Neighborhoods

Neighborhood Profile: Shadyside

By December 4, 2018 No Comments

Looking down Walnut Street from South Aiken Avenue, February 19, 1935. Image courtesy of Historic Pittsburgh, the Digital Research Library at the University of Pittsburgh and Jake Mysliwczyk.

Neighborhoods don’t become destinations by accident. It takes a lot of collaboration and the ability to get a large group of people on board for a single vision. And because, well, people die and things change, you have to do it over and over again, and get it right most of the time. It’s pretty daunting, but it can be done. You don’t need to look any further than Shadyside to see a successful result

Today’s proprietors of Shadyside’s restaurants and shops might not even realize it, but they are continuing to build on the ideas, legacies, and even methodologies, of the people who settled the area hundreds of years ago.

In the early 1850s, Pittsburgh’s elite were concentrated around the city center. The centralization of resources and lack of transportation tended to keep folks in the city, even if it was a sooty, polluted mess.

Shadyside, then, was pastoral farmland, unremarkable in every way except one; the rail cars were coming. The Oakland Passenger Railway started commuter trains between Shadyside (which at this time was just unnamed land spread between Peebles and Liberty Townships) and Pittsburgh. Suddenly, there was an efficient way for Pittsburgh elites to escape the dirt and the noise. By 1866, annual ridership on the line was 716,482.

Shadyside as we now know it was beginning to form.

“Where the enjoyment of the country could be combined with the convenience of the city”, is how an 1875 city engineer described it in his annual report. The elites were moving there; names we are familiar with: Aiken, Negley, Castlegate. They were buying what is known in modern parlance as a “shit-ton” of land.

Because there were such large swaths of land owned by a relatively small number of people, something unique started to happen. They didn’t operate through an official subdivision plan. Rather, they managed the sale of their lots privately. This allowed them a large degree of control in the sizes of the lots and who they were sold to. The Aikens started this trend and other landowners followed suit. They kept lot sizes large and a tight eye on who bought them. Shadyside became affluent by design.

The original Aiken house still stands, owned by Jack Cohen, owner of S.W. Randall Toy Stores. Cohen bought the house in 1973. Asked how he came to own the oldest home in Shadyside, Cohen says, ‘We were just lucky.’

Cohen knew the historical value of the house, and quickly set about investigating its history. In 1910, Aiken’s widow decided to move it from the middle of the street to the end, a feat accomplished by the rolling of many logs.

Shadyside continued to grow, and attracted a lot of businesses along the way. By the 1960s it was a thriving, vibrant neighborhood, and very popular with women who loved to eat lunch and shop. Another demographic was also making its presence known: young people.

Lisa S. worked in Shadyside in 1964, during her teen years, splitting her time between The Listening Post and The Village Seat. The Listening Post sold “records, speakers, stereos, tvs, this was all before Best Buy and Sam’s Club,” she recalls.

Her Shadyside, the Shadyside of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, was a patchwork of independent stores, a movie theater, restaurants, and clubs. It was a place to gather. A place to enjoy. It was also a time when Walnut street had parking on both sides of the street. “But it was still two lanes of traffic,” Lisa recalled. “Can you even imagine? I don’t know how anybody managed to get through there,”

But get through they did. College students especially liked the area, taking advantage of the multitude of places to congregate. People called them hippies. When asked if she was a hippie Lisa countered, “Hippie is a term that gets misused. It was more about the way people dressed. Folks were still wearing hats and gloves to go downtown, and here we were in jeans and fringed vests.”

Jeans or not, Shadyside was still a draw for the wealthy. There was a jewelry store, The Collection, owned by a well-known jeweler, Ron McNeish. It was on the corner of Flibert and Walnut. “One day this big, black limo pulls up,” Lisa recalls. “It was huge, with leopard print lining inside. Out comes Phyllis Diller, into The Collection.’

By the time Jack Cohen bought the old Aiken house in 1973, the college kids had mostly gone, lured by the newly developed South Side. He tried to get a storefront on Walnut for his toy store, but none were available. He landed on Ivy Street, where he’s been for 30 years. And unlike his house, he isn’t planning on going anywhere.

Shadyside has managed to keep its identity as a destination neighborhood, regardless of the times. Specific businesses come and go, but the fact remains: people come here to shop. One such shop was owned by Richard Rattner’s family, William Penn Hat and Gown. The shop was more than 100-years-old, first downtown, then moving to Shadyside in the ’70s.  In 2001, Richard made the difficult decision to close the shop. “I just didn’t see a future for a women’s couture brick and mortar dress boutique,” he said.

What he did see, however, was a future for a homegrown, welcoming bar and restaurant. Soon after closing the dress shop, he opened the doors to William Penn Tavern. William Penn Tavern is a Shadyside staple, popular with families, grandparents, and college kids alike. While it’s cemented its place as a Shadyside destination over the last 17 years, at least one person misses the old Hat and Gown. Lisa got her wedding trousseau there. “When I got married in 1971, you still had your rehearsal dinner dress, your wedding dress, and your party dress,” she wistfully recalls.

Rattner is also the president of the Shadyside Chamber of Commerce, helping to oversee some of Shadyside’s most beloved events, like Jam on Walnut, The Shadyside Arts Festival, and Run Shadyside. He’s also quick to point out that Shadyside is home to three distinct business districts, Walnut, Ellsworth, and Highland Avenue, each with their own unique characteristics.

Ellsworth doesn’t have the chain stores you can find on Walnut, but it is home to many unique businesses that are imbued with Shadyside-ness. Like Petagogy, the pet store that was hatched over a beer with friends sick of traveling to the North Hills to get high quality, small company pet food. Or 5801, a bar bought by patrons of its predecessor, New York New York, and turned into not just a vibrant club but a platform to help the LGBTQ community.

There is a quote in the Volume 62, Number 4 issue of the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, in an article written by Richard Juncha in October of 1979: “Shadyside was not built by a few powerful speculators, but instead by hundreds of individual decision makers.” The quote was referring to Aiken’s time, but could easily apply to present-day Shadyside.

As Ratner points out, “We (the Chamber) have over 100 members, and they all have their own unique interests. We have to balance that as well, and get everyone on board with one focal thought, one vision.”

And like their founders before them, they find ways to make it work. They gather, support, sometimes argue, but they all get on board for that  single vision and they work hard to make it happen. Over and over and over again.

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