Squirrel Hill is a visitor’s paradise: Pedestrian-friendly, just enough parking, and two long, navigable streets dense with one-of-kind shops, cafés, grocers, and watering holes. What’s more: The vast majority are local businesses.
Thousands of people pass through Squirrel Hill every day – on foot, by bus, in their cars – and thousands more stop in for a healthy walk and intense window-shopping. No matter what day of the week, it’s always Saturday on Forbes and Murray, and the neighborhood’s 36,460 residents keep foot-traffic busy without congesting the wide sidewalks.
Located along Forbes Avenue, just a mile away from the Oakland business district, Squirrel Hill is one of the most accessible neighborhoods by car or public transportation – the back-streets always yield parking, and any 61 bus regularly cruises through the neighborhood, allowing weekday commuters to catch a bus there every 10-15 minutes.
The Nth Degree
No matter how young or old the demographic, Squirrel Hill residents are famously well-educated. Whether it’s the high school kid at Taylor-Allderdice High School (one of the most respected institutions in the city), or it’s the UPMC intern living in a rented room, Squirrel Hill is a large jar of smart cookies. Nearly 40% of the adults over the age of 25 have a Master’s or professional degree. Discriminating and energetic, Squirrel Hillers have particular tastes – for food, for movies, for yoga practitioners. The thousands of students and young professionals are revered for their cultured, off-beat lifestyles.
There’s also a wide range of income levels, evenly spread among the different tax brackets. Indeed, 12% of households earn over $150,000 a year, while 13% make between $15,000 and $25,000. Apartments rent for $300 to $1,000 a month – ranging from modest efficiencies to vintage three-bedroom apartments with their own yards and porches. Residents live all kinds of lifestyles, but solid education is a common thread.
Nothing is a better measure of the Squirrel Hill zeitgeist than Heads Together Video and DVD, one of the neighborhood’s most famous (sometimes infamous) businesses. Many people can remember the old days, back in the mid-1970's, when Heads Together boasted: “All your stereo needs under one roof" and it carried books, vinyls, and an impressive array of glass “tobacco” pipes. Today, under the new ownership of Dee Sias, it’s an off-kilter video store.
Heads Together could be the poster child for the independent Squirrel Hill business: It has survived the nearby presences of Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, and West Coast Video and ownership changes and financial crisis. Sias is friendly and passionate about her store – and she credits, above all, “the selection. I like getting into the fringe stuff.” Such an unusual, hard-to-find selection has helped Heads Together weather tough times, and beat the competition.Blockbuster closed this year, while Heads Together will move across the street, to a larger space at 2136 Murray Avenue, in early 2007.
Other offbeat venues? There are too many to count: The Tango Café doesn’t just offer excellent Latin cuisine and coffee; it also hosts conversational salons for people learning English as a second language. Forward Lanes is an old-fashioned bowling alley, a place so popular that there’s a waiting list for lanes every weekend. USA Professional Karate Studio isn’t just a training ground for future black-belts, but also a gym for aerobic kick-boxing and a retail supplier of martial arts equipment. And thanks to 1,100 acres of private parks, there are three different bike stores – and all three have survived, quietly competing with the others, for years.
The Novelty Capital
Adam Elkettani has owned and operated his shop, Casablanca Gallery, for seven years. While the store has moved, it has maintained a foothold on Forbes Avenue, offering some of the most unusual stock on the block: “Imported handicraft from around the world.” Originally from Morocco, Elkettani orders from merchants in 10 different countries around the world. His store is packed with Hindu statues, ornate plates and jewelry, cured leather table-lamps, Middle Eastern perfume bottles. The basement is thick with throne-like Moroccan chairs and elegant mirrors. “We import directly,” he says. “Exotic things, one-of-a-kind pieces.”
Elkettani isn’t the only one in the novelty business. “There are a lot of ethnic people here,” he says. “Name it, and we have some flavor for everybody.”
At 47, Elkettani is happy with his store's success – and unthreatened by the presence of other ethnic stores nearby. A few storefronts down is Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit store dedicated to indigenous, fair-trade items. While their stock tends to overlap (hand-crafted necklaces, bongos, exotic window ornaments), the nature of each business is different, their missions divergent. A shopper may visit both stores, but find a completely different vibe. Ten Thousand Villages is like a cross between a craft fair and a New Age shop; Casablanca Gallery is more like a North African bazaar.
For reasons like these, Squirrel Hill is a mecca for browsers.
The Foodie’s Playground
Nearly half of Squirrel Hill’s adults are either married or solidly coupled – and don’t have children. This means one thing: lots of eating out.
Squirrel Hillers are always bragging about their restaurant options: Chains like Eat ‘n’ Park and Boston Market are grandly outnumbered by independent coffee shops, sports bars, family eateries and dozens of Asian restaurants. Month after month, you’ll hear about a new, all-local restaurant opening up – either by someone new, who always wanted to start a restaurant and seized the chance, or a seasoned veteran looking for a new place to heat up the wok. The Te Café (established by two lawyers), Sun Penang (established by native Malaysians), and Sweet Basil (a second branch of the acclaimed Lawrenceville restaurant) have all sprung up in the past year, delighting customers with demanding palates, and keeping the chain-names at bay. Squirrel Hill is like an oversized food-court for the small-business enthusiast.
People in this neighborhood like to eat – not just large portions, but unique, well-made platters with inimitable flavors.
Some stores do go out of business, or at least move to another neighborhood – like Pi by Velozzi, the celebrated gourmet pizzeria that migrated to Point Breeze. But in Squirrel Hill, no storefront stands empty long. Entrepreneurs are rarely deterred by moderate to high rents and heavy competition; real estate along Forbes and Murray is coveted ground, and virtually any competent business owner can depend on local foot-traffic to keep it afloat, and hopefully support ongoing success.
O’Bannon Rug Shop, at 5666 Northumberland, recently closed its doors, and its realtor placed an ad for a “storefront/office/retail corner,” which was an “excellent oppt’y for nich [sic] business, coffee shop, merchant use, or professional office.” At $2,250 a month, the showroom could transform into any kind of retail outlet – one of the limitless interpretations of “niche business.” Smaller, second-floor rentals also pop up – like a recent ad for a 544 sq. ft. office space for $685 per month, or a 1,500 sq. ft. office for $2,000. Vacancies appear quickly and are filled even faster, so aspiring Squirrel Hill investors need to keep an ear to the ground.
Another, more expensive option is to buy – a rare event in Squirrel Hill that can demand a hefty price. The 51,975 square foot building on 5740 Forbes Avenue is a mixed-use commercial structure that was recently purchased by a Philadelphia-based company, 210 West Washington Square Associates. At $11.4 million, or $225 per square foot, the company accrued tenants in Rite Aid, a restaurant (The Silk Elephant) and upstairs offices including Vivisimo where they rave about the neighborhood and the abundant ethnic food choices. It stands prominently on the busiest Squirrel Hill corner (where Forbes and Murray intersect, across from the Squirrel Hill Café and the Carnegie Library).
Unlike so many other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Squirrel Hill benefits from continuous occupation: New owners rarely have to renovate decaying buildings, or replace plumbing, or evict squatters. It’s a tough market due to high demand in Squirrel Hill, but savvy dreamers have only to wait for the right moment. As the old Yiddish saying goes: “When one must, one can.”
For more info on Squirrel Hill visit the PopCity:
Directions to Squirrel Hill
From the North:
Take I-279 South and merge onto I-579 South via Exit 8A toward Veterans Bridge. Take the exit toward I-376 East/Oakland/Monroeville. Stay straight to go onto Boulevard of the Allies. Merge onto I-376 East/US-22 East/US-30 East toward Monroeville. Take Exit 5 toward Homestead/Squirrel Hill and turn left on Forward Ave. Stay straight to go onto Murray and arrive in Squirrel Hill.
From the East:
Take I-376 West/US-22 West and take Exit 5 toward Homestead/Squirrel Hill. Turn left onto Forward Ave and Stay straight to go onto Murray Ave. Arrive in Squirrel Hill.
From the South:
Take PA-51 North toward Pittsburgh and take the ramp toward I-579/Downtown/South Side. Turn right onto West Liberty Ave and turn slight right onto Liberty Tunnels. Liberty Tunnels become Liberty Bridge. Take the Blvd of the Allies ramp toward I-376 East/Oakland/Monroeville. Turn right onto Blvd of the Allies and merge onto I-376 East/US-22 East/US-30 East toward Monroeville. Take Exit 5 toward Homestead/Squirrel Hill and turn left on Forward Ave. Stay straight to go onto Murray and arrive in Squirrel Hill.
From the West:
Take I-279 North/US-22 East/US-30 East toward Pittsburgh. Merge onto I-376 East/US-22 East/US-30 East via Exit 6A toward Monroeville. Take Exit 5 toward Homestead/Squirrel Hill. Turn left onto Forward Ave and Stay straight to go onto Murray Ave. Arrive in Squirrel Hill.
Photos:Adam Elkettani in his store, Casablanca GalleryTaylor-Allderdice High School Heads Together Video and DVDPittsburgh Pro BicyclesCasablanca Gallery
Vivisimo.com, located in new commercial building at corner of Murray and Forbes
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greeneexcept Vivisimo © Tracy Certo