Downtown 2.0: East Liberty hit stride in the ’50s

kelsie bianco

East Liberty is striving to rekindle its glory years and reestablish itself as Pittsburgh’s “second downtown”.

In the 1940s and 1950s, East Liberty was a booming commercial area surrounded by a closely-knit community. According to East Liberty Development, Inc., the community boasted movie houses, roller-skating rinks, department stores and retail shops.

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, East Liberty’s holiday parades were among the most recognizable events in the country. In 1936, the Christmas parade was acknowledged as the largest in the nation, outdoing New York and other cities. Joseph Rishel, a retired history professor from Duquesne University, says East Liberty thrived until changes in the American landscape after World War II.

“The area boomed along with the baby boom, and all the people with all those kids shopped in East Liberty,” Rishel says. “The many clothing stores for men and woman were booming with traffic.”

However, by the 1960s, “urban renewal” was sweeping cities and East Liberty was not spared. Renewal, in this case, meant destruction. Leaders locally and regionally thought it was time for change due to commercial vacancy and competition from the suburbs, Rishel says.

“The planners moved in and basically ruined East Liberty by their incompetent handling of the plan and restricting all traffic on Penn Ave. That really killed East Liberty as a business district,” he says.

East Liberty’s attempt to compete with the suburbs by reshaping its street grid was a disaster.

Neighborhood streets, homes of residents and commercial properties were knocked down in order to make room for a highway-sized road called Penn Circle. According to the East Liberty Development, Inc. website: “More than 1,000 rental apartment units were built to anchor each end of the business district, replacing a long tradition of neighborhood home ownership.” The history and tradition of East Liberty was lying beneath the rubble of the construction.

Once the project’s failure became apparent, East Liberty was forgotten altogether. But the neighborhood was not dead, just slumbering. “Lately there has been a mild revival of East Liberty. For years Bakery Square stood empty and now it’s thriving more than ever before,” Rishel says.

USA Today now ranks East Liberty as one of the top ten up-and-coming neighborhoods in the country.