By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Midday on a Saturday is a special time for the Strip District. The city comes out in full force to sample the wares of the many business owners lining Penn Avenue. The sidewalks struggle to contain the swarm of shoppers.
Fruit vendors display their best melons and berries. Vendors of all stripes pop up for the day, hawking everything from authentic Chinese food to Terrible Towels. Business and pleasure blend seamlessly in the Strip.
Just three blocks wide and 20 blocks long, the Strip District is a long stretch of land along the Allegheny River, beginning at 33rd Street and ending at 11th. Some of the only flat land in the city, it has been a center of business since Pittsburgh’s early days.
Major industries, including foundries, glass factories and iron mills, were present in the Strip District as early as the 1820s. Iron, steel and aluminum production flourished in the Strip after the Civil War. It was these mills that inspired writer James Parton to describe Pittsburgh as “Hell with the lid off” in 1868.
Wholesalers and retailers moved onto Smallman Street and Penn Avenue in the late 19th century, and these endeavors continued to grow and prosper through the early 20th century. The success of these businesses, as well as the surrounding heavy industry, is due in large part to the location of the Strip District. Close to both downtown Pittsburgh and major rail lines, business could run very efficiently while also attracting a large customer base.
The Great Depression and World War II would hit the neighborhood hard, with growth stagnating due to the economic climate, and later due to restrictions for the war effort. The neighborhood would continue to struggle through the mid-20th century, squeezed by the rise of grocery store chains and the replacement of trains with trucks for transporting cargo.
Many businesses unfortunately closed down over the decades, but some survived on the sheer quality of their products, continuing on to the present day. One of the oldest establishments on Penn Avenue, Pennsylvania Macaroni Company has operated continuously since 1902. Founded, and still owned today, by the Sunseri family, Penn Mac has been a major player in the Pittsburgh wholesale food market for decades. They are particularly famous today for their selection of meats and cheese, from domestic selections to French and Italian imports.
Just across the street from Penn Mac sits another major presence in the Strip. Wholey’s Market began as a butter and egg store founded by Robert Wholey in 1912, originally in McKee’s Rocks. His son Robert “Bob” Wholey Jr. took over the company after he returned from army service in WWII, moving it to what is now Market Square Downtown. The store was moved to its present location in the Strip District in 1959.
“That’s when we started selling fresh fish, and we’ve grown steadily ever since, and we’re still here today,” said Dan Wholey, co-owner of the Robert Wholey Company.
Today, the Wholey’s name is synonymous with fish in Pittsburgh, thanks in part to the iconic “smiling fish” sign on the side of its Strip District warehouse.
Working alongside these longtime players are a cornucopia of small shops and restaurants, many of which opened in the past 20 years.
One of these new merchants is S&D Polish Deli, a deli and restaurant supplying all the necessary ingredients for traditional Polish cuisine, and serving their own as well. The deli was opened in 2008 by Slamomir and Dorota Pyszkowska, a married couple who wanted to provide traditional foods to Pittsburgh’s large Polish community.
“I remember when they started it was just half of this store, there was no kitchen, we had a small stove and only a couple pots, we only served one soup and the pierogi,” said Agnieszka Sornek, manager of S&D. “They really started small, but because the food is delicious, really people love it, so they were able to expand a little.”
Over eleven years, S&D doubled the size of its storefront, and also expanded its kitchen capacity, which in turn expanded sales.
“We might still make some changes because we are still growing. It shows year by year that we have more people coming not only from Pittsburgh, but all over the United States,” Sornek said.
While the majority of new businesses in the Strip are merchants, selling largely food and home goods, the Strip is also home to a film studio. At the east end of the Strip sits 31st Street Studio, a film and television production center that has worked on projects including the TV series “Outsiders” and the upcoming Tom Hanks movie “A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood.” Like so many businesses in the Strip, it sits in a historic building that was repurposed.
“The studio was originally a steel mill back in the day, and you can see the remnants of that time as you walk through,” said Alyssa Falarski, production and property manager for 31st Street. “The original cranes are still intact, you can see where the rail line ran into the facility. It’s a really cool place that was repurposed into a film studio.”
When not in use as a studio, 31st Street also hosts events, most recently the 24 annual art display “Art All Night.” This year marks the first time “Art All Night” has been hosted in the Strip District.
Despite this influx in new business, the neighborhood has not seen major redevelopment, with merchants choosing to move into the historic warehouses and storefronts that have stood for over 100 years. This is a tradition that has largely held to this day, but there is a question of how long this tradition will continue.
The Strip’s flatness and proximity to the Allegheny River have made it prime real estate for development, and major projects have already received approval. The most notable of these is the renovation and development of the historic produce terminal on Smallman Street, managed by Chicago-based development firm McCafferty Interests.
It is a growing trend that has been noticed by many who live and work in the neighborhood, like Matt Napper, president of the Strip District Neighbors Association.
“We’ve seen a shift in a lot more residential buildings and office spaces being built, developers wanting to come in, because it’s a very lucrative area right now. It’s a hotspot for developers,” said Napper.
To Napper, development is a “two-way street.”
“We’re happy to see it because, for years, there wasn’t much going on down here. We’re happy to see there’s residential developments coming, we’re happy to see people are interested in this neighborhood,” Napper said. “At the same time, we know that there’s a lot of history to this community. We understand that, as a community organization, we have to watch out for what everybody knows the Strip for, which is Penn Avenue.”
Despite reservations about preserving the character of the Strip, the reception from the business community regarding the produce terminal development has been largely positive, particularly regarding additional parking spaces, and the level of investment in their community.
“We’re super excited about the Strip District expansions, we’re excited to see the next chapter of the Strip District,” said Chris Beers, owner of Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop. “I believe that the tradition that’s here in the Strip has been here for a long time, and I don’t think it’s gonna change.”
“I’m super happy. I think there’s a place for everyone, and I’m hoping that the places that will open in that new produce terminal will also be family-owned small businesses, and hopefully Pittsburgh will welcome as much and as nicely as they did us,” Sornek said.
Above all, there is happiness that the historic produce terminal, which has been partially vacant for decades, will see new life in the modern day. This is, after all, tradition in the Strip District.