Photo by Benjamin Prisbylla.

Everyone from Vogue to Forbes to The Wall Street Journal has showcased the new Ace Hotel in Pittsburgh, heaping praise on its reuse of a former YMCA, varied roster of cultural and recreational events, minimalist chic rooms, Whitfield restaurant fare and more.

Taking a more comprehensive and contextual approach to the Ace narrative, Belt Magazine explores the original YMCA as a vital community hub, its past and present role in the neighborhood, and some of the complex and pressing issues surrounding gentrification and new developments taking place throughout East Liberty.

In her article for the Cleveland-based regional publication, Pittsburgh’s Ace Hotel Markets The City’s Past To Its Future, writer Courtney Harrell frames her in-depth look at the new boutique hotel with insightful contributions from Pittsburgh-based historian John Brewer, who was born in 1945 on Mayflower Street—just down the street from the Ace.

Photo by Benjamin Prisbylla.
Photo by Benjamin Prisbylla.

Brewer, who is now 71, shares his childhood memories growing up swimming at the YMCA pool in the 1950s and the deep significance of the community landmark.

“It was a standard pool, nothing particularly special at the time about the blue and white tiles of the pit or the marble at the edges. What made it special was the people. Swimming was not widely available for black people in 1950s Pittsburgh, but the pool at the East Liberty YMCA was open water. The pool was the heart of the YMCA. It was the first integrated pool Brewer swam in, drawing a mix of locals and immigrants who made up the neighborhood at the time,” says Harrell.

Writing about the building’s new identity and the site-specificity of the Ace, Harrell says:

“The Ace is a chain that tries never to look like one . . . Each Ace is designed to replicate the culture of the city it is in, and here that culture takes the form of mismatched throw pillows and side tables of Pennsylvania wood. The stained glass mural above the front door is reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s rivers, the black and yellow tiles of the bathroom are a tribute to the Steelers. There is steel everywhere. Upstairs, the simplistic cots are covered with Pendleton blankets whose blue and red squares are meant to invoke Pennsylvania quilting tradition, and the mini-bar is filled with Pittsburgh’s Wigle whiskey and mixers from the Ace bar. At the Ace you are meant to think, to feel Pittsburgh . . . These details are there to show you that the Ace is more than just a hotel, more than just a business. It is a distillation of culture, a place that understands how to be ‘both by the neighborhood and for the neighborhood.’ It is a place where the management wants you to feel like you belong. But this may be an impossible task for any business in East Liberty.”

Photo by Benjamin Prisbylla.
Photo by Benjamin Prisbylla.

The article continues with Harrell’s examination of the important neighborhood context of the new hotel, and its relationship to long-standing community sites, local businesses, and larger new developments:

“The windows of the Ace’s lobby and the east-facing rooms look out on the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, where until recently a line of people waited just a few steps from the Ace front door to enter the church’s soup kitchen. (It has since moved to a new space down the street.) On the other side of the building, the upstairs rooms look out on the mixed-income Penn Plaza apartments, which are soon to be torn down to make room for new, higher-end residential and retail development. You can look out on a U-Haul heavy with the possessions of the latest casualties of East Liberty urban renewal without getting out of bed. Whether through eviction, as is the case at Penn Plaza, or because rent has risen so dramatically, many residents of what was once a predominantly black neighborhood are leaving. The Ace is part of new neighborhood development that is moving too fast for many of its residents. What does it mean for a business to be ‘for’ that neighborhood?”

Photo by Courtney Harrell.
Photo by Courtney Harrell.

Brewer continues to share powerful, lasting and sensory memories of his adolescence, including riding the trolley from Homewood to East Liberty, hearing the chimes of church bells, smelling the strong scents of Polish sausages and freshly baked crackers from the Nabisco Plant (now Bakery Square), shopping at Hahn’s Department Store, and stopping for day-old donuts at Stagno’s.

Brewer states that the centerpiece of the neighborhood was the YMCA. Writes Harrell:

“The YMCA was the neighborhood refuge, where everyone was welcome and everyone was comfortable. Though the neighborhood was predominantly black, there were large Polish, Irish, and Italian populations, and they all came together at the Y: the workers migrating from New York and the South, the native Pittsburghers, the rich, the poor, the merchants, the young, the famous . . . ”

Harrell goes on to discuss the extensive impact of the 1960s on urban cores, including the rise of shopping malls, white flight to suburbs, the demolition of housing and the closing of businesses, and the decline of areas like East Liberty.

Adds Brewer:

“The YMCA has always been a chameleon reflecting the state of the community, and it was bad.”

Describing the Ace’s reinvention of the YMCA, Harrell writes about the gym which hosts open game nights, DJ events, community dances and more, photographs by renowned African-American Pittsburgh native Charles “Teenie” Harris that grace the staircases and the restoration of original, steel and marble architectural elements—yet the pool of Brewer’s childhood remains empty and closed off to the public.

“Everywhere in the Ace, from the YMCA inscription above the front door to the photo in your bedroom, there are these markers of the past, reminders that you are there because somebody else no longer is.”

Photo by Benjamin Prisbylla.
Photo by Benjamin Prisbylla.

In summary, Harrell writes:

“The Ace didn’t create the problems in East Liberty. The Ace is trying. They’ve restored a building that otherwise could have sat empty or been torn down. They’ve hosted events to discuss the Harris photos and what they say about 20th-century Pittsburgh’s black urban experience. They’ve hosted screenings of a documentary about gentrification and displacement titled East of Liberty: A Story of Good Intentions. Every day in the lobby, locals come and mingle and eat chocolate croissants and are comfortable there. John Brewer is comfortable there. But like it or not, the Ace is part of a trajectory now out of its control. Alphabet City, the development company responsible for much of the development in East Liberty, runs, a website that will tell you in large, bold print that ‘East Liberty is where you want to be.’ The neighborhood is ‘the next hot thing.’ Featured on the site this spring is the Vogue article declaring that the Ace ‘fell hard for Pittsburgh.’ Look, the website says, the Ace is here. Things are changing, and most businesses will not take time to document those changes on their walls.”

Brewer poses the important issues and pressing questions that are still being addressed:

“Old East Liberty people like myself, we see the progress happening and the development, and all of that is good. But there are questions about inclusion. Who is all that for? Will we be included in the final plans?”

Read the entire article.

Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator of Handmade Arcade. Musically, she is in a band called The Garment District and is a founding member of Brooklyn's The Ladybug Transistor.