Essay: Broken Brick & Green Building

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Photo by Emily O'Donnell
Photo by Emily O’Donnell


Emily O’Donnell

Written March 21, 2011


In the heart of Penn Circle, a block of buildings stretches like a gaping wound through East of Liberty. Broken brick and shattered windows, covered by bars, mar the face of every building. Signs of former prosperity still linger. Names of old businesses are etched upon the buildings in metal. ‘Embers, fine Italian Food,’ is still visible on the side of a wooden door. The windows are broken, with tattered linen waving in the wind like cobwebs.

I walk the streets of East Liberty with my camera, photographing these buildings. The day is bright and clear and a block away on Highland Avenue, the neighborhood of East Liberty is alive with people. Where I stand, there are fewer pedestrians. No one has reason to come here. The broken down buildings stand in stark contrast to the glossy new condos and corporate stores that are popping up all over the neighborhood.

Only a block away, outside the William Penn Smoke Shop, a group of men are passing by. A tall dark man in a white shirt and cap nods to me with a smile, as I open the door. I enter with my camera in hand, notebook tucked under my arm. The interior is dark and smoky. The tiny aisles are crowded with men conversing and smoking cigars. Their eyes follow me as I look around the shop.

On one wall hangs an old clock, roman numerals and stylized carvings embedded on dark wood. Beside it is a trio of Madonnas, brightly colored behind smudged glass. These strange symbols hang above a sign that reads ‘EBT: Cash-Benefit CARDS ACCEPTED.’

I lift my camera, to photograph the clock. I can feel the eyes of the shopkeeper on me, and when I dart a glance at him, he asks me: “You wanna take it home with you?”

I study the clock with an appraising eye. It looks to be made of heavy, dark wood and far too bulky to be carried. I shake my head with a laugh; “I don’t think I could carry that on the bus.”

The woman standing at the counter is watching our exchange and gestures to my camera curiously.

“Are you a tourist?” Her words have a musical accent to them that I try to identify.

“No. I am a writer, and a photographer.” I sling the camera under one arm and gesture with my notebook to our surroundings. “I am working on a piece about East Liberty.”

Her eyes light up at my words. She springs away from the counter with a sudden exuberant energy. “That is fantastic!” She exclaims. “We need more young people like you in the area, talking about what is going on.” She grasps my arm in her excitement.

“My husband and I are working to develop a hotel in the neighborhood.  It will be the biggest thing to happen in East Liberty in decades!”

“A hotel?” There are few hotels in East Liberty and those that are there lean more towards the Shadyside area. No tourists stay in East Liberty when they come to Pittsburgh.

“Hotel Indigo,” she clarifies. “It will be a boutique hotel, with a coffee shop and seasonal art. My husband and I work for the construction company in charge of the development.” She fishes around in her pocket for a business card and hands it to me. Beatriz E. Merchan. President: Bacu Construction.

I wonder at how expensive a boutique hotel might be to fund. Who exactly in East Liberty would be able to afford it? It is the very nature of a hotel to serve those outside of a community. The people who visit do not stay for long, moving swiftly from one city to the next. They do not linger in East Liberty. However, tourism means money for a community and East Liberty would certainly benefit from an influx of commerce.

Beatriz pulls at my arm and leads me out of the shop. I blink at the bright sunlight, my eyes wide after the smoky light inside. Beatriz gestures expansively at the buildings before us, the block of abandoned buildings I had wandered through only a short time earlier.

“Someday all of this will change,” Beatriz nods to herself as she speaks. Her dark eyes study the cracked streets and old buildings. “The hotel will be just down the street here, on Broad and Highland. We renovated the old. Built on to what was already there. It will be the first of its kind in Pittsburgh.”

The project itself sounds ambitious. The hotel will feature renewable elements that change seasonally. Large scale murals will cover the walls and the public space will be transformed through a cycle of changing art and music. The motto sounds more like a yoga studio than a hotel: “Relax, Recharge, Be Inspired.”

Beatriz is originally from Colombia and she tells me, “My husband and I, we live in Washington D.C. most of the time.” She shrugs almost apologetically but smiles as she gestures around at the neighborhood.

“But we love Pittsburgh. The neighborhood here, it’s perfect for real estate. There is a lot of opportunity here for development.”

She leads me down the block of buildings to another address. In the lobby I find the same group of men that I passed by earlier. Beatriz’s husband is among them, and he tells me a bit more about Hotel Indigo.

“It will be an entirely green building,” he informs me. The hotel will be the first of its kind in Pittsburgh. The developers working with Beatriz and her husband are planning to incorporate a public plaza and patio with permeable pavement to recycle water.[1]

Beatriz and her husband are enthusiastic about the venture, but when I ask her about the opening date of the hotel, a shadow passes over her face. “We are past our opening date. There have been problems with funding.” Despite the $300,000 grant provided by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2009,[2] the hotel is still not complete.

Benhail Crownie is a friend of Beatriz and her husband. They introduce me to him and I recognize him as the man I passed earlier on the street.  He is the owner of the Royal Caribbean restaurant located on the edges of Penn Circle.

“I have lived in East Liberty for over thirty years,” Benhail tells me. He is a tall man with a rhythmic Jamaican accent, but I can still hear a hint of Pittsburgh in his voice

“Everyone brings something to the table. We are working to make East Liberty a better place for everyone, a cultural center for the city. I have seen this neighborhood on a roller coaster ride for decades. Up and down and now we are coming back up again.”

Outside the buildings are still crumbling. In East Liberty, in many places the pavement is still gravel underfoot. Echoes of violence and pain resound throughout the neighborhood. Brightly colored murals cover old walls, where children blow bubbles that float around corners. Doves fly out of broken brick. Old buildings remain standing empty for decades, with their business signs still hanging.

The ghosts of East Liberty’s former splendor linger in the empty streets. They are slowly being transformed by the redevelopment process. The buildings transform, from tattered linens to velvet curtains. From broken brick to smooth glass, reflecting the promise of a greener future for East Liberty.

[1] Mark Belko. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 17, 2008

[2] Spatter, Sam. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. April 8, 2009.

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