It seems like every city life blog or paper in Pittsburgh has its neighborhood that it predicts or suggests should be the next to gentrify. The most popular at the moment seems to be Garfield, but neighborhoods like Larimer, Allentown and Troy Hill get some play as well. Deutschtown seems to be a favorite here at TPOP, likely because the light rail extension Kevin and I proposed, which got this whole damn experiment started, cuts right through the middle of it.
But there are two problems with gentrification. First and foremost, people already live and have social ties in those neighborhoods that are becoming more desirable. When they can no longer afford their homes, people are displaced and a community that’s formed there breaks down and dies. Bonds are broken and culture is lost being replaced by something that’s assumed to be better because it’s economically more viable. Second, you eventually run out of places in geographically attractive spots to gentrify. Typically, the key to the first spots to gentrify are the ones close to more established, desirable locations or are accessible to those places with transit or bike/pedestrian paths. After these located neighborhoods have turned over, prices skyrocket.
When home buyers and renters get priced out of the already gentrified neighborhoods and the remaining locations aren’t worth having your bike stolen every two weeks, people start moving out of town to smaller cities in the exurbs. Across Pennsylvania, Phoenixville with its Blob Festival and Sly Fox Brewery, has become a cheaper, more laid back alternative to Philly. Portland, Maine and Providence are bigger and further afield than Phoenixville, but they’re providing an alternative to Boston. Mountain towns and suburbs near Portland and Denver are getting hipper as well.
At the moment, Pittsburgh is still a place where folks from elsewhere come to save big bucks and get more space, but housing costs are escalating particularly in the most established neighborhoods in the East End. Maybe we’ve been spoiled having both lived in Pittsburgh for ten plus years, but my wife and I experienced notable sticker shock even in Swissvale when looking to get on the other side of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel for work around this time last year. We mutually dislike most of the other more suburban options along the Parkway East, Routes 30 and 22, so we had a look at Greensburg. It felt like a neighborhood in Pittsburgh that flung off and drifted all the way to Westmoreland County. A shade over 4 square miles with a touch under 15,000 residents, we spent four months looking for a house and another four months trying to finance it while retaining our home in Mt Washington as a rental. Our new house, just a few blocks from downtown, was much more affordable than it would have been in Pittsburgh. While housing overall is slightly more expensive here, it seems like there is a cap on the market at around $300,000 with plenty of nice options under $150,000. Most do need some work. The rental market is roughly 17% less according to census.gov. Greensburg isn’t prime for economic gentrification, but with almost 18% of the population past retirement age, a more generational revitalization could be starting.
Though we had a taste, prior to moving we had no idea what we were getting into. We’ve both been pleasantly surprised. Due to it’s compact nature, Greensburg is extremely walkable. There are plenty of retail vacancies, but just before I started writing this piece, I hit the bank, a got a cupcake, visited the locally owned hardware store, and learned about the difference between grain alcohol available in PA versus West Virginia at the state store. I was home within thirty minutes. It took me that long to just walk to Shiloh Street.
There are a handful of solid restaurants here as well. Oliver’s Pourhouse easily replaces Redbeard’s for drinks and bar food. The quasi – Jack Nicholson themed gastropub and cocktail bar, Fat Jack’s, offers a higher end yet accessible meal. Headkeeper’s offers an always solid American Tapas options, a huge selection of bottled beers to choose from and outstanding outdoor space. Little E’s Pizza has craft beer, a parking lot turned patio and excellent traditional and glutton free pizza. If you’re not in the mood to leave the house and you want pizza with the sauce on top of the cheese and a side of pierogies, Bubba’s has you covered with delivery. There are also an absurd and inexplicable amount of Japanese steakhouses to choose from. Of course, La Vita is the reigning champion. It’s excellent Italian American food, but it takes a little planning and could remind you a touch of “The Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfield. Here’s how you do it. Don’t just show up except at lunch. Then you get whatever the one woman show who runs the restaurant feels like cooking. You need to make a reservation for dinner but you also order when you call it in. You have a 50/50 shot of getting the wrong order from placing the call. However, it’s worth the effort and makes for one of the most unique and delicious restaurant experiences I’ve had.
Greensburg is a minor college town with Seton Hill and Pitt-Greensburg just around the corner and it comes with all the accoutrements associated with minor college towns. There are plenty of coffee shops to choose from, the best of which is The White Rabbit which easily ranks in my top five in Western PA. They have a solid selection of quality coffee and an even better selection of desserts and baked goods like cookies, panna cotta, creme brulee, trifles and homemade caramels. There are also plenty of bars to choose from ranging from the bourbon and craft beer Hugo’s to the divey Mr. Toad’s. Starting at the end of May, Summer Sounds brings regional and national bands to Saint Clair Park for free concerts. The historic Plaza Theater brings the best surviving acts of the early 60’s not called The Who, Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney.
However, there are certainly foibles and oddities. Downtown is most active during normal business hours and save for the mysterious bag pipes at 8:30 in the morning every Sunday, the town rests on the Sabbath making it a great day to make the “forty to ninety minute depending on traffic” drive into Pittsburgh. The Friday night lights aren’t bright but the loudspeaker is clearly set at 11, as I’m pretty sure the entire city and much of Hempfield can hear play by play. Sadly, half the store fronts downtown are also vacant and we could use more than one train in either direction each day.
Pittsburgh is a ways from needing a local alternative, but it won’t be long. When it does, there is a good chance it’ll be Greensburg. One thing I will say is that I enjoy it here considerably more than I had expected. People may want to give it a shot. I got more house than I could afford in Pittsburgh, and I don’t have the icky feeling of knowing I displaced someone else in the process. Greensburg isn’t primed to be gentrified in the same way as the neighborhoods I listed earlier. However, it’s more established, still pretty cheap and should be at least be an option for suburban pioneers.