Step inside the gentrification portal on Highland and Centre Avenue in East Liberty

On Google Maps, a temporal portal exists on Highland and Centre Avenue in East Liberty. Through this portal, the viewer can go back to the neighborhood in 2007 and walk down Stevenson Place, behind Kelly’s Bar and Yoga on Centre, and see some affordable housing apartments before their demolition (I thought these were the East Mall apartments but those were demolished in 2005, anyone who knows the names of these pictured please comment). Last night Leah and I took a little virtual tour of East Liberty circa-2007. We happened to be listening to the song Angel Dust by Gil Scott-Heron as we walked, so we included it here to take you along with us. I think you jump through the portal about 30 seconds in.

2007 sets us five years before the Shadow Lounge closed in East Liberty and two years after the East Mall affordable housing units were razed. At that time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story on the place that was being destroyed to make way for “grander plans.” It quoted Alethea Sims, a Black woman who had lived in the apartments since 1981, when she had moved there at the age of 27 to be with her mother.

“There were a lot of good people who lived quiet lives,” Alethea Sims said. “The first thing I did (when I moved into the apartments) was take a picture of the sunset.”

Have the developers from LG Realty Advisors, now developing Penn Plaza, gone and asked Alethea Sims some questions about her experience? Have the members of city council? Have the CEOs at Whole Foods?

Because I’m pretty sure this is Alethea Sims right here, in this story about a woman living in East Liberty who was born in the same day as Rosa Parks (December 1, 1955). As of 2015, she was volunteer president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty and worked at Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, where she was paid through HUD. She successfully led a lawsuit to give low-income tenants the right to move into the new housing facilities being built in the area.

Has anyone from LG Realty Advisors, the city, or Whole Foods asked Alethea Sims about what she was promised when her home was demolished?
Has anyone from LG Realty Advisors, the city, or Whole Foods asked Alethea Sims about what she received in return?

Because in this story from 2015 Alethea Sims had this to say about the issues related to housing and displacement in East Liberty: ‘’You bring in higher-income residents and houses, and it raises property values and taxes. Low-income residents then have to move because they cannot afford the taxes. Where is that beneficial?’’

I imagine Alethea Sims has a few more enlightening things to say if the developers from LG Realty Advisors, members of city government, or CEOs at Whole Foods would like to put tax dollars to good use and go and spend some time with her.

Readers can email the planning commission and ask whether Alethea Sims has been consulted about the developments at Penn Plaza:

Oh, and if the representatives from the city, Whole Foods, or the developers from LG Realty Advisors do consult her, they should probably offer to pay for her knowledge and time. I volunteer my tax dollars.

When Liberty Park high rise was raised, 150 people were vacated. The demolition of the East Mall apartments soon after led to the displacement of 129 more people. I’m no math wizard but I’m pretty sure that is 270 members of the East Liberty community all together. Where did they go?

The month after East Mall building was razed, construction of the 55-unit Penn Manor began, with 39 rent-subsidized apartments.

What about that month in between?

Can 270 people fit into 39 apartments?

Help me with this math, somebody, please.

Here’s what Leah, who discovered this magic portal on Highland and Centre Avenue, wrote about the video above. Please note that she is writing from an architect’s perspective. Neither of us are journalists:

This is from a conversation (minus the conversation audio) I had with my friend and housemate while perusing a Google Maps portal that leaps and demonstrates two snapshots in time, nearly a decade of development in this East Liberty location. I found the Google Maps portal over a month ago while working in the office at Front Studio Architects, run by Pittsburgh-native Art Lubetz. I decided to return to the portal after the Tasso Katselas Penn Plaza Apartments (Low Income Housing Units) were demolished to make way for a new Mixed-Use Development. We would find out shortly after half of the building was destroyed that the land was in fact cleared for a new Whole Foods. As an aspiring architect, I was deeply saddened when I learned the brick Housing Units, architecture designed by famed Pittsburgh Architect Tasso Katselas, were to be demolished. They could have easily been renovated, with no displacement necessary.

I then had a conversation with ultimate woman of wisdom and architect Mary-Lou Arscott, where we discussed how the one of the buildings was being prepped for demolition while the other still had all the people living in their homes and going about life. It was in the dead heat of Summer, so people had their windows tilted open to find cooler air with the breeze, while the building-to-be-demolished had its windows tilted open in order to clear the air prior to demolition. The buildings were two eerie mirror reflections of each other with windows aflutter. The next time I walked by half of the building had been reduced to rubble.

We go from Architecture to Crap Development.
We go from Homes to Whole Foods.
It’s all about the Money, when it should always be about the People.


*Tasso Katselas also designed the East Mall Apartments, a masonry high-rise building in East Liberty, along with countless other buildings around the City of Pittsburgh. Built by HUD as a Section 8 housing project, the Apartments were demolished in 2005 to be replaced with low-rise, mixed-income housing. East Mall Apartments straddled Penn Avenue at the western end of the East Liberty downtown area. The nearby Liberty Park Apartments were demolished at the same time.