A barrage of social media posts helps alert Northside residents one of their own is in need.
By: Neil Strebig
After a morning workout at the Allegheny YMCA, Northsider Willy James happened to stroll through Allegheny Commons Park and notice an “empty” Gus and Yia Yia’s stand.
“I remember the bridge construction was affecting business,” recalled James. “It still seemed pretty empty.”
According to Gus Kalaris, who owns the ice ball stand and Northside landmark, since the City of Pittsburgh closed West Ohio Street Bridge to vehicular traffic, business has been down 50 percent. Kalaris relies solely on foot traffic for sales.
“First it was scary, people weren’t coming,” said Kalaris. “We’ve made a landmark out of it [the stand] we’re going to stay with what we do, people know us.”
Fortunately for Kalaris, James had his camera with him that day. The local videographer began interviewing Kalaris about the decline in traffic. On Monday, May 21 James published the 3-minute long video on his Facebook page. 29,000 views and 780 Facebook shares later, the Northside took notice.
“I was surprised to see how many people actually know about it and enjoy it,” said Bill Harold, who helps Kalaris with the stand a few times a week. Harold, a Bellevue native mentioned that since residents began taking to social media there’s been a significant uptick in customers.
A simple Facebook search of “Gus and Yia Yia’s” will clear way to dozens of Northside and Pittsburgh residents who have taken to social media to notify fellow friends and family that the ice ball stand is in need of their patronage. Similar, to James’ video a number of these posts have hundreds of likes and thousands of shares. Even more alarming, the majority of these posts have happened within the last week.
“I liken it to a snowball,” said James in regards to the bombardment of posts and notifications. “Lot of Pittsburghers grew up with him [Gus]. I love the fact everyone came out to support him.”
Walking up from the Rivers Casino, Charles Smith, a former Mexican War Streets resident who now lives in the Mon Valley, mentioned he makes it a point to stop at Gus and Yia Yia’s every time he’s on the Northside. He can’t say no to a scoop of banana cherry.
“When you come to the Northside you make a point to come here,” said Smith.
Kalaris inherited the stand after his father George, passed away in 1951. According to Kalaris, his father bought the stand for $175 from a church friend named Tatso. In 1934, his George Kalaris set up shop near the Lake Elizabeth Pool, which at the time could accommodate close to 5,000 people.
In addition to the recent social media surge, Kalaris was quick to credit Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference with helping attract continuous foot traffic to the stand.
After the bridge was closed for construction, so was the entrance to W. Ohio Street for vehicular traffic near the Western Ave. intersection. The intersection between Ridge Avenue and W. Ohio Street also remained barricaded. According, to Kalaris, Fatla helped re-open the street for vehicles. It helped bring additional attention and let customers know the stand was still open, said Kalaris.
“When the bridge closed last year, I was swamped with calls and emails from Northsiders concerned about Gus,” said Fatla in an email. “Several folks had the idea to create a loop using Ridge Avenue so that Gus was not on a dead-end street. I suggested that to the City [of Pittsburgh] and they responded quickly. All I did was pass on information.”
Since, Kalaris has noticed a number of customers – new and old – visiting the stand.
“People know we’re here and where to find us,” said Kalaris.
If they didn’t, they certainly do now.
Gus and Yia Yia’s ice ball stand is located near the tennis courts on W. Ohio St. The stand is open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
This post was updated on Thursday, May 24 at 10:25 a.m.