For many Pittsburghers, the name Allentown evokes images of a city hundreds of miles away in the eastern part of the state. But nestled on the hilltop of Pittsburgh’s southern tip is another Allentown, a neighborhood where blue collar tradition meets a black collar edge.
Like many forgotten city neighborhoods, Allentown fell on hard times at the end of the previous century. But just like plenty of the city’s other scrappy neighborhoods, Allentown has seen a resurgence over the last decade, giving rise to a bustling business district where fledgling entrepreneurs can thrive.
Work Hard Pittsburgh, a business incubator on Allentown’s main street, Warrington Avenue, was among the first in a wave of new organization that have moved into the neighborhood.
“We looked at a half dozen neighborhoods that were all sort of at the tip of transitioning or economically distressed,” says Work Hard founder Josh Lucas. “What it came down to was the correct partners were in place in Allentown for us to have a go at it.”
Essentially, Work Hard’s mission is reflective of the Allentown neighborhood as a whole. For a lot of the businesses that have moved in recently, this is their first storefront.
“We’re interested in creating more equitable opportunities in entrepreneurship and tech,” Lucas says. “So it’s important for us to be in a neighborhood like this.”
Since moving into the neighborhood in 2013, Lucas says growth in Allentown’s business district has been swift. And he says that wouldn’t be possible without the Hilltop Alliance, a community development organization that works in Allentown, Arlington, Arlington Heights, Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Carrick, Knoxville, Mount Washington, Mount Oliver City, South Side Slopes, and other neighborhoods. In particular, he says several businesses have benefited from the Hilltop Alliance’s rent abatement program where new businesses can have 50 percent of their monthly rent paid for one year.
“The business district has been pretty well fleshed out,” Lucas says. “There’s only a few storefronts that aren’t occupied now. The thing that made this possible is rent abatement. That investment at the state level is really the driving force behind a lot of the development that’s happening here.”
Among the Allentown businesses that have benefitted from the program are Black Forge Coffee House. Now a staple of the community, Black Forge moved in next to the neighborhood’s police station in 2015.
“We were at the cusp of when no one wanted to come here,” says Black Forge cofounder Ashley Corts. “It’s exciting now to see people starting up businesses in a neighborhood that people have given up on for years.”
Corts first lived in Allentown back when there were hardly any businesses on the main drag. She can recall a chinese restaurant, a tattoo shop and a small grocery store, but says she longed for a nearby place to grab a cup of coffee. Years later she’d open that coffee shop and eventually buy a home in the neighborhood.
“Back when I was living here there was nobody walking around, even when we first opened. We went through a lot of struggle to stay open. And then all of a sudden it just started picking up,” Corts says. “It’s just really cool to see people walking around past 6 o’clock at night. It’s really great to see a neighborhood brought back to life.”
Corts’ coffee shop and event space is part of a group of Allentown businesses with a decidedly dark theme. Black Forge promotes metal music and culture. There’s an oddities shop called the Weeping Glass that offers novelties like coffin nails. And at the other end of the street there’s Onion Maiden, a vegan restaurant that also has a metal theme.
”That definitely was not intentional,” says Corts who explains that many of the other business owners are her friends. “A lot of them came to us and were like, this is a really cool neighborhood how do I get in? All of these spaces have been sitting vacant for so long and the neighborhood keeps pushing them to everyone, but no one was jumping to do it. But all of our friends really wanted it.
“But there’s no real theme for it. It’s not like you have to be metal to be in the neighborhood, you just have to be kind and give a crap about the neighborhood you’re in.”
It’s a close knit community where the various owners often help each other out and partner on events. In August, they all banded together to hold the neighborhoods first night market and they regularly promote each other’s products. For example, Black Forge sells sandwiches from Black Market Deli, another newer business down the street.
“We seem to get along really well with the other businesses in the area,” says Black Market owner Domenic Betters. “We’ve built up a pretty good relationship and that’s helped a lot. We all seem to have the same philosophies.”
The deli has been open since last October. It shares a space with Breakfast at Shelly’s, a diner style restaurant that boasts Pittsburgh favorites like salads topped with fries. Betters initially set up in the location to run his meat jerky operation out of the kitchen. But he was approached by the Hilltop Alliance to fix up the deli counter in the front of the venue and offer fresh meats in a neighborhood that still lacks a full service grocery store.
It’s one sign that Allentown still has a ways to go to becoming a fully prosperous community, but the thriving main street and dedication of the neighborhood’s business owners indicate the neighborhood will get there.
“All of us are outside of our storefronts every morning, cleaning up the sidewalks,” says Corts. “It’s definitely a community effort.”
Rebecca Addison is the Pittsburgh Current Special Project Editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org