Before Baum Boulevard and North Highland Avenue became a hotbed of commercial real estate, before anyone looked toward East Liberty for upscale apartments or multiplex cinemas, the Shadow Lounge emerged as the unintentional catalyst that started it all.
Known for live shows with legends and breakout artists, theme parties and DJs spinning everything from independent hip-hop to classical fusion, the Shadow Lounge attracted a diverse crowd of regulars who brought vitality, spending money and plans for growth to the then-depressed area.
And while owner Justin Strong doesn't credit the venue itself for the transformation, he doesn't reject the idea of seeing similar revitalization after the Shadow Lounge moves into its new location.
"You have to provide the right atmosphere to get creative folks to come," he said. "Then if you have a gathering space and someone's sitting there drinking a cup of coffee and they're looking across the street from an empty lot with a for-sale sign, eventually someone's going to say let's do something with that."
Although the lease is up and the Shadow Lounge's last parties on Baum are set for this weekend, Mr. Strong said the temporary closure is part of a larger plan to take the experiment across the city. Working off a two-year plan, Mr. Strong is attempting to raise $1 million to purchase a larger venue. He also is running a separate capital campaign to make upgrades to Ava and Blue Room, Strong-owned lounge spaces on Highland adjacent to the Shadow Lounge's location. Ava and Blue Room will stay at their current space and live performances will continue at Ava.
So far, groups in Larimer and the Lower Hill District have shown interest in seeing the Shadow Lounge rebuilt in their neighborhoods.
While increasing lease rates were definitely a factor in the move, Mr. Strong said even for the Lounge's most brokenhearted regulars there's more than just money at stake.
"Most people understand that we're taking it to the next step and going on to bigger things such as owning the building, getting a bigger space. This is part of a 20-year plan," he said.
Founded in June 2000 near a tuxedo rental store and a barber shop, the Shadow Lounge was originally created to move weekend parties out of Mr. Strong's South Oakland home. But by the decade's end, Mr. Strong had opened Ava and Blue Room on Highland and they were surrounded by Ya Momz House Recording Studio, Abay Ethiopian Cuisine and Spoon Lounge.
Looking back on all that has changed since he first entered the corridor, Mr. Strong credits the diverse groups who often shared little more than the common bonds of seeking music beyond commercial hits. Those bonds might be one of his greatest successes, since naysayers told him early on such a project would likely fail in Pittsburgh.
"The main reason we ended up doing what we're doing was because nothing really existed at the time in the scene. Pittsburgh wasn't really known for that," he said. "I think we proved there was a real pent-up demand for the non-traditional average Pittsburgh entertainment -- Top 40 and cheap drinks."
Another outside-of-the-mainstream feature was regular showcases that allowed up-close performances from local artists. Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa both hit Shadow Lounge's stages before hitting the mainstream, but spoken word artists, poets, folk singers and others who deliberately seek the small stage may feel the pain the most.
"Where other venues say no, Justin has always said yes and found a way to help us -- artists who care about our community -- make it happen and happen successfully," said Christane Leach of dub/electronica band Soma Mestizo. "We are not just losing a venue, we are losing a place where we -- black, brown, yellow and cool white -- could put our ideas into motion, ideas that most venues could care less about."
Elizabeth Kivowitz, a Shadow Lounge regular who stopped by during a masquerade ball hosted last Saturday, couldn't agree more. Standing among guests donning Guy Fawkes and Phantom of the Opera masks, full makeup or plain old street clothes, she said she doubts another venue will be open to the quirky as Shadow Lounge has been.
"It's just done an amazing job of bringing in all different types of people together. People you wouldn't normally hang out with, you'll hang out with here."
Faithful regulars will get one final send off on Friday and Saturday with The Legacy Series. Presented by Rostrum Records, the Legacy Series will feature live performances from acts such as Eviction Notice, Sonji, Davu, Daru Jones and several others. Only 150 tickets are being sold for each event, so Mr. Strong is urging people to buy them early from Showclix.com.
And while Mr. Strong remembers the highs of seeing acts such as KRS-One, Pete Rock and K-os perform on Shadow Lounge's stage and the lows of a $42,000 tax debt that threatened to shutter the place, he said less obvious moments would stick with him. Moments such as meeting an exonerated death row inmate after the Lounge hosted parties to support his release, or meeting members of mainstream bands who tout the Shadow Lounge as their favorite venue have resonated the most.
With any luck, the next level of growth for The Shadow Lounge will create as many unexpected moments and set the stage for as many unexpected successes as the first has.
"We're going to take all of the goodness and vibe that's been occurring in East Liberty and do multiple projects around the city," he said.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. First Published March 28, 2013 4:00 AM