If you want to get a feel for Aspinwall, seek out Sandy Woods, lifelong borough resident.
Williams, one of 2,963 residents who live in this Allegheny River town, also works for the borough’s police department as a meter maid. She knows the town. She walks its streets every day. She also serves on the borough’s civic committee and helped coordinate Aspinwall’s 100-year anniversary celebration in 1992. Aspinwall
boasts many amenities—the highly rated Fox Chapel School District, streets filled with late Victorian era homes, a distinctive business community, not to mention the fine dining.
But first and perhaps best is the quiet, says Woods.
“When you go to sleep at night, you don’t hear noises. There isn’t a lot of traffic,” says Woods. It’s true and surprising given that Route 28 spans
the hillside that rises above the main neighborhood of homes and Freeport Road is a frequently traveled artery for those on their way through to UPMC St. Margaret’s Hospital,
Waterworks Mall, Fox Chapel and beyond.
A block or two back from Freeport Road exists an entirely walkable community with access to every and anything a resident could need.
And, Woods points out, she considers Aspinwall’s dining and shopping offerings worth the walk. She considers Aspinwall to be a trove of fine dining including Luma
and Mio Kitchen & Wine Bar
on the posh end – with such menu delicacies as mushroom-dusted sea scallops and Brazilian Calamari – to the more moderately priced Aspinwall Grille
which, while offering a range of sandwiches of burgers, also includes a Petite Pork Osso Bucco. It's the Variety
“In a small town like this, you’ve got a really good assortment,” Woods says, adding that lunchtime opportunities also include a deli in the rear of the Aspinwall Grille and a second deli in the rear of the Brilliant Market.
Aspinwall’s retail mix is just as diverse including International Angler and House O’Hockey as well as two miniature doll stores and a whole host of beauty salons and day spas.
But Aspinwall residents alone should not be the only ones allowed to enjoy the eccentricities of the business district that boasts plenty of entrepreneurial spirit and little room for chains and big box stores.
Aspinwall’s retail mix is just as diverse. Like the dining scene, the
borough’s retail owners are a small, independent-minded group. There wouldn’t be room for a big box store or chain operation nor would one fit in alongside the specialty shops such as Patricia Boutique, which features handcrafted shawls and other pieces of “wearable art”.
Then there’s International Angler, where fishing-minded folk can find every type reel, fly, and rod to prowl the rivers three and beyond in search of brown trout, walleyes and sauger.
Again, all within walking distance.
One should set aside a few hours on a slow easy morning to properly give the shops along Brilliant Avenue their proper due. First a coffee at Beans n’ Cream then save an hour or three to meander through J&W Variety and the Aspinwall Book Shop where, if one is lucky, get a chance to engage John Towle, owner and local resident.
Towle knows books as few do in Pittsburgh. He can always lead the willing to a good read among the stacks that fill his store that he started eight years earlier.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever done,” says Towle, who started working in books when he was 19 and manned the counter at Jay’s Book Stall, another landmark in Pittsburgh reading circles.
Towle had a hand in helping Philip Beard, a novelist and Aspinwall resident who lives just a block away, publish his first novel, Dear Zoe,
with Viking Penguin.
As Towle tells it, at the time, Beard had decided to self publish Dear Zoe when he talked with Towle who offered to show Beard’s manuscript to a Penguin rep who was coming into the book store the next day. The rep passed it on to an editor and within a few weeks, Viking Penguin published Dear Zoe.
But that’s another story.
Towle, who has lived in Aspinwall for 20 years, says residents can find everything they need within the town’s borders. And, if not the Waterworks is just a few minutes drive up Freeport Road.It's the Location
And then there are the purely economic benefits. Aspinwall is its own municipality, just outside the city limits, and residents enjoy a 1 percent wage tax, but still can make it into the city within a reasonable commute time and to Lawrenceville and Shadyside within minutes.
Despite the robust commerce within and around its boundaries, Aspinwall remains the refuge it was intended to be by its original founders. In 1892, the Aspinwall family, then of the state of New York, began selling parcels of land to developers who wanted to create a refuge from the pollution and clamor of downtown Pittsburgh.
What amazes Woods is that despite the industrialization of that time and the commercial development in the decades that followed, Aspinwall has
stayed true to its original mission.
“I just think that it’s an amazing thing we’ve been able to have a community stay as an isolated little spot amidst all the changes that happened here,” says Woods explaining that prior to 1980, there was no Waterworks Mall and there was no St. Margaret’s Hospital. “That was all open fields.”
To this day, Aspinwall’s streets are hushed and shaded. Many homes, especially in the stretch from Highland Park Bridge to Brilliant Avenue, are steeped in turn-of-the-century architecture.
“You’ll find houses that have pocket doors and stained glass windows and thick heavy wood work and banisters that have the wood paneling,” Woods says.
And, she says, homes in the borough have maintained their value. She credits this to the influx of young families. Many buy homes and then convert them to the late Victorian-era opulence of the time when they were built. One family, according to Woods, even bought a building that had been converted into five apartments and converted it back to a single-family residence.
And despite the changing age demographic, the socioeconomic status
has not changed, according to borough manager Edward Warchol.
“It’s a very upscale, affluent borough,” Warchol said. “It’s a very quaint type of municipality.”
If you ask Woods, the constant influx of young families has brought a new vibe, a re-energized one, into the borough.
“The younger people have different ideas about things. They put more of an effort into their homes. A lot of them like to go back to the heavy woodwork, high ceilings kind of thing, which a lot of these homes have,” she says.
And the boroughs streets have a younger feel now too with the near constant presence of strollers and bicycles.
“People take a lot of pride in their homes. When you walk down any given street, it’s like walking through a garden,” Woods says, adding that she has lived in Aspinwall all her life and she plans to stay.
The Aspinwall Grille
George Marsico, Beans 'n' Cream
The Aspinwall Bookshop
Jim Skirboll, Trizilla Triathlon StoreAll photographs copyright Brian Cohen