august 11, 2019
After years of neglect, foundations, business owners, and new residents are making Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood, high in the hills above the South Side, into an affordable location for entrepreneurship.
Story & photos by Brian Conway
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is funded through a partnership with Forward Cities.
Even if you consider the neighborhood’s newfound popularity, Pittsburgh’s Allentown district is bustling tonight.
It’s a fine June evening and some 150 people pop in and out of the restaurants and storefronts of East Warrington Avenue for A Taste of Allentown, a newly-annual showcase of the community’s resurgent business district.
The night’s largest crowd went to a business that hadn’t even opened. At Dr. Tumblety’s Apothecary & Tasting Lounge, pre-Prohibition cocktails and hot jazz flowed, as Tumblety’s tattooed and top-hatted owner, Allentown-native Jesse Mader, presents the coup de grâce, a backroom speakeasy-style lounge, revealed by a sliding bookcase.
It’s the latest addition to the East Warrington business district, a three-block span of independent shops, many that share a dark, DIY, heavy metal aesthetic: Skull Records, Black Forge Coffee Shop, Dark Root Barber, The Weeping Glass oddity shop, and the heavy metal vegan restaurant Onion Maiden. For a growing number of people, this makes Allentown a destination.
The business district has seen its vacancy rate drop from 40 percent in 2014 to 16 percent in 2018, with zero displacement of original businesses, according to estimates published by Hilltop Alliance, a community development corporation representing 11 south Pittsburgh neighborhoods. That’s the same year that the Hilltop Alliance received a six-year, $1.5 million grant through the Pennsylvania Neighborhood Partnership Program for economic development and community improvement efforts
Then, in July, digital media cooperative Work Hard Pittsburgh, located in a former hardware store on Warrington, received $950,000 over two years from the Hillman Foundation and The Heinz Endowments for workforce development efforts in the hilltop neighborhoods.
And in August 2018, national non-profit Forward Cities engaged with local leaders to develop a set of strategies focused on strengthening the community’s inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystem. Through a process spearheaded by local organizations and anchored in data about the community’s economic landscape, Forward Cities is set to announce funding for pilot programs to remove barriers facing local entrepreneurs and small business owners with the goal of increasing shared prosperity in Allentown.
Through this process, Allentown has emerged as one of Pittsburgh’s premiere hotspots for affordable, equitable entrepreneurship.
“You can’t have economic inclusion without economic growth,” said Christopher Gergen, Forward Cities CEO and co-founder. “You need the economy to keep humming along, and you need to make sure that all community members are ready and able to benefit from this economic growth. But you need it to be done through mixed economic development, so that it provides local entrepreneurs who have been there for a long time the opportunity to participate in and share in the prosperity. The worst thing that can happen is to be unintentional about it — and miss a golden opportunity to foster economic opportunity that is truly inclusive and equitable and can be sustained for the long run.”
He’s not the only one bullish on Allentown’s future.
“Allentown is clearly going in the right direction, and I see some great spinoff now in Beltzhoover and Mt. Oliver,” said Mark Bibro, executive director of the Birmingham Foundation, which has a 23-year history promoting health and wellness in Allentown and other South Side neighborhoods. “Gentrification is always a risk, but those communities that don’t risk it probably never develop.”
Allentown has emerged as one of Pittsburgh’s premiere hotspots for affordable, equitable entrepreneurship.
One Taste of Allentown participant appreciated the crowds more than most. Helen Baney was born on the 900 block of East Warrington in 1924. In 1938, she moved two blocks away to the three-story house on Excelsior Street where she raised four daughters. She still lives there today.
“I was pleasantly surprised at all the storefronts that are open,” Baney said. “Nothing is what it was. If you can bring interest back into the neighborhood with someone who’s willing to invest in the neighborhood, God bless you, it’s better than empty storefronts.”
Baney’s grandparents moved to Allentown, atop the city’s southern hilltop, to escape the smog-filled South Side, home of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. The University of Pittsburgh offered her a full academic scholarship, she said, but she took a job working in Allentown instead.
She remembers the Allentown of her childhood as an enjoyable place to grow up, “a very, very friendly neighborhood,” but, as a German Catholic, it was a “closed society.” She, like the other German Catholics in the neighborhood, went to St. George’s for education and worship; the Irish had St. Canice in neighboring Knoxville, and that was that.
She remembers a time when she would take her children to watch Disney cartoons at one of the neighborhood cinemas, when Allentown was still home to multiple grocers, bakers, a hardware store, jeweler, and confectionaries.
“You didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood,” she said, “unless you went Downtown and got all dressed up.”
She said that her generation encouraged their children to move to the suburbs, to leave behind the crowded urban environment for a home with a yard and fresh air. She believes the rise of malls, automobiles, and larger chain businesses, along with fewer young people staying to raise families, drove out the independent business district on Warrington.
“Little by little,” she said, “the stores died on the vine.”
Like so many Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Allentown suffered its biggest setback after heavy industry left, prompting many workers to take on minimum-wage jobs, a blow financially and psychologically, said Bibro, of the Birmingham Foundation.
“Suddenly the mills go, and seemingly all the jobs disappear overnight,” he said. “When that happens to most communities, they go into shock and denial, kind of like a prizefighter stunned by a quick jab to the head. You’re stunned and you don’t know how to react.”
Bibro credits the work of the citizen-led (and now defunct) Allentown Civic Association, of which Baney served as secretary, and the work of a handful of other residents for helping to keep the neighborhood afloat during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Some of their victories included helping to secure new senior housing and open a new Golden Dawn grocery store.
Scott King grew up in Beltzhoover and has lived in Allentown the past four years. He said historically, Beltzhoover Avenue was seen as the dividing line between the black Beltzhoover and white Allentown. He remembers, in the early 1980s, walking with friends to buy candy and junk food at the only 24-hour convenience store nearby, in Allentown. He said he and his friends would travel in squads of five or six people at night for safety. Today, he lives in a house a block off Warrington in Allentown, across the street from a former Veterans of Foreign Wars building where he says men would slur racial insults to he and
Allentown no longer feels threatening to him.
While Allentown’s business district has blossomed in recent years, there are still some basic amenities lacking in the neighborhood, and a question of who stands to benefit.
In 2011, the Port Authority suffered budget cuts, and the Brown Line, as it was known, was discontinued. The South Hills Junction T station exists a little less than a mile from the main business corridor, but Pittsburgh’s light rail system will only detour along Warrington if the tunnels flood and the trolley has to cut the long way over the hilltop; even then, it doesn’t stop to pick anyone up.
The community still lacks a full-service grocer, so residents rely on a Dollar General and grocers in nearby communities, as well as a monthly produce giveaway sponsored by the Hilltop Alliance, Allentown Community Development Corp., The Brashear Association, St. John Vianney Food Pantry, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Jmar Bey, president of South Hilltop Men’s Group, works out of an office down the hall from Hilltop Alliance at the corner of Arlington and Warrington. A hilltop mainstay, Bey’s group combines workforce development with environmental remediation. He and Allentown environmental sustainability firm DECO Resources have partnered on a three-year study at a garden along Beltzhoover Avenue to test different methods of lead remediation in soil for vacant city lots.
Bey says the transformation happening along East Warrington has been a good thing, but believes there needs to be “a very intentional push” to include long-time residents in that success, especially when it comes to jobs.
“The people who lived in this neighborhood — who totally didn’t want the neighborhood to go to shit, the homeowners and folks who kept it alive when it was basically on life-support — funds became available, and you have folks who didn’t weather that storm, that when the skies kind of cleared and the sun came out, a lot of folks came from below deck, saying here we are, and they’re getting all the benefits of the easy sailing.”
“You just don’t see a lot of folks that were indigenous to this area working [along Warrington],” he adds, “and the folks that have benefitted, primarily, are not from the hilltop.”
Scott King’s niece, Jena White, and other family members frequent a few Warrington businesses, like Paisano’s pizza and Leon’s Caribbean, as well as the Dollar General and the Hilltop Tavern, but many of the new businesses are out of their price range.
White says she likes her neighborhood and her neighbors, but she’d like to see an affordably-priced family restaurant open on Warrington. There’s already a diner, Breakfast at Shelly’s, but it’s only open until 3 p.m., and White works
King and White live in the towering shadow of the vacant St. George Roman Catholic Church (now St. John Vianney). Former Allentown resident, Bob Kress, author of “Allentown: The Story of a Pittsburgh Neighborhood,” lead the St. George Church Preservation Society in their fight against the church’s 2015 closure and mission to bring it back to a functioning house of worship. The church is empty now, not yet desanctified but in limbo, waiting on the Vatican for its decree.
“We learned from our community activism in the past that you can do something about it if there’s enough people that see it as an injustice,” Kress said.
Despite the work of Kress’s Allentown Civic Association in the ‘80s, Allentown and some surrounding communities became synonymous with crime for much of the ‘90s
In 2009, the Zone 3 Police Headquarters moved to a prominent spot at the corner of Arlington and Warrington after what one local newspaper called “a bloody summer and a spate of shootings” in the hilltop neighborhoods.
“We have got serious issues here to deal with,” said the city’s public safety director at the time. “We’re talking murder, drugs, gun violence. The mayor and the community want action now.”
Though safety has improved, some gun violence persists in the hilltop. This year, there was a shooting on Easter Sunday. White says she doesn’t really let her children play outside much.
Two people were shot in Allentown this past May, and in an unrelated shooting the same night, the windows were shot out of the Hilltop Tavern. Visitors to A Taste of Allentown didn’t seem to notice, or question, the boarded-up window.
“There’s usually a wait to be seated in front of the barbers, said manager, Rey Johnson, matter-of-factly: “We offer the best fades in the city.”
Bibro, of the Birmingham Foundation, said that Allentown turned a corner roughly five years ago. Urban living was en vogue again, and centrally-located, affordably-priced Allentown attracted a different gaze, especially with its abundant housing.
“The nuts and bolts, the bones are there,” he said. “You might want to update that 1950s kitchen, and do some efficiency work in terms of heating and plumbing, but it was affordable.”
That affordability is what led Maggie Negrete to Allentown. A Washington County native, she moved to Pittsburgh in 2010, after graduating from Vassar College, and bought a house in Allentown in 2015.
“I could get the most house for my price range,” she said of the neighborhood. “I bought this house as a single person on two part-time jobs. I couldn’t leverage a lot of mortgage loan, but I didn’t want, like, a shell of a house.”
Today, she lives with her fiance, Mikey Orellano. The two got engaged minutes from their home at Grandview Park this Fourth of July. They have a daughter, Mora, and Negrete says that Allentown is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, something important to her, especially when it came to starting a family.
Orellano gets his hair cut at Primo Cutz, one of four barbershops and salons on East Warrington. Over the stereo, Eddie Santiago croons about the craziness of love, and the conversations flow seamlessly from English to Spanish.
There’s usually a wait to be seated in front of the barbers, said manager, Rey Johnson, matter-of-factly: “We offer the best fades in the city.”
“Our clientele ranges from single moms to Pittsburgh Steelers,” she said. “Every kind of person comes here, and I like it.”
Negrete wonders aloud how much of Allentown’s perceived success can be credited to savvy marketing. There has been a proliferation of murals and public artwork in the past few years, and Allentown’s former main street manager pushed a consistent #AtownPGH hashtag. Many of the new crop of businesses seem especially adept at social media, and some have received help from an Allentown digital media cooperative.
In 2013, Work Hard Pittsburgh opened in what was, since 1927, four different hardware stores.
A former science teacher at Sto-Rox School District, founder Josh Lucas and partners launched Crowdasaurus, a crowdfunding site for political speech, but the funding fell through. They already secured Allentown office space with help from the Mount Washington Community Development Corp., so a core group of tech freelancers stuck around, and a coworking space for digital media professionals was born.
West Mifflin native William “Buzzy” Torek was a former audio tech intern of Lucas and helped to build a basement recording studio at Work Hard, drawing many young artists and creatives to the neighborhood for the first time. Today, Work Hard is cooperatively owned, and its members help to operate a digital media agency and coding academy.
Torek’s podcast company, Epicast, was co-founded by his Allentown roommate, Nick Miller, who went on to co-found Black Forge Coffee House with current owner, Ashley Corts, in 2015, providing Allentown with a much-needed gathering place that wasn’t a bar, as well as a space for community meetings, art shows, and open mics and concerts.
Corts, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2009 and bought a house here in 2017, also serves on the Hilltop Alliance’s Allentown Business District Committee, and her shop’s black metal aesthetic has spread through the neighborhood. She helped to connect Weeping Glass oddities shop and Dark Root barbershop owners to the Allentown business district manager, and gave them her own business plan for reference. Black Forge also hosted pop-up lunches from vegan restaurant, Onion Maiden, now located three blocks away, next door
to Skull Records.
“I was pretty terrified when it came to the first year of being open,” said Corts, “because we don’t have a whole lot of foot traffic, and we are a brand-new company that no one is really aware of, and Allentown wasn’t even being focused on as a place to come to or a destination point.”
Work Hard members Meta-Mesh Wireless Communities provide free public Wi-Fi through 66 nodes across the city, 19 of which are in Allentown, and first of any at Black Forge. Other Work Hard members have donated graphic design and social media work for new community businesses, such as Leon’s Caribbean, a father-and-son-operated Jamaican take-out restaurant.
Leon’s is one of dozens of beneficiaries of a monthly rent abatement program from the $1.5 million Neighborhood Partnership Program grant Hilltop Alliance received in 2014. The money also allowed for the hiring of a full-time business district manager and funding for new main street signage in addition to the rent abatement program of up to $400 a month for new businesses.
In addition to business district revitalization, the money went toward property stabilization and housing market restoration. Hilltop Alliance Executive Director Aaron Sukenik calls it an “anti-displacement program” and says they’ve worked with dozens of homeowners to help address common code issues as well as help work out issues like tangled titles.
The housing market work involves purchasing long-vacant, tax-delinquent properties—“the worst stuff the private market is not doing,” Sukenik said. They then search for partners to rehab the properties or tear the structures down. This inventory of vacant lots will allow the Hilltop Alliance to pursue a new, 29-unit, scattered-site affordable housing tax-credit development, for which they will apply this fall.
In some ways, the work being done by the Hilltop Alliance mirrors the work done by the Birmingham Foundation. Since 2011, the foundation has partnered with Allentown-based commercial real estate company RE360 to buy the “worst of the worst” properties on blocks that no one else would touch to spur redevelopment.
“Much to our surprise,” Bibro said. ”if there’s a street that has 12 or 15 homes, and you do three of them, particularly the worst three, good things happen on that street beyond
One thing most parties stress is that there’s no way to control the market, and that homeownership is the key to long-term stability for the neighborhood.
Bibro said that the newly-gentrified neighborhood of East Liberty is seen by many as an example of how development should not be done. In his mind, good communities are inclusive places, with people of many races and income levels living together. He said he believes that Allentown isn’t set up for a Walmart or a large-scale condo complex — geographically or commercially— and that the pieces are in place for equitable development.
“It’s happening slowly,” Bibro said. “It’s happening one house at a time, it’s not mass produced, and I think it’s going in the right direction. I think this can be a model of a way to do it right.”
Brian Conway is a freelance reporter based in Pittsburgh. His investigations into the city's lead in water crisis earned him First Prize for Environmental Reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists in their statewide Spotlight contest. In addition to investigative and enterprise reporting, he also covers Pittsburgh's music, craft beer, and cannabis scenes for a variety of publications, and is a member of the Work Hard Pittsburgh digital media cooperative. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.