If I could, I would do all of my grocery shopping exclusively in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. There is something truly unique about it that is the direct result of the history of the city and its people. Every time I am in the city I try to make a walk through The Strip as if it were an art museum. The sights, smells, and sounds all combine to make, for me at least, an exhilarating experience. Judging from the crowd on any given Saturday, my statement here is in no way unprecedented. All the same, it apparently needs to be said.
Once I knew I was starting this blog I was looking forward to going to the strip to shop and take pictures, and then, with Primanti’s still on my breath and Wholey’s on my nose, I would sit down and write a kick-ass post. Not yet, an article published today in the Tribune Review led me to change my mind and write a Strip District post now, sans sandwich. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and click on that link now.
One of the key things that I love about the strip is that it feels “real”. Real people, real architecture, real product, real Pittsburgh. Grocery stores nowadays strive to create an atmosphere that the strip comes by naturally. Ever been to a “Market District” Giant Eagle? They are awesome! Why? Because they try to make it look like they convinced some old world village’s baker, butcher, farmer, and fish monger to open up shop under their roof. As convincing as those stores are, they stall fall short of the real deal. I have a hard time believing that that the charcuterie in a Giant Eagle is anything more than a false storefront in an amusement park designed to make you feel like you are in a different world and different time and therefore making you spend freely, because, Hey! you don’t see this everyday. I am willing to wager though, that the guy who has been employed at Wholey’s for the shortest amount of time will be more knowledgeable in the realm of seafood than the Senior Fish Unpacker at your grocery store. People who care about this sort of thing already know this all to be true and are part of the reason that The Strip is the Pittsburgh icon that it is.
That being said, why does the developer and the City feel the need for change? My first reaction to the article, which happened two paragraphs in, was “No, no , NO! Dear God no!” Next, I got all sullen and angry as I thought about somebody coming in, bulldozing the produce terminal and then building a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and one of those giant strip mall style Primanti’s that have a physical hand-out menu with staff that is nice to you and let you order a sandwich with the fries on the side. Grrr.
And then, as I read on, I was reminded that the planned razing would affect the newly created Pittsburgh Public Market. Which, if you have not been there yet, I highly recommend that you make a visit. It basically is for businesses that have product to offer, that are being successful elsewhere in the Pittsburgh area, but now can have a location in the strip to sell their product. Sort of like a farmer’s market for more than just farmers. People who specialize in cheesecake, potato chips, candy, barbecue, Steeler art, pierogi, Greek food, you name it, they have access to space there. East End Brewery even has a spot for tasting and growler purchases (again, highly recommended). So, a busy, presumably successful area of the city needs a historic part of it chopped out so that a revitalization can sweep up the shoreline? Ehh, again, why?
So, I read on, and about 3/4 of the way through the article the developer starts to convince me. Apartments along the river, large public spaces with access to the tranquility of the river, it all starts to sound kinda nice. Oh alright, you are right, the Public Market could move. What’s that you say, you’ll build with the area’s aesthetics in mind? Use bricks? Oh, well, that will be nice. Yes, yes, that area IS a bit rough looking in places, who am I to stand in the way of progress? I could live there. A Strip District apartment on the river would be heaven, really.
But large public spaces don’t pay taxes or rent. I skipped over the “office and retail building” part. What is that going to look like? The project will bring more people to the strip? Isn’t it already packed shop-wall to automobile-traffic with people at busy times? I frequently have had to use Penn Avenue as part of the sidewalk as the tide of people inexplicably, no matter what, moves in the direction I am not going. Also, it is not as though the buildings that occupy The Strip now are full and there is no room to expand. I see empty storefronts there, I see signs of struggle and economic woe. If there truly were “pent-up demand” I think it has plenty of room to vent.
Looking at the Google Maps satellite image of the area clearly shows an empty riverfront tract of land that is indeed begging to be more than just an ever-reliable parking lot (seriously, don’t even look anywhere else, just take $5 and save your time by going there first). I can see it. Lovely boardwalk shops and restaurants, bright, clean and shiny. There will be an ice cream shop where you can create your own scoop with any number of their near endless ingredients. There will be a Starbucks, and a high end martini bar thing with a 47-martini-menu. There will be a glass and steel riverfront restaurant with an open deck overlooking the barge traffic where you can get organic sustainable surf and turf dinner. Maybe they can get one of those “Premier Collection” State stores to open a shop there, or maybe a winery? But you know what won’t be there? There won’t be soul. The Strip has a soul that, like a lot of Pittsburgh neighborhoods, the people there carved out for themselves. What the developer has in mind is a…a, I don’t know… a “Market District” in the actual market district of the city. A soulless artificial false storefront designed to make you think you are somewhere else. Maybe I am wrong, maybe it will be awesome. But, isn’t it already genuinely awesome?