The Insider Guide to the West End
"The West End," the man questions skeptically.
"Don't confuse it with the sprawling conglomerate that seems to stretch from the Fort Pitt Bridge to Ohio," says the investor and developer, Lou Bucci. "This is West End Village. Great access, greater real estate prices, growing art galleries, design businesses, and Artifacts -- which alone beggers description."
"Well," the man hedged, "no one knows where it is."
"They will now. A full four minutes from Downtown, with the West End Circle finally fixed, it's an easy pop." Moving in to seal the deal, he says, "if you can see past the front door, and inside the house, it tells you a different story."
If there ever were a neighborhood on the cusp, a neighborhood in readiness for the boom, it's West End Village
. A narrow valley hedged in by rocky crags on three sides, with the Ohio River a football field away, it's home to some 400 souls, including recent transplant and true believer Lou Bucci.
It's four-block Main Street, he says, is genuine gold dust. It is genuinely bound for glory.
"We had been looking," says James Frederick, whose James Gallery is one of West End's treasures. "We wanted to move from the suburbs to the city. We wanted to be part of the rebirth of the neighborhoods."
A decade ago he took Bucci's advice, bought two buildings, and by 2002 had opened on Main Street. "When I moved here it was a ghost town," Frederick says. "But when you have that kind of clean slate, your ability to imagine what it can be is much easier. You can start right in developing. Our ideas from the start were that we wanted a business district that was different from the rest of the city. We wanted to attract a mature audience, one that was more interested in quality."
How has it worked out? "It's fabulous for us," he says. "We're a destination. We look forward to the day when West End Village is a thriving walk-in business district."
Why isn't it now? What happened to the once-thriving little town on Saw Mill Run which hosted the likes of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, Charles Dickens, even temperance doyenne Cary Nation? As the one-time gateway to the city, the 'burb that came to life as Temperanceville boasted a saw mill, lumber yard, and an Old Stone Tavern that trumps the Blockhouse for seniority. Yet as the highways ran elsewhere, the place where they plotted the Whiskey Rebellion faded away.
If Lou Bucci has any say in the matter, that's all going to change. Battle-scarred veteran of restaurant creation in coast-to-coast redevelopment areas -- Chicago's Old Town to San Diego's Old Town, with San Francisco's Ghiradelli Square and Denver's Larimer Square in between -- a dozen years ago he saw the proximity of West End to Downtown and started buying properties. Now, he says, there are "developments in the pipeline," both commercial and residential, the latter including low- , medium- , and high-income housing. Further, he adds, "our aim is bring three or four destination restaurants, to cluster them."
Living 50 yards from Main Street -- in an 11-room, nine-fireplace, 120-year-old house -- Bucci says, that "I put my money where my mouth is. I moved down here from Mt. Lebanon. It's the best thing I ever did. I couldn't be happier."
Neither could Dru Simeone, who relishes what's already in West End Village, envisions what could be. Executive Director of the West Pittsburgh Partnership for Regional Development, she cut her teeth with the North Side Civic Development Council. Ambling down Main Street, she starts at Artifacts. A former bus garage, it contains well over 20,000 one-of-a-kind items. Statuary (horse racers to Nubian servants), lamps, tables, carpets, African masks and drums -- "grandeur," she gestures at rooms so crammed with antiques they resemble Xanadu from Citizen Kane while drawing customers from all over the world. "You can't help but saying, 'wow,'" she says.
Up the street, in a madeover storefront, stands Moop, an incubator business that moved in '09 from Massachusetts. Here the four-person shop produces unisex canvas purses that sell to a loyal internet following. Shipping to Japan and Sweden, Great Britain and Australia, Singapore and San Francisco, "we have a national and international following," owner Wendy Downs says.
Downs and husband Jeremy Boyle -- he's the son of Marlene Boyle, who doubles as Moop's shipping department -- were drawn to West End Village by his family, by what Downs calls "the economics of living and working here. It's an area with a ton of potential."
A bit more established -- and certainly more pricey -- Jacob Evans, custom kitchen and bath designers, is housed in a former bank. Another West End Village destination, Jacob Evans often specifies tile from their neighbor Ceramiche, housed in the defrocked 11th United Presbyterian Church. Around the corner, there's Ned Gensler at Caldwell's Window Wear. Selling locally-made draperies, shades, blinds throughout tri-state, they boast 60 employees. Speaking for everyone else, Gensler says, "you can't beat the location."
For his part, Gensler, born and raised in the West End, remembers the days when Main Street boasted two drug stores, a bakery, an A&P, hardware stores, and so on. Then the '60s happened, and boom went bust. "I've always believed in my town," he says. "I've watched it go down. I've watched its re-birth. I'm proud to say I've been a part of that.
"I see businesses coming in," he adds. "It's going to be a great location. Keep your fingers crossed."
Andrea Fitting is doing more than keeping her fingers crossed. Recruited by Lou Bucci to give the village a bit of brand spanking, she also likes what she sees. "It's a charming place that's flown under the radar for a long time," she says. "But it's got amazing potential -- like what happened to Lawrenceville over the last decade. When you look around, there's a handful of places that look interesting and that have the critical mass of specialty shops and funky restaurants that make it a destination. Shadyside. South Side. Lawrenceville. Soon West End Village."
If that's so, then Diana Stoughton is ahead of the curve. Veteran of the Civic Light Opera and Pubic Theater props departments, and the Pittsburgh Film Office, Stoughton now concocts to-die-for soups, walnut streusel bread and scones, and a rich array of hot beverages in her Zoe's Herbs and Teas. Framed by a gentle jazz soundtrack, and bright yellow walls, she smiles about her move to the village. "I always thought it had potential," she says. "I wanted to get in on the ground floor."
Like everyone else in West End Village, at this point Diana-cum-Zoe is a bit of a dreamer. Having just opened, she already wants to expand into the house next door, to use it for meetings -- chit-chats, book clubs, and the like -- figuring that the patio, garden, and big catawba tree will be a draw.
"I like playing in the kitchen," she smiles. "It's vegetarian, mostly, and organic." Behind her, a real cuckoo clock clucks the hour -- a working heirloom, like West End Village itself, she inherited from her grandmother.
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Pictures: Michael Terral at Artifacts; James Frederick at James Gallery; the West End branch of the Carnegie Library; Dru Simeone; Wendy Downs and Jeremy Boyle; tiles at Ceramiche; Lou Bucci; the West End pergola; Diana StoughtonPhotographs copyright Brian Cohen