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

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The updated guide to Lawrenceville

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When the steel mills on Lawrenceville’s riverside closed, they took with them scores of jobs and huge chunks of population and local businesses. It seemed all that was left of Lawrenceville was low property values. But in a true lemons-into-lemonade transformation, it was cheap rent that, over the last 20 years, has turned Lawrenceville into an artists’ haven and one of the city’s most successfully revitalized areas.

“Every neighborhood [on the East End] has had to find its niche,” says Maya Henry, business district manager of the nonprofit Lawrenceville Corporation. “For Lawrenceville, it’s been arts and design businesses.”

Artists had been drawn to Lawrenceville since the 1980s, carving out an alcove in a landscape dominated by hallowed-out, rat-infested property. By the ’90s, the neighborhood had a cluster of graphic and interior design firms and other businesses run by artists and craftspeople, some conventional (like T’s Upholstery Studio, founded in 1994) and others less so (like Jay Designs, a shop specializing in artisan soaps that arrived in 1996). A significant turn came when the nonprofit Artists and Cities transformed the Ice House, a hundred-year-old abandoned factory, into a complex of artists studios.

The backbone of Lawrenceville is now about 80 businesses involved in visual art in some way. These include galleries, boutiques, tattoo shops, furniture stores, graphic and interior designers and shops selling artisan goods. After they sprang up, so did coffee shops, bars and restaurants. In 2001 the business district had a vacancy rate of 35 to 40 percent; now a mere 15 percent of commercial space goes unused, says Henry.

“Instead of a few businesses employing hundreds of people, we have hundreds of businesses employing three to five people,” says Joseph Kelly, whose Kelly Custom Furniture & Cabinetry (established in 1990) was another neighborhood pioneer.

Lawrenceville is technically three neighborhoods on city-issued maps that section it into Lower, Central and Upper Lawrenceville. It starts where Penn Avenue meets Butler Street, a point marked by the statue of a World War I-era doughboy standing like a sentry at the gateway to the East End, and flows alongside the Allegheny with Butler as the main drag.

If Lawrenceville seems new and unfamiliar to you, it’s probably due to the rapid pace of its redevelopment. Kelly says 36 new businesses have opened in the last two years. Though there are some ancient stalwarts, like Wagner’s Quality Shoes (owned by the same family for over a century), businesses established before 2004 are timeworn anchors by Lawrenceville standards. Here's a guide to old and new to catch you up.

Artists, Artisans and Artsy Goods
Many shops in Lawrenceville’s creative cluster are business-to-business/private client enterprises but there are plenty made for foot traffic, and visual arts so saturate the community that shops often blur the line. Gallery on 43rd, for example, is a gallery that doubles as a retailer with a stock includes jewelry, pottery, scarves and other accessories and even honey from backyard beekeepers. Wild Card is a retailer that doubles as a gallery, with rotating exhibits on its walls, next to the greeting cards, stationery, bags, wallets, buttons, jewelry, t-shirts and novelty plastic octopus tentacles to stick on your fingers.

As for proper fine art galleries, there are two names and four letters to keep in mind: be and Fe. be Galleries (the name always in lower case) hosts shows of local painters, sculptors and other artists and also has a collection of Japanese prints dating back to the 18th century. Fe Arts Gallery has the dual mission of highlighting regional artists and bringing the work of national and international artists to Pittsburgh, frequently hosting group exhibits. Lawrenceville is also home to the Roberto Clemente Museum, a converted firehouse showcasing photographs and artifacts relating to the Pirates Hall-of-Famer.

Then there's "art underfoot" as they say at O'Bannon Oriental Rugs where you'll find all kinds of both classic and modern rugs from countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Nepal and more.

Looking for handicrafts? In addition to the Gallery on 43rd, there is the Art Market, which has handmade crafts and t-shirts designed by artists with disabilities; Crystal Bead Bazaar, a jewelry shop specializing, of course, in beads and Kiln-N-Time, a pottery center on the Lawrenceville side of Penn Avenue that serves both ceramic artists and buyers. Need to frame your artwork? Try Frame House, located in the Ice House, for custom framing and more.

Boutiques also abound in Lawrenceville. Pavement carries a "curated" selection of shoes, clothing and hand-made accessories for women with an emphasis on brands that have minimal environmental impact. (Check out the boots!) Pageboy, which doubles as a salon, has a stock for all shapes and sizes from local and independent designers. And for shoes, look no further than Wagner’s, which has been selling all varieties for over a century.

Unique furniture stores go hand in hand with Lawrenceville’s interior design firms. Furnish has an ever-interesting mix of “industrial country finds and reclaimed furniture.” This often means old barn parts and factory equipment recreated as tables, chairs, chandeliers, storage containers, ect.

Who New? Retro Mod Décor has way-cool retro furniture, home goods, toys and glassware from the era of Bond, Barbarella and Beatlemania, which always makes for interesting window displays. Asian Influences features antiques from across the East and is the place to go for a wooden statue of Taoism founder Lao Tzu.

Lastly, Lawrenceville has a slew of businesses like Wild Card, which might be best described as gift shops or dealers in artsy miscellanea. Elements (not to be confused with the downtown restaurant) pioneered this genre in L'ville with local art from blown glass to photograpahy, retro furnishings and clothing and proprietor Shelly Maiese’s own line of lotions, soaps, and soy candles. Jay Designs, as mentioned above, has also long been offering artisan bath products. Divertido (Spanish for “fun”) has magnets, toys, novelties, handbags, kitchen wares, books and more varieties of blank journals than we ever thought existed.

Coffee Shops and Bars
More so than its neighbor, the Strip District, Lawrenceville has always boasted a hearty housing stock and has long been a residential area. Its redevelopment has attracted a young crowd to both new developments and the row houses once populated by steel workers. Today, 9,500 people call it home, says the Lawrenceville Corp.’s Henry. This makes it ripe for neighborhood hangouts, which is why establishments offering comfort and caffeine or liveliness and libations can be found on nearly every block.

Espresso a Mano features an appealing atmosphere, rotating art exhibits on its brick walls and coffee drinks diligently made by the Italian tradition (a mano being Italian for “by hand”). 720 Music Clothing and Café is a hipster mini-mall of sorts, offering vinyl and stylish threads, in addition to coffee, baked goods and place to sit down and log onto Pitchfork.

Right next door, Perk Me Up Coffeehouse, alternatively, has a distinctly old-fashion vibe, as a self-described “pleasant respite from cooler-than-thou coffee shops and surly baristas.” (The scones are must-haves, and café owner Helen McMullen is known as the “Scone Goddess.”) Cats and Dogs Café is a newcomer on the Lawrenceville side of Penn Avenue. And just like nearly every neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Lawrenceville houses an outpost of the local coffee chain, Crazy Mocha.

Lawrenceville seemingly has a bar to fit every taste. Doused in purple-tinted lighting, Eclipse Lounge prides itself on an “upscale” vibe and offers organic Greek food for bar bites. Round Corner Cantina has Mexican tapas and a back porch that is hopping during the summer months (and might be the best place in Lawrenceville for mixed drinks). Thunderbird Café has a packed live music schedule; its taste in blues and bluesy acts is particularly keen. Hambone’s has a watering-hole feel and a full menu of pub grub. Remedy has such interesting choices as steak and dumpling kabobs on the menu. Nied’s Hotel gets crowded without getting packed thanks to its generous floor space; it’s the “famous fish sandwiches” and live music schedule that keeps them coming back.

The crowd at New Amsterdam skews young and tattooed, though its fish tacos, flat bread pizzas and considerate array of vegetarian options can be enjoyed by anyone. Blue Moon Bar has been, traditionally, a gay bar, and still boasts a rainbow over the entrance, though it now brands itself an “alternative bar where everyone is welcome.”

Arsenal Cider House is easy to miss, blending into the residential area across from Arsenal Park, but don’t. It has a sweet collection of hard ciders and a Civil War theme for a décor. Also not to be overlooked, hidden up the hill on 45th Street, is Kelly’s Korner, a warm and affordable epitome of a neighborhood bar. The full-menu Alchemy and Ale is a newcomer; its owners vow to add an upscale option to Upper Lawrenceville. Whew!

Dining
Lawrenceville has been slower to develop a comprehensive fine dining scene than other neighborhoods on the upswing but the last five years have brought a smattering of noteworthy options. The newest? Cure, by chef Justin Severino formerly of Elements downtown, who is known for his charcuterie. Here the specialty is cured meats but he's including lots of fresh local produce in this casual, BYOB place at 5336 Butler in Upper Lawrenceville. (Yelp users are raving about it.)

Tamari fuses Latin and Asian cuisines to create dishes like Peking duck quesadillas and Korean skirt steak fajitas and was where Russell Crowe was spotted during filming here. Piccolo Forno is an exceptional family-run BYOB pizzeria/trattoria known for its wood-fired pizzas. Cocoa Café is a local fave, servin breakfast, lunch and brunch made with fresh, local ingredients. (The Southwestern breakfast wrap will knock you out of the stratosphere.)

Kaleidoscope Café, hidden off Butler on 43rd Street, is open for lunch and dinner with American fair like burgers, sandwiches and salads. Pusadee’s Garden sits where La Filipiniana-Sweet Basil, the Filipino-Thai restaurant that helped anchor Lawrenceville long before its revival, once stood. New owner Pusadee Tongdee streamlined the business to focus on delicious Thai dishes but continues the predecessor’s tradition of gorgeous, green outdoor seating. City Café is a one-man operation whose owner and sole employee Emil Lester dishes out ice cream, coffee, conversation and vegetarian dishes.

Throughout the day, the reopened Dozen Bake Shop serves soups, salads and sandwiches, and you’ll be tempted into taking home a cake or a boxful of the bakery’s signature item: cupcakes. The neighborhood’s other baked good option is La Gourmandine, a traditional French bakery that offers something different, and quite wonderful.

And for simpler fare, there are soups and sandwiches at the Deli on Butler Street or classic American diner dishes at Barb’s Corner Kitchen.

The Rest
Lawrenceville is also a great place for something as simple as a walk. The 300-acre Allegheny Cemetery has graves dating back to the French and Indian for history buffs, and is a frequent site for dog walkers. Arsenal Park, which boasts a playground and tennis courts, is remarkably clean for an urban park. There are kid-friendly outdoor movie screenings throughout the summer.

Arsenal Bowling Lanes, a perennial presence looming above Butler Street between 43rd and 44th streets, hosts bands and DJs and was applauded by The New York Times for its “night-club atmosphere” but has leagues for purists who are strictly there to bowl.

Backstage Guitars popped up three years ago on Butler, a full service shop offering a good variety of guitars (if they don't have it, just ask) along with music lessons.

Lawrenceville’s emphasis on style has also attracted a few tattoo shops and salons/day spas. One can get inked at Rogue Tattoo, Body Shop Tattoo and Apparel or Inka Dinka Doo (the last of which claims to be the first tattoo shop to open in Pittsburgh city limits) or primped at Salon Christine, Metamorphosis Salon and Day Spa or Bloom Organic Skincare Parlor.

And there's a gym to work that bod: Celli's Fitness, a multi-purpose center.

Joseph Kelley says it was the arrival of one type of business that confirmed Lawrenceville had shaken off its post-industrial decay: pet care. The Big Easy Animal Hospital, named for general practitioner/hospital owner, Dr. Aileen Ruiz’s hometown of New Orleans, opened in 2010, and Urban Dog Day Care, a kennel, came about a year later.

“There is a lot to be said for trendy businesses,” says Kelly, “but if people are moving to Lawrenceville with their dogs, it’s a sure sign they are here to stay.”

Captions: Jay's; doughboy; Pavement; Who Knew?; Espresso a Mano; New Amsterdam; Allegheny Cemetery.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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