The last adult film house in Pittsburgh

Since the shift away from steel production, the city of Pittsburgh has been undergoing a makeover to improve its economic and cultural standing. Where steel mills and towering brick chimneys once dotted the landscape, visitors now find run-down buildings and vacant streets and lots. To revamp Pittsburgh’s image and put it back on the map, the city is encouraging accelerated economic growth and a new, sleek look for the growing downtown area. But what about the porn? Where does the ever-present industry of adult entertainment fit into this new picture?

The Garden Theatre, Pittsburgh’s last remaining adult film theater (read: house of porn), is located in the North Side on the Federal-North corridor, along Federal Street between North Avenue and Sampsonia Street. Just steps away from Heinz Field and PNC Park, the corridor is an important three-block stretch of land. The area, if cleared, would provide ample space for offices, apartments, and retail stores. It’s what both the city and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) are working toward: to push crime out of the North Side, revitalize the area, and draw in both crowds and revenue. That’s why, since 1997, the city has been fighting to take the property away from owner George Androtsakis through eminent domain (when a government sector takes ownership of private property).

“We don’t really care about the Garden at this point,” State Senator Jim Ferlo (D–Allegheny County) told The Philadelphia Inquirer in January. “We’re not going to sit around any longer and wait for that issue. We need to get moving.”

That is, the officials of the city of Pittsburgh are intent on improving the economic situation of the city’s boroughs at any cost, even if it means removing pornography — yes, even pornography — from the landscape.

Peter Georgiades, Androtsakis’ lawyer from 1997 to 2004, stated that the Garden Theatre movie house has drawn in 50,000 patrons a year, as reported in the Pittsburgh Business Times. Moreover, as Georgiades told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “People will travel from the next county to go to an adult theater.... But people don’t go through nasty neighborhoods with abandoned buildings to see Lethal Weapon 2.” In other words, if there’s going to be an adult movie theater in Pittsburgh, it should be in the North Side.

Pittsburgh is left with a difficult decision: celebrate the Garden Theater and search for the potential of its surrounding neighborhood, or side with the URA and hope for change. Is economic development worth the loss of a long-celebrated movie house and historical landmark?

On the one hand, renovating the neighborhood would draw more people to the downtown area — to work in converted office spaces, to live in new apartments, and to shop in retail stores, all of which would draw in large amounts of revenue. Economic growth of this measure would clearly be beneficial to Pittsburgh. Still, losing the last adult film theater is like losing some of Pittsburgh’s down-home flavor: Who says ancient buildings — boarded-up windows and all — don’t add at least a smidgen of character to a college town? The Garden was built in 1915 as a film theater and switched to showing pornography in 1972. It’s been a part of the North Side for over 90 years.

Androtsakis’ argument is that the city has no right to take his property before even hiring a developer — he’s refused the $250,000 offered to him under eminent domain. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, however, is moving forward with the development of the area, recently requesting a proposal to develop eight buildings and two currently vacant lots near the theater. As quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Ravenstahl said, “I’ve taken the mindset, ‘Let’s get it done.’”