Headlines·Special Report

Community plan transformed the 'drive-by capital' of Pittsburgh

Bill Peduto is standing on a bridge in the rejuvenated East Liberty neighbourhood of Pittsburgh when an 85-year-old man stops to talk. Peduto gives him a trivia question.

East Liberty went from being a crime hub to a place of pride. Part 3 of Steel to Steel: Bright ideas from Pittsburgh to Hamilton

Bill Peduto, city councillor and candidate in this month's Pittsburgh mayoral race, says East Liberty's turnaround came from a detailed neighbourhood plan. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Pittsburgh and Hamilton, two Steeltowns, two cities forced to struggle with decline of their traditional manufacturing economies, two cities trying to find a new way. Pittsburgh is frequently held up as a model of economic redevelopment. Three major magazines have named it America's most livable city. Major tech companies such as Google and Apple have located there. CBC Hamilton went to Pittsburgh to find three success stories that might have application here, from a warehouse full of artwork to a neighbourhood plan that turned an area known for drive-by shootings into a family-friendly hangout. This is the final installment of our three-part series.


Bill Peduto is standing on a bridge in the rejuvenated East Liberty neighbourhood of Pittsburgh when an 85-year-old man stops to talk. Peduto gives him a trivia question.

"Do you know what province Hamilton is in?" he asks.

The man thinks about it. He squints out at the railway tracks and finally answers. "Toronto."

"Right," Peduto says. "Ontario."

Steel to Steel: Bright ideas from Pittsburgh to Hamilton

Tuesday: The Mattress Factory

Wednesday: A non-profit foundation that saves historic buildings 

Today: A community plan for economic revitalization

"I went up there years ago," the old man says. "Saw the Maple Leafs. Now what are you going to do about my property taxes?"

If the mayoral candidate was standing there 20 years earlier, the conversation would  have been different. East Liberty hasn't always been the kind of neighbourhood where one stood around to chat.

Once a flourishing neighbourhood in the 1950s, it deteriorated to become the "drive-by capital" of Pittsburgh, said Peduto, a long-time area resident, now city councillor and a frontrunner in the May 21 mayoral election.

Crime was rampant. Buildings were crumbling, vacancies rose and former factories and show rooms sat empty. This includes "automobile row," a long strip of buildings that used to house automobile showrooms.

It's different today. Ethnic restaurants line East Liberty's streets. Families walk its sidewalks. Google has moved into the old Nabisco plant. Whole Foods opened in another vacant building. Automobile row is now home to the Spinning Plate artist's loft.

There were growing pains, Peduto said. When the artist's loft opened, thieves scaled the building and broke into the second-floor windows multiple times to steal the computer equipment.

But after years of hard work, East Liberty is back.

If Hamilton or any other industrial city wants to follow the model, it's a straightforward concept, Peduto said. In the late 1990s, a group of citizens joined East Liberty Development Inc. to author an East Liberty community plan known as A Vision for East Liberty.

The group spent from 1996 to 1999 hammering out what it wanted for its neighbourhood in painstaking detail.

It mapped out details such as who it hoped to attract and which properties it hoped to save. It used the plan to chase government grants and private developers, and is accomplishing it piece by piece.

"It was community-based planning, I mean real community-based planning, not the kind where the conclusion is already known," Peduto said.

If the planning is done right, he said, you "step back and watch it take off."

At 58 pages, the East Liberty community plan is extensive. It starts with its vision statement ("a town within a city") and tackles what it wants to see in the neighbourhood, block by block.

Building a bridge

"Build high density housing of three stories to form a solid wall of buildings at the corner of Broad and Penn Circle with the potential for multi-family rental housing for the elderly," reads one of the plan's bullet points on page 42.

Another recommendation: "Create a public edge to Liberty Park with new residential streets and new houses that look out across the park."

One of Peduto's favourite elements is a modern-looking bridge that spans rows of railway tracks below. The bridge was built with funding from the federal government. It connects East Liberty with the homey neighbourhood of Shadyside.

Bill Peduto crosses his favourite bridge - the one connecting East Liberty to Shadyside. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The bridge is a recent development, but it's in the plan.

"Get the Port Authority and railroad to allow the construction of a pedestrian bridge across the busway," the plan reads.

'A shooting gallery'

This new East Liberty is a turnaround from 20 years ago, when the neighbourhood was "a shooting gallery," said Peduto, a Pittsburgh native who grew up in the area.

"There were drive bys. There were car jackings. Heroin overdoses were constant around certain bars."

The most important aspect was that everyone was on board, Peduto said. That includes politicians, developers and residents. Controversy does not attract investment, he said.

"Government funds, foundation money, other funds, they all flow like water in a stream away from the rocks.

"If the rocks are community opposition where people are opposed to the zoning or something else, it's very hard to get people to rally around it."

Everyone's an urban planner

Other strategies in the plan include contacting absentee landlords and encouraging them to tap into tax-deferred programs to renovate their rental units. It recommended Neighbourhood Watch and block parties, and developing a one-night event known as the East Liberty Night of Shopping.

They're ideas voted on by concerned residents who wanted to improve their neighbourhood, Peduto said.

"Everybody's an urban planner whether they know it or not if they care about their community."

Not everyone was happy with all aspects of East Liberty's turnaround. Rents are more expensive now, and some of its previous residents, predominantly African American, feel pushed out, said filmmaker Chris Ivey, who explored the dynamic in his documentary East of Liberty.

"People in general are really happy with the redevelopment," he said. "It's just the way certain things happen."

A little Liberty in Hamilton

Coun. Jason Farr represents Ward 2 in Hamilton. Farr has attended lectures about East Liberty and sees Beasley as the ideal neighbourhood for such a plan.

Cannon Street could be "a nerve centre for such a concept," he said.

Hamilton has revitalized neighbourhoods through community efforts, said Farr, citing Ottawa Street as an example. But nothing on the scale of East Liberty.

"Anything that can increase engagement and is built by the community sounds like something I'd be happy to hitch my wagon to," he said.

"How could we go wrong having our own piece of Liberty in Hamilton?"