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Out of the shadows

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By Adam Brandolph
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Before Eastside became a buzzword, before gentrification fears rose up among East Liberty residents and before Shadyside had anywhere to sprawl, Justin Strong opened his Shadow Lounge on Baum Boulevard. Now a stronghold in a neighborhood hailed for its rebirth, Strong talks about the transformation he's seen in the district and how he played a role in the change.

On an unseasonably warm winter night, young city-dwellers gather in the Shadow Lounge for its weekly open-mic night that brings in poets and musicians from across Pittsburgh.

The subdued and mellow, but not quite bohemian, atmosphere is more characteristic of neighboring Shadyside than its East Liberty location. Inside, eclectic, unframed artwork accents deep red walls. Tapestries drape from the ceiling like spiderwebs.

Today, the once unlikely Shadow Lounge has become a stronghold in a neighborhood exhausted by change.

Justin Strong opened the hip-hop oasis in 2000 with two credit cards and furniture he salvaged from Goodwill.

Although Strong says there were times when the future of the business was unknown from month to month, the Shadow Lounge has been open longer than most stores along the Penn Avenue corridor.

Strong, 29, left the University of Pittsburgh after two years without his degree. He promoted shows and live acts out of his Oakland apartment until his business began to take off. After looking for more than a year at locations that didn't quite fit his needs, Strong found his place at Baum Boulevard and South Highland Avenue.

Almost as hard as it was to find a location, Strong says it was tough to get folks to come to East Liberty after hours. "People would hear about us and want to come," he says of the lounge's early days. "But when I told them we were located in East Liberty, they hung up."

It seemed that the nighttime wasn't the right time to be in an area known more for its crime than its nightlife. "East Liberty used to be a taxi company that wouldn't pick you up if you were around the corner and a car wash," Strong says.

But that wasn't always the case.

In the 1930s, East Liberty was the third largest commercial district in the state, according to Emily Nordquist, community outreach coordinator for East Liberty Development, a nonprofit that's been trying to bring growth to East Liberty since 1979.

"East Liberty had roughly eight movie theaters, loads of restaurants and benefited from investment from the Mellons," Nordquist says.

Coming full circle

Around the start of the 1960s, city planners decided East Liberty needed to keep up with the fast-growing suburbs and developed Penn Circle, a trendy urban planning initiative.

Nordquist calls Penn Circle "a one-way death trap that surrounds the neighborhood's business district."

Throughout the next 30 years, stores and restaurants shut down or went out of business, the theaters -- except the Kelly-Strayhorn -- closed, and residents moved out. East Liberty limped along until the early '90s, when a community plan got local residents, business owners and other stakeholders together to plan changes, Nordquist says.

Today, less than two blocks outside Penn Circle, there's a Borders Books & Music, a Trek Bicycle Store and a Starbucks. Around the corner, The Home Depot, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's moved in, and plans for more big-box stores are in the works.

Crime has slowly decreased during the past four years, according to statistics compiled by the Pittsburgh police. There were roughly 1,200 crimes committed in East Liberty in 2007 -- including more than 70 burglaries and almost 40 motor vehicle thefts -- down about 25 percent from nearly 1,600 crimes in 2003.

The neighborhood outside has caught up with the trend-setting Shadow Lounge, and business has never been better for Strong, who opened an adjoining bar and venue next door called AVA.

Growing pains

East Liberty's development hasn't been great for everyone.

Upscale stores have alienated many of the neighborhood's residents, says Alethea Sims, a 25-year resident and president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty. "I'm not ungrateful," Sims says. "I just don't know of anyone who's going to buy organic baby clothes," referring to Mooi, a store in the Eastside Mall.

Sims says she wishes there was more shopping targeted toward the neighborhood's low-income black residents. "Walgreens is great, but otherwise there aren't a lot of new stores for people like me," says Sims, who is black.

Nordquist says while the there might be a perception of high-end stores moving in, the East Liberty Development is making sure a certain percentage of the employees at these stores are local residents.

"The economy is growing and thriving," she says. "People seem to be happy that there's real progress being made."

Progress or not, Strong won't call the neighborhood "Eastside," a meshing of the names East Liberty and Shadyside that developers coined to make moving to the area more palatable for investors.

"When they talk about something positive, like when a new store opens, it's Eastside," Strong says. "But when it's something negative, they got shot in East Liberty."

And while he understands the plight of his resident neighbors, Strong welcomes other businesses, regardless of whether they're high-end or not.

"If (developers) want to put in 30 Baby Gaps, let them go right ahead," he says. "I was always taught to put the spoon in your own mouth."

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