The place catered mostly to young black men, who, just like wealthy people, are a minority. Soon, some of the well-heeled will live in the “old” Lazarus department store. That’s a good thing, since the place has been empty.
But you don’t have to be black or working class to understand that for years, downtown Pittsburgh, like downtowns across the country, has been undergoing major cultural changes. The biggest of those changes is economic. Wig shops and men’s shops are being replaced with jewelers and upscale designer boutiques. Many people would say that replacing the downscale with the upscale is a good thing, and I would agree, in part.
The paradox of progress is that it can mean less diversity, and hence, fewer interesting things. I was reminded of this when I was in Richmond recently for my niece’s wedding. I’d forgotten to bring dress socks, and I asked the desk clerk at the hotel if he knew of anywhere downtown that I could walk to for dress socks.
“There is a place,” said the clerk, a young black man. “Payless Shoes, about twelve blocks away.”
It was a Saturday morning, and that part of downtown Richmond had few pedestrians on the streets. It reminded me of downtown Pittsburgh on weekends. The weather was in the sixties, the sun was rising slowly and the air had a sweet taste. I strolled a couple blocks before I saw another pedestrian.
Walking past the Colonial-era homes and impressive neoclassical stone buildings, I knew I was headed in the right direction. I figured I’d ask for directions from someone. A couple blocks later I stopped on a corner to consider an orange, Moorish-looking building. A bus stopped at the corner, and a rider disembarked.
He was a black man in his thirties, and I asked him the name of the building. He couldn’t recall, and he asked the bus driver. The driver, a black woman in her forties, thought for a second and named the place. She drove off, and the guy explained to me that the building was supposed to be redeveloped.
“It was a theater. They used to show movies there,” he said.
Halfway up the block, I noticed a large hotel that looked closed. The Hotel John Marshall, 15 stories high and 77 years old, obviously once was a grand place. I walked around it and I saw that the main entrance doors were open, and that workers were remodeling the building. I spoke with some of the bosses about the project, explaining to them that I write for a construction trade magazine. They told me that the place was being converted into condominiums, some of which would be more than 4,000 square feet.
A couple blocks up, I called over to a guy walking on the other side of the street. He was a black man in his forties, casually dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. Where’s Broad Street, I asked. It’s right up here, he said, pointing.
Where are you going, he asked. I told him. Right over there, he said, pointing toward the store. You can’t miss it, he said, waving.
I headed into the shop and was waited on by one of the two employees, both of whom were black women. I quickly picked a couple pairs of socks, paid for them, and headed out. Walking onto the sidewalk, I noticed a sporting goods shop across Broad Street. That part of Broad Street, because of the mix of shops, reminded me of what some call the “Fifth-Forbes area” of downtown Pittsburgh.
I went into the store, which also was manned by black employees, and bought a baseball cap. Heading across Broad Street to go back to the hotel, I ran into the fellow who gave me directions.
“Did you find it?” he asked.
I lifted up my bag containing the socks. “Yep,” I said.
He grinned, and gave me a double high-five hand slap.
I wondered if such casualness between strangers would be common in future downtowns, devoid of stores catering to blue-collar people, where class distinctions are more disparate.
As I strolled down a side street, I passed an African-American beauty salon. It was late morning, but about a dozen ladies already were in the place, chatting it up, several with their heads appearing half-swallowed in ancient hair-dryers. The scene looked as if it could have been today or thirty years back. That place will be gone soon, I thought to myself, since I already was aware of numerous redevelopment projects in Richmond.
As in Richmond, Pittsburgh's downtown is experiencing an economic and cultural shift akin to a powerful seismic force. I know we don’t want a wig shop on every corner of downtown Pittsburgh, but wig shops aren’t being subsidized. The Lazarus building, which was heavily financed by taxpayers, soon will become the digs of some of the wealthier residents of the city, at the expense of taxpayers. The new PNC skyscraper, which will be built in part with taxpayer funding, also will be the home of some of the city’s richer folk.
Ironically, most of the folks who help to pay for the expensive abodes and corresponding high-end retail shops won’t be able to afford to shop or live there. Taxpayers must decide if the future downtown Pittsburgh will be more than just a place of work and a Coney Island of the Moneyed.