The Tale of East Liberty’s Revitalization According to Chris Ivey




There’s two sides to every story, and East Liberty is no exception.

Chris Ivey walked into the neighborhood on May 6, 2005, camera in hand, to cover the East Mall high-rise’s transition from public housing to public “art.” He was hired by a redevelopment company to document the changes happening in East Liberty, and what he saw that day was unforgettable.

City of Pittsburgh officials had decided to tear down what the Pittsburgh Post Gazette called East Liberty’s “Berlin Wall” but wanted a celebratory farewell, so they put together an event in which people used slingshots to hurl paint-filled balloons at the high-rise

But the high-rise was not a canvas; it was a home, and what the officials called “art,” the residents called disrespect.

“I guess the way they were doing the celebration was very offensive to a lot of people who were living there at the time,” Ivey says.

Thistle Elias, a public health professor at the University of Pittsburgh and resident of East Liberty, agrees. She says she saw what she called a “solicitation” in the newspaper asking for ideas of how to turn the demolition into a celebration.

“What struck me when I saw that was a sense that I was very sure that not everybody was celebrating,” Elias says. “And there was something very well intended and casual and cavalier, and I felt very naïve about that solicitation.”

But Ivey didn’t feel naïve that day shooting the “celebration.” He felt the same emotion he had for years – the same emotion the residents felt while watching people splatter their home with paint – anger.

And that’s when Ivey’s short assignment turned into years of documenting East Liberty, its residents and the changes that loomed over all of them with the arrival of development.


The Prologue


Ivey grew up in the North Carolina town where “ultra conservative” Jesse Helms came from.

“Where I grew up, Klan activity was really out in the open,” Ivey says. “You’d have the Klans outside of the K-Mart trying to sell their newspapers and stuff.”

After a stint at community college in North Carolina, Ivey enrolled in Pittsburgh Filmmakers and worked as a commercial director in the early 2000s. But he says he found this line of work unstable.

“At that time, I was like the youngest director at that level, I guess people weren’t used to working with someone who is young,” Ivey says. “And I was black. So those are the two things I guess.”

Ivey says his friend in the advertising business described Pittsburgh as “a city in transition” – but Ivey wasn’t willing to wait for the city to change, and he almost left.

But then-councilman, now-mayor Bill Peduto hired Ivey to work on the commercials for his 2005 mayoral campaign, keeping the director in the city.


The Rising Action


As Ivey’s first documentary began to take shape, the filmmaker immediately ran into a roadblock – few people wanted to speak with him.

“At first people are really apprehensive about talking to the media, especially in that neighborhood,” Ivey says. “Because whenever you see East Liberty on the news all the time, it’s always in regards to somebody getting shot, somebody O.D.-ing, you know, it was always negative.”

But a previous client of Ivey’s says he wanted to help with the documentary as soon as the filmmaker brought it up to him.

“Come on, press ‘record,’” Justin Strong says, recalling his reaction. “There’s East Libertys in Harlem … in Detroit … in D.C., in the Bay area. The story’s played out over and over again, and the neighborhoods for the most part all look the same.”

Strong was the founder and owner of Shadow Lounge, a popular venue in East Liberty – one in which rappers Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa played some of their first sets. He later set out to create AVA, a bar and lounge, also located in East Liberty.

Ivey helped create the venue’s first commercial, and Strong wanted to help create the documentary.

“What happened between 2000 and 2013 in East Liberty was pretty magical with Shadow Lounge and AVA,” Strong says. “And Ivey was able to document and tie a lot of that into the changes that happened.”

But the Shadow Lounge and AVA went from defying the odds to becoming victims of gentrification, and Ivey’s three films – spanning 2005 to the present – captured their rise and fall.

“He actually got to witness me typing my email announcing the closing of AVA and the moving of AVA,” Strong says.

Strong shut down Shadow Lounge in 2013, and AVA moved and then closed soon after – just two examples of the sacrifices made for progress, and all of which were captured by Ivey’s camera.


The Climax


Ivey’s camera has captured the changing landscape of East Liberty, the pile up of issues heaped on its residents and the building of tension. His documentaries follow storylines filled with people losing their homes and their businesses, all leading to, well, nothing.

“One of the things that I’ve heard from a lot of my students after [watching] his films is that they’re really grateful to the additional exposure to perspectives that they’ve never even considered,” Elias says. “But they’re also frustrated because they don’t know what to do – they don’t know how to make things different.”

That’s because Ivey’s films haven’t reached a climactic moment yet – there is no epiphany about how to solve all the issues he presents to his audience. Instead, the viewer is left with a cliffhanger.

And the reason is simple – Ivey doesn’t know the solution.

“A lot of people look at me for answers to a lot of the things that happened,” Ivey says. “And I don’t have the answers, and I feel like I’m not supposed to have the answers – the community is supposed to come together to find the answers together.”

Ivey’s intention was never to provide solutions, but rather to show the problems in a realistic way. That’s why his first film lacked an abundance of B-roll and “beauty shots,” something he says offended some residents.

“I try to tell them, the story that we’re trying to tell right now – it doesn’t deserve beauty,” Ivey says.

But Ivey is also left with the same frustrated feeling his audience experiences.

“I find Chris to be a very earnest person trying to balance some hopefulness with some well-earned cynicism,” Elias says. “Depending on which day we catch him, he can be more hopeful.”

However, his films have opened up conversations within the neighborhood of East Liberty and also within the outside population. Ivey estimates approximately 5,000 people have seen his documentaries, and he’s happy to see how it has opened up the minds of kids and young adult viewers.

“It’s really important for the next generation who has to go over this all over again,” Ivey says. “So it’s more for history’s sake.”