“Do not mess with the Strip.” For decades, that has been the policy of the mayor’s office when the success of Pittsburgh’s Strip District has been menaced, even by the city’s own planners.
Strong leadership is needed again. The current mayor must remove from consideration a recent proposal that would eliminate half of the parking along Penn Avenue in the Strip and replace it with a bike lane. Even the rumor of that plan hurts the Strip.
And he must quickly focus on the alternative bicycle route proposals that are reasonable and workable. Our friends and families and neighbors are on those bicycles, and it is our duty to make them safe. They are equal citizens in our city.
At stake are two important Pittsburgh qualities. One shows our willingness to welcome the future and another shows that we respect and value our past. And, in a city that works best when we give each other a little room, we can have both.
The Strip is a wholesale district that is enriched by retail shoppers. On weekends, it is packed with families taking an espresso, grabbing some lunch, searching for just-the-right cheese and olive oil.
Cars and delivery trucks jostle for position and slip into parking spaces as soon us one pops up, as pedestrians weave down crowded sidewalks. Shoppers drop their bags at their cars and head back for more.
By rough count, at least 20 nationalities operate businesses in the Strip. With food, spices, clothing and tchotchkes from everywhere, it is our international bazaar.
And it is Pittsburgh’s most reliable business incubator. The streets are lined with family businesses that started from scratch, like Café Raymond, La Prima Espresso, Enrico Biscotti, Colangelo’s, Pennsylvania Macaroni, DeLuca’s, Wholey’s, Parma Sausage, Hot Haute Hot and others.
As Jimmy Coen, the owner of Yinzers, says, “The Strip is the American dream.” Jimmy started selling T-shirts on the sidewalk and now has two stores in the Strip.
In the 1980s, the developers of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor proposed a similar festival market next to the Strip. Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri told them that the Strip is a real festival market, and he passed. He knew not to mess with the Strip.
In the 1990s, Mayor Sophie Masloff was urged by city planners to crack down on sidewalk vendors and food carts along Penn Avenue. She refused to disrupt that last piece of authentic Pittsburgh, because she knew not to mess with the Strip.
More recently, there was even a bone-headed proposal to put a bike lane in front of St. Stanislaus Church on 21st Street, shutting down weddings and funerals. The city withdrew that plan when a reporter inquired.
It is Mayor Bill Peduto’s turn to step up. This requires leadership. It is not enough to allow two groups of Pittsburghers to slug it out until they are both bitter and bloodied, the certain result of a failure to lead.
Strong leaders sometimes have to stop the wrong thing from happening. And anything that disrupts the sweet chaos of the Strip would be the wrong thing. If Downtown is the economic heart of Pittsburgh, the Strip District is Pittsburgh’s soul.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at [email protected]