When Justin Strong took the chance of his life to turn a dingy old vacant building just off the main street of East Liberty into the Shadow Lounge in June of 2000, it was a huge risk and seemed destined for failure like most businesses in that distressed area. As the bar became known as a center of live music, Strong grew his business to add two additional venues and appeared to be on his way to building a lasting business.
“The plan is to get ownership and development. We’ll try to recreate an organic atmosphere around next time, but there’s more of a business focus. I have diapers to buy and responsibilities now”, he said.
Throughout the past year, an onslaught of noise complaints and building violations brought by residents of the newly gentrified central east liberty district he helped develop has caused him to shut down the cherished music spot until he finds a new location.
As a child he could recall walking to East Liberty with his grand-dad, “to get Klondike bars and chipped-chopped ham”.
When Strong entered into high school the area had become so rundown that it was understood that he shouldn’t be going into East Liberty for much of anything. It wasn’t until late high school that he encountered East Liberty again when he would go to the-then Kinglsey Center for a monthly showcase of B-Boys (break dancers) and emcee’s (rappers) called, “Therapeutics” because he of his love of hip-hop.
In 1998, while attending the University of Pittsburgh that Strong began searching for a property for his new business based on his idea of creating a venue for local artists to display their skills. After searching for two years, while in East Liberty, Strong decided to search for a space there. The third place he looked at on the corner of Baum Blvd. and N. Highland called him back and the rest is Shadow Lounge history.
Since opening in 2000 Strong increased his business from one room to three rooms, no bar-to-three bars and no employees to not knowing exactly how many employees he has. Strong admitted seeing potential in East Liberty from the start mainly because it wasn’t seasonally dead like a lot of the college neighborhoods like Oakland and Shadyside. He initially thought, “I’m gonna make $50 million dollars- profit: and then slowly learned that’s not the case.”
Twelve years ago when Strong moved in there was no problem staying open late-night and there was room to park, not to mention no complaints about the live music being played. In 2005, after he has opened sister-club Ava, that he had noticed the discussions around East Liberty about the potential developments in the area.
Strong understands that the lounge was caught in the middle of what is now a prime location for the development. He knows noisy places like the lounge may decrease the value of future projects and properties in the newly developed East Liberty. “The same faces who have been coming here for years are now getting into positions of power and we have to put ourselves in the position besides just party-go-time.”
The decision to move the Shadow Lounge after twelve years could mean a change in not only neighborhood, but also the kind of musical acts they will be booking. Justin
Strong, the owner, has been noticing changes that are forcing him to think about the bigger picture, “We’re now the old club: there’s a gap between the people of today and the people who built it”, he adds, “The people who put their blood sweat and tears into it- people who put the scuff marks on the floors.”
The Shadow Lounge has seen many musical acts ranging from electronica to hip-hop come through it as well as multitudes of patrons of every age group. Musician ChaRon Don is used to performing music there, “I have known Justin since the opening of the venue and have gained a lot of respect for him as a person for first his appreciation and support of quality local music, to his business mindedness and determination to always seem to help the lounge grow to a bigger and better place of gathering.”
The evolution of the lounge was slow to start but then grew quickly and expanded tremendously. “I’ve saw that place go from a small one room comfy spot full of thrifty couches and no stage to a three room, three bar, full sound stage where respectable and legendary acts like KRS ONE, Dead Prez, Pharoahe Monch have performed on the same bill as many local artist and groups alike,” he said.
MaVe Sami, a rapper, has performed there and has been a loyal patron since the Shadow Lounge opened its doors more than a decade ago. She says that she honed her musical skills at the lounge and not only met but collaborated with other artists of all disciplines. Some of Sami’s fondest memories include: falling in and out of love there, “The Shadow Lounge is another word for: ‘Home-Away-From-Home’, beautiful synergy, great vibes, dance and sweat, culture, where the Cool Kids, your rays (family) and the professors are: I could go on and on,” she said.
Musical acts send in music that mimics previous Lounge acts before them. One such act is Wiz Khalifa who frequented and performed at the Shadow Lounge in the past and Strong can see the influence of Khalifa on the new generation of up-and-coming emcees. Strong also notices a change of subject matter for most rappers, “Everyone has this laugh now… (insert Wiz Khalifa laugh) and like eight songs about weed.”
The residential aspect of developing the east end began creating problems for Strong in late-June 2012 beginning with a series of complaints about loud music and issues regarding approval for his zoning license, that he got approved in 2005 after attending a zoning adjustment hearing before any of this started. Strong realizes that East Liberty has developed into prime realty and that there are a lot of people who want to see the success of this development increase. “In one instance the development manifested everything we needed around- even Whole Foods I need mint leaves I just run there.”
The developers also entered the picture, along with building inspectors and constant noise complaints that forced his move since he isn’t a property owner. With East Liberty harboring valuable properties, it’s only smart that those who gained from complaints would want to capitalize on the potential closing of the Shadow Lounge- a witty move in fact. Moving the Shadow Lounge can take up to two years to make the purchase and develop, but says “It was a conservative effort, everything made sense”, after he was pulled to the side last month he understood that, “It’s all a big chess game. We get credit for developing in East Liberty, but we don’t own anything.”
In 2006, the development in East Liberty wasn’t far behind with national chains like Whole Foods, Kinko’s, Trader Joes and more recently Target. “That’s why we grabbed Ava because we knew the other segment, residential, would be poppin’ up.”
Strong was forced to look at the bigger picture. He wants to further the success of the Shadow Lounge, Blue Room and Ava, but by doing things the right way. “An opportunity to lock in a lower rate for Ava came in and we’re looking for a stand-alone building to purchase, ‘cause we don’t wanna keep paying rent,” he added, “That’s the main thing especially dealing with live music,” he said.
In spring of 2013, Strong anticipates the wrap-up or ‘pausing’ of the Shadow Lounge coupled with the expansion and renovation of Ava and the Blue Room. The Shadow Lounge is expected to close and relocate to Larimer another section in the east end.
Owning property this time around is the ultimate goal of the Shadow Lounge when it re-opens, but it’s still going stronger than ever with hopes of securing a date in December for the Camp-Lo tour. It’s the 15th anniversary of their debut album Uptown Saturday Night and Strong is in negotiations to schedule them for sometime in December, making this their third time at the lounge: the first time was in 2004 and the last time was last year. This is the gap showing up again showing us the ‘We’re excited about 20 years of music in a generation that thinks Shaggy is old-school. Next thing you know, I’m going to have a powder-blue tuxedo on.”
Saying good-bye to the legacy of the original Shadow Lounge vibe and crowd will be easier than expected because Strong will be hosting a Shadow Lounge Legacy Concert Series at the end of March 2013: a series that will bring back all of the old national artists that have been here and all of the artists who have performed here on a regular basis. It will feature a live audio and video shoot to package and make available for purchase later. “My memories of this place are too many to mention and being that it is still a current place of the best musical acts both locally and nationally I will not speak of it only in its memorable past but look forward to its even better future”, adds ChaRon Don.
Justin Strong has no intentions of closing the Shadow Lounge forever, just for a period of about two years, which is long enough for him to choose a property and begin construction on the new Shadow Lounge.