Years ago, Squirrel Hill was an affluent Pittsburgh suburb, a brisk trolley ride from Downtown and far enough from the smokestacks of the Three Rivers to accommodate prim, manicured houses and lawns – many of them full-fledged mansions. Now, Squirrel Hill is a lively part of the city, merging seamlessly with Shadyside, Greenfield and Oakland – but the suburban feeling is still there, with its rows of beautiful vintage houses, its wide, quiet streets, and the 1,100 acres of parks that surround them. Houses are affordable, neighbors are friendly, and Forbes and Murray Avenues offer all the conveniences of city living: An oasis of stores, restaurants, and round-the-clock activities only a quick stroll away.
Thanks to a high-density and thriving business sector, reasonable real estate, and negligible crime rates, many would argue that Squirrel Hill is the most livable, family-friendly neighborhood in Allegheny County. (Ask anyone here; the pride runs deep!)
Somewhere That’s Green
Matt Shtrahman first bought his house in 1998 – a three-story Victorian that required some significant repair. But he couldn’t resist the price: $132,000, to live on a quiet, tree-lined street only three blocks from the bustle of Murray Avenue. Today, his house stands like a citadel above its street-level garage (which doubles as a generous rooftop porch). Inside, Shtrahman’s house is immaculate and spacious, with an island kitchenette, a stainless-steel refrigerator, an expansive living room, a separate dining room with a table large enough to seat eight people comfortably, and separate bedrooms for three additional people – which he generally rents out to students, many of them from foreign countries.
Behind the house, Shtrahman shows off his garden. “This is one of the few neighborhoods where you can still find a yard like this,” he says, gesturing to the quarter-acre lawn and great blooms of flowers. He currently raises everything from tomatoes and snow peas to five species of eggplant and perilla, a Vietnamese herb.
At 31 years old, Shtrahman is a fourth-year medical student, studying neurology and working in a lab. But he is profoundly comfortable in his lifestyle – partly because his bus-commute to Oakland is so fast (any 61 can carry him there within 15 minutes), and because there are so many diversions on a busy day. “I can walk to a variety of stores,” he says. “Places I really need to go. Places I would go to anyway.” He can browse at Barnes & Noble, grab coffee at the 61C, grab a beer at The Squirrel Cage (actually called the Squirrel Hill Café), and – perhaps his favorite amenity – he can walk to Schenley or Frick Park in minutes.
A Choice of Grocers
Another unusual plus for residents is the number of small, independent grocers, including a produce store and kosher and ethnic stores, and a fairly large Giant Eagle all on Murray Avenue. Nearby are delis and bakeries noted for fresh bread and treats of all kinds, including kosher. Factor in the diverse and long list of restaurants, cafes and eateries and it’s no wonder many residents rave about this place.
You don’t have to buy a house to live in Squirrel Hill – indeed, many thousands of students, singles and newlyweds live in nice apartments and rent from dependable landlords. Rents vary widely – from $300 to over $1000 per month – but for people working full-time, or grad students on scholarship, it’s still possible to find a reasonable one-bedroom apartment--or two or three or four. You'll find great bargains on apartments and duplexes and single-familyhouses, one reason Squirrel Hill is a favorite among students.
Squirrel Hillers claim their own unusual culture, where liberal, laid-back attitudes combine with discriminating tastes in movies, dining and music. Here you can find video stores offering an eclectic array of video and DVD’s, and two theaters famous for showing foreign and independent films.
What’s remarkable about Squirrel Hill is that it doesn’t fit any particular tax bracket: The 14th Ward is home to an even spread of incomes. Thirteen percent of residents earn under $25,000 a year and 12% make over $150,000. Only 18% of Squirrel Hillers over the age of 25 are still unmarried, but a full 48% are married with no children – which might explain why bars like the Squirrel Cage and Silky’s always seem well-frequented, if not jammed with customers. For students, young professionals and newly formed families, Squirrel Hill is incomparable.
Come One, Come All
Squirrel Hill is best known as an epicenter of Jewish culture, where the Jewish Community Center is a civic pillar, there are many respectable Jewish schools and hundreds of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews walk to synagogue every Saturday. Indeed, the neighborhood is still home to over 50% of Pittsburgh’s Jewish population and the JCC is a prevalent institution, offering a full range of classes, exhibits, workout facilities and live theater and music to anyone interested. But Squirrel Hill is also home to Pittsburgh’s most diverse population; while 80% of residents are white, there is an even split of Asians and African-Americans, and nearby Carnegie-Mellon and Chatham College attract students and professors from around the world.
And they all seem to get along. In most years, Squirrel Hill has the lowest crime rate of any neighborhood in Allegheny County, including burglaries and violent crime, thanks in part to a diehard, volunteer neighborhood watch and vigilant policing. Plus there’s limitless activity to keep the kids out of trouble: The Dynamo Youth Soccer Organization, the Squirrel Hill Baseball Association, the Frick Park Lawn Bowling Club, plus more nearby bike trails, playgrounds, tennis courts and public pools than any child could explore in a year.
No matter what your age, the local branch of the Carnegie Library is a spectacular sight: A vast, newly renovated structure of mobile and stationary bookshelves, computer terminals, expansive windows, lounge chairs, conference and family rooms, and brilliant, high-ceilinged Modernist architecture; it's like a space station for bibliophiles. Any hour of the day, you’ll find scores of people perusing the DVD collection, enjoying free Internet access or curled up in a chair with a favorite book.
The Nine Mile Race
Most of Squirrel Hill’s residences have stood for 50 to 100 years, housing generations of old families and newcomers. But an innovative new project can be found at Summerset at Frick Park: Spearheaded by the Rubinoff Company, the housing development will incorporate 700 new single-family homes and luxury apartments, set against the wild greenery of Nine Mile Run. Until recently, the area had been shunned as a dump, where the water was tainted and the woods were used as a disposal for everything from shopping carts to industrial machines. But thanks to aggressive grassroots campaigning – and a lot of green-up crews – the area is now transformed with hot new real estate, with energy-efficient cottage homes available for $297,000 to $600,000. An additional 40 townhouses will be rented starting at $1,150 while 1,200 to 1,800 sq. ft. condominiums will sell for varying prices, to be determined.
When completed – around 2008 – the plan will offer residents a fitness center, a multi-purpose room, an in-ground pool, and a pool clubhouse, plus all the hiking trails and outdoor facilities that make Frick Park such a favorite destination. While the project will take some time to complete, phase 1A houses are already available for aspiring home-owners. Buyers can choose from a broad catalogue of beautifully-designed architectural options, something to suit ever lifestyle. A lot like the rest of Squirrel Hill.
For more info on Squirrel Hill visit the PopCity:
Investing & Business Guide
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.
Tree-lined street in Squirrel Hill
House on Murray Avenue
Murray Avenue Kosher
Shaare Torah Congregation
Squirrel Hill Library
Baseball League playing Frick Park
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene