Growing pains: mom and pop shops move out of Oakland


Raka Sarkar | Staff Illustrator

By Stephen Caruso / Contributing Editor

This is part one of a series by staff writer Stephen Caruso about how Oakland’s businesses and the community have changed since the 1990s — for better or worse. Stay tuned for the next installment, which will be about Oakland’s community improvement initiatives.

At 10 a.m. every morning in the late ’90s, Jay Yander could be found at Gus Miller’s News Stand on Forbes Avenue.

The 2000 English writing graduate was a sports writer for The Pitt News, and he didn’t miss a chance to flip through the competition. The store was staffed by a friendly young man who remembered Yander’s usual order.

“I used to go into Gus Miller’s every day and get a Post-Gazette,” Yander said. “I never thought twice.”

Gus Miller’s was one of many of the small shops Yander remembers dominating Oakland’s streets in the ’90s. From the Beehive — a coffee shop that has since moved to South Side — to Kunst Bakery and Jerry’s Records, Forbes Avenue, from McKee Place to Bigelow Boulevard, were covered in mom-and-pop shops. Pitt students frequented these stores for first dates, sweet treats or the newest Pearl Jam record.

But as the decades progressed and Pitt grew, these landmarks slowly vanished. Oakland pushed through a population dip — as did Pitt — and became overwhelmed by the University’s ever-encroaching boundaries. After a decline following the 1970s, Pitt’s enrollment grew from 26,328 in 1995 to 28,649 in 2016. Meanwhile the shops dotting Forbes Avenue steadily morphed into chains like Chipotle and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Bye mom, bye pop

In the heart of all Oakland’s change remained Groceria Merante — its locally grown stock of peppers, tomatoes and squash spilling out onto the sidewalks of Bates Street. Filomena Merante owns the 37-year-old, family-run shop with her sister Julie.

The Merantes used to sell in bulk to Oakland’s families, but as students replaced families and residents, the orders of salami and provolone went from several pounds to a quarter-pound. Still, the business survived due to the sheer quantity of customers.

“More people means more business,” Merante said as a delivery man passed by with a crate of fresh produce.

As for the decline in locally owned businesses, the lifelong Oakland resident thinks that the owners just “aged out.”

“All the old timers are gone,” she said.

Elizabeth Mather, a ’99 psychology graduate and now a Boston resident, thought many of Oakland’s small shops were part of what separated the neighborhood from the rest of the city.

A student could easily spend all their time and meet all their needs without straying far from campus.

The towering, medieval-esque architecture of the Beehive, where the T-Mobile store is now, was what opened Mather’s mind the most. It had a “really good alternative scene” that welcomed anyone into its doors.

It was in the shop’s back theater that she had her first kiss at college, while watching “Trainspotting” on a date with her soon-to-be first collegiate boyfriend.

While some small businesses sell coffee as part of their daily fare, Starbucks and Crazy Mocha have replaced independently owned cafes.

“[It’s not] a bad thing now that they brought in chains, I think that’s what [the millennial] generation is used to,” Yander said.

Oakland Exodus

Eventually, Mather left the city to find opportunities elsewhere. The Boston resident said she might have stayed if some of her friends had stuck around too.

Evan Stoddard, 71, a former Pittsburgh city development official and recently retired associate dean of liberal arts at Duquesne University, said the choice Mather made was exactly what the city had been struggling with.

“The city was losing population,” Stoddard said, especially from the lack of industrial employment. “A lot of people were moving out of Pittsburgh.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Pittsburgh’s population dropped from 423,938 in 1980 to 305,704 in  2010. In just four years, starting in 1980, the city lost 46,000 steel jobs — more than half of the existing positions.

The problems weren’t limited to the city. The Pitt Chronicle called the University “adrift and not achieving its full potential” in 1995. And as for Oakland, if the streets were flanked by mom-and-pop shops back in the day, they were also lined with garbage.

Yander always made the same joke with his college buddies about seeing an Oakland street after a weekend night.

“We joked around [that] Oakland was a little filthy, but it was our filth,” Yander said.

John Wilds, a Pitt employee for the past 30 years and Pitt’s current assistant vice chancellor for community relations, remembers the time well. He compared Pitt to a “trash bin” in the ’90s, especially on a Monday morning. This image of a sullied Oakland differed from the vision Pitt saw for itself, and for Oakland.

“The University [wants] a very vibrant neighborhood, that students [feel] comfortable in [and] safe in,” Wilds said. “It complements the progress of the University.”

Dodging beer cans and pizza boxes along the neighborhood’s main artery didn’t meld with Pitt’s vision, but it didn’t bother Jerry Weber.

The Oakland native was making good money by selling CDs, cassettes and records out of his two-story shop above McDonald’s on Forbes.

While students played into his business plan, the surrounding University and UPMC also offered a surprising amount of opportunity.

“The schools are great, but the people who work at the schools are a big part of my business [as well],” Weber said. He continued that after work, a sonically curious professor or doctor from UPMC might wander in, or they might drop off a relative for a day of shopping.

But Weber decided to ditch the CD business and focus on records, which requires more space. This forced him out of his old stomping grounds, as well as the affordable location.

“I didn’t leave [Oakland] because I wasn’t making money, I left because I need more room,” Weber said. “You can’t rent [anything] in Oakland for 13,000 square feet unless you’re UPMC.”

With no other options, Weber moved to Squirrel Hill in 1993. Stoddard, then working for the city, knew crowding out locals was an issue bubbling under Oakland’s old row houses and tree-lined streets.

“The University was buying up a lot property in the community,” Stoddard said, especially in ’70s and early ’80s. “[Those actions were] always there, and it kind of colored things.”

Eventually, Gus Miller’s and Kunst’s Bakery were replaced by chains, including Starbucks and Rite Aid. Yander has noticed the change in return trips to Oakland, but said he doesn’t necessarily find any fault with the neighborhood’s new look.

“Maybe [Oakland] lost a little bit of its charm — on the flip side it’s a cleaner neighborhood,” Yander said.

Clean streets

If Pitt was partially to blame for a decline in “charm,” it also has a stake in shaping a sleek, modern Oakland. Locals and active residents joined over the years — eventually forming partnerships with the University — to form such groups as the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation and the Oakland Business Improvement District to help catalyze change and commerce.

Stoddard cited these programs as attempts by the University to “try to set things right” after a checkered relationship in earlier decades with Oakland.

Jonathan Winkler, OBID’s marketing and communications coordinator, said his organization’s goal is to keep the neighborhood “clean and vibrant.”

“[OBID is] always looking for new ways to innovate,” Winkler said.

The group has a “24-hour cleaning crew” and organized the development of the Forbes Digital Plaza as part of an extended 25-year vision for Oakland.

This crisp new environment boosted Oakland into the third-largest commercial district in Pennsylvania, after Philadelphia and Downtown Pittsburgh — a statistic that has been cited by city officials in the past and was corroborated by Wilds and Winkler.

John Elavsky, owner of Oakland mainstay Hemingway’s Cafe, said he’s definitely felt the success of a cleaner, more economically boosted Oakland. He bought Hems in the mid-1990s, and it’s lasted from one Clinton in the White House to another running for the Oval Office.

A Pitt graduate who majored in biology, Elavsky said he sees “a different student [now] than [he saw in] the ’80s and ’90s.”

“Pitt’s tougher to get in [and] more expensive than it was years ago, and these kids aren’t here five, six years anymore, they’re out [of] here in four,” Elavsky said.

According to the Pitt Fact Book, the average SAT scores of new Panthers rose from 1110 to about 1280 from 1995 to 2016, while the first-year class sizes also consistently increased during those years, from 2,424 to 4,094.

The focus on academics has cut into Elavsky’s market. In the ’90s, he’d find the same students at his bar every night. Now, he expects familiar faces only three or four times a week. Add in competition from the newly revitalized North Side and South Side, and Oakland bars have found slimmer and slimmer margins.

“This was the place to be, but like everything else, times change and things change and you better adapt,” Elavsky said.

As he packs away 45 records at his shop at the bottom of Murray Avenue, Weber isn’t so sure that the trend of a changing Oakland has ever been upward.

“[Oakland is] no worse, but I don’t think it’s any better,” he said.

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