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Asian, Hispanic influx brings diversity to Squirrel Hill

| Sunday, June 3, 2012, 11:21 p.m.
C.K. KIm is an owner of Aseoma, a restaurant featuring Asian cuisine, in Squirrel Hill, Friday, June 1st, 2012. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Lisa DiGioia-Nutini and her husband, Jean-Pierre, own and run Mexico Lindo, a store featuring items from Mexico, in Squirrel Hill, Friday, June 1st, 2012. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

Rodef Shalom Congregation once leased the entire Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland to celebrate high holidays, squeezed out of its Fifth Avenue address by ballooning membership.

The Jewish population in Squirrel Hill boomed so quickly in those early days, more than a half-century ago, that the community formed a second Reform congregation, Temple Sinai, in 1946. The synagogues "used to be just packed to the rafters," said Raymond Baum, 68, a lifelong neighborhood resident.

But Squirrel Hill, still a hub for Judaism in Pittsburgh, has lost ground with Jews and gained Asians and Hispanics, population studies and census data show.

Blue Slide Park, a gateway to Frick Park on Beechwood Boulevard, has become "a total rainbow, melting-pot-type place," Baum said.

"It's very interesting — and it works," said Baum, president of Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition. "I think Squirrel Hill is one of the places that has some diversity, and it only makes us stronger."

Neighborhood surveys illustrate subtle but persistent shifts in Squirrel Hill's demographics. Census statistics show its population grew about 23 percent, to 26,773, from 1990 to 2010. The number of Asian residents nearly tripled in that period, to 3,658, and the Hispanic population climbed at nearly the same pace, to 957.

Whites moved there at one of the slowest growth rates, 9 percent. Nearly 21,000 white people lived in Squirrel Hill in 2010.

"This is one of the few neighborhoods where it's like New York or Los Angeles or Houston," said Lisa DiGioia-Nutini, co-owner of the Mexico Lindo art store on Murray Avenue. "I hear four different languages walking by me in the span of five minutes. And to me, this is a thing of beauty."

Since opening her store about nine years ago, she noticed increases in the Mexican population especially. Significant numbers of Mexicans, including some undocumented workers, have found work in landscaping, housekeeping and construction, though Latino organizations want to foster more entrepreneurship, DiGioia-Nutini said. The Hispanic population in Pittsburgh overall increased about 50 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the census. Still, Hispanics make up only 2.3 percent of the Pittsburgh population.

"I think the work force is being helped tremendously with the Hispanic growth, especially in restaurants," said C.K. Kim, an owner of Aseoma on Murray Avenue. The restaurant, which opened in November and advertises "Asian-style eats," employs a multi-racial staff and serves a similarly diverse clientele.

It's one of at least three new Asian restaurants in Squirrel Hill in the past six years, residents said. Many said the proximity of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh drives the Asian population growth.

Plus, "being that this is a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, I think there's acceptance here," Kim said. "Some people are calling this an emergence of a Koreatown in Pittsburgh."

It's tougher to gauge Jewish population trends, in part because the census doesn't include questions about religion. The most recent Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, in 2002, found about 13,900 Jewish residents in Squirrel Hill.

They account for 33 percent of Jews in the Pittsburgh area, according to the study backed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. By comparison, a similar study in 1963 identified about 16,200 Jewish residents in Squirrel Hill and 36 percent of the regional Jewish population.

"I think that perhaps some younger families are moving to the suburbs. But there might be a trend, as the kids get older, to come back" to the city, said Barbara Burstin, a Pitt faculty member in history.

"So I think Squirrel Hill will continue to maintain its Jewish complexion, its centrality in Jewish life in Pittsburgh. But the age demographic might shift somewhat," Burstin said.

Without recent Jewish population data, neighborhood observers differ over how Squirrel Hill has evolved.

Baum, the coalition leader, thinks the Jewish outflow has slowed. Burstin, who studies Jewish migration patterns and focuses on Pittsburgh, thinks the trend away from the neighborhood is relatively recent. Other academics said the suburban shift follows long-term American movement away from urban centers.

Although the 2002 community study revealed a 6 percent decline in the regional Jewish population since 1984, it found vitality in the South Hills, North Hills and east suburbs. The South Hills alone accounted for 14 percent of the region's Jewish households in 2002. To the north, an influx of Jews led to the creation of the 50-family Cranberry Jewish Community group.

"Moving away from the old neighborhood is the norm in American Jewish communities," said Jacob Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates Inc. in New York. "There's a large American phenomenon: Get a little more money, move to a more suburban neighborhood."

Ukeles' firm led the 2002 Jewish Community Study. Despite a slight suburban shift, he said, his group was struck by "how remarkably large and stable the Squirrel Hill community was."

"I suspect it still is," said Ukeles, a former Pittsburgher. "That's what makes it interesting."

Squirrel Hill developed as a Jewish enclave in the 1920s, helped along as street-car lines extended east from Downtown. It has endured as one of few lasting Jewish urban centers in the country. Most dissolved into the suburbs since the 1950s.

The isolation afforded by topography and the closeness to Oakland may be central to Squirrel Hill's endurance as a Jewish hub, said Pitt faculty member Adam Shear, who leads the Jewish studies department.

Another key is the neighborhood's retention of Jewish institutions, including synagogues and schools, his colleague Rachel Kranson said. Burstin expects those organizations will keep a core presence in Squirrel Hill for the foreseeable future, though they may form more suburban branch locations, she said.

Residents said the Jewish community has intertwined with Asian and Hispanic cultures. At the Mexico Lindo store, DiGioia-Nutini stocks intricate Judaica imported from Mexico. At the Jewish Community Center, programs such as an after-school clubhouse are multi-ethnic.

"It's not just that you have pockets of different ethnicities in Squirrel Hill," said Kranson, a neighborhood resident. "It's that you have a fair amount of interaction."

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