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How about a store less ritzy Downtown?

y Mike Seate
Monday, August 4, 2003

You can’t help feeling sorry for our city over the imminent closing of Downtown’s 3-year-old Lord & Taylor department store. Sure, the pundits with their “told-you-so’s” are right: It was silly to throw taxpayer money at the store in the belief that downtown Pittsburgh could support four upscale department stores.
As a shopping hub, Downtown peaked when steel was the undisputed king.

The Murphy administration and the city Urban Redevelopment Authority — which gave an $11.75 million loan to May Department Stores Co., Lord & Taylor’s St. Louis-based parent company — had to at least suspect we were already pretty well covered in the $90 umbrella department by Kaufmann’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. Then came Lord & Taylor and, with a loan of its own, a Lazarus followed.

Today, the city is in a mad scramble to fill the soon-to-be-vacant store with another retailer better suited to Fox Chapel or Sewickley than the central business district of an ailing mid-sized city like our own. It’s time to face reality.

Downtown Pittsburgh is like hundreds of other middle-income cities where discount retailers — Wal-Mart, Kmart, maybe a Target — serve poorer, urban consumers while well-to-do shoppers patronize upscale shops in the suburbs.

Don’t lump me in with the urban-bashers who are laughing in their suburban malls over this fiasco. I wanted to see Lord & Taylor help turn Downtown’s grimy Fifth Avenue business corridor around. As someone who grew up shopping in the Downtown, I’ve had a hard time watching the area’s decline over the past 30 years.

I’m sure Mayor Murphy’s team and the URA must have had a vision of returning Downtown to its former glory. You can visit the Carnegie Library in Oakland and see vivid images of a city most of us wouldn’t recognize: streets full of well-dressed white people in furs, suits and fedoras. It more closely resembles a scene from a Fred Astaire movie than the Downtown we know today.

It seems painfully clear to nearly everyone — except city officials — that those shoppers aren’t interested in coming to Downtown in significant numbers. Not when they can shop with free parking, no weather and — let’s face it — fewer poor people and people of color out in the ‘burbs. That doesn’t mean Downtown has to become a sea of plywood-covered windows and “Mookie’s House Of Bling-Bling” jewelry shops.

Me’Shawn Beverly, of the Strip District, was shopping Downtown on Friday. This single mother of three said the Burlington Coat Factory on Smithfield Street is the type of store — reasonably priced, that is — that families like hers need to see more of Downtown.

Beverly, a domestic worker, says she visited Lord & Taylor only once, “to check things out when they first opened.” She was a more frequent visitor than others I spoke with — including some who thought the regal-looking building still housed a bank.

“I still don’t get why there’s no grocery store or a T.J. Maxx down here like up at Waterworks. Get us a grocery store, and I won’t be catching jitneys to the South Side every Saturday,” Beverly said angrily.

I hope she and others will say that loud enough and often enough that someone in city government will listen.

Mike Seate is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at (412) 320-7845 or e-mail him at

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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