'Stroll the Strip' allows folks chance to explore popular Pittsburgh spot
The Strip District has one of the strongest, if not the strongest, brand names of all the neighborhoods in Western Pennsylvania.
This fairly small piece of flat land, stuck between a river and a cliff, has cycled through many identities through the years: factory cluster, wholesale food distributor, nightclub-land and, now, food market and dining destination, with some of each previous use remaining. In general, the Strip's multiple, changing identities are well-known in the rest of the region.
This didn't happen by accident. Since 1999, the community organization Neighbors in the Strip has been trying to find ways to get the merchants to work together to help promote the whole neighborhood. One of their more successful efforts is the “Stroll the Strip,” which is scheduled for June 26 this year.
“Somebody was talking about the Gallery Crawl in the Cultural District, which got us thinking and talking,” says Cindy Cassell, special-projects director for Neighbors in the Strip. “‘What about something that involved the entire neighborhood, with samples and surprises?' And we're a nonprofit, so fundraising is an ongoing issue for us.”
The Stroll, which is in its third year, is after-hours, giving visitors a chance to linger and savor the flavors of the Strip. Businesses get a chance to slow down, to talk to their customers at a less busy time. It's easy to miss new additions and things that have been there forever, like Parma Sausage (1734 Penn Ave.).
“We feel Stroll the Strip is a neat way to interact on a more personal level with the customer. We get to meet with them, talk with them, break bread with them and see their smiling faces,” says Erin Schumacher of Parma Sausage. “We are into the fourth generation of the family working in the business. And we make all of our products here on Penn Avenue. We still use Old World dry-curing techniques to age prosciutto, coppa secca, pancetta, salami and much more. There are not a lot of places that do fresh, dry cured and smoked sausage like ours in the U.S.”
Pittsburgh Winery (2815 Penn Ave.) is a relative newcomer. The Stroll helps push people out of their usual pathways, hopefully, to discover some of the changes taking place, which are considerable.
“I am really very happy with our latest wines, but to see a show in our cellar is pretty special,” says Tim Gaber, owner of Pittsburgh Winery. “There is just something about the pairing of music and wine together in our space that takes you away ... Nothing but good vibes and happy people all the way around.”
Gaber says comedian and radio personality Jim Krenn, who grew up in the Strip and is the honorary chair for the Stroll, saw the venue during last year's Stroll and “fell in love with the space.” He decided to produce the one-year anniversary of his “No Restrictions” podcast live from the winery's cellar stage with a packed house.
“It was comedy gold,” Gaber says. “They did an hour of comedy followed by live performances of Jim's own parody songs, backed by a thrown-together house band including Rick Witowski, Mark Eddie, Carlo Vohl and myself, and even Donnie Iris couldn't resist the urge to jump up and join us on stage.”
Events like the Stroll help provide a sense of community for the Strip's merchants. There's a sense that, instead of competing against each other for scarce customers, they're all in the same boat — and a rising tide lifts them all.
Still, there are big changes on the horizon for the neighborhood, from a massive waterfront housing development, to the recent designation of a National Historic District, to the still-unclear fate of the iconic, blocks-long Terminal Building. New businesses and new residents are being added all the time. At the moment, there still seems to be space for them.
“I am worried a bit; be careful what you wish for,” says K.C. Lapiana, of the kitchen-supply store In the Kitchen. “Sure, I'd love better-paved sidewalks, and I'd like to see some merchants take better care of their facades. I am looking forward to positive change that will keep the excitement and integrity of the Strip alive.
“I do not want to see sparkly, polished ‘Big Box' stores, but who else will be able to afford rents? I do not want the Strip to be overrun with national chains. It won't work. The Strip is gritty, the Strip is real, with real hard working Pittsburghers. ... You can always count on meeting the people behind the stores, we're all part of the neighborhood.”
The challenge for Neighbors in the Strip is to keep on top of the changes and to balance what the merchants need with what visitors and customers want.
“Through the years on and off, we've talked about finding an evening to stay open (late),” Cassell says. “The Strip is basically still a wholesale district, and a lot of these businesses open at 6 and 7 a.m. For them to stay open into the evening is tough. For awhile, there were just a few businesses open on Sunday.”
The organization worked to get businesses to open on Sundays, and now, Cassell says, it's their second busiest day behind Saturday.
Many stops on the Stroll are collaborations between businesses, like Kindred Cycles (2515 Penn Ave.), which is teaming up with Wigle Whiskey and Thin Man Sandwich Shop.
“This will be our third participating year in Stroll the Strip,” says Leisa Anderson of the Cioppino Restaurant Group (Cioppino and Osteria 2350). “We look forward to the hundreds of potential new diners that will visit. The event is perfectly timed, allowing us to build relationships with those that visit so that we may describe our menu and services.
“It's even more exciting when you see those potentially new diners returning to dine after the fact and recognizing our faces from the event. In our business, it really is all about relationships.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.