(Re)Considering Pittsburgh: Getting to know Allentown (Part I of IV)

These homes in the two photos are about 200 feet apart in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Long-term residents will soon be forced to make some tough choices in response to imminent market pressures. Can the city adopt policies to protect long-term residents so that they may also benefit from urban change?

Neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh are undergoing rapid change. Because each neighborhood is different to begin with – the people, the housing, the valleys, the amenities, the train tracks, the eyesores, the streams and rivers, the businesses, the trees, the bus routes, the hills, the schools, the roads, and the next-door neighborhoods – each neighborhood is experiencing that change differently. At UrbanKind, we are interested in the geography of that neighborhood change. In particular, we are curious about how that change happens, when it happens, why it happens, who makes it happen, and how people experience it differently. Through this Getting to Know series, we intend to explore these issues in neighborhoods across the city. We begin our discussion with a neighborhood close to us up here on the Hilltop: Allentown.

Many people are aware of the massive amounts of change occurring in other parts of the city. Most notably, the last ten years have seen the near complete and intentional transformation of East Liberty from a black urban center serving the people of East Liberty, Garfield, Homewood, Larimer, and Lincoln-Lemington to a white urban center serving the people of Highland Park, Shadyside, Point Breeze, and the new residents of East Liberty. While crime rates there have gone down and housing prices up, the people of the old East Liberty, their communities, their businesses, their buildings, and their everyday routines have been displaced for new renters and owners, expensive stores and restaurants, and luxury condominiums. Fears (or, for some, excitement) of the displacement spreading to Garfield, Homewood, Larimer, and Wilkinsburg have grown. While attention has been focused understandably on these processes in the East End and in Lawrenceville, change has been creeping into the neighborhoods south of  (the) Mënaonkihëla.[i]

Up on top of Mt. Washington, with Mt. Washington (the neighborhood) to its northwest and the South Side Slopes to the east, Allentown drapes gently down from the crest of the mountain overlooking the river in Grandview Park to the upland plain where it meets its southern neighbors, Knoxville and Beltzhoover. According to the 2010 Census, 59% of Allentown residents identified as white and 33% as black. This compares to 86% and 10%, respectively, in Mt. Washington, 89% and 7% in the South Side Slopes, 43% and 52% in Knoxville, and 10% and 83% in Beltzhoover.

Bisecting the neighborhood west to east are Warrington Avenue and its business district. For years, this district has been a typical post-industrial, devalued urban landscape. A convenience store, a dollar store, a laundromat, a pizza place, a tax preparation office, a cell phone store, a bar, a diner, a payday loan office, a doctor’s office or two, and vacant storefronts all lined the pothole-ridden street. There is a senior citizen high rise in the center of the district, across from an upscale Italian restaurant unaffordable to nearly all who live nearby. A church and senior center are a block away; the funeral home, across the street. Until 2010, the light rail (curiously named the “Brown Line”) ran right through the district, providing regular, fast service to downtown. The tracks and powerlines are still there, but the only trains that come are ones detouring around the transit tunnel under the mountain as they carry suburban spectators through this once-bustling center from which many of their parents and grandparents flew south 50 years ago.

This landscape has begun to change. The Zone 3 police station moved up the hill from the South Side to the corner of Warrington and Arlington. The Port Authority repaved Warrington Avenue a few years ago. A caterer opened a kitchen and small restaurant. The florist closed. An entrepreneur renovated a building into a workspace for entrepreneurs. A Jamaican take-out restaurant started cooking. A tiny Carnegie Library pop-up space popped up and one-and-a-half years later ended its chapter in that storefront. A children’s learning center took its space and soon moved to a bigger location around the corner. A punk metal café replaced it. The local diner served its last meal in 2015, and a new one served its first this past spring. A large convenience store located in an old neighborhood movie theater went through several name and ownership changes before it eventually closed its doors. The high-end Italian restaurant annexed that former movie theater, former convenience store. A sewing store moved in, as did a barbershop, a kid’s clothing store, and, most recently, a guitar store. In the northeast corner of the neighborhood, a short walk from the business district, right next to Grandview Park, newly constructed condominiums have replaced a large stand of old trees. The condos start in the $500k’s.

At UrbanKind, we are concerned about what these and future changes portend for the Hilltop neighborhoods and the residents who inhabit them. At the recent p4 Conference, Mayor Peduto challenged us to imagine and create a Pittsburgh with “equity baked in” to the plans and design. This challenge is significant because it has no precedent. How do we balance the needs of long-term and mostly low-income residents with the pace of development and the demands for investment returns by developers and real estate barons?

Change is inevitable. Still, we are concerned about the process through which this change occurs. We are concerned about whose voices matter in this process and about who reaps the benefits of whatever change happens. As the Allentown business district is physically accessible to all of the adjacent neighborhoods on the Hilltop, we are concerned about all of the Hilltop residents feeling welcome in that space. We are concerned about the business district serving the pressing needs of the current residents of the Hilltop. We are concerned about what has happened in East Liberty happening on the Hilltop.

Through this four-part blog series on Allentown, we will discuss issues related to the change happening on the Hilltop. We’ll write more specifically about some of the changes, about the processes through which this change is happening, and about the stakeholders involved. Over the next several months, UrbanKind will ask our neighbors, new and long-standing, about the changes they see, the changes they welcome, and the changes they fear. We will ask them about the changes they want and need. We hope that in doing so, we will be able to help these neighbors shape the neighborhood and community they have long wanted.

[i] The Lenape name for the “Monongahela” River.

About the author: Jason Beery is a Sr. Research & Policy Analyst at UrbanKind Institute. A geographer by training, his work focuses on the intersection of a variety of areas, including environmental justice, community development, food systems, transportation, and housing.