East Liberty’s Penn Plaza Gentrification Issues Concern Residents

By Breauna Franklin | Urban Agenda

Whole Foods - Penn Plaza building__EmoniWhat one resident recalls “a beautiful community” that historically has been a hallmark or business, many people of Penn Plaza now find it increasingly difficult to keep their apartments.

Plans are under way to develop a new Whole Foods location at the same site as the current Penn Plaza apartments, in a mixed-use complex, displacing longtime residents who are being evicted.“The new apartments are for everyone but us,” said Elaine Moses, a Penn Plaza tenant of 10 years in the East Liberty community. She is plagued with the problem of finding new housing.

She has attended multiple meetings and knows there are resources available to help the tenants reorient themselves. Moses said those efforts have been of no benefit to her.

“I don’t know where to go,” Moses said of her living arrangements.

whole food storefront_IsabellaPenn Plaza is scheduled to be replaced by a new Whole Foods despite the 7-minute walk from the proposed new location.

No decision has been officially made to address this apparent conflict, stated Annie Cull, a Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic spokesperson. In an email, Cull added that East Liberty is full of opportunity to create a “refreshed experience” for the store to acquire new customers.

Federal housing assistance contracts –offered to give tenants the ability to move- is not affordable for many of the tenants, Moses said

She knows of a few residents who have been able to move to locations without federal assistance.Planned boycott of East Liberty Whole Foods2__Emoni

Moses is one of many residents required to move out of their original communities as a consequence of integrating new businesses.

Artist Joy KMT is organizing a boycott against Whole Foods. She compares this development to the “constant erasure of black people.”

“They don’t have voices,” KMT said of the dozens of residents being forced from their apartments. She added there are continual forms of passiveness to displace of African Americans, especially those who are disabled or elderly- which describes the majority of Penn Plaza-, she said.

KMT attended school in the East Liberty area and said the East End was always recognized as an area enriched by African American culture. Her ties with the community enable her to see the rapid redevelopment that is dominating that area of the East End.

While her personal boycott of Whole Foods has caught on with some fellow community members, KMT said she hopes to call attention to a much larger movement.

Construction__Emoni-2“No one holds [businesses restructuring communities] accountable,” KMT said.

She sees people who are provided with affordable housing options that force them into unknown neighborhoods where they must become reacclimated or potentially left without basic healthcare or education options.
So, KMT said she tries to reach these corporations by providing a humanitarian view on what happens to the lives of people who are displaced. She finds that “protests are effective in some way but are often reactionary,” and by hurting a company’s retail, she can combat “unethical capitalism.”

In 2000, African Americans comprised 75.4 percent of the population in East Liberty. In 2010, that group only constituted 67.5 percent, according to the Southwestern Human Profiles, a project through the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Renewal.
One Penn Plaza tenant, a Pittsburgh resident for more than 78 years, says she believes she is being forced from her apartment for no good reason.

“There is nothing I can do about it,” said the tenant, who wished to remain anonymous
Whole Foods - Penn Plaza Women__ Emoni-2

She said what was once a “beautiful community” is a place where she can no longer stay.

While concerns over relocation and affordable housing practices have been prevalent in previous years, the East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI) has been working to answer such criticisms.

Deputy Director Skip Schwab has spent 19 years with the non-profit organization.

In the 1940s, East Liberty was the third largest commercial community in Pennsylvania after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Schwab said. After a slow decline in the following decades, and the failure of urban renewal, Schwab said there was a need for change.

“Concentrations of poverty are not healthy,” said Schwab, adding that one of the main missions of the ELDI is to raise property values and bring revenue into the community.

One of ELDI’s main objectives was to rebuild the pedestrian bridge that sits next to the current Whole Foods, yet was blocked by property owners in neighboring Shady Side, Schwab said.

“It is absolutely because of race,” said Schwab

There is affordable housing in East Liberty, according to Schwab, 26% of residential area in East Liberty is allocated to affordable housing. Schwab pointed to the availability of the national “Circles” program, which originally started in rural communities but is being integrated into urban areas. This program tries to bring together lower-income and middle-class citizens in one unifying neighborhood.

However, Schwab said he recognizes cases such as the Penn Plaza situation come with community change.
Planned boycott of East Liberty Whole Foods3_Isabella

“There’s not an easy answer,” said Schwab. Yet, he added that the architecturally beautiful buildings that are beginning to adorn East Liberty’s main streets are isolating people in lower income areas.

For organizations such as the ELDI, the problem lies in educating the community about what is happening, Schwab said. “We get the criticism and we get the thanks,” he said. Ultimately, Schwab said that the ELDI did not do a great job of explaining their objectives to the community but hope to curb situations such as the Penn Plaza situation from occurring.

As for KMT, she said she hopes one day people can find there are other ways to modernize and make communities beautiful.

“I’m only one person,” she said. “I would like to connect with other people to change the way this is going.”

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