History of East Liberty

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If the East Liberty Valley could be described in one word, “resilient” would be it.

Few neighborhoods or locales in Pittsburgh can claim the historical significance that is found in the East Liberty Valley; even fewer can claim the resiliency to constantly adapt and reinvent.  Over the past 200 years, the only constant in the Valley has been change. From farm community, to railroad hub, to commercial and industrial center, to urban renewal experiment, to pioneer in urban renaissance, the East Liberty Valley has boldly confronted the challenges it has been dealt.

The story of the East Liberty Valley is much like that of the City of Pittsburgh and greater southwestern Pennsylvania.  That story starts with geography.  According to architectural historian Franklin Toker, “Geography is destiny.”[1] Nowhere are geography and destiny more closely linked than in Pittsburgh and the East Liberty Valley.  Thousands of years before human habitation, enormous glaciers eroded the Appalachian Plateau on which the City of Pittsburgh and the East Liberty Valley are built today. [2] This gave the region its unique, characteristic features.  “There are three primary topographical conditions [in the Pittsburgh region]: floodplains and bottomlands in the river valleys, uplands midway between rivers and hilltops, and high land at the prevailing level of the plateau. Slopes tie it all together.”[3] The expanse of gently sloping land in the East Liberty Valley is one of the uplands between rivers and hilltops. As an easily buildable and well-connected area, the geography of the East Liberty Valley would be unquestionably tied to its future development. The future development would be inseparably tied to the people who have called the Valley home.

Thousands of years before the arrival of the first European Settlers, southwestern Pennsylvania was home to several groups of indigenous peoples. The Mound Builders were among the first to develop settlements here.  Later, the region served as the hunting grounds of many different groups of Native Americans, including the Iroquois, Shawnee, Lenne-Lenape, and Delaware tribes. It was not until the mid-1700s that European trappers and traders began appearing in the area, claiming the territory for their home countries.  As the 18th century progressed, the French and British contested ownership of the territory in southwestern Pennsylvania and to the west. Jockeying for military position the French and Indian War broke out in 1754.

As the landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania was transformed into a war-time front, so was the East Liberty Valley. Critical to the British military efforts was the movement of troops and supplies. For this purpose, numerous roads were constructed in the region. Among these roads, one was built by General John Forbes (1707 – 1759) and his expedition. This road was built directly through the East Liberty Valley. Roughly following a Native American trail, the road diverged from an earlier road at Fort Bedford in present day Bedford County and spanned to the French controlled Fort Duquesne.[4] The Forbes Road, as it would come to be known, was name for General Forbes and his expedition. It was after Fort Duquesne fell to the British that the Forbes Road grew in importance as more than a military path.  As a key lifeline to the east, the Forbes Road was improved and developed as a turnpike; known first as the Pittsburgh-Greensburg Turnpike and later the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Turnpike. Today, this road is known as Penn Avenue.

It was the development of the turnpike that ultimately led to the settlement of the East Liberty Valley.  Along the length of the turnpike, agricultural settlements arose. These settlements often serviced the needs of travelers and functioned as early attempts to tame the frontier wilderness. In 1778, five miles east of the small, frontier outpost of Pittsburgh, Alexander Negley decided to establish himself in the East Liberty Valley.

Although not the first to cultivate the land in the East Liberty Valley, Negley was among the first to settle and establish himself in the area. For a time, the modest settlement in the Valley was known as Negleytown.[5] But the settlement was not to remain an agricultural town for long. In 1819, Jacob Negley, surveyor, engineer, landowner, and son of Alexander Negley, created a surveyed town plan for the settlement he officially named East Liberty.

Named for the British tradition of “liberties,” or open, public grazing areas for livestock, East Liberty was the first of several liberties in Pittsburgh. But East Liberty had more success as a travelers’ respite than as a grazing ground.  With a half-dozen taverns, East Liberty claimed an unusual number of drinking and lodging establishments. Taverns like the Black Horse Tavern, Beitler’s Tavern, and the Point Breeze Tavern quickly became popular stops along the turnpike. Some have left their mark on the area. The Point Breeze neighborhood takes its name from the Point Breeze Tavern and until as late as 1923, Stevenson Place was known at Beitler Street.

As the East Liberty Valley continued to develop, it did so independently of Pittsburgh.  It founded its own religious institutions. It developed its own commercial establishments. It established its own distinct character of place. However, the slow, steady, independent development of the Valley was to suddenly change in the mid-19th century. The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased land for the laying of tracks in 1851.  Until this time, the East Liberty Valley had adapted from an agricultural community to a tavern town in a matter of 70 years. It would once again be expected to adapt as the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad forced it to become a commercial and residential center.

On February 15, 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened its line connecting Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.[6] With reliable and convenient access to the countryside, Pittsburgh’s industrial and financial barons left the congestion of Pittsburgh’s downtown district. “Henry Clay Frick, Alexander Peacock, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Carnegie, George Westinghouse, H. J. Heinz, and other millionaires built large houses of every architectural description away from the city and in the green pastures and clean air of the East Liberty Valley.”[7] As a middle class emerged, other Pittsburghers began to move east. They, too, sought refuge from Pittsburgh’s smoke and congestion. The East Liberty Valley became a center for development.

One of the earliest of Pittsburgh’s elite to relocate to the East Liberty Valley and begin its development was Judge Thomas Mellon. Mellon was founder of Pittsburgh’s Mellon National Bank (later Mellon financial Corporation and presently BNY/Mellon). Seeing the Valley’s potential, he began purchasing land. His marriage into the Negley Family also increased his prominence as a major East End landholder and developer. 

In addition to residential and commercial development, industry soon moved to the Valley. In 1861, the first commercial oil refinery in the United States was built by Charles Lockhart, a Pittsburgh entrepreneur. It was built in what is now Highland Park (along the Allegheny River at Washington Boulevard). This plant processed crude oil barged from Titusville and Oil City via the Allegheny River and represented the beginning of the Standard Oil Company, now a worldwide enterprise. Founded by Lockhart in partnership with John D. Rockefeller, the company was chartered in East Liberty in 1868. Lockhart became very wealthy and provided major philanthropic support to many Pittsburgh organizations.

With development in the Valley occurring rapidly, the physical and social structure of the East End changed. As population in the Valley expanded, much of the East Liberty Valley was annexed by the City of Pittsburgh in 1868.[8] The neighborhood of East Liberty became the heart of the East Liberty Valley. Sited at the confluence of several neighborhoods (Shadyside, Morningside, Highland Park, Homewood North and South, Lincoln-Lemington, Larimer, Garfield, Stanton Heights and Friendship), by the early 20th century East Liberty became Pittsburgh’s second downtown and the third largest commercial district in Pennsylvania. However, as with much of the United States, the boom years of the early 20th century gave way to the bust of the Great Depression.

The East Liberty Valley was not immune to Depression-related hardships. As many of the industrial barons moved away or died, the vast mansions of the Valley were either divided into apartments or demolished.  The residential base that had built the community began to disappear. The most substantial change to the East Liberty Valley came in the years following World War II.  Affordable automobile ownership and new highways made suburban living an attractive option.  Commuting to the city from the suburbs was now fast and reliable.  “City dwellers migrated outward into the suburbs followed by an increasing number of businesses… The large commercial core was experiencing declining revenues and profits, while new shopping centers in the suburbs were enticing shoppers.”[9]  Although the East Liberty Valley was not experiencing the widespread blight seen in other city neighborhoods, business leaders sought a solution.

It was in the early 1950s that several business leaders approached the city council of Pittsburgh about possible remedies.  A new government program known as Urban Renewal was being implemented elsewhere in the city and had produced attractive results like Point State Park and Gateway Center. The often controversial Civic Arena/Lower Hill District Project was also underway at this time. Urban Renewal made stemming disinvestment in inner city neighborhoods attractive, affordable, and relatively easy. Very little was known about its long-term effects on the American city. Cities across the United States opted to pursue Urban Renewal projects.  Ultimately, results would be mixed.

In the late 1950s, a plan was devised for the East Liberty Valley. The plan focused specifically on the East Liberty commercial district. It was intended to remake the district as a popular commercial destination. At the time, the plan was one of the largest of its kind ever implemented in the United States. It comprised over 350 acres and demolished more than one million square feet of built fabric. It condensed the commercial district. It built high-rise residential towers in the commercial core and smaller low-rise buildings in a park-like setting on the periphery. It constructed Penn Circle and East Liberty Boulevard to address traffic issues.  At the core of the project, it created a traffic-free zone known as a pedestrian mall. The East Liberty Project implemented some of the most popular, although experimental, urban planning tools of the time. 

Although the plan had good intentions, it ultimately failed to make the East Liberty Valley the destination that it had once been.  A prolonged construction schedule of nearly seven years kept shoppers away. Many found Penn Circle to be difficult to navigate. Shop owners claimed that parking was difficult for their clients. Condensing the commercial district reduced the diversity of shops in the district. But perhaps the largest impediment to East Liberty’s success was that many people simply preferred the new, indoor, air-conditioned shopping malls in the suburbs. Many businesses in East Liberty closed or moved to smaller, more traditional commercial districts nearby.  Large portions of the East Liberty Valley would become economically paralyzed for nearly 30 years.

Approximately ten years after Urban Renewal, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the East Liberty Valley began a long and arduous journey to rebuild. Over the next 30 years, the district would slowly work to revive itself; removing the pedestrian malls, redesigning Penn Circle, seeking and receiving historic district status, and encouraging the growth of small business. Instead of the top-down approach of Urban Renewal, a small grassroots approach is working in the East Liberty Valley today. Additionally, the arrival of major retailers like Home Depot, Whole Foods, and Target in the early 2000s has given the district a much needed economic boost. 

As the 21st century commences, the East Liberty Valley is poised to once again become a major Pittsburgh destination.  Businesses are returning.  A new generation of city-dwellers, of urban pioneers, is calling the Valley home. The sense of place has been reestablished in the East Liberty Valley and the resiliency of the Valley has never been more evident.

[1] Franklin Toker. Pittsburgh: A New Portrait. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009) p. 5

[2] Ibid., 5

[3] Martin Aurand. The Spectator and the Topographical City. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006) p.2

[4] Explore PA History. 2011. http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-7B (accessed November 13, 2012)

[5] Georgina G. Negley. East Liberty Presbyterian Church with Historical Setting and Narrative of the Centennial Celebration. (Pittsburgh: Murdoch, Kerr & Co. Press, 1919)  p. 5.

[6] Ibid., 7

[7] East End/East Liberty Historical Society. Images of America: Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Valley. (Charleston SC, Chicago IL, Portsmouth NH, San Francisco CA: Arcadia Publishing, 2008)  p. 21.

[8] East End/East Liberty Historical Society, 8.

[9] Sorley S. Sheinberg, Case study, the East Liberty Urban Renewal Project: with a brief history of the events of the Pittsburgh Renaissance leading to the project. Internship report (M.P.A.) (University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, 1974.) p. 18