterpiece of Gothic-style architecture. It serves as a place for the East Liberty community to worship, even if they are not Presbyterian by faith.

This past semester, I spent countless hours finding stories and walking around East Liberty. Every time I drove there, I could always see my destination as soon as I turned on to Baum Blvd. Most of my stories came from the cathedral itself. The church exudes a sense of community bond and friendliness.

The ELPC accepts anyone and everyone. They have a Taizè worship service every Wednesday at 7 p.m. where people inside and outside of the community join as one ecumenical monastic group to find faith and inner peace through meditative prayer, pauses of silence and chants.

Rev. Mary Lynn Callahan, leader of the service, says spirituality is already within us, we just have to find it and being with the community helps.

“I very much feel that we don’t develop a spirituality in order to get closer to God,” she says. “I think God is already there. We develop a spiritual life just to help us to become aware of the relationship that we already have between the God that is within and ourselves.”

The bond of community was evident the moment I ran into Gwen Puza, the first person to introduce me to the ELPC. She was merely stopping by the church to use the restroom and when my friend and I told her about this magazine project, she broke from her schedule for the day to give us a tour of the massive structure and tell us all about the history and what happens at the ELPC. All throughout this project, she has served as a source to help me find people who know about the church.

Kay Shissler anoints the people who gather during Taizè. She has been involved with the service for 15 years and a member at the church for 53.

“Their emphasis on justice issues and inclusion is why I go,” she says.

Thomas West, owner of a men’s underwear store, wanted to start his business in the community because he, too, sensed the connectivity of the community and wanted a different vibe.

“I wanted to bring something new to East Liberty and get people back in this neighborhood,” he says.

In the 1950s, East Liberty was often referred to as the second downtown of Pittsburgh. It was a thriving business center with a tight-knit community that declined only a decade later.

According to Puza, when the street grid was reconfigured to discourage traffic as part of an ill-fated redevelopment scheme, businesses declined and had to shut down.

Business owners like West are rebuilding this community. He doesn’t shop online and knows if a business has a certain vibe customers will come.

Online shopping “takes away from small businesses and city life,” he says. “It takes something away that you won’t get by walking to a store. It’s just an experience that you can’t get online. That’s what I think a lot of people are missing, a lot of people are starting to come back to shop locally.”