There are two things people from Crafton will tell you within five minutes of meeting you: “I was born and raised here,” and “Crafton is only 12 minutes from Downtown.”
Crafton Borough does indeed sit 12 minutes from downtown. It’s also just minutes from Robinson, a hop, skip and a jump to Greentree, and just a quick ride to the airport. Like many city-adjacent neighborhoods, it’s gone through good times and bad in its 137 year existence. But what it has never done is give up on itself.
Crafton has roughly 6,000 residents and a somewhat sprawling business district, or, as borough manager RJ Susko calls it, a “business core.” Susko has only been on the job for six months but she has big plans for Crafton.
As borough manager, Susko wears many hats.
“Typically a manager does financial forecasting, day-to-day supervising operations of the whole municipality, preparing the annual budget, which is usually a multi-month process, interpreting the borough code, or our code of ordinances, or just finding solutions,” Susko said. “The thing about local government is it’s local, and it can change based on needs. For example, some of the basic stuff is advising council on the policy decisions that they make, or managing the finance stuff.”
But she also spends time thinking about economic development. “Another hat I wear is Main Street manager, since we don’t have a community development corporation right now.”
She’s hoping to help bring even more to the neighborhood’s existing business ecosystem. Crafton’s current mix of businesses include a vibrant patchwork of long-standing, been-here-forever type places, and a smattering of newcomers. One thing that almost all of them have in common though is a deep, strong Crafton connection.
Mugshots Cafe is tucked on the back edge of the Crafton Ingram Shopping Center. A sign outside alerts passersby to their world-famous fish sandwich. Dan Rusin has run the place for 15 years, although it’s been in his family since his grandparents bought it 36 years ago.
“My grandma is still here,” Rusin said, gesturing to the back. “She still takes care of the books and things. I do everything else, though.”
The bar is a study in Pittsburgh-themed decor, resplendent in black and gold. Rusin is from Crafton, born and raised, and is proud of Mugshots’ Crafton bonafides.
“This is a local place, when they park their car and start walking across that parking lot, their beer is already on the bar,” Rusin said. “We have some customers that have their barstool. They have to have their barstool. Now, if you’re a new person and you’re sitting there, they’ll let it go, move to the next seat. But if you’re a regular, they’ll say you gotta swap seats, let’s go. One time we thought about name tags, but we didn’t want to scare off new customers.”
The joint is very welcoming to new customers. Rusin has karaoke, specials galore, food for days and special events. They throw a huge bash outside on July Fourth, has fundraisers for Humane Animal Rescue and puts out buffets for Steelers games.
“We are your typical Pittsburgh bar,” he said proudly. “You don’t always get these places in other cities. It’s all new development or big chains type places.”
While he’s made some changes since taking over 15 years ago, Rusin is happy to let Mugshots be Mugshots. “I added more liquor and beer selections,” he said. “Oh, and Red Bull and Jager. We didn’t have that here when I took over.”
Almost caddy-corner to Mugshots is Wright’s Gym. Rusin actually works out there, and has for three years. That’s another hallmark of Crafton residents; you support local businesses through patronage and recommendation. “You gotta check out Wright’s,” Rusin said, as two locals take their seats at the bar. “Dave is great.”
Dave Wright, owner of Wright’s Gym, and a very large and nice person. Wright’s is down a set of small steps, and you think it’s going to be a cramped space, but it opens up to a labyrinth of spaces, filled with either gym equipment or dedicated as classroom spaces. Rick, who works the front counter, mentions it used to be a Pat Catans.
“We’ve been here since 1996,” Wright said. “It’s a unique combination of health club/martial [arts] facility. We specialize in three elements: fitness, self-defense and fighting. It coincides with what I do on the other side of my life. I’m a 26 year Pittsburgh Police veteran. I am the lead use-of-force instructor, so I teach self defense and physical fitness to police. The two kind of match up pretty well.”
Wright’s offers training in Krav Maga, an Israeli self defense system, along with Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. “We are a health club, but we also realized we needed to have a niche to compete with the big corporate chains. Our niche is our self defense fitness classes. They can’t do what we do,” Wright explains. Which is another Crafton point of pride, offering something you can’t get at most corporate chains.
“We provide for this community, too. I was born and raised in Crafton. We give a lot back the Carlynton (the local high school) wrestling team, we let them have free training here, if their school is closed they can practice here, we’ve done self-defense classes for the community.”
A lot of the businesses serving Crafton have been around for a long time, but you do have your newcomers. Like D & O Wine Cellars. They opened six months ago and Owners Doug and Olesia Johnston started making wine in 2009.
“People really liked our wine and wanted to buy it, but you can’t sell homemade wine,” Doug explained. “So we decided to take the plunge and see if we could get our home licensed as a winery, which we did. Then this place became available.”
The place is a sprawling storefront on Crafton Avenue. Previously a Ben Franklin store and a dance hall, the space has now been converted to a warm, welcoming tasting bar and event venue. You can taste and purchase D & O’s wines, as well as a selection of Pennsylvania beers and liquors from Quantum Spirits in neighboring Carnegie.
The Johnstons are long-time Crafton residents who wanted to open a place close to home. The fact that the space is close to Serafino’s, Crafton’s celebrated Italian restaurant, doesn’t hurt either. “They’re BYOB, so we get a lot of people that stop here to get a bottle of wine for their dinner,” Doug said.
“There’s also a dance studio next door,” he continued. “I’m not saying all dance moms like to drink wine, but…” Olesia breaks in, “There’s dance dads, too.”
There is a cupboard full of board games and a table with an almost-finished puzzle. “People come in, have their glass of wine, work on the puzzle and when it’s done,” Doug points back to the table, “we put out another one.”
They’ve already hosted live entertainment, yoga and are launching an open mic night. The event space keeps them busy, too.
“We are hosting a kids birthday party this weekend,” Olesia explained. “The kids all play in the back, and the grownups can come out and have a glass of wine.”
If you’ve ever been to a kid’s birthday party, you can understand how appealing this might be.
The Johnston’s are very happy with the support they’ve received from their Crafton community. “We were the starting point for the Crafton House Tour this year,” Doug proudly pointed out. “It brought 400 people here on a Sunday morning, which was a huge help for us getting our name out.”
Susko references places like D & O when she talks about the future.
“We are engaging with our borough engineers to get the conceptual groundwork down for a full streetscape of [the business core],” she said. “It’s important to let people know you’re open for business if you want them to come here. We’re lucky we have a couple really cool places that are walkable that have located here.
“If you take care of the center, the goodness kind of radiates out. Your fingers get cold if you don’t keep your core warm, right? But you’re not warming up your core by putting on gloves.”
Crafton has taken care of its center. It has a dedicated army of people who were born and raised there, who are dedicated to keeping that core warm and letting goodness radiate out. And, in case you haven’t heard, it’s only 12 minutes from Downtown.