Category Archives: pittsburgh

A brief history of Pittsburgh Light Up Night

The Incline — a digital news site in Pittsburgh — offered a brief history of Pittsburgh’s biggest party: Light Up Night.

The Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership told Incline that the first “Light Up” event happened April 9, 1959, in honor of the Pirates.

The event took a nine-year break beginning in 1973 in an effort to conserve energy. Light Up Night returned in 1982 to help lift morale as the steel industry collapsed. By the way, a few years later, Gimbels closed.

What was most surprising to me was how few people used to attend! The PDP told Incline that 25,000 people attended each year before 1998 when about 50,000 people showed up.

The low turnout makes sense as the 90s saw major changes in Downtown’s retail sector. (Anybody remember the failed “Fifth and Forbes” plans?) It was also a time when suburban shopping malls really solidified their dominance over Downtown.

But something happened since then … the Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership has grown the event — along with the help of many other groups. Last year, half a million people celebrated Light Up Night.

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It’s Light Up Night, Pittsburgh!

Are you ready for it?

Today marks the 57th annual Light Up Night in Downtown Pittsburgh!

This is the granddaddy of all days in the holiday season for me — yes, even bigger than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Light Up Night evokes fond memories of Pittsburgh’s past, and helps to usher in a new holiday season for Pittsburgh’s future.

Oohing and ahhing over beautifully designed department store windows at Kaufmann’s, Horne’s and GImbels no longer is part of the spectacle that is the region’s official start to the holiday season. After all, Light Up Night began as a way for the department stores to get people excited to come into the city. Though Kaufmann’s and others created holiday windows and welcomed Santa for many years before Light Up Night began, the event has grown into a wonderful tradition.

But some of those memories (at least ones attached to the Kaufmann’s store) are part of what keeps Light Up Night ticking for me. I always enjoyed getting lunch at Tic Toc or Arcade Bakery in Kaufmann’s on Light Up Night (or at other times). I remember spending time in the early afternoon up on an upper floor at a small cafe near the book department with friends before heading into the streets. Seeing the Santa display and hearing carolers throughout the store was such a throwback, too!

Light Up Night 2015 was a tough one to swallow. That year marked the first Light Up Night without a major downtown department store. Macy’s had closed in September of that year. Admittedly, Light Up Night that year was a bit sour. Yes, it was festive. Yes, there were good times had. Yes, there were windows.

In a blog post about Macy’s announcement to close the 128-year-old store, I wrote this line that I still think of: “There will be no window encouraging passersby to believe.”

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In retrospect, Light Up Night 2014 (photos above are from 2014) actually was one my more memorable events, as I spent so much time inside Kaufmann’s (well, Macy’s) with friends. Macy’s hosted events all over the building and outside! Though, the windows had become the same old same old from them, which was disappointing.

My mother explained to me a few nights ago how Light Up Night “isn’t the same” as when she was growing up. (Obviously.) She noted the demise of the behemoth multi-story department stores with activities throughout the many departments as a reason it no longer is special for her. But, she’s also not been to Light Up Night in many years.

So she has no idea how this fantastic day has morphed from a night encouraging the start of the department store holiday shopping season into what probably is Pittsburgh’s biggest party of the year!

The Horne’s tree still lights up. There will be some form of windows at the Kaufmann’s building. Market Square will be jam-packed with shoppers and browsers and cute little art. The CBS people will do their thing at the Do Not Call It Light Up Night Where Santa Throws A Fireball At A Tree And Poof, Fireworks Begin at Point State Park.

And I will — once again — be part of a very moving Tribute of Light ceremony with the American Cancer Society to light the tree at PPG Place. This year, seven-year-old Gabriel Aguirre of Rayburn Township, Armstrong County, will light the 65-foot tall tree! The folks at Highwood Properties (the owners of PPG Place) do a wonderful job helping to coordinate the evening.

If you’re coming, the Robert Morris University figure skaters take to the ice a little after 4:30 with the East End Kids choral group performing at 5 p.m. with the tree lighting immediately after.

Light Up Night can be overwhelming, too. For several years, I tried making it to every lighting/window unveiling and trying to eat dinner and watch fireworks. And that was after coordinating with a large group of people to go. Was fun but stressful and I never saw anything.

Now I try to mosey my way around and try to meet up with folks along the way.

But if you’re looking to see some of the tree lightings and ceremonies, here’s my advice:

  • Arrive at City-County Building tree lighting on Grant Street at 4:55 p.m.
  • Leave Grant Street at 5:15 p.m. and hustle down Fourth Avenue to PPG Place to arrive by 5:25 p.m.
  • Stand on Fourth Avenue with Market Square to your back.
  • Watch the PPG Place tree lighting and ceremony and at 5:45 p.m., turn around, walk a few steps toward Market Square and watch the Season of Lights Countdown.
  • Afterward, you’ve got about an hour to take in Market Square and visit Linda Barnicott’s little Christmas hut to buy some ornaments.
  • Then pop down to the old Horne’s building to watch the Horne’s tree lighting at 7 p.m. (It’s officially called the Highmark Unity Tree.) This ceremony involves ROOFTOP FIREWORKS, PEOPLE. Go inside Fifth Avenue Place to see Mr. McFeely!
  • Then go grab a place to stand on Fort Duquesne Boulevard for the 8:30 p.m. Andy Grammer show and the 9:30 p.m. fireworks.

Also, take the T or bus. Yeah, it’ll be crowded. Yes, there will be people who haven’t used the T since last Light Up Night, but if you don’t take public transit, you’ll be a Grinch sitting in traffic hating the holidays. I always feel so awful for people stopped on the Parkway East as I’m on the transit bridge above cruising along. And after the fireworks, stay in town a bit — get a drink, walk around … do something, because otherwise your trolley ride back will be so packed you’ll know the exact brand of deodorant of the eight people next to you.

The Trib offers some great advice for navigating Light Up Night.

And here is the Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership PDF, detailing all of the information, including schedules and descriptions.

And don’t just visit on Light Up Night. There’s not enough time to see the gingerbread houses at the PPG Wintergarden or all of the great little artists and vendors at the Holiday Market at Market Square. Come Downtown for the holidays!

Light Up Night still excites

IMG_4450Light Up Night.

It’s been the official start of the holiday season in Pittsburgh for 55 years.

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The Horne’s tree still will be lit. And the windows at Kaufmann’s will be unveiled as they’ve been for more than 70 years.

  
But 2015 marks the first Light Up Night without a major department store Downtown. Macy’s closed the nearly 130-year-old Kaufmann’s store in September.

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Sure there is Burlington and Brooks Brothers, some small shops and a bunch of drug stores.

But gone are the anchor stores that helped bring people to all of the shops Downtown.

In many ways, Light Up Night is more important now for Downtown retail than ever before — events like this get people into town and maybe get them to return throughout the season.

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Everybody seems to have their own belief for why department stores no longer exist Downtown.

No matter the reason, though, Light Up Night goes on, even if it seems strange to reveal holiday windows under the Kaufmann’s Clock and have no inside activities. (Kaufmann’s and Macy’s always had wonderful inside events on all of the floors.)

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I’m excited for Light Up Night — for the American Cancer Society and PPG Place tree lighting, for the cute shops and dancing lights at Market Square, for Wintergarden at PPG Place, for the old Horne’s tree and to see the reincarnation of the Kaufmann’s windows.  

Like I have for many years, I’ll enjoy all of the festivities to kick off my favorite time of year in the greatest city on earth.

Happy holidays, Pittsburgh!

Memories from Kaufmann’s Clock

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I was deeply saddened to learn Downtown Pittsburgh’s last major anchor department store soon will be nothing but a memory.

After about 128 years in the same location at 400 Fifth Ave., Macy’s will close the iconic Downtown Pittsburgh store which first opened in 1887 as Kaufmann’s. The company made the announcement July 13, 2015.

For decades, the Downtown location stood out for its valued traditions: Christmas window displays, visits with Santa, a holiday parade, the Arcade Bakery, the Tic Toc restaurant and much more.

Generations of Pittsburghers have met under Kaufmann’s Clock, too.

Because of Macy’s commitment to retaining a Downtown Pittsburgh store after the company bought The May Co. — the longtime parent company of regionalized department stores such as Kaufmann’s, Filene’s (Boston) and Marshall Field’s (Chicago) — we were afforded a chance to continue making memories — albeit under the Macy’s nameplate for the last nearly nine years.

But soon, like Horne’s and Gimbels before it, the Kaufmann’s and Macy’s names will disappear from the Downtown Pittsburgh retail landscape.

While there is much to discuss about how and why the company made this decision to close Pittsburgh’s last large anchor store, and on the Downtown retail climate as a whole, I want to solely focus on memories.

I didn’t grow up in a time when people flocked Downtown to Fifth Avenue and nearby streets to shop at Gimbels, Horne’s, Kaufmann’s or Jenkins Arcade — the way my mom recalls doing with her family.

It wasn’t until I moved away from Pittsburgh that I realized how special Downtown Pittsburgh’s Kaufmann’s — later Macy’s — was.

Creaky floors, the Westinghouse elevators and wooden escalators gave so much charm to the mundane task of shopping for clothing. Having lunch at the Tic Toc restaurant and grabbing thumbprints at Arcade Bakery are things shoppers can’t do at Ross Park Mall or the Mall at Robinson or any suburban mall Macy’s.

There aren’t window displays at the South Hills Village Macy’s with whimsical holiday scenes.

In a world of corporate sameness, the Macy’s in Downtown Pittsburgh added uniqueness.

Light Up Night and those holiday windows
Light Up Night is one of my most favorite days of the year. For the last several years, I’ve taken the day off work and have headed into Downtown Pittsburgh in the afternoon to begin celebrating the kickoff to the holiday season.

Part of that holiday spirit included window displays at Kaufmann’s (and later Macy’s). With so much to do Downtown that evening, I’ve only had one chance to watch the unveiling of the windows.

It was 2013. Gloria Gaynor performed and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle spoke.

Then, the throngs of people in attendance began counting down until the bright red curtains were pulled off to usher in another season of holiday cheer, and a new generation of Pittsburghers created memories.

The last several years, Macy’s has placed the same displays in windows for passersby. But they’ve had a local feel: skaters at PPG Place, shoppers under the Kaufmann’s Clock, fireworks celebrating First Night.

In one window, a child was shown watching black and white footage (from “Miracle on 34th Street”) of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on an old television as a Macy’s elf balloon moved overhead. Out of the window in the room where the child was, onlookers could see an image of Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges.

And, of course, Virginia’s mission to help write letters to Santa was prominently displayed in another window.

Several years back, I purchased from a seller on eBay four papier-mâché-type carolers once used in a Kaufmann’s window display. I’ve yet to showcase them at Christmas time, instead keeping them safely packaged away.

Speakers above the windows on Smithfield Street likely won’t play holiday tunes this year. Lights won’t shine down on whimsical displays showcasing some of Pittsburgh’s most beloved landmarks. No musician will sing and no crowd will count down. There will be no window encouraging passersby to believe.

Just taste those thumbprint cookies at Arcade Bakery
As Pittsburgh bakeries go, Arcade is top notch.

Whenever I visited the bakery, there always was a crowd: Downtown office workers picking up cakes and lunch, families taking home thumbprint cookies, husbands sipping a Coke and eating a doughnut while their wives shopped.

I always ended up with plenty of their thumbprint cookies. These sweet treats offered a generous amount of icing and came with or without jimmies (chocolate or rainbow).

Their cakes and doughnuts were just as wonderful. No mass-produced product at a big-box grocery store could compete. Only one other locally owned bakery could compete and that place closed in the late 2000s.

“Meet me under Kaufmann’s Clock”
I’ve met up with a few people over the years under Kaufmann’s Clock.

I once drove by as a bride and groom were having pictures taken with the clock.

But one of my most favorite memories of the clock was in May 2013 — the 100th anniversary of the iconic timepiece.

Macy’s hosted a weekend-long celebration with special items and a block party on Smithfield Street.

Spending the day with my mother shopping Downtown, having lunch at Tic Toc and taking home Arcade treats made that day extra special. We’ve shopped at the Downtown store at other times, but that day was special.

As we ate at Tic Toc, my mother reminisced of the days she would shop at Kaufmann’s and Gimbels (she apparently wasn’t much of a Horne’s shopper).

More than memories
Along with the charm of the structure, the thumbprint cookies, the clock and slow elevators, I was drawn to the Downtown Pittsburgh store because of its employees, selection and organization.

A few workers on the men’s floor would recognize me as I browsed. One remembered items I previously purchased and asked how the pants or shirts were.

My mother would wait in a long line for a specific employee on the woman’s floor simply because the worker was extremely outgoing and friendly. The worker once recognized me in another business in the city.

Racks of clothing were organized neatly by size and style, and the large floors allowed for ample space — unlike suburban Macy’s, where clothing is in disarray, and racks are piled close to one another to get as much on the floor as possible.

Clock keeps ticking
Before Macy’s announced the closing, I was excited for what the Big Store — once the nickname of the Downtown Kaufmann’s building — would become.

Macy’s was to occupy the first four floors with a hotel and apartments above that.

In news stories published following Macy’s announcement, the building developer said the company was surprised the retail store was backing out of the project.

A Macy’s executive — in a prepared statement — said the department store’s departure would allow for a “holistic” project.

It seems as though retail will be sought for some portion of the lower levels where Macy’s would have been. Perhaps there is a chance for the Tic Toc and Arcade Bakery to find new life in this new plan?

While department store shoppers won’t browse clothing racks, grab a bite to eat or take home a dozen thumbprints any longer at the corner of Fifth and Smithfield in Downtown Pittsburgh, Kaufmann’s Clock will continue to tick just as it has done for more than a century, ushering in new memories for dwellers.

I’ll hold close my memories of Arcade thumbprints, Christmas window displays and shopping bags under Kaufmann’s Clock.

Uhh, where’s my car?

Rarely do I misplace anything. Sure, I might bury important paperwork in my backpack or place the Apple TV remote in a different spot, but I never misplace stuff.

Especially my car.

Well, there’s a first for everything.

I was flustered Wednesday afternoon around 5 p.m. driving into rush hour traffic Downtown looking for a place to park.

I pulled into the far right lane of the Boulevard of the Allies near Market Street to park on the street.

It’s very clearly marked that parking is not permitted between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. But other vehicles were parked there already.

I sat there for a few minutes contemplating what to do.

Scared of the threat of being towed and the clock not being closer to 6 p.m., I moved my car to Third Avenue and Market Street.

Fast forward to my dinner meeting ending. I agree to take one person home.

Upon reaching the Boulevard of the Allies and Market Street, I calmly kept pushing my car’s unlock button. Nothing.

Still calm on the outside (but just about freaking out on the inside), I call the parking authority. I get the tow company number and call.

The woman asks where my car was. I tell her. As I’m on hold, my mind is racing and it starts to unravel my steps just about 2 hours prior.

It slowly hits me that I didn’t park on the Boulevard of the Allies.

The woman said they had no cars with my description and none that came in from that area in that time.

I tell her I think I might have parked on another corner. She laughed and said to call back if I didn’t find my car.

Turning the corner onto Third Avenue, I’m clicking my car button nonstop until I finally see the lights blink.

Success!

I might have gone crazy, but at least my car wasn’t towed!