Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood is changing. Once considered by many to be a dangerous and undesirable place to live, the community has seen its popularity grow, and at least one new business is hoping to be inclusive of Pittsburgh residents, both new and long established.
The changes did not happen overnight and they were not serendipitous.
Many community development groups, residents and lawmakers helped pave the way for East Liberty’s current position. Today, the neighborhood boasts upscale restaurants, shops and apartments.
It also has two new boutique hotels.
One is Ace Hotel, a small international chain that is known for its artsy sensibility and unique decor. The hotel group also prides itself on each hotel’s connection to its respective community.
“Although we started as a national and now a global brand, we’re still opening local businesses,” said Ryan Bukstein, chief cultural engineer for Atelier Ace, which oversees all the hotels’ operations. “As far as the hiring and leadership on the ground and how we engage with the city, we have a local business. As a true local business you have a responsibility to be a pillar of the community.”
He said the initial concept for Ace Hotel put the business’s public spaces for engagement around art, music and technology at the forefront. More living room than bedroom, he said, and that’s what Ace plans to do in Pittsburgh.
The hotel is located in a renovated YMCA with a big lobby, restaurant and a gym that will be used for putting on events. But rooms that may have gone for a few dollars decades ago at the Y, now let anywhere from $160 to $300 a night, a price beyond the reach of many local residents.
Bukstein said they recognize that East Liberty is changing, that they’re a part of it, and that it is a big deal.
“We can work with people on the ground that are trying to help this neighborhood ... a more inclusive (place) for people and then make our spaces more inclusive as well,” he said. “Through the programming that we do, we work very hard to make sure people not only feel welcome but invited. And not just the new people that might be coming to the neighborhood, but people who have lived there for a long time.”
To that end, Ace has partnered with Pittsburgh organizations for job fairs to recruit as many locals working in the hotel as possible. Of its 125 employees, Bukstein said about 90 percent are from Pittsburgh. They are also working with a number of nearby vendors to supply everything from ingredients for the hotel's restaurant to furnishings for rooms and music curation.
They also have a contract with Justin Strong.
Strolling through Strong II Dry Cleaners in Homewood, Strong talks above the din of sewing machines, presses, washing machines and steamers.
“We’re leaving the assembly part and going into the plant...this is where the clothes come in…” he said, pointing at the operation.
His shop includes both state-of-the-art technology and machinery dating back to World War II, but in East Liberty, and Pittsburgh at large, Strong is known for a different business.
He used to own the Shadow Lounge, a music venue located right around the corner from where Ace Hotel is now. Many credit the Shadow Lounge with helping make East Liberty a destination for long-time Pittsburghers and newcomers alike. Strong likes to say that he was in the atmosphere business.
“From who worked for us, to who were the owners, to who was on stage, it was just the right combination and something you didn’t see in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Especially in diversity, so across ethnicity, socioeconomics. We always kind of preached, ‘It’s culture, not color.’ … And some people will say, even now since we left, is very much missed.”
For years, Shadow Lounge was a platform for artistic and social interaction with music by seasoned performers, novices and everyone in between. It closed in 2013 when his lease wasn’t renewed. Strong said it was not his choice.
“I think cities and regions got to be careful when they sacrifice culture and natural vibrancy for development, which can be stagnant,” he said.
When the venue first opened, Strong recalled that some people shied away from coming to East Liberty. Others found it edgy to be on the border of communities of color.
“The fringes of these neighborhoods are always exciting, it’s always adventurous," he said. "It's like a certain amount of grit and hesitation that attracts outside people to it.”
That attraction has grown. So much so that buildings that stood vacant or in need of renovation for decades were given new life by developers. Rents went up.
East Liberty is not alone in this trend, according to University of Pittsburgh Sociology Professor Waverly Duck.
“I think it’s a national trend in a lot of communities at are in proximity to developments that are related to our new economy,” Duck said.
He said one thing that’s often left out of new development is the service sector, such as galleries, older restaurants and bars. Duck said part of what made the Shadow Lounge great was that Strong approached it with an understanding of Pittsburgh.
“And I think having people who are a part of the history and understanding the culture of the city is significant,” he said. “I think when outsiders come in and try and reproduce that, it’s really difficult.”
The Shadow Lounge closed after 13 years, but Strong’s family dry cleaning business has been around in one form or another for more than 80. When Strong learned that Ace Hotel and Hotel Indigo were opening in East Liberty, he inquired about their dry cleaning needs, and now has contracts with both. He also has a consulting group that focuses on staff training.
Strong said Ace understands the impact it could have on the neighborhood.
“One thing I like about Ace is that they’re very aware of the role that they play in gentrification. And they say, ‘Wherever we go, what we want to do is intentfully try to mitigate that and balance that out,’” Strong said. “So they’re very aware of that, and they want to make sure their space is used in a way that doesn’t alienate people.”
Artists and musicians have always had the ability to transform spaces, Duck said. In that way, the hotel could be a catalyst in the community. Racial and class challenges are obvious hurdles, especially if new businesses intend to incorporate the thousands of unemployed and underemployed residents who live just beyond East Liberty’s multi-million dollar developments.
Duck said inclusiveness is possible.
“If they can pull that off, I think it would be fantastic."
Ace Hotel Pittsburgh opens Thursday.