Monday, September 7, 2009

Squirrel Hill vs. Hyde Park

posted by Richard Gill

General street scene at Forbes & Murray
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The June 29, 2009, post in Hyde Park Progress took a look at Ann Arbor, Michigan with regard to the retail/commercial scene that serves the University of Michigan and neighboring area, and compared it with the University of Chicago/Hyde Park situation. Another place to look is the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. There’s an east-west strip of Forbes Ave. between Murray and Shady Ave., and an abutting strip of Murray Ave., south of Forbes. The area is a few blocks east of the Carnegie-Mellon/University of Pittsburgh complex. In what follows, I look at Forbes/Murray in relation to Hyde Park’s 53rd Street. I base this solely on visits to Pittsburgh over the past few weeks.

There are differences in the two settings. Forbes/Murray is wholly commercial, while 53rd is primarily commercial, with some residential property and a park. Forbes/Murray has several city bus routes, while 53rd has none. Package alcohol sales in Pittsburgh are restricted to “official” wine & spirits stores, while Chicago has no such restriction; and Squirrel Hill appears to be less diverse than Hyde Park.

However, there is enough similarity between Forbes/Murray and 53rd Street to draw some comparisons. Both are roughly the same distance from campus; both commercial strips are about a half mile long; both are in the middle of large old cities; both have wide sidewalks, two driving lanes, two metered parking lanes, and a shortage of parking; buildings are predominantly older two/three story structures.

General street scene on Forbes between Murray and Shady

The most striking difference is the level of store occupancy and activity. Even during the summer school break, Forbes/Murray bursts with life. I noticed no vacant storefronts. During good weather, the wide sidewalks on Forbes are dotted with outdoor cafĂ© seating and store merchandise. Forbes/Murray is a magnet, drawing people of all ages from other areas, while 53rd is just there. It is almost impossible to imagine the Pittsburgh neighborhood tolerating the kind of interference and obstructionism that has stifled commercial life on 53rd Street. [Yeah, yeah, I know many people will take issue with my use of “interference and obstructionism.” I don’t care; that’s what it has been.]

At this point, there is no alternative but to proceed with the planning efforts regarding 53rd Street, including Harper Court. But look how long they are taking, with years yet to go before any construction will be completed. I don’t disagree with planning, but 53rd Street is wallowing in it. Some of it has been a delaying tactic by locals. While 53rd Street languishes -- to the delight of those who have stifled things in the name of preventing “congestion” or “density” or whatever -- Forbes/Murray thrives and is a true asset to the neighborhood, the universities, and the city of Pittsburgh.

Cars and buses mix comfortably on Forbes Avenue

Speaking of “congestion,” most the arguments bemoaning it on commercial streets are baloney. There can’t be stores and restaurants without people, and there won’t be people without good auto access. That’s just the way it is. Forbes/Murray has some congestion, and it is good. The streets aren’t choked with traffic, but they are full of cars and buses. Traffic doesn’t make the streets any more dangerous than, say, the present 53rd or 57th Streets. Yes, traffic moves a bit more slowly if there’s a lot of it, but that’s safer for pedestrians crossing the street. With signals and stop signs, people readily make the crossings.

On Forbes, there are mid-block pedestrian crossings, marked and signed. Further, traffic signal cycles have three phases: (1) north-south vehicles (no pedestrians), (2) east-west vehicles (no pedestrians), (3) pedestrians only. Phases 1 and 2 eliminate pedestrian-caused delays to turning vehicles. Phase 3 enables pedestrians to cross diagonally, allowing cater-corner crossings in a single move. It really works, and drivers in Pittsburgh are no more polite than those in Chicago. So Forbes/Murray attracts people, while we have 57th Street that you can’t get to, and 53rd that has insufficient reason to get to.

All-directional crosswalk at Forbes & Murray

Sure, the slow economy contributes to 53rd Street’s lethargy, but it’s not the cause. Maybe I’m being a bit simplistic and bombastic in this essay, but dontcha' get tired of other places having nice stuff, while we Hyde Park slog through molasses? When all the planning and fiddling is done, the result won’t be materially better than a more streamlined process founded on good zoning instead of micromanagement would have already produced.


jw said...

My feeling is that a Coldstone Creamery is a blight on any street, but I would love to see 53rd begin to look a lot like the Southport corridor.

edj said...

I disagree. I would welcome a Coldstone Creamery. It would be a nice place to get ice cream. Right now, our only option is Medici, and I'm boycotting that place.

Heck, I'd love a Gap there.

I still think one of the boggest problems is that Hyde Parkers have never seen themselves as part of the south side. Now, most go to the south loop to shop, or Bridgeport and othe neighborhoods, but do south loopers come here? There's nothing for them here, so why bother? I think that's one of the reasons we don't have retail.

As I said before, when I lived in Uptown, I went all over the north side to shop and do things, as did other northsiders. Each neighborhood had something that attracted people to each other's neighborhoods.

But we have that "Do Not Enter" mentality here as evidenced with that sign at the 57th Street "entrance" to Hyde Park.

mchinand said...

I think Coldstone would be great too. Almost anything that increases Hyde Park's (retailer+restaurant) to (bank+cellphone shop) ratio would good for HP.

LPB said...

I love the idea of a dedicated pedestrian-only crossing signal. That's a great idea which would be particularly handy for some of those 6-way intersections we seen in Chicago up Clybourn, Elston, Lincoln, Milwaukee, etc.

Richard -- thank you for sharing your take on Squirrel Hill. I have no idea when we'll have any opportunity to check out Pittsburgh, but it's nice to hear that this area exists there.

As for a Coldstone Creamery, even though the workers scare me every time they break out into song, it's better than a vacant storefront.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I don't get it, JW. What's wrong with Coldstone Creamery?

Anonymous said...

Coldstone is good, pure evil but good. It would be nice to have Oberweis instead... at least they're local.

Richard Gill said...

Hyde Park might boycott Oberweis because of his conservativism.

Re the intersection walk pattern, I've only seen it in one other city–-Denver many years ago, where it was called "the scramble." At Forbes & Murray in Pittsburgh, the first time I crossed diagonally, I felt like I was walking off a cliff. But then I saw lots of other people doing it.

edj said...

I had a friend tell me last night as we were discussing this on the way to the Sox game that he would buy Oberweis all the time to encourage him to keep running and losing every election.

susan said...

Public transportation is atrocious in Pittsburgh, so Hyde Park comes out even worse when its advantage in that area is taken into account.

Benoit said...

I moved from squill, as it's known there, to Hyde Park (with a year downtown Chicago in between). My initial impression from when I first got here was that indeed, the two neighbourhoods are vaguely similar.

Three nits: first, there is in fact residential space above and behind the shops.

Second: "a few blocks" is about a mile or two. It's a 10-minute bus ride, and there are about 12 buses per hour. Which of course means you wait 15 minutes for the three-bus convoy (I always walked). Squill residents are largely faculty, graduate students, young professionals, and hasidim. The undergrads live in Oakland, on or close to the campuses.

Third: I'm curious what your definition of "diverse" is -- there are fewer blacks there, but fewer hasidim here. There are similarly dizzying arrays of languages spoken in both places.

Forbes and Murray sees shops come and go constantly. A gas station closed shop, and a big retail/office building went up. The Coldstone replaced a travel agent (confusing everyone, given there's a Baskin Robbins, a Ben and Jerry's, and a local joint on the same block of Forbes). Last I visited (in April), the Tango Cafe at the bottom of Murray was still fighting eviction, and the independent movie theatre next to it had an uncertain future (not to worry, there's another screen at the top of the hill).

In general, I'd take squill over Hyde Park any day, with one exception: there's no coffee nearly as good as Istria there.

Benoit said...

Oh, and Squirrel Hill has metal street cleaning signs.

Richard Gill said...

As I said in my post, my observations of Forbes/Murray are based on limited visits, so I appreciate Benoit's comments. Yes, my observation about diversity was with regard to race, not ethnicity.

I think, in almost any commercial strip, stores will come and go; I don't think that's bad. At least in "squill" (I'll have to remember that one) they come and go. On 53rd Street, they mostly seem to go. Also, given the greater distance from the campuses, the Forbes/Murray level of activity is even more remarkable. I wish Hyde Park could have a place for pancakes like Pamela's restaurant on Forbes.

Re Susan's comment about poor public transportation in Pittsburgh - the Port Authority buses seem to concentrate on main corridors, with thin service into the neighborhoods. Some of that may be due to the mountainous terrain and tortuous streets. Pittsburgh has only a skeletal light rail system, but has invested heavily in "Bus Rapid Transit" with certain roads built and reserved exclusively for buses. I like the one-seat express bus ride between the Oakland neighborhood and the airport for $2.60 (free with a Medicare card). And Pittsburgh has the two incline railroads - obviously not needed in Chicago.

Taxi service in Pittsburgh isn't particularly easy to get. Cabs do not cruise, and taxi stands don't seem to exist, except at the airport. Generally you have to phone for a cab.

Pittsburghese: The verb "to be" is relatively rare in Pittsburgh. As in, "Sorry, I can't bring you a beer, because the tap needs fixed."

Christian said...

I, too, grew up near Squirrel Hill and still occasionally visit. Benoit is right (I noticed this, too)--the nearest college is Chatham, which is about the same distance as UC. Carnegie Tech and U-Pgh are quite a distance in the Oakland neighborhood. So, the comparison doesn't hold. You'll have to find another excuse to bash on poor old Hyde Park and its hordes of NIMBYs.

Another thing about S.H. that makes it very different is that it has always been a very tight, Jewish neighborhood. I think that is the main explanation of its vitality: a cohesive community that strolls and shops locally. After I left Pgh, they built a huge, new Jewish Community Center right at Forbes and Murray (displacing a gas station).

A more interesting comparison might be 53rd St and (my home) 57th St. The latter is in fact close to the university, and (consequently?) more vibrant. Perhaps the solution would be to try to undo the damage that was done to 55th St during the 1960s and make it a commercial district again...

Benoit said...

Turnover is emphatically a good thing. Good places stay (the 61c cafe has been there more than a decade, the shoe store for generations). Marginal places go away (Zyng's lasted only a year, the photo shop lost out to digital), and get replaced with new attempts (the cupcakes shop, the gluten-free bakery, that massage shop you pictured). New construction happens, one building at a time.

Probably a slightly closer Pittsburgh analogue of Hyde Park is the neighbourhood of Shadyside, at the bottom of the hill. It's close enough that you get a mix of super-rich mansion dwellers, yuppies, undergrads, faculty, and random others. It's next to a couple of poor (and black) neighbourhoods, with petty crime leaking one direction and gentrification flowing the other way. It has a Gap / Apple commercial strip on Walnut, and a more boutique commercial strip on Ellsworth and Highland.

It also has metal street cleaning signs.

Richard Gill said...

Maybe I was off with regard to distance from campus, Christian, but university students are one factor, not THE factor. More to the point are our Hyde Park NIMBYs (also see Chicago Pop's post of September 10, 2009). Without the NIMBY NIMBYism, there could be incentive to stroll and shop in the neighborhood. One doesn't need an excuse to bash the NIMBYs; there a real reason to do so.

jw said...

I am a NIMBY. Because of mybackground--I don't want to see a single chain restaurant in my backyard or on my main drag. I don't miss where I came from and, if I ever did, it would be easily found everywhere else. I want a real bar, for chrissakes, and someday I want to look a visitor in the eye when I recommend a restaurant.

I don't want a bunch of sullen people in visors singing "The Farmer in the Dell" while they chop my ice cream up. I just don't.

Chris said...

Just a small quibble. I've lived in Squirrel Hill for about 15 years, my wife grew up here, and we've never heard anybody call it "squill". It does not have an abbreviation, not even "The Hill", which is reserved for the Hill District, adjacent to Downtown.