Photo by Neil Strebig
By Neil Strebig
Situated on Foreland Street amidst the heart of Deutschtown, one can tell there’s something different about Allegheny City Brewing. It isn’t your typical microbrewery. Perhaps it is the proximity of fermenting tanks of delicious habanero stouts and grapefruit IPAs to bar stools, tables and chairs made from recycled material used to make those very same stools or maybe it’s the fact that the brewery feels more like a living room filled with friends than a business occupied by patrons.
“I think people really want the sense of community and to be able to get to know their neighbors,” said co-owner, Amy Yurkovich.
The Deutschtown pub is a microcosm of a trend seen over the last few years in Pittsburgh’s 18-neighborhood Northside. Neighborhoods north of the Allegheny River have been undergoing another attempted revitalization – a second renaissance of sorts. An upheaval of new businesses, population increases and a changing of commercial scenery that has already transformed the derelict dust clouds of Northside’s riverfront into the tourist-friendly North Shore. And now the inland neighborhoods behind the riverfront stadiums are stepping out of the shadows of the once doomed Allegheny Center Mall and looking more and more like the Allegheny City of old – the one that was once home to Millionaire’s Row.
“Northside is beginning to reap the rewards of thirty or forty years of volunteer efforts. The preservation of historic neighborhoods. The sweat-equity people poured into their homes,” Mark Fatla, Executive Director of the Northside Leadership Conference said.
“The effort on parks and saving our outdoor spaces. The efforts on fighting crime and improving the connections with people. The efforts to grow good, neighborhood-serving business, bars and restaurants and the entrepreneurs who took those chances. All of that has worked. And it has been normal, natural, gradual and organic.”
The unique connection between businesses with backyard ownership and increase in rehabilitation housing is a large reason the Northside communities are beginning to disengage the stereotypes of crime and despair that have plagued the Northside over the years.
“Those who spend their lives among us as well as their business hours among us, yea they’re special,” Fatla said, “They get it in a different way. We welcome all entrepreneurs regardless of where they live. But the ones who spend their lives amongst the rest of us they do have a special connection and relationship and I believe that is often reflected in the business.”
Yurkovich opened up Allegheny City Brewing with her brother, Matt along with their business partner Al Grasso. The Yurkovich siblings are Brighton Heights natives – after spending time in Denver, Colorado they “fell in love” with the communal vibe between small businesses, microbreweries and neighborhoods and “wanted to bring that back to Pittsburgh.”
“We knew we wanted to be in the Northside. We’re from the Northside for us [Matt and I] if we couldn’t find a spot in the Northside, it just wasn’t going to happen,” Yurkovich said.
Allegheny City Brewing offers more than just a few pints of smiles and delightful cheers. It’s the trio’s attention and appreciation for fellow residents and neighbors that separates it from the usual beverage pit stop. The Yurkovich’s often find themselves referring to customers as “neighbors” rather than patrons – and not due to Freudian slips.
“Just to see people that come in, you recognize them, they recognize you – I think that’s important,” Matt Yurkovich added.
Their attention to detail doesn’t just come from their Northside roots, but more importantly their desire to stay rooted in the community. They want their establishment to help advertise other local businesses in the area like James Street Gastropub, Max’s Allegheny Tavern and the commence on East Ohio Street.
“We really love the idea of walkability,” Matt Yurkovich said, “We want to encourage people from the neighborhood to walk or bike. We don’t see it as a competition with James Street or Max’s – if anything – we want to promote them.”
To them the real desire is to see more business on the Northside from both entrepreneurs and its residents. And the trio at ACB is not alone.
Owners like Ed Menzer of Manchester’s Parador Inn and Don Mahaney of Troy Hill’s Scratch Food & Beverage are entrepreneurs who live and operate within the communities they have established their respective businesses in.
“I live in the neighborhood so that was a great deal of importance to me – to be a part of what is to come and not wanting to put a hoity-toity join in that space or not wanting to put a hole-in-the-wall space and wanting to do something a little more balanced,” Mahaney said.
Mahaney opened Scratch Food and Beverage in November of 2015, replacing, Billy’s Bistro, a local relic and Troy Hill staple for decades. Despite the challenges, Mahaney made it a point to speak with the community, residents – his neighbors and patrons.
“Every neighborhood that goes through transitions, you’re not really sure what’s going to happen and I sort of wanted to be apart of that conversation rather than sit back,” Mahaney said.
“Scratch [is] trying to transform what was a neighborhood meeting place [Billy’s] into a restaurant meeting place that goes beyond Troy Hill. And it encourages people to come from beyond Troy Hill,” Vice President of the Allegheny Historical Society, John Canning said.
Mahaney has been very adamant about being a “reflection” of the community of Troy Hill and sub-sequentially the Northside.
“What we have experienced in being open [in Troy Hill] we have sort of experienced this sort of nexus of communities being formed.”
What Mahaney is getting at is the assimilation between Northside neighborhoods. Something Menzer has taken notice of ever since he turned a Victorian house on Manchester’s Western Avenue into a Caribbean-themed bed-and-breakfast over ten years ago.
“The media is finally starting to differentiate the neighborhoods,” Menzer said. According to Menzer, negative news afflicting the Northside is often categorized as ‘Northside’ rather than definitive pinpoints to the neighborhood location it may have happened in.
“If something negative does take place, it [the media] does seem to lump the whole Northside together,” Matt Yurkovich said.
The decrease in crime along with specificity is paving the way to see each sector of the Northside shine as individual gems that comprise the Northside as a whole; compared to the less than inviting slogan the Northside residents have unofficially adopted over the years: ‘Don’t you dare cross that bridge.’
The Northside is made up of over a dozen neighborhoods including the North Shore, Troy Hill, Manchester, East Deutschtown, Perry Hill, Fineview, Allegheny Center, Allegheny West, Brighton Heights, and Central Northside. As of 2010, the 18 neighborhoods combine for a population over 40,000.
Each of these neighborhoods represent the populace and personality of Pittsburgh behind the Allegheny River, but as Menzer points out it is still very isolated.
“[Northside’s culture] Is still very segregated by neighborhood. We don’t have a cohesive Northside attitude. Manchester has its own personality. Allegheny West, Mexican War Streets, Deutschtown [they all] have their own personality. We don’t have a Northside personality.”
Yet, that may very well be part of its charm and a large reason Northside isn’t Pittsburgh’s next Lawrenceville. Art-fueled areas like the Mexican War Streets – home to Pittsburgh’s Randyland – have been a catalyst of change over the last three decades providing the Northside with a great head start. But they are islands surrounded by pockets of poverty and the social ills that accompany it.
“We are what we are and we are who we are,” Fatla said, “And that’s inclusive, diverse and natural.”
Fatla disagrees with the assertion that Northside is Pittsburgh’s next ‘hot’ neighborhood and worries about the problems that come with such a label.
“The idea was to grow these neighborhoods organically and naturally in a way that’s inclusive for all. One of the things that happen when these neighborhoods get over-hyped, there’s dislocation. Values explode. There’s a boom-bust cycle that comes,” he added, “I don’t think that’s the goal.”
Fatla makes a strong point. Majority of the neighborhoods in the Northside have seen significant increases in property values over the last six years. According to the Allegheny County of Property Assessment (data supplied by USCUR) both East Allegheny and Fineview have seen average sale prices of homes double. In 2012, the average home in East Allegheny was $71,090. In 2015, that price nearly doubled to $132,606. In the same span Fineview the median property sales price increased from $26,000 to $57,750.
Interestingly enough both Upper and Lower Lawrenceville average property values exploded from 2012-2015. Jumping from $64,658 to $128,295 in Upper Lawrenceville and $93,380 to $178,146 in Lower Lawrenceville. Naturally, nearby Troy Hill saw the median sales price of property value move from $33,500 to $42,000. However, the average sales price in that time dropped from $134,908 to $84,548 in Troy Hill.
Troy Hill joins Manchester as the only Northside neighborhoods to fall victim to any significant decrease in property values over the course of this four-year span. Nonetheless, the numbers suggest there is little doubt that the neighborhoods of the Northside are witnessing a progressive increase in both cultural and commercial identity. Albeit the dips in average prices in both Manchester and Troy Hill draw upon the “bust” Fatla is concerned with.
“At first the location to work was the initial attraction to live here. After we lived here for a while the community became the focal feature for me. Just the people became like family to me. I think that’s the new draw. At least from what I’m hearing from people, the sense of community here is something we can offer that a lot of other communities don’t have,” Troy Hill resident and Boat Pittsburgh Founder, Nicole Moga said.
Moga and her partner, Mike Fifth have lived on Troy Hill since 2008. They bought their home for $39,500 and have put approximately $40,000 in investments into their residence; in the process, they have created a homely and quaint Airbnb in the heart of Troy Hill.
Moga and Fifth are a part of a citizen group that call themselves the “Troy Hooligans.” The ‘Hooligans’ are comprised of over 200 fellow Troy Hill residents-turned-activists who take it upon themselves to help organize community events like block parties, tree-planting, and various other events that inspire communal pride. Actions that not only help create civic pride but also help protect against the potential “bust” portion of the cycle that plagues cultural explosions.
“[That] Sense of community is richer when there’s a lot of active members and there’s a lot of caring that goes into things,” Moga said, “It is a social center.”
Under-the-radar groups like the Troy Hooligans in conjunction with business like Mahaney’s Scratch and Troy Hill’s Pear and the Pickle are progressively turning an isolated neighborhood on the hilltop into a getaway gem.
“This place wouldn’t have been here five years ago,” Canning said of Pear and the Pickle.
But it all starts at the understanding between residents and businesses – a small-town ideal that carries city-wide vibrations.
“I think that makes them [local business owners] very receptive to what the community needs because they are a part of it,” Fifth said on local business owners like Mahaney, the Yurkovich’s and Bobby Stockard and Alexis Tragos of Pear and the Pickle.
The pride of each neighborhood is what maintains not only the Northside’s identity but its commercial and cultural strength.
“I think more business is good. It is a positive thing. I’d hate to see chain stuff come in because I think that takes away from the flavor and the culture of the Northside. Parador Inn, that sort of thing is so special instead of a Comfort Inn or a Hyatt,” Moga said.
At the bottom of the hill just a few miles away in Central Northside and Allegheny Center more commercial destinations are springing up inside in the likes of Nova Place and City of Asylum’s Alphabet City on North Avenue. But despite larger developmental hands in play local residents are still largely involved in what is happening and what is going in.
Nova Place is home to Alloy 26, Western Pennsylvania’s largest small business incubator and has helped pair with the Children’s Museum the last two years in co-sponsorship of the Northside’s Marker Faire.
“This is just the beginning of the inertia,” Menzer said in regards to the progress made by both FAROS Properties in Nova Place, City of Asylum, and TREK Development with the vacant Garden Theater. Menzer believes the renovations will be “huge” and will hopefully connect West Allegheny with East Ohio and the rest of the Deutschtown district. Menzer added that it is the “small businesses that come up with the new ideas.”
“Took us [Northside] over forty years to become an overnight sensation. And I think sometime people forget that it took all this incredible volunteer effort – that created this opportunity – this moment,” Fatla said.
There is no telling what the future holds for Pittsburgh’s Northside, but if one thing is clear the residents of the Northside know this moment isn’t by chance. They understand it has taken a Northsized effort and that is something each neighborhood can take great pride in.
This article first appeared in Steel City Renaissance.