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East Liberty: No longer going in circles

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Salvation: The spire of East Liberty Presbyterian Church - PHOTO: HEATHER MULL

Geographically and otherwise, East Liberty straddles the border between wealthier communities like Shadyside and more troubled neighborhoods like Homewood. And for good and bad, the area has been the poster child for urban renewal in Pittsburgh.

East Liberty itself started out as a wealthy enclave outside the hustle of Downtown, with rich farmers and lawyers making it a transportation hub. (Some of the city's first trolleys went through in the 1800s.) One section of the neighborhood still boasts orchard walls from an estate once owned by the Mellon banking family.

Some traces of the old affluence remain. Motor Square Garden (5900 Baum Blvd.), originally a marketplace built by the Mellons in 1900, hosted sporting events such as boxing in the '20s and '30s. After an unsuccessful flirtation as an urban mall, the distinctive blue-domed complex was purchased by the American Automobile Association in 1998. The building is still lovely, though there's no guarantee your driver's license photo will be. If it's spiritual fulfillment you're after, the beautiful East Liberty Presbyterian Church (116 S. Highland Ave., 412-441-3800) looms large. Also built with Mellon money -- and sometimes called the "Mellon fire escape" -- it is one of the most politically liberal churches in the region. Seekers of any stripe can walk its labyrinth in meditative reflection.

But prosperity began draining away in the '60s due to white flight compounded by bad urban-planning decisions -- including the notoriously confusing and diverting Penn Circle, which steered auto traffic away from small businesses that weren't on its one-way track. Decay and blight set in. Crime was a problem, and some public housing -- notably the huge towers along Penn Circle -- became dangerous and rotted out, earning the sad nickname "Crack Stacks."

But the tide is changing, thanks in part to creative types and homeowners taking advantage of housing prices that are depressed (though perhaps not for much longer). Spots like the Shadow Lounge (5972 Baum Blvd., 412-363-8277) put 'Sliberty on the map as a destination for entertainment and culture seekers. Much can be made of this venue's effect on revitalizing the area. After beginning as a BYOB hangout, the lounge has morphed into a venue for comics, poets, musicians and artists. The cool has spilled over, and proprietor Justin Strong recently opened a second section, Ava, which fills with the fabulous for dance parties and fashion shows.

Temptation: Happy hour at Kelly's Lounge - PHOTO: HEATHER MULL

The area's rebirth is also thanks to more regulated efforts on the part of community development organizations such as East Liberty Development Initiative to bring commercial anchors like "Eastside," the complex that's home to organic big-box Whole Foods (5880 Centre Ave., 412-441-7960), Borders Books and Music (corner of Centre and Highland avenues, 412-441-1080), Trek Bicycles (Eastside, second level, 412-362-8735) and a host of other local and national "prestige" shops.

The arrival of Whole Foods created a stir among foodies, and it remains a huge draw, with weekend crowds necessitating extra staff to maintain order among the hybrids and minivans in the parking lot.

More businesses moved into Eastside's plot of land at the corner of Highland and Centre avenues, including Eva Szabo (412-661-0740), a pampering spot specializing in European skin care. A premium state liquor store (412-204-8002) with expanded selections on state-controlled hooch looms at the top level of the shopping center next to Borders and Mooi (412-661-6664), an organic baby boutique.

Just across from the beacon of consumerism, find Kelly's Lounge (6012 Penn Circle South, 412-363-6012), a neon-signed enclave of retro-cool cocktails with unusual specials (Pink Squirrel, anyone? How about a sidecar?), comfort food such as crocks of homemade mac 'n' cheese, and a jukebox that would make Mike Ness weep for joy. The crowd here is variable: sometimes sparse, sometimes crammed to the gills with rockabilly dudes in duck's ass hairdos and bettys in vintage skirts.

If you're craving something swankier, cross Highland again and check out the Red Room (134 S. Highland Ave., 412-362-5800) a ferny lounge and dining room. Sometimes, only a pricey martini and vertical dessert will do. Pittsburgh's version of the Beautiful People can be found ensconced in the leather upholstery here.

Next door in this mini restaurant district is Royal Caribbean (128 S. Highland Ave., 412-362-1861), a spot with very little in common with anything ever hawked by Kathie Lee Gifford. The jerk shrimp will make you holler for your mama. Bring your own libations; the hardest drink they have is ginger beer.

Continue your gustatory tourism at Abay (130 S. Highland Ave., 412-661-9736), the city's long-overdue first Ethiopian restaurant. You can sit at traditional low tables and scoop up your communal meal using injera (a soft bread) and your hands. (Wusses and germ phobes, have no fear: You can get forks and individual plates, if you must.)

Across Penn Avenue from East Liberty Presbyterian, find the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater (5941 Penn Ave., 412-363-3000). Named for native sons Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn, the 350-seat theater hosts events from dance to plays to community forums. The front patio is made of bricks bearing the names of those who contributed to the rebuilding of the theater, a project completed in 2002.

Such homegrown spots seem, at least for the moment, to be holding their own against big-box retailers such as Home Depot (400 N. Highland Ave., 412-367-7346) and Trader Joe's (6343 Penn Ave., 412-363-5748), which opened nearby. More development is on its way -- the former Nabisco plant on Penn Avenue has been earmarked for a mixed-use project called "Bakery Square" -- and the introduction of national retail can be seen as a microcosm for the neighborhood's fortunes.

For some, heading into East Liberty for organic kumquats may still seem brave, but as the area gains cachet with shopping destinations like Eastside, concerns about gentrification are inevitably arising. But many parts of the neighborhood feature an eclectic mix of renters and homeowners, old and young, black and white.

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