Their stories: The last ones to leave Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty

Courier exclusive: Read the story about the last ones to ever leave the famed Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty.

Timi Irvin, a three-year resident of Penn Plaza, was packing her belongings on Mar. 31, the final day that residents could live at the soon-to-be-demolished apartment.

Call them the final few.
Among the last residents to ever live, then walk out of the Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty were Timi Irvin and Vivian Campbell.
The deadline was looming – March 31, to be exact – and Irvin and Campbell were busy using grocery store baskets on wheels to move their belongings. Also hustling inside and outside the apartments were a host of movers, hauling couches and the like into waiting moving trucks.
“I did like living here, I really did,” Irvin, a three-year resident of Penn Plaza, told the New Pittsburgh Courier exclusively. “The neighbors were friendly, the management was good. If I needed something fixed, they were really on the spot about it. I didn’t have any problems here.”
Irvin said Penn Plaza’s centralized location made it easy for her to walk to her job, and also visit family that lived nearby.
“I really liked being here. Seemed like my furniture fit real well,” said Campbell, a seven-year Penn Plaza resident. “Anytime I needed something, maintenance would come and fix it.”
The backdrop for the Penn Plaza apartments dilemma is known all too well by most. In 2015, Pennley Park South, the developers, decided to give residents of both Penn Plaza apartments essentially a 90-day eviction notice. The new property owners wanted to demolish the long-standing structures and begin building “East Liberty Marketplace,” complete with high-end apartments, new office space, and a mega-Whole Foods market, replacing the current store on Centre Ave.
But Mayor Bill Peduto and other community leaders publicly denounced the actions made by Pennley Park South, and helped facilitate a compromise; 100 residents in one building would be found new homes by the end of March 2016, and another 100 would be found new homes by March 31, 2017, with financial support from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the developers.
In short, it gave much more time for residents like Irvin to figure out their next move. “Some people do a lot of talk, but he (Peduto) did some action, and I’m thankful for that,” Irvin said.
Whole Foods, the Texas-based grocer, had kept a straight face and two hands over the mouth during the past 20 months. After all, it seemed they would end up becoming a huge beneficiary of the new development. But on March 30, Whole Foods released a statement that sent shockwaves throughout Pittsburgh’s East End.
“We have been listening to our customers and the community, and we understand the concerns about this development,” the release stated. “Until these issues have been resolved, we do not plan to move forward with the project.”
At least for now, it seems like Penn Plaza’s tenants have been pushed out, to make room for a desired tenant that just backed out.
“Their corporate model is based upon people,” Peduto said to reporters after the release. “It would be hard for them (Whole Foods) to justify moving into a development that has such a strong opposition from the people that live in the neighborhood.”
The developers said recently that they will continue with plans to tear down the remaining Penn Plaza apartment building and develop the property.
As for the 200 people that once called Penn Plaza home, they have all found new residences. No resident was left behind, but the memories of Penn Plaza still loom large. “Just being with my family, the grandkids coming over, fellowship with them, them jumping off my bed,” Irvin recalled. “Had a little surprise birthday party for my daughter. Just told her to come over (to the house), we shut the lights off, and turned the lights on when she came.”
“There’s just lots of little things…all the very lovely people that lived here that became (my) friends,” added Campbell about her rememberances of Penn Plaza. “It was a little community, and I hate to see that little community blown apart to the four winds.”
“Of course it sucks,” Campbell said. “This is not right, and it sucks.”
Irvin thinks East Liberty is no longer a place that welcomes the non-affluent. “It’s going to the rich people, and that’s what they’re trying to do is bring people in, make it a livable city for rich people, so that they can come in and take over,” Irvin said. “They get together, raise the rent, kick people out and get who they want in. Seems like we’re (Black people) getting pushed out to the suburbs, and then they want to come into the city.”
They “throw us whatever’s left,” Irvin said.
Campbell lived in Larimer before moving to Penn Plaza. She remembers East Liberty back in its heyday, but also the not-so-great years.
“I’m tickled to death to see something come to East Liberty, because I can remember when East Liberty was really dangerous and empty,” she said. “I’m glad to see something coming in, but not at the expense of those who have been here forever.”
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