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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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The Pop City Guide to Brookline

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The first thing you notice about Brookline is its wide boulevard lined with shops of all kinds. There's Pitaland which draws customers from all over Pittsburgh, the new Mexican store with its popular taco stand street-side and that tiny Italian restaurant that is a little known gem (BYOB).

There are 87 businesses that line the busy street, with ample meter parking. And at the south end, in a stretch of green space, there's the beloved cannon that has been a landmark since the 1930's.

It's a main street most communities would die for.

"We love Brookline! We grew up here," says  Donna Chahine Tweardy, who operates Pitaland with her father, two brothers, and sister.  
"I love that we have foot traffic on the boulevard and we have a lot of regulars that come in all the time.  Everybody kind of knows everyone around here."

Pitaland was opened in 1969 by Donna's uncle, a poor Lebanese immigrant whose small bakery grew into a beloved Brookline institution famous for its spinach pie, hummus, and the pita bread it supplies to families and most of the Mediterranean restaurants in the city.

Party Cake Shop
, another Brookline Boulevard institution, was founded in 1961 by Jack Dolan. Owned today by Scott and Nancy Smith, Party Cake continues to be a favorite for cakes and more, including their famous and irresistible almond torte, rumored to be the best in the land.

The husband and wife team behind Scoops on the Boulevard, formerly known as Boulevard Ice Cream prior to a major remodel, are still satisfying the hot fudge sundae cravings of grownup Brookliners who remember it from childhood.   

The neighborhood's Italian heritage shines at both the excellent Antonio's Pizza and Mateo's Cucina Italiana, a cozy little family restaurant serving outstanding pastas, pizza, and paninis.

Foot Traffic
Yet only a few years ago, the walkable Brookline Boulevard lacked foot traffic. The neighborhood needed some fresh blood, which it's been getting in spades ever since.  

"I've lived here for six years, but until I opened this coffee shop I didn't really know my neighbors," says Benjamin Haake, who opened Cannon Coffee last winter. He and his business partner, Nathan Mallory, saw the void, complaining that there was nowhere to go for coffee.

Beyond filling the caffeine niche, Cannon Coffee has become an important community space, hosting a range of music and art events, and introducing a new generation of creative residents to one another.  

One of those residents is Carrie Nardini, co-founder of the roaming craft fair I Made It! Market.

"My mother-in-law is a community developer in Philadelphia and the first time we drove her down the boulevard she was just amazed at the potential that exists, and I was as well.  It's walkable, there's a lot of potential, and it's very affordable.  With Cannon Coffee there's this really great new energy that's developing," says Carrie, who moved back to Pittsburgh a little over a year ago with her husband after living in Philadelphia.  While house hunting, friends of the couple in Beechview suggested checking out Brookline.

"We found a house that we fell in love with and we have fantastic neighbors.  Our neighbors on one side are Syrian and they cook for us all the time and regard us almost as family.  They're just amazing!  On the other side we have a young couple that helped us build gardens for our backyard," says Nardini, who is now friends with six other young couples in the neighborhood and a designer friend who recently moved to Brookline from Baltimore.

Paul Drabik opened The Geekadrome three years ago, which unites a slightly different clientele than Cannon Coffee--comic book lovers and gamers--but was started in Brookline for similar reasons. "I like the community.  It's a walking community, so a lot of my customers are from around the area.  I also have customers who used to live here or grew up in Brookline and they still come back, because they have a lot of pride in the area," says Drabik.

One of the biggest breakers of the Brookline secret is the year-and-a-half old Las Palmas Carniceria, which has people flocking from all over the city, including the sizable Latino community in nearby Beechview. Las Palmas offers an impressive selection of affordable and fresh produce, Latin American products of all sorts, and butchered-before-your-eyes meats.  

Las Palmas owners, the Berumen brothers, made culinary waves last summer when they started a taco stand on the sidewalk outside the store.  Their $2 tacos, made with freshly cut meats and featuring a buffet-style toppings bar, are available on weekend afternoons and could be the city's best.

Tacos aren't the only catalyst for progress in Brookline.  In 2004, the centrally located Brookline branch of the Carnegie Library, which had long been housed in a lackluster storefront, underwent a massive renovation.  The beautiful architectural overhaul was widely lauded and the following year Brookline branch was named "Library Building of the Year" by the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association.

 The South Pittsburgh Development Corporation, the Brookline Chamber of Commerce, and the Brookline Area Community Council have worked diligently to encourage people to get out and explore Brookline Boulevard.  In 2008, they approached Senator Wayne Fontana, Pat Hasset from the City of Pittsburgh, and State Representative Chelsa Wagner, who lives in Brookline and has been lauded for her emphasis on community development projects, with a big proposal that is about to pay off.  

 "We will be expecting a $5 million facelift to Brookline Boulevard.  The project will completely revamp Brookline Boulevard from Pioneer Avenue to Starkamp Street," says City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who is heavily involved.  

The project is expected to begin in the spring and will entail new curbs, repaving, traffic signals, streetlights, and parking.  It's coming at the perfect time as old Brookline joins hands with the new.

Lois McCafferty of the South Pittsburgh Community Development Corporation and Brookline Chamber of Commerce is acting as the liaison between the community and the City, which is acting as the project manager.  

While the facelift is a City project, the fact that it's mostly in the hands of the people who have a stake in Brookline is indicative of what makes people want to move to and stay in this neighborhood—the supportive community that cares about its businesses and has cleverly leveraged tradition with change.

"I still talk to people who haven't been to Brookline Boulevard or maybe they live in another part of the city and they're like, 'Oh, Brookline, there's all these vacant storefronts, or it's not as safe as it used to be, or people have been moving out," says Rudiak.  "Frankly, that couldn't be further from the truth. Brookline is a safe, growing neighborhood."

Rudiak took office in 2010 and has made it one of her priorities to draw attention to this South Hills neighborhood in her district and its close, yet welcoming community and central business district that boasts 87 businesses.  

Pittsburghers on the other side of the Liberty Tunnel often overlook these great qualities, but that's changing.

"For some reason people think that going through a tunnel or crossing over a hill signifies a long or arduous distance. Personally, I have left my downtown office at 11:45 a.m., parked, and sat down at a restaurant in Brookline at 11:59--no speeding!" says Rudiak.

Conquer the tunnel and discover the second largest neighborhood in Pittsburgh, where you'll find the best characteristics of decades past—a tight-knit community, historic houses cared for with pride, a great library, and deeply rooted family businesses dotting the thriving Brookline Boulevard—mixing comfortably with first-generation residents, progressive new businesses, and an ethnically diverse population.

Captions, from the top: Taco at Las Palmas; Nathan Mallory and Benjamin Haake at Cannon Cafe; the cannon itself; Daniel Chahine, Donna Chahine Tweardy and Joe Chahine at Pitaland; Party Cake; Carrie Nardini; Natalia Rudiak; at Las Palmas.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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