Allentown stays soulful as businesses flourish

The interior of the Black Forge Coffee House. (Photo by Issi Glatts | Assistant Visual Editor)

Craig Bittner walked into the dimly lit Black Forge Coffee House on Arlington Avenue one breezy Saturday morning in March, past the walls covered in local art for sale and a large chalkboard calendar of local events.

He cheerfully greeted the barista and ordered a “cold bro.”

Bittner, a 24-year-old Pitt alum who has lived in Allentown for two years after graduating in 2016, means a cold brew coffee, which he said “doesn’t get any better” than at Black Forge. Nick Miller, co-owner of the heavy-metal themed coffee shop, knows exactly what Bittner means, because like many Allentown residents, Bittner is a regular customer, frequenting the coffee house multiple times per week.

Along with their daily dose of caffeine, customers can also enjoy some live entertainment at Black Forge — the 50 spectator venue hosts everything from rock bands to drag shows to painting classes.

Miller said one of Black Forge’s purposes is “gaining awareness for a neighborhood in Pittsburgh that most people don’t know exists.” People often mistake Allentown for part of Mt. Oliver or Beltzhoover, so the coffee shop, which will be 3 years old in August, brings people to an area they don’t know about.

The neighborhood is not far south from Downtown and encompasses less than one square mile. Its business district only stretches four blocks, and the storefronts look a bit rundown, with cracked sidewalks leading up to them. But it’s what’s inside the buildings that counts.

One of Allentown’s most notable destinations is Alla Famiglia, an upscale Italian restaurant that has graced Pittsburgh’s hilltop since 1997. While the eatery has positive reviews — a 4.5 star rating out of five on Yelp — indulging in a bottle of wine with dinner may set you back a month’s rent, with prices ranging from $50 to $1,500 per bottle.

As you travel down East Warrington Avenue, where Alla Famiglia is located, you’ll notice a set of T tracks, though the brown line that ran on them has been decommissioned since 2011 and is now only used during emergencies or closures of the Mt. Washington Transit Tunnel. So if you want to take public transportation to Allentown, your best bet is the 54C bus.

Framing East Warrington are local businesses that attract more than just Allentown residents. Michelle Moeller, owner of Breakfast at Shelly’s on East Warrington, mentioned that people from as far as Cranberry stop by to enjoy her diner’s breakfast burritos — Bittner’s personal recommendation — and French toast roll-ups.

Moeller’s mother also owns a Pittsburgh diner — O’Leary’s Restaurant on East Carson Street — and she said her mother has experienced multiple forced break-ins, including bricks through the windows. But in Allentown, Moeller hasn’t had that problem, contrary to the neighborhood’s stereotype.

“People asked me, ‘Why’d you open up in the hood?’” Moeller said.

Decorations in the Weeping Glass speciality shop. (Photo by Issi Glatts | Assistant Visual Editor)

But the 35-year-old Mt. Oliver native never thought of Allentown that way. To her, it’s all about the community. Shelly’s has its fair share of regulars — “Michael, you like mayo, right?” a waitress calls from the counter — as it provides a homey atmosphere away from the hustle and bustle of South Side and Downtown.

Next to the retro-themed Shelly’s is Work Hard Pittsburgh, a self-described “cooperatively organized business incubator.” This space provides communal resources and opportunities for both freelancers and developing entrepreneurs who live in Allentown and those who don’t, to connect with partners. Neighboring the incubator is PublicSource, a non-profit news outlet with reporters visible through the bay window looking out over East Warrington.

“[Allentown is] big enough that there’s a mix of people,” Bittner said.

In the 2010 census, Pittsburgh as a whole only had a 35.2 percent non-white population, but Allentown is hovering around a 49 percent non-white population, according to areavibes.

In tune with the heavy metal aesthetic of other businesses, The Weeping Glass specialty shop offers tarot readings as well as “antiques, oddities and odd art,” like the variety of bones littering the store’s shelves or the coffin nails that come in small, medium and large.

Weeping Glass employee Nick Noir said that the opening of businesses like The Weeping Glass and Onion Maiden, a heavy-metal themed vegan restaurant also on East Warrington, is to help “grow a new area that is more alternative and darker than [a neighborhood like] Lawrenceville.”

“In two years, a lot more people will be coming to Allentown for business,” he said.

In fact, the Hilltop Alliance, a group of organizations that preserve and improve the hilltop community, is making a $1.5 million investment into the neighborhood from 2014 to 2020. The investment is in conjunction with the Allentown Community Development Corporation and specifically supports the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development’s Neighborhood Partnership Program’s goal of revitalizing East Warrington Avenue.

While Allentown already has some popular staples in Alla Famiglia, Shelly’s and Black Forge, Bittner thinks its collection of businesses could use some bolstering.

“The diversity of business hasn’t stuck yet,” he said. Bittner points out Allentown has a “lack of destinations.” Some things it’s missing to pull it together as a more attractive place to live are a grocery store, a bar and a public space like a park or similar outdoor area.

While Allentown has the potential to become the next East Liberty — the Pittsburgh neighborhood often cited in discussions about gentrification and a lack of affordable housing — due to its business growth, owners like Moeller and Miller don’t want it to be. It’s is not the new Lawrenceville, it’s just Allentown.

“You don’t get to be a part of a ‘neighborhood’ in Pittsburgh like you do here,” Bittner said.

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