The trademark bathtub in the middle of the living room is the giveaway, reminding us that James Simon’s digs once housed more than a decade of the Gist Street Reading Series.
Sure the readings were fun, back in the early years of the century, drawing overflow crowds, showcasing talent, attracting writers from all over the country. But they were also created by Simon, and writer Sherrie Flick, to bring people to Uptown.
Back then, the community was awash in pimps, pushers and prostitutes; abandoned properties and shooting galleries; buzz-in-only businesses; Mercy Hospital and Duquesne University. And an ocean of cars that flowed by too fast to notice.
Simon, creator of outsized, cartoonish, often music-themed public sculptures—947 Liberty Avenue, for instance and the Duquesne University parking garage mural—thought that poetry and public art would make people stop.
“People thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “Uptown wasn’t pretty.”
While the Gist St. Readings discontinued years ago, progress in Uptown is greater than ever. It’s what planners call a quilted community, a complex mix of retrofitted residences and incubator spaces, major institutions and light industry with housing—some blighted, some with architectural charm—and underserved residents.
It’s a community ripe for renovation. And it’s what’s next for Uptown that is so intriguing.
Comprised of 200-odd acres, including 25 acres of street-level parking lots, Uptown is defined by the Crosstown ramps and the Birmingham Bridge, the Boulevard of the Allies and Colwell Street. In between there are some 800 permanent residents—10 times that number with Mercy Hospital patients and Duquesne University students. Fifty times with overflow hockey or concert crowds.
Anchored by Mercy Hospital, Duquesne University and the new Consol Energy Center, development is thrumming. As one indicator, there’s the new Blue Line Grille, Uptown’s first first-rate restaurant since Fifth Avenue’s thriving mercantile days of a half-century ago.
Even more promising: Work is underway on the Flats on Fifth, 74 market-rate apartments to be completed in 2016 which follows the recent renovation of Fifth Avenue School Lofts, 65 market-rate apartments and Action Housing’s Mackey Lofts, 43 affordable housing units, including an entire floor for the disabled.
With those developments, a general move back to cities and a special planning designation, Uptown is rising again. “People are seeing Uptown as a good place,” says Simon. “It’s very exciting.”
Uptown was just designated by the City as an Eco-Innovation District, a planning process which involves stakeholders of all stripes. “The EcoDistrict planning process is really about first establishing a governance model, creating a forum where all parties can come to common agreement,” Pittsburgh’s Sustainability Manager Grant Ervin told NEXTpittsburgh in an article about the designation.
The Uptown Eco-Innovation District will employ emerging technologies, adhere to human-scale developments and equitable land use and seek sustainability in all things.
“Uptown,” offers architect Christine Mondor, evolveEA principal and a highly interested party, “is ripe for this kind of thinking, this kind of process. She notes that the neighborhood has traditionally been seen as a pass-through between Oakland and Downtown. “But with the arts and the incubators, people are now beginning to see Uptown as a unique place. They’re seeing it as a neighborhood that could be something.
“Start with the idea that it’s a front row seat to a view,” Mondor says, referring to the Monongahela Valley stretched out below. “Then add this nice mix of small, affordable houses, multi-family dwellings, lofts and incubators. And the anchors on the western edge. That’s a good platform to build on.”
In April, Mondor and others took that platform a step farther. As a part of Pittsburgh’s p4 Conference (for People, Planet, Place and Performance), Mondor led a group tour through Uptown and then facilitated a discussion about the possibilities of transforming the neighborhood later presented to the conference attendees. One advantage of the community that was cited was the number of startups moved in, due to two unique work spaces.
Like a lot of things in Uptown, Fifth Avenue’s StartUptown, a community-based co-working space, used to be a lot of other things, including an Elks Hall, chiropractic college and coffin and hearse showroom.
If nothing else, Uptown and its buildings are made for adaptive reuse which, to hear Dale McNutt tell it, is the community’s great strength—and its future.
“Uptown was a no-brainer for me 23 years ago,” he says. Moving his design business from Fort Pitt Boulevard, he found the location between Oakland and Downtown ideal. “While I was comfortable with the environment,” he says, “back then it was tough to get people to work here.” And yet, “when artists move into an underserved community,” McNutt says, “all they see is potential.”