East Liberty revived with quirky, caffeinated renaissance


Two years ago, East Liberty was in the middle of a community-wide redevelopment project, and many of its new businesses weren’t sure if they were going to succeed.

Zeke’s Coffee on Penn Avenue was about as claustrophobic as a Towers dorm room, with 11 seats and a couple tables outside, if you wanted to sit down. The shop offered a full drink menu, baked goods and whole bean coffee, but options were limited to what was on its small chalkboard menu that day.If you asked any of the macho-looking baristas about the neighborhood’s redevelopment efforts, they would’ve pointed at vacated buildings and told you rumors of what each one was going to be.

Today, East Liberty is nearly unrecognizable. The streets are now bustling with locals, young professionals and visitors from other neighborhoods, and new businesses are thriving in the community’s once-vacant buildings. Earlier this year, Zeke’s moved to a larger location on Penn Avenue, and now has a sprawling menu of single-origin and blended brews, as well as a comfy, roomy interior for new customers to enjoy their coffee.

Chris Rhodes, the shop’s owner, said that Zeke’s now has more seating available, bathrooms and air conditioning. The menu offers more variety than it used to, and Zeke’s plans to start serving breakfast and lunch in the near future.

Zeke’s turnaround represents a larger revival that has made East Liberty one of the most upward-trending — and overlooked — neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Adam Munroe, a cheery barista at the coffee joint who plays in the local shoegaze band Welsh Beauty Pageant, said the area is only getting better.

“I think that East Liberty is going to become an important place for Pittsburgh because a lot of really young, innovativeand talented people are coming this way,” Munroe said.

While Pitt students often visit popular retailers in the area, such as Whole Foods and Target, many often miss what the rest of the neighborhood has to offer.

When recent Pitt graduate Destiny Johnson found a job opening at Social in Bakery Square, a new restaurant opening in East Liberty’s emerging office and shopping center, she was only familiar with the community’s reputation for crime. But, she quickly noticed East Liberty’s potential and welcomed the opportunity to explore the location.     

“I was excited to work there because there’s a huge community,” she said. “East Liberty was actually one of the neighborhoods that, before I moved here, I didn’t know much about.”

Last year, USA Today named East Liberty as one of the best up-and-coming neighborhoods in the nation. However, the town wasn’t always so celebrated.

After enjoying success as the third-largest shopping destination in the state during the 1940s and 1950s, East Liberty suffered an extended depression when Pittsburgh rerouted traffic away from Penn Avenue as part of a bigger redevelopment project to stop businesses from moving into the suburbs. The decision led to the downfall of East Liberty’s marketplace, which is now isolated from the rest of the city. In the following years, businesses continued to suffer in the neighborhood, and crime dramatically increased.

In 1999, East Liberty Development Inc., a corporation that seeks to revitalize the community, set out to revive the area. In the next decade, they brought Home Depot and Whole Foods to East Liberty, and built new mixed-income housing throughout the neighborhood. With these stepping stones, more families moved back into the area and started looking for nearby jobs.

As pedestrian and motor traffic started to flow back into East Liberty, local startups such as Team Tassy moved into the area’s abandoned storefronts and turned them into office spaces.

Local development firms restored an old beauty shop on Penn Avenue into a chic co-working space, aptly named the Beauty Shoppe, where small business owners could work online in a communal office setting. These places often act as startup incubators and supporters for new companies.

Cameroon Football Development Program, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that uses sports to create social and economic change, was one of the first groups to take residency at the Beauty Shoppe.

The program’s CEO, Justin Forzano, said East Liberty was “the perfect sort of environment for a startup.”

“One of the first things an underserved area attracts is artists and entrepreneurs,” Forzano said. “The Beauty Shoppe played an important part in the buildup of that community.”

East Liberty changed even more when Google arrived on the scene. In summer 2010, the tech juggernaut opened an office in Bakery Square. Besides Google, Bakery Square is now home to UPMC’s Technology Development Center, Pitt’s Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology and Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute.

The area’s seen many popular restaurants open in the past five years as well. There’s Union Pig & Chicken on North Highland Avenue, which is known community-wide for its brisket mac and cheese. Local restaurant chain BRGR opened has a location on Centre Avenue, and has been popular ever since.

Although new businesses occupy many of East Liberty’s buildings, there are similar nods to the neighborhood’s storied past scattered throughout the area. There’s still the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, a Gothic-styled landmark that the churchgoers call “the Cathedral of Hope.” The Kelly Strayhorn Theater, named after East Liberty-native Gene Kelly and jazz legend Billy Strayhorn, just celebrated its hundredth anniversary last year.

According to Tony, an East Liberty native who recently moved back to the area after a period of travel, the neighborhood is still undergoing a lot of changes.

“[It’s] unfamiliar in a lot of ways, [but has] a lot of positive changes,” he said, mentioning the diversity of the locals as one of the community’s best features. “[East Liberty’s restoration is a] combination of change and familiarity, which is nice to have.”

As for Zeke’s? For now, the coffee shop will continue to be a part of the neighborhood’s ongoing development by holding events such as their weekly “Tiny Business Tuesdays,” where they offer discounts to small business employees.

Munroe, the barista, said the neighborhood’s development won’t slow down anytime soon.

“I think where it was once really a historical bastion of Pittsburgh, it’s going to be like a huge kind of a technological marvel,” Munroe said.  “I kind of love what’s happening around here.”