Sunday, April 18, 2010

Affordable Hotels, City-building, and the Value of Creative Tourism

I've been thinking a lot about hotels lately. I recently discovered that there are numerous affordable hotels to be found in New York City, which makes the prospect of visiting my former city both very attractive and doable. I'm not even talking about crazy-awful fleabag hotels, or motels in Weehawken. I'm talking well-designed, safe, hip, not-chain, in-town Manhattan (sometimes Brooklyn) accommodations. That a working girl like me can afford. Especially if she takes one person with her.

I recently availed myself of one of these hotels, and when I told one of my New York friends about it, she said, "Great! What's the equivalent if I want to visit you in Pittsburgh?" Oh, this question made my head spin. And spin and spin. Not only do I want my friend to come visit me affordably (sure, she'll probably end up staying on my couch, but that's not the point)--I want starving artists and students and working people who DON'T have best friends here to be able to visit Pittsburgh. I want there to be the kind of hotels that allow--and entice--visitors to our fair city to step out the front door of their hotel and explore our streets, our neighborhoods, our architecture, our hilly views; our art galleries, our reading series, our film festivals; our bookshops, our cafes, our wide variety of restaurants. And I want all of this to be available to people who CAN'T afford to stay at a pricey bed & breakfast or a downtown highrise.

What's the current scene of affordable hotels in Pittsburgh? Mainly, chain motels in Monroeville or near the airport. Nevermind that the kind of city-dwelling visitor I'm talking about won't want to shell out to rent a car--even if they had a car, is that how you want to show off our city? Sending someone to a chain accommodation that feels like any other city (a wasted opportunity to show off Pittsburgh's uniqueness at best, a depressing first view of the city at worst) and then asking them to get in their car and drive to Destination A, B, and C? Thus again potentially depriving them of discovering the unique incidentals of our city.

What I'm getting at, in part, is that I want people to start moving to Pittsburgh--for reasons other than the most obvious--job transfer, family members, college or grad school. I want people to move here just because it's an awesome and affordable city in which to live, work, and make art. And I want a steady stream of visitors, creative tourists, and urbanites who 1.) may decide to move here themselves based on gaining a FEEL for the city, or 2.) will become ambassadors of Pittsburgh's revitalization, carrying the word to others who may want to move here.

Pittsburgh, with its "every neighborhood revitalizing at once" plan needs a more dense, in-city-limits population to sustain its visions of growth. (To my mind, the idea that people are going to drive in from the suburbs to destination-eat, -shop, etc., at all of these new venues is not "it," or at least not all of it.) Meanwhile, the recession has people in harder-hit, pricier-housing cities rethinking their own plans. It may be the perfect moment in history for Pittsburgh to gain some residents, fallout from this major upset in US economics. But not if those folks can't visit here (and really discover Pittsburgh) first.

My pondering about hotels in Pittsburgh has emerged from a longer-term set of observations that Pittsburgh has--for so much of its history--been a scorned or misunderstood city ("Hell with the lid off"), and that has resulted in a behavior which can be the opposite of inviting to outsiders. Think of the Pittsburgh reputation for giving idiosyncratic directions: "Take a left where the Giant Eagle used to be, go straight, then take a right where Isaly's used to be." This, my friends, is not the way to help an out-of-towner learn their way around the city. I often hear the caveat to this apocryphal story as, "But more often than not, that same person giving the baffling directions will offer, 'Follow me, I'm going that way.' " Is the kindness of Pittsburghers enough to make up for the confusing navigability? In some realm, yes. But I'm greedy, I want it all. I want not only good neighbors and kind strangers, but good signage, well-designed pedestrian walkways (and bike paths) that connect between every neighborhood and bike trail, obvious bus protocol and safe bus stops, and hotels that bring outsiders smoothly into this web of easily-navigable intra-city connectivity.

So, Pittsburgh's hotels. The Eden House Short Stay in Lawrenceville is one of the few hotels in town that meets the standards of what I'm talking about here. Its lowest-priced rooms are affordable, and get more and more affordable if one stays for more than one night, or if two are traveling together. Eden House is within walking distance to a great stretch of restaurants, shops, and the Design Zone on Butler Street; or the other direction to Pittsburgh's Little Italy with bars, cafes, and restaurants; or to the Penn Avenue Arts District; or to Polish Hill's music venues. The Priory on the North Side may be the next thing that comes close; singles can stay in a $100 room with a single bed, within decent walking distance to AIR, the Warhol Museum, the New Hazlett Theater,  the Mattress Factory, and City of Asylum  houses and events, although I would advise visitors to take a cab to and from the Priory area at night. And good luck getting a cab in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, The Pittsburgh Hostel, formerly located in the dangerous neighborhood of Allentown (but defunct for 6 or 7 years), is seeking a new home. My highest hopes would be that the visionaries of Pittsburgh city planning (be they grass roots types or the powers that be) would see the need to help get Real Funding for this, and to think seriously about a great location for it. My hope (as echoed on the Hostel Project's website) would be that people could see the opportunity this presents for Pittsburgh: While everyone's lamenting the brain-drain and "the young people who leave Pittsburgh," why not recognize that creative, city-hopping young travelers could be some of our very best ambassadors? If you make a hostel in a location forced only by pricing (such as Allentown), I predict it will be a success for no one. Rather, make a great hostel in a location that can showcase the city's liveliest creative efforts, and you will create a veritable factory of young people who will bring stories, writings, and photographs to other cities, spreading the word far and wide that Pittsburgh is a great place to be. In other words, don't underestimate the power of the young and the cash-strapped to help remake a city. Wasn't it these folks who brought fame and fortune to such now-meccas as Seattle, Austin, Portland (OR), and Minneapolis? A city's true desirability comes from the ground up, not the top down. Make it easy for people to visit Pittsburgh, and the city will reap the rewards. Conversely, the harder it is for people to visit, the more we'll have this closed-loop, echo-chamber thinking among residents that vacillates between "Pittsburgh is the greatest city ever!!!!!!!!" and "No one would want to move here; we'll always be inferior."

Finally, I want to applaud artist and curator Elise Adibi, who has organized the Gold in Braddock show that opens May 1, 2010 at UnSmoke in Braddock. When planning the show, Adibi made a deliberate decision to invite artists from New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia (in addition to a few Pittsburgh-affiliated folks); the show was designed to explore the theme of GOLD. A number of the out-of-town artists pondered the theme in relation to Braddock, visiting that borough in advance of the show as they created their final piece. Even more of the artists are expected to travel here for the show's opening. In this way, Adibi consciously contributed to a very active form of art tourism--bringing outsiders in to witness Pittsburgh, to enter the region's conversation, to support the Pittsburgh economy, and to leave as ambassadors of an emerging Pittsburgh. One that is not reliant only on the famous universities, hospitals, or sports franchises for its visitor traffic.

So, dear reader, what do you propose as a great location for Pittsburgh's next affordable hotel, or the new Pittsburgh Hostel?


John Morris said...

Karen, thanks so much for this great post about something I was thinking about too. (although not in depth)

Um, I think there's a building in Polish Hill that may have been a school that might be a great location. Obviously, even better would be East Liberty. The buildings by the old Garden Theater on the North Side would also be a pretty good choice. That area desperately needs more density and more people to see it and yet it's very well located.

The thing is that if done right, a hostel shouldn't need substantial parking.

I really think this gets to some deeper issues in that when the powers in the city say they want to attract people. They don't really mean these people.

Karen Lillis said...

Thanks, John! I agree that the old school in Polish Hill would be perfect, although I hear it needs asbestos abatement. I wonder if something in the Penn Avenue Arts District would be good, flood that promising strip with more people. There's a lot of new storefronts and other things going on in that corridor, yet it's spread out enough to feel like a ghost town at night.

I agree that the Powers That Be rarely want to attract broke young travelers, but when they ignore them they create a place that's neither here nor there, in my opinion. Unless you create a ground-up redux, you'll never attract the masses. Like, creating another South Side Works (think Allegheny River redevelopment plan...). Who is going to travel to Pittsburgh to go to chain stores that are represented anywhere and everywhere? It seems devastatingly misguided, to me.

John Morris said...

Jeeez, really there are so many choices, if one is serious about this. The whole Strip from a New Yorker's point of view is practically empty.

Then there's Uptown, which is within walking distance of downtown. That is, if one wanted "those kind" of folks down there. But then, Uptown is needed for .... Parking as is any little bit of the Lower Hill still around.

The bottom line, points out the deep issue in Pittsburgh is not about demand but about the way the city has seen itself.

It's basically a parking lot for folks who don't want to be here, often working for non tax paying employers.

If Yinz hate the city, please leave and watch the Stillers on cable.

By the way, I had this conversation myself with a few people in NYC, two of whom run

Karen Lillis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Lillis said...

Re: The Strip District, you know about their plans, right?:

It sounds like they want to take away the produce people and replace them with Ann Taylors and condos.

I think what I was trying to say in an above comment was that this sort of "city planning"--"just add mall stores"--is so hopelessly canned and targeted at what someone thinks that others want, that it is the opposite of culture or place. It razes a sense of place and it does not foster cultural exchange. It is already the opposite of culture exchange--it is cultural pablum.

Karen Lillis said...

John, you just made my head explode with that train of thought about the parking lot for people who hate the city.

When my beau and I first visited Pittsburgh with intent to live here, we stayed at a $30 a night motel near Robinson Mall.

When we checked in, the older lady hotel manager asked us, "What are you going to do while you're in Pittsburgh?" We said we were going to go downtown and check out different neighborhoods. She said, "You wanna know what's the best thing about Downtown Pittsburgh?" ("What?") "The SUBURBS!" [Proceed evil laugh...]

Anonymous said...

but no mention of the rooms at brewers, the picture you used!
though i suppose straight people would be put off of asking there.

John Morris said...

I must say, Brewers is in a great location for something like this.

Let's just hope the demand is beyond it's capacity.

Karen Lillis said...

re: Brewer's, I have not investigated yet. I suspect that it is a former hotel and bar that is now merely a bar. Possibly with apartments upstairs and possibly not. But I am curious. When I get a chance, I will find out. I recently learned that the Round Corner Hotel above the Cantina bar is still an active SRO. I was very impressed, as that sort of affordable housing for the less well off is so rarely a priority in this day and age.

John Morris said...

Yes, when I lived in Lawrenceville, The Sufaks (now Cantina) Round Corner was an active SRO.

One can see that in small amounts places like that do very little harm to a neighborhood. The thing is usually to mix everything up, which is just what today's hyper planned cities prevent.