By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Stretching from its northern border with Shadyside all the way to the banks of the Monongahela, Squirrel Hill is a sprawling neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s southeastern corner. The region is so large that, for municipal purposes, the city has divided it into Squirrel Hill North and Squirrel Hill South.
At Squirrel Hill’s core is the business corridor on Forbes and Murray Avenues where most of its popular shops and restaurants are situated. Surrounding this business core is predominantly residential streets and green spaces.
“Squirrel Hill started to be settled in the 1760s,” said Helen Wilson, vice president of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society. “People came here to farm, and then some of the wealthy people from downtown wanted to have these vast country estates. So they would come and buy the farms and build their estates.”
These farms and estates would be the primary occupants of the land through much of the 19th century. It wasn’t until the electric trolley was introduced in Pittsburgh in 1893 that average people were able to travel freely around the city, including to Squirrel Hill.
“When the trolleys came, that made transportation around the city much, much easier,” Wilson said. “All that farmland, as soon as there was access to it, started turning into housing, and the housing brought the business district.”
The trolleys were also responsible for bringing some of Squirrel Hill’s first Jewish residents. German Jews who had settled in Homestead and Allegheny City in the 1840s came into the neighborhood for the first time. Many Jewish business owners decided to move to Squirrel Hill for a nicer lifestyle, as well as to escape the pollution from heavy industry.
“Instead of living over their stores like they did in the old days, they could have their stores where their clientele lived, and then they could come home to a beautiful new neighborhood with new housing,” Wilson said.
The first Jewish congregations and businesses began appearing in Squirrel Hill in the early 1900s. The prevalence of Jewish culture in the neighborhood, in turn, brought more Jewish residents to the neighborhood, and over time, Squirrel Hill became the center of life for Pittsburgh’s jewish population.
The early 20th century saw developers buying large swaths of Squirrel Hill to be turned into residential streets. Most of this early development consisted of single family homes, as apartments were considered to be reserved for those who could not afford a home.
Developer Thomas Watkins challenged this notion when he built and opened the Morrowfield Apartment Hotel in 1924. It was a large scale apartment complex packed with amenities, including shops, restaurants and a drugstore. Particularly innovative was the inclusion of an early parking garage, a sign Watkins was catering to the, at that time, small and well-to-do population of car owners in Pittsburgh.
The Morrowfield created a trend in development, which in turn influenced the development of Squirrel Hill’s business corridor.
“The density of this development was one of the reasons the business district grew the way it did,” Wilson said. “It allowed for much more population density than Squirrel Hill had had.”
Today, Squirrel Hill is a portrait reflective of its history. It remains the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh, with 26 percent of all Pittsburgh Jews living in the neighborhood. The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh is also based in the neighborhood, and they provide for the community in a variety of ways, from camps and after-school programs for children, to wellness and senior care programs for adults.
The business district also reflects recent changes in Squirrel Hill, particularly an increase in Asian-American residents. The past 15 years have seen an influx of new Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants opening on the Forbes/Murray corridor. These new arrivals, among many others, sit alongside neighborhood mainstays like Little’s Shoes, the Manor Theater and Mineo’s Pizza, which have each been open for decades.
Part of the success of the business district is rooted in the cooperation and coordination between businesses. This is achieved through an organization called Uncover Squirrel Hill, a nonprofit which acts as a liaison between Squirrel Hill business owners and the city of Pittsburgh, as well as arranging events throughout the year to bring business to the neighborhood.
“The key things we do are promoting the business corridor, and a lot of that comes through different events,” said Jamison Combs, director of marketing and events for Uncover Squirrel Hill.
The largest of these events are the annual Squirrel Hill Night Markets. Taking place on the fourth Saturday in June, August, and September every year, the Night Markets are a showcase where local Pittsburgh businesses can display their products for 10,000 to 12,000 attendees.
“It’s a chance for [people] to be introduced to new merchants, new restaurants, and get to know Squirrel Hill better,” Combs said. “This year, we’re excited to have just over 100 different vendors. There will be different artisans and crafters, food, even karate demonstrations.”
Now in their fifth year, the Night Markets will showcase not only the Pittsburgh business scene, but the local live music scene as well.
“Huntington Bank is sponsoring a stage, so we will have several local bands performing,” Combs said.
The strength of Squirrel Hill lies in its diversity. Tragically, last fall, an intolerant man came to the neighborhood when he wanted to act on his hate.
On October 27, 2018, a far-right extremist entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill during Saturday morning services and opened fire, killing eleven and injuring seven more. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history.
“It really had very wide ripples all over the neighborhood and all over the city,” said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
One week after the tragedy, Uncover Squirrel Hill hosted a Community Day for the neighborhood. Balloon artists and a variety of entertainers were brought in, hoping to bring the community together in solidarity and support during one of its darkest hours.
“The goal that day was really just to put smiles on people’s faces, to give them a sense of happiness and normalcy during a really chaotic time,” Combs said.
“During that time, it was just very quiet, so it was good to hear kids playing and laughing,” said Heather Graham, president of Uncover Squirrel Hill.
Even in the most troubling times, the spirit of Squirrel Hill shines through, the sense of community and togetherness that transcends faith, language, and even the most potent hatred.
“We really saw a spirit of inclusion, of wanting to open their doors and create safe spaces for friends and neighbors to come,” Combs said.
“It was a community that very quickly came together to support and to try and begin to heal from the horror that had happened,” said Marti Isler, a 35 year resident of the neighborhood.
“Although I’m sure this was the exact opposite of the shooter’s intent, it brought all of Pittsburgh together,” Hertzman said. “The outpouring of support from all of greater Pittsburgh was really powerful and overwhelming.”