Quirky Pittsburgh neighborhood wants some attention

| Saturday, May 12, 2012, 10:41 p.m.

It's not quite 3 p.m. as the regulars drain the last golden, foamy slugs from a few early pints in the dim light of the neighborhood public house.

The bartender patrols the same stretch she's covered for more than 30 years, while the kindly owner sings the praises of the school bus-driving, guitar-playing cowboy who lives upstairs in Nied's Hotel.

It's just another Monday in Upper Lawrenceville.

This northern tier of the riverside neighborhood developed a reputation as a den for shady characters after the mills closed and families fled. But as the resurgence of its better-known neighbors, lower and central Lawrenceville, creeps across 51st Street, Upper Lawrenceville is losing the shady -- but keeping the characters.

A group of young professionals wants to bring attention to this lesser-known Lawrenceville, separated from the bustling Butler Street business district by Allegheny Cemetery. Classmates at the Leadership Development Initiative, a program of the nonprofit civic group Leadership Pittsburgh Inc., organized a one-day celebration of Upper Lawrenceville meant to be as quirky as the neighborhood it promotes. It takes place Saturday, starting at 2 p.m.

"We Do. (Take Two) An Upper Lawrenceville Love Story" will feature a mass vow renewal ceremony officiated by state Sen. Jim Ferlo; a giant cookie table (because this is, after all, Pittsburgh); live music from Slim Forsythe, the aforementioned cowboy bus driver; catering from the area's formidable stock of inventive restaurants; and, for some reason, 50 lawn chairs.

The idea of the project, called Pop Up Pittsburgh, is to use an event to draw people into an area they wouldn't otherwise go, introducing them to the resurgent business and real estate market.

"The Pop Up project, in essence, is sort of a one-day event that comes in and changes the face of the community, and then cleans up and leaves, never to be seen again. But the effects should be seen for long after," said Cori Begg, 34, of Forest Hills, a marketer and member of the class.

Leadership Pittsburgh provided the group -- a mix of marketing professionals, bankers, lawyers and nonprofit executives, most in their 20s and 30s -- a $5,000 budget and few instructions. To encourage unconventional thinking, Leadership Pittsburgh told the group to incorporate 50 lawn chairs and the 91A bus route into their plan.

About 60 people pass through Leadership Pittsburgh's program for senior leaders, and 45 through the Leadership Development Initiative each year, said Danielle Tyson, LDI's program manager. The programs are designed to connect people across disciplines, teach leadership skills and practice those lessons in ways that benefit the community, such as Pop Up Pittsburgh, which is in its fourth year.

An accountant in the group came up with the wedding idea.

"What's more 'Pop Up' than a wedding? It's a one-day event that really comes in and changes the course of everything around it," Begg said. "We want to marry Upper Lawrenceville to the rest of the City of Pittsburgh."

Upper Lawrenceville's isolation is partially self-imposed. Some there still identify with their ward before their neighborhood. Divisions once ran so deep that people from Upper Lawrenceville's 10th ward wouldn't marry someone from Central Lawrenceville's 9th ward.

"That was considered outside your species," said Jim Nied, 60, who lives above the bar in the hotel his grandfather opened in 1941.

Nied watched his neighborhood deteriorate when the mills closed. Public schools declined and parochial schools raised tuition. Young families fled, and slumlords swooped in to pick up cheap houses. A transient population replaced the stable working class of his youth.

But a core of people such as Nied remained, meeting in neighborhood development councils, and attracting aid from Harrisburg and Washington. They used one grant to install cameras in an alley to chase away drug dealers. Others paid for improvements to the business district on Butler Street in Lower Lawrenceville. New businesses moved in, bringing commerce, residents and rising real estate values.

"At the heart of all of these (improvements) has been a vision of citizens' empowerment. The old days in the (1950s) and 60s of urban renewal and Downtown planning for the neighborhoods, that's been completely discredited," said Ferlo, D-Highland Park.

The Pop Up crew spent weeks meeting with people such as Nied.

"The residents have a strong sense of ownership in the community. I don't think they want to be another South Side. They're being intentional about how they develop. It's not a rapid growth. It's not a boom without thought behind it," Begg said.

Most in the group had never been to Upper Lawrenceville, and the differences in character with the rest of Lawrenceville surprised them.

"It's not all hipsters wearing tight jeans, riding bicycles and being vegan," said Laurie Duncan, 28 of the North Side.

When Duncan became engaged during the project, she found her wedding dress at a boutique in the neighborhood -- a 1940s-era gown with a three-foot train for $95.

The project "really made me have an investment in this neighborhood. I'm desperate to ditch the house in the suburbs and get down here while I can still afford it," Begg said. Butler Street homes in Upper Lawrenceville sell for half or even a third the price of similar ones on the other side of Allegheny Cemetery.

Therein lies Upper Lawrenceville's hope -- the young people and families who fled the cities and now are looking for a way back in, Nied said.

"Things are starting to happen. What Pop Up does is it provides publicity and helps in our rebranding of this part of Lawrenceville," Nied said. "What's vital to us is new people moving in. Seeing their exuberance, their excitement for Upper Lawrenceville, it's contagious."

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