Imagine yourself the proprietor of a successful, culturally relevant boutique hotel concept with iterations open in Portland, Seattle, New York City, Palm Springs, and Los Angeles. Where do you go next? Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh!
Indeed, if you’re the Ace Hotel, you do, or at least you plan to. For the great folks at Next American City, I’ve got a look at why that hotel organization is eager to open up in this bit of the Rust Belt — and why, seemingly without exception, Pittsburghers are eager to make their city the sixth spot in the United States to have an Ace.
What’s particularly interesting is that the Ace is planned for East Liberty, part of Pittsburgh’s East End, once home to the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fricks. East Liberty was once, well, hopping, but it was decimated as the result of an urban revitalization push in the 1950s and 1960s that attempted to turn the neighborhood into a little bit of suburbia right there in Pittsburgh. East Liberty is, inarguably, on the upswing once again. And the possibility is that an Ace in the neighborhood’s charming old YMCA building adds considerable weight to that momentum. Evidence favoring that idea is what happened to the unexpected slice of New York City where Ace opened several years ago:
Traditional urban thinking often looks for those “anchors” that, like universities, museums and hospitals, take up a lot of land and hire a lot of people, and in doing so shape a place. But Ace suggests something different. Ace hires, no doubt. The Pittsburgh project is expected to offer 100 jobs or so. But really, this is casting a cultural institution as something of a coral reef. Some things cling to it, making it bigger. But much else passes through it and circles around it, changing what surrounds it by setting the climate with its presence.
If that seems grandiose, take a look at the block on which the Ace New York sits. “We’ve… got friends in the building, selling their wares,” reads the little green guidebook that comes in each Ace room. Indeed, they do. Attached to the hotel in something like a little warren is The Breslin, a dark-wood sort of old-timey eatery that’s all the rage in New York City, and the John Dory Oyster Bar, both run by noted New York restaurateurs Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield. Just under Harry Smith’s rope art display is a doorway to Stumptown Coffee, the sole New York City shop of the coffee roaster that began in Oregon and now has an outpost in Brooklyn. There’s also a door to Opening Ceremony, an eclectic travel-inspired shop.
More than that, though, there are now stores, bars, shops, start-ups and even another hotel in the Ace’s immediate shadow, mixed among the wholesale purveyors. Three years later, the whole tone of the crazy little piece of Manhattan that the Ace chose to enter has shifted. Or, better put: It’s broadened.
That Pittsburgh should join the ranks of America’s coolest cities might seem farfetched until you spend some time there. But it doesn’t take much time. To be sure, the bet that Pittsburgh is ready for Ace isn’t a huge bet, since it’s not a huge hotel. With just 65 rooms or so, a significant Google office near by, and a dearth of boutique hotels in Pittsburgh, the hotel business calculus favors this project. Still, Pittsburgh has much going for it that’s immediately evident. It’s called the city of bridges for a reason, and I was struck by the natural beauty of the city’s rivers, cliffs, and hilly streets. Plus, it’s lively. So many U.S. cities today feel empty. But Pittsburgh is people-sized and full of them. It’s not a city that might immediately you as appealing, but as something of a city aficionado, I’ve visited a number of them, and you can feel very quickly when a city is right. Pittsburgh feels right.
Again, these Next American City pieces are subscription-only, or available for a one-time fee (except, that is, for "Tech & the City," on New York City’s planned Roosevelt Island tech campus). I’d encourage you to pay but I’m happy to hook up friends and family.
(Photo above by Pittsburgh photographer Martha Rial, who did what I thought was great work on the piece.)