Closing the circle: In East Liberty, new names fix an old mistake

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What’s in a name? For Penn Circle, what’s in a name is a reminder of some sour history.

East Liberty was once a bustling business district. When it began to decline in the face of competition from suburban malls, the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority in 1960 embraced a plan meant to revitalize it according to the best urban renewal theories of the day. The road to hell, as the saying has it, is paved with good intentions.

The theory proved a disaster. Half the neighborhood was demolished and 4,000 people displaced. The automobile was to be king, with big parking lots to accommodate the wished-for shoppers and four one-way streets forming Penn Circle — which was not a circle at all — to speed them along.

The crowds stayed away. What had been created was an inhospitable redoubt of pavement and buildings cut off from vitality, a symbol of urban planning failure. No wonder Pittsburgh City Council wants to be rid of the name Penn Circle.

Of course, times have changed and the area is coming back as Pittsburgh itself is becoming more prosperous. The East End has many advantages, and new businesses have been arriving to revitalize East Liberty and bury the past. Despite this natural process, the impulse to change the name is a good one.

City council is considering the switch because it was recommended by a committee that reviews new addresses and found that new businesses were applying for addresses along Penn Circle South.

The plan is to use the names of existing roads instead. Penn Circle South and East and Collins Street would all become part of Centre Avenue, extending that street to East Liberty Boulevard. Penn Circle North will become Station Street, extending that roadway by several blocks. Penn Circle West will become a part of North Euclid Street, except for the portion that runs south of Penn Avenue, which will become South Euclid Street.

In other words, Penn Circle and its four permutations will vanish from the map.

The change was recommended to avoid confusion for first-responders who might otherwise find that some businesses might have the same numerical address as others along Penn Avenue. That’s a good reason, but there’s another: to break with the past in honor of the future.

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