By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Sharpsburg is a piece of the Pittsburgh puzzle often overlooked.
Squeezed between the North Shore of the Allegheny River and sharp Appalachian rock faces, the borough is compact and narrow. Though Main Street can be traversed end to end in just a 25 minute walk, getting to Sharpsburg without a car can be challenging. This geographic separation from Pittsburgh proper has created a self-reliant, tight-knit community.
Many of Sharpsburg’s 3400 residents have lived in the city for most of their lives, and had family members before them do the same. One of them is the borough’s mayor, Matthew Rudzki, who, at 32, is one of Pennsylvania’s youngest mayors.
“I’m a fifth-generation Sharpsburger, and I’ve lived here my whole life except for a college study abroad,” Rudzki says.
Though Sharpsburg has always been an industrial, working class town since its incorporation in 1826, the decline of the steel industry in Pittsburgh hit the borough hard. One by one, the many shops lining Main Street began to close, leaving vacant storefronts in their wake. One of Rudzki’s top priorities has been working to reverse this trend, and bring businesses back to Sharpsburg. He decided to follow the example of a recently revitalized neighborhood just across the Allegheny.
“We saw what happened in Lawrenceville, and we realized that if we could build out Main Street the way Butler Street was built out with businesses, then the residential end would follow,” Rudzki says.
Part of Rudzki’s plan has involved working with businesses one-on-one, helping owners to navigate permit laws, building codes and other bureaucratic aspects of starting a company. Another key angle is to make the neighborhood more pedestrian friendly, by upgrading sidewalks, crosswalks and lighting, among other changes.
“It’s a place where in a four-block span, you have a high density of businesses, and if you make that walkable, you’re going to attract not just businesses, but visitors and new residents,” Rudzki says.
It’s a plan that has already begun to bear fruit, according to Brittany Reno, Sharpsburg’s council president. The past five years have seen a number of new storefronts open in the region.
“Sugar Spell Scoops, which makes vegan ice cream; Ketchup City Creative, an art gallery and great community space; Dancing Gnome and Hitchhiker Breweries, Dragon Palace, and Boat Pittsburgh have all opened in the past couple of years,” Reno says. “Redhawk Coffee is working on their new roastery and coffee shop. Pittsburgh Winery is opening up shop soon, and Zynka Gallery is also coming to town.”
One of these new arrivals is Deeplocal, a creative marketing company that started in East Liberty in 2006. Working with a number of high-profile clients, including Google, Deeplocal creates unique marketing media of many varieties to find new ways to reach consumers.
“We do everything from brand marketing to temporary pop-up environments to permanent installations,” Creative Marketing Manager at Deeplocal Caroline Fisher says. “Everything we make is a new invention, never before seen by the world, and we make all our stuff in house.”
These projects have ranged from a collaboration with Netflix to create socks that pause the content you were watching if you fall asleep, to a full-scale, Disneyland-style dark ride for Google’s display at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show. Projects like the latter require a large fabrication space, one of the major factors in Deeplocal’s move to the former Fort Pitt Brewery in Sharpsburg.
“Space was a major motivator, we tripled the size of our office and shop when we moved here,” Fisher says.
The spirit of the neighborhood also proved a key influence on Deeplocal’s decision to relocate.
“Pittsburgh is really important to our company … and Sharpsburg embodies a lot of the spirit of Pittsburgh. It’s very humble and industrial, but also forward-thinking and positive,” Fisher said.
Other entrepreneurs decided on Sharpsburg for reasons of practicality. Dancing Gnome Beer opened its doors in October of 2016, and founder Andrew Witchey wound up in Sharpsburg after struggling to find an appropriately sized space in central Pittsburgh. Searching outside the city, he came across the property on Main Street which now houses his distillery and taproom.
“I saw the building and thought it was pretty perfect for what I was trying to do,” Witchey says.
Sharpsburg’s location along multiple major thoroughfares was also important to keep in mind.
“[Sharpsburg is] so easily accessed by so many large highways. Route 28 is right here, Route 8 is right here,” Witchey says. “It’s super easy to hop on the 62nd Street Bridge to get to Highland Park, Morningside, Lawrenceville.”
This accessibility was something Witchey knew would be important to a growing brewery.
“I knew no matter where I was gonna be, [Dancing Gnome] would be more of a destination spot than a walkabout spot, so that was a huge draw,” Witchey says.
Now in its second year, business at Dancing Gnome has been steady and the neighborhood has been very welcoming, according to Witchey. The brewery’s success has been such that Witchey has even begun considering expansion.
“We have a couple projects for our own growth and expansion planned for 2019 and 2020, and we’re staying right here in Sharpsburg,” Witchey says.
Right next door to Dancing Gnome sits a seasoned Main Street veteran. Frame Gallery, a custom picture frame shop, was opened by Paul Rojik in 1980, and has been in Sharpsburg ever since. When searching for the location of his storefront, Rojik could see the potential of Sharpsburg all those years ago.
“There was a possibility of turning the area around, bringing new businesses in, upgrading storefronts, so that was a big influence on us coming to the area,” Rojik says.
Over nearly 40 years, Rojik has witnessed the slow but steady change in Sharpsburg, and is pleased with the current pace of development.
“There’s got to be change, it’s for the positive,” Rojik says.
Not all residents are so welcoming. The increase in business has resulted in increasing property values. Houses have sold at record prices for the area one after another, and some Sharpsburgers have expressed concerns about renters being priced out of their units.
“Almost 60 percent of residents here rent their homes, and they are most vulnerable to these skyrocketing housing prices here,” Reno says.
Fortunately, this is a problem Mayor Rudzki and the Sharpsburg Borough Council are working to mitigate. Sharpsburg has partnered with the TriCOG Land Bank and City of Bridges Community Land Trust to build two affordable single family homes in the area, with plans to build several more over time. And ultimately, Sharpsburgers both young and old agree that the progress they’ve seen by and large is a good thing, and that the future for the borough they hold dear is bright.
“It’s a plus that progress is being made, and there’s a lot of good influences coming into Sharpsburg,” Rojik says.
“As far as the people I see daily, the borough executives and the board, it’s just a really nice place to be,” Witchey says.
“I’ve found that Sharpsburg is a really fun place to be who you are and pursue your dreams and wacky ideas alongside a bunch of friendly and welcoming people who are doing the same,” Reno says.
“The pieces were always there for Sharpsburg. We just needed the glue to get them to stick,” Rudzki says.