The music of the street has Washington Road humming on a summer Friday afternoon. The greetings of business people, shop talk of retailers and clients, and chatter of friends and families meld into one good vibration.
A trio of teenage girls trips along, carrying a box fragrant with basil and tomato from A’Pizza Badamo and whispering secrets as though they are the most important thing in the world (which is true, in their world).
A young mom shares a café table at Uptown Coffee with her children and a friend as they appreciate good talk, blackberry muffins and this beautiful day.
A few doors up, passing pooches rate consideration, as a fresh bowl of water occupies a sidewalk spot, beside statuary and floral displays at Celtic Cross.
Across the street, a blonde woman sweeps the sidewalk by a bed of bright flowers. Her daughter emerges from Spots and Stripes children’s resale boutique and introduces herself as owner Eszter Jacobs. Soon, Dad appears and takes an unexpected photo of this wandering reporter.
We enjoy happy conversation, as it is explained that Eszter’s parents, Erzsebet Kiracy Szajkone and Jozsef Szajko, are here from Hungary, visiting their daughter and her business. Szajko proudly calls Eszter “a hard worker.” Still, she says “parents are always parents and want to help.”
Life is good on Main Street. It is natural to be proud of an Uptown that is not just “business as usual,” but one where shop owners take pride in serving baked goods warm, keeping flowers watered and sweeping sidewalks clean.
The road’s appeal to families is apparent, as people of all generations enjoy each other and check out varied merchandise. Some visit their doctors and dentists in the same Uptown where they walk to church and their children attend preschool, Washington or Mellon.
Kerry Plesco explains the lure of a community with a central business district well, as she sips iced tea outside Uptown Coffee and bounces baby Georgia on her knee while son, Colin, 9, munches a cookie. “We live on Macarthur Drive and just moved to a larger home in that area. Although we needed more space, we didn’t want to sacrifice Uptown’s friendly atmosphere, where we can walk, socialize and have a snack.”
For Cynthia Bognar, whose family owns the 731-733 Washington Road building, Uptown is as a place of business, but as she sits on a bench chatting with Larry Alberta, proprietor of Alberta Modern Hair in the building, it is clear that business and pleasure are compatible here.
A Sunday trip back to main street finds the restaurants filled with congenial people enjoying brunch or lunch and camaraderie. One group describes their get-together as the “sisters’ reunion,” bringing scattered siblings together to catch up on each others’ lives. It is a compliment to the local scene that Sue Smith from Connecticut, Colleen Joyce of Shadyside and Barbara Fisher of Crescent Drive have chosen Bistro 19 for their visit’s final brunch. Both the food and the street-side view are conducive to the day’s festive mood, they say, although they regret that their fourth sister, Pat, from Indianapolis, could not join them, as she usually does.
Fisher is not only a Mt. Lebanon resident but a realtor at Howard Hanna’s Washington Road office, making Uptown her hub of activity. She says that she and husband, Bruce, enjoy off-hours here, too, dining, shopping, or walking their red poodle, Maggie, who loves people, and sees herself as unofficial town mascot.
The Fishers raised their three now-adult children here, so Barb has well-established insights on town attributes. “I can’t say enough about Mt. Lebanon as a walking community,” she says. “Washington Road offers a real destination, as you head for coffee or a snack. Activity centers like tennis courts and sports stadium, enhance the sense of community. Other towns have other things, but, if this [sense of community] is important to a family, Mt. Lebanon is the place.”
Historically, Main Street camaraderie was central to American towns. Early miners first took solace in others’ company, as they folded hands in meeting house prayer or bent elbows in sociable saloons. As towns grew, schools and shops strengthened main street as a hub of activity.
With Washington Road still healthy, it is hard to believe that many small towns in our region and around the country now face the demise of main street. The “malling of America” and the proliferation of chain stores have been draining business from main streets for decades, and suburban sprawl means that often, traditional town centers must be reached via highway exits. Happily, our trips Uptown are a short jaunt or drive to familiar blocks, where shopkeepers greet you by name.
Even so it is no accident that Mt. Lebanon’s Uptown has survived and continues to thrive as new retail stores and restaurants join the mix and we await the opening of a SpringHill Suites by Marriott hotel. Mt. Lebanon’s commission has made our central business district a priority for many years, We have had a full-time commercial districts manager since 2003; we have an appointed economic development council and the Mt. Lebanon Partnership, a nonprofit economic development corporation dedicated to boosting uptown. We have implemented most aspects of the 1994 Chan Krieger strategic plan for Washington Road, and we currently are embarking on an update of our comprehensive plan, which will focus in large part on economic development.
Commercial Districts Manager Eric Milliron, who as part of his job recruits and works with new businesses, confirms that in today’s market, Uptown has cachet. “We are on the short list of towns blessed with a functioning main street that isn’t pre-fab, but represents a local mix of shops and food services, he says.”Fortunately, we have never lost the idea of the original American main street. People crave this experience of belonging to something bigger than themselves with a sense of community.”
Milliron divides his attention between varied projects. One day, he might confer with the economic development council on a major issue like transit oriented development. Another day, he might talk with the Mt. Lebanon Partnership about real estate—from acquiring a property to obtaining renovation grants. And a lighter but vital side of Milliron’s work includes promotional events such as ULTRAparty, the summer street fair; the Uptown Farmers Market and helping the partnership plan Plein Air Mt. Lebanon, an exhibition of outdoor painting that will bring professional artists from all over the place to paint and sell their work the first week in October.
Milliron views the message of the colorful Uptown banners—“Shop Local”—as key to our thriving shopping district.
Programs and activities sponsored by the municipality play a large part in Uptown’s vitality and help draw people not just from Mt. Lebanon but from all over Pittsburgh, as a typical day on the patio at Il Pizzaiolo illustrates. A table of five who have just come from the library’s Italian conversation group shares a laugh while awaiting lunch. All are South Hills residents, but only one is from Mt. Lebanon. Nearby, Susan Simon of Parker Drive, a physical therapist, and Nancy Junker of Shady Lane, the writing clinician at Mellon Middle School, enjoy the flower-filled patio, as servers hoist trays of aromatic Italian-American dishes. Junker says mtl magazine has been helpful during the 10 years Mellon has served as a site for the Young Writers Institute sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project. The summer creative writing workshop for grades four to eight lets students experience different writing situations, including, literally, writing their way around the municipality. With cooperation of employees and help from mtl, the budding writers talked to firefighters and policeman, wrote in the commissioners’ room, and toured facilities at the ice skating rink and pool, among other venues.
The young writers project exemplifies the idea that a sense of community starts with a strong center and works its way out to reach everyone in town.