“Our hope is that as we progress and grow we still keep our tight knit community.”
By Rebecca Addison
Pittsburgh Current Special Projects Editor
Over the summer, a series of storms brought rising flood waters to several Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods. Among those hardest hit was Millvale, a borough along the Allegheny River that is no stranger to the adversity that comes with heavy rainfall.
In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan dropped more than 10 inches of rain on the borough over the course of 36 hours. And in 2007 hundreds of businesses and homes were damaged when nearly three inches of rain fell over a short two-hour period.
“After the floods, we saw a lot of businesses being boarded up,” says Lisa Love, a Millvale business owner. “People’s personal property was damaged. Businesses owners who weren’t able to afford flood insurance had to move out.”
Like many former steel towns, Millvale saw it’s population decline when the steel industry moved on. The intermittent flood devastation has also done little to bolster the borough’s ailing economy.
But like it’s former steel town brethren, Millvale is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Citizens there credit local businesses that have stood the test of time with holding the community together through periods of strife. And they say these businesses must remain a key component of Millvale’s resurgence.
“They’re the tapestry. They’re the ones that held it together for us when everyone moved away. They’re the rock. They’re essential,” says Love who also chairs the Business Association of Millvale. “Everyone always talks about the new businesses that come to town and although they’re great and wonderful, people forget the staple businesses that were there from the beginning. We want to combine the new and the old and have a strong business community so we can grow together and not push the old businesses out.”
While Love grew up in Millvale, her salon is among the community’s new businesses. After a decade in Lawrenceville, she relocated her salon to Millvale four years ago and she says Millvale can learn much from what she witnessed on Butler Street.
“I saw Lawrenceville’s resurgence but I also saw it become too crowded,” Love says. “When I moved my salon to Millvale, I loved coming back to the small town atmosphere and that’s what we’re trying to hold on to. The business association is working hard and we’ve tried to stay ahead of the development that’s coming to town to keep the small town community feel. Our hope is that as we progress and grow we still keep our tight knit community and listen to residents as we develop because they’re the ones that live there.”
Love says flooding remains a problem for the borough. Her salon was impacted by the most recent storm over the summer when water rose up from the basement into her first floor. But she says the community is working to take steps to protect residents and businesses in the future.
“We’re resilient and we’re not going anywhere,” Love says. “We just started a watershed association to help with preventative care. We’re going to have a cleanup to get rid of any debris that would go into the sewers, back it up and cause future flooding. We’re also meeting with communities upstream to see what we can do before the flood waters hit Millvale. There’s definitely an interest in preventing it from happening in the future.”
Efforts like these are key to ensuring Millvale continues to improve, Love says. Growing up, Love says Millvale had a thriving business district with bakeries, butchers and even clothing stores. Right now, she says the community seems to be coming full circle.
“Over the last four years, we’ve seen a resurgence of people wanting to buy homes there, people wanting to open up businesses,” says Love. “And the businesses that have been there the whole time are definitely expanding.”
Among those businesses expanding is Mr. Smalls Funhouse, a Millvale entertainment venue converted from an old church, that has served as a staple in the neighborhood since it was opened in 2002. The venue recently opened a new cafe in the basement.
“With the improvements to Millvale over the past few years, Mr. Smalls has undergone a kind of evolution as well,” says Mike Zickefoose, a manager at the new cafe. “The fact that we’ve been in Millvale for so long when other venues have fallen is definitely a testament to what Mr. Smalls has to offer.”
And Mr. Smalls’ cafe is just one of the many new food offerings in the borough. Iron Born Pizza opened a shop there last month. Duncan Street Sandwich Shop opened the month before. And a food truck park along Millvale’s riverfront launched earlier this year.
Zickefoose says the new businesses aren’t seen as competition. He’s worked at Mr. Smalls for eight years and during that time he says he’s seen how the venue has contributed to Millvale revitalization and benefitted from it.
“There’s definitely a lot more attraction now,” says Zickefoose. “There’s a healthy parallel. When people come in from local or out of town, they help the nearby businesses. When people come to shows, they’ll ask what to do in town.”
While Mr. Smalls has long served as a Millvale landmark, the longest standing business in the neighborhood is Ceney’s Electronics. The store is owned by Jack Ceney whose father opened it in 1968. A decade later, Ceney added onto the business by opening Jack’s Discount Videos next door. Today the two businesses continue to thrive.
“I love Millvale,” says Ceney. “That’s why I’m still here. I think it’s getting better every year. I like all the new businesses opening. People in Millvale care about their town. They’d rather do their business here than go somewhere else.”
In the era of digital streaming services, a video store feels like something from a bygone era. But the store is just like Millvale itself, an institution committed to tradition and family. And just like the town, Ceney says his stores are getting by just fine.
“It’s funny, people say ‘Jack, is business slow?’ But I’ve never been busier, even with Netflix,” Ceney says. “My prices have never changed since the day I opened up. People come in and thank me for still being here. People will move out of town and then move back and even the ones who stay away come back and do business with us. I’m getting new people every week.”
Ceney might not call the borough home, but since he says he spends 16 hours a day at his store, he might as well live there.
“It’s not a business you’re going to get rich at; I just love doing it,” Ceney says. “I love the people here. I love the customers. They’re like my family.”