Situated between the city’s two largest parks and stabilized by a large, multi-generational population, Squirrel Hill has long been one of Pittsburgh’s most pleasant neighborhoods. Rich Feder, the urban planner who compiled the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition
’s master plan, says this tree-shaded locale has never needed an overhaul in the way other parts of the East End have, though the coalition seeks to tweak and preserve various aspects of it (and to mitigate the parking problem that has been an issue in Squirrel Hill since the advent of cars).
“Any plan for a city neighborhood needs to be built on its assets,” says Feder, “and for Squirrel Hill, we have had a lot to build on.”
The neighborhood, which has a population of 26,500, is known as a Jewish enclave, one of the largest in the Americas. This is evident in the three religious day schools, dozen or so synagogues, and kosher restaurant (the Milky Way) and the kosher options implemented at the neighborhood Dunkin’ Donuts.
The Jewish Community Center
is at the heart of Squirrel Hill (and gentiles are welcome to join and jump on a treadmill or sign up for an exercise class). But the place is diverse, says urban coalition President Raymond N. Baum, who points out that 18 percent of the population is Asian, mostly due to international recruitment by nearby universities. (Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Chatham are all a short bus ride away.)
“See the parents circled around Blue Slide Park and it‘s like the United Nations,” says Baum.
These aspects have offered a solid bedrock for small businesses in Squirrel Hill, says Baum. Almost all commerce hums along the avenues, Murray and Forbes, the two intersecting main veins of Squirrel Hill. Empty storefronts are nearly nonexistent (save for two structures whose unique dimensions have made them difficult to refill since both were vacated in 2009, the two-story former home of Barnes and a shuttered movie theater). Turnover is low and, when a business does evaporate, it is often due to a new generation not wanting to take over a family business (as happened with Squirrel Hill Hardware recently).
Squirrel Hill businesses still give off the feel of an older, small-city downtown. Residents have kept many changing areas of commerce within the neighborhood’s business sector. Not only have they seemingly refused to cede music and other media to the ’net, they also haven’t yet surrendered clothing and shoes to the mall.
Independent purveyors of fashion also include The Pussycat Unlimited
, a lingerie store in town since 1969; A Child’s Wardrobe and Adults Too, which sells gently used clothing in all age brackets, and Knit One
, which deals in raw materials for and the products of the suddenly chic handicraft hobby. Zipper Blues
features women’s casual chic, specializing in premium denim and vintage tees. More formal women’s wear can be found at Capriccio
, and men’s needs are cared for at Charles Spiegel
Forbes Avenue boasts Avalon Exchange
, a consignment-based used clothing store that is part of a small chain. Also, Little’s Shoes
has been outfitting the feet of Squirrel Hill residents for decades and its stock extends to dress, casual, athletic, and it also sells handbags, socks and luggage.
As for media, Jerry’s Records
has been listed in Rolling Stone and Paste magazines as one of the best record stores in the country and has over a million pieces of vinyl, plus eight-tracks, CDs and cassette tapes. The Exchange
sells new and used CDs, as well DVDs and video games. If your interactive entertainment tastes are more old-fashion, there is Games Unlimited
with its playing cards and board games, ranging from the common (Monopoly, Scramble, etc.) to the obscure (Road Kill Rally which allows you to vicariously run over people via model cars and a miniature green track). More fun can be found at S.W. Randall Toys and Gifts
, an independent toy store that has dolls, stuffed animals, action figures and hearty supply of Legos, as seen by the works of art made from the plastic bricks in its front window.
Other anchors of retail include Bike Tek Pittsburgh
, which has two floors dedicated to cycling; Alan’s Pets and Plants
, with its colorful murals and signature greenhouse, and Eyetique, whose be-specked models gaze over Murray Avenue like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby
Squirrel Hill has never lacked for restaurants. Formal and causal options and American and exotic ones dot the neighborhood. Some established eateries have tested their franchising potential or by opening an outpost in the neighborhood’s fertile ground. Cuzamil
, a Mexican joint, and Sree’s
, an Indian one, both had locations downtown before expanding to Murray Avenue.
Asian cuisine of all varieties, sustained in part by the population of international students, is definitely carving out a niche. Bangkok Balcony
, which recently recovered after a nearly decimating fire, is Squirrel Hill’s longstanding go-to for Thai food. The more upscale Silk Elephant
, one of the few certified Thai restaurants in town, offers superb Thai cuisine within the tapas/wine bar concept and more.
The Rose Tea Café is the destination for acclaimed Taiwanese dishes (particularly pan-friend noodles) and Cool Ice Taipei
specializes in the country’s flavored-ice-based desserts (and also has soups and entrees). The Green Pepper
is the destination for Korean food, and Sakura
has steak, sushi and all the other Japanese classics. Sree’s Foods and the newer Coriander
share the market for Indian. Zaw’s, China Star
and the New Dumpling House
are there for basic Chinese delivery, eat-in and takeout, while New How Lee gets a tad more upscale and adventurous.
Wherever there are families, there is an appetite for pizza and Squirrel Hill has several casual Italian joints. The oldest, Mineo’s
, with its companion ice cream shop, has been serving simple culinary pleasures since 1958. Aiello’s
arrived in 1978 and you can still see founder Giuseppe Aiello at work (often accompanied by his son, Michael). Napoli Pizza
is the newcomer, existing here for only
As for more basic American faire, Gulifty’s
, which has also been in business 30-plus years, has a range of options and is heralded for its desserts. The key lime pie and Oreo cheesecake are both highly recommended but you’ll want to come back to taste the range of them. Murray Avenue Grill
is dependable as a watering hole and has a menu stocked with chicken, seafood and steak dishes. Frank and George’s Four-Wood Grille
has also made an entry into the upscale pub food market.
Uncle Sam’s Sandwich Bar
, whose beefy subs are second only to Primanti’s in local allure, houses one of its four locations in Squirrel Hill. Pamela’s Diner
, in its quest for local ubiquity, has set up an outpost in Squirrel Hill (recently moving from Forbes Avenue to the site of a former Panera Bread on Murray). The neighborhood also boasts a link in Western Pennsylvania’s iconic diner chain, Eat ’N Park
Milky Way, mentioned above, serves the many Squirrel Hill residents following kosher diets. Salads, melts, sandwiches, hoagies and salads can be enjoyed by those with all kinds of dietary restrictions.
In addition to restaurants, Squirrel Hill has a few shops serving sweet treats. The Chocolate Moose
is a gourmet sweet shop with an international range of goodies. Allegro Hearth Bakery (which provides many gourmet restaurants and food stores with artisan bread) is an old-fashion bakery while Gluutenny
specializes in wheat-and-dairy-free products.
Lastly, one of the more recent interesting additions to Squirrel Hill is Waffallonia
, a simple shop serving Belgian waffles with a variety of toppings any time of day.
Bars and Coffee Shops
The ample foot traffic of students of the high school, undergrad and grad variety makes Squirrel Hill a haven for hang-out places. The 61C Café
, which shares a name with the Port Authority route that treks through the neighborhood, has existed since the coffee shop explosion of the early ’90s. Everything is good, though granola and smoothies are probably the two menu items the 61C provides better than anyone else.
Before expanding into four other neighborhoods, Coffee Tree Roasters
was founded in Squirrel Hill and has some of the best street side dining come warm weather. Tango Café
is an Argentinean-style coffee house with homemade sandwiches, pastries, coffee, tea and máte, not to mention Spanish conversation. Té Café
has found its niche with teas of every variety and regularly holds packed live music events. Commonplace Coffee Company
, whose original location still exists in Indiana, Penn., has a second store in Squirrel Hill. Local chain Crazy Mocha
did not miss out on setting up a neighborhood location and for the unadventurous, Starbucks has two neighborhood locations.
As for bars, Squirrel Hill is not Oakland (and most residents probably prefer it that way), despite its hearty student population. Still, it has Fanatics, a full-on sports bar, as well as Silky’s and the Squirrel Hill Café both of which have a more laidback feel.
For our money, one of the best businesses in Squirrel Hill is Goldenseal Natural Foods, which has a small selection of organic groceries and a staggering array of vitamins and supplements and natural beauty projects. The place smells like basil and lemongrass and the staff is exceedingly helpful in recommending alternative remedies for everything from lower back pain to insomnia.
The Manor Theatre
can claim to be a true community hub. The four-screen cinema has been showing films for more than 90 years and has a well-considered selection of drams and artsy films. The programmers taste in foreign films is particularly acute and now renovations are underway so a lobby bar will soon be featured, too.
Also for a night out, Bowling Forward Lanes
on Shady Avenue should not be overlooked.
Squirrel Hills finest assets may be its most permanent, the two parks. Frick Park
, bordering its eastern side, has 561 aces, includes tennis courts, an off-leash dog area and seemingly endless running/hiking trails. Rapper Mac Miller, a graduate of nearby Taylor Allderdice High School, pelted his 2011 album Blue Slide Park with an odd number of references to Frick.
The 300-acre Schenley
, on the eastern side, has 13 tennis courts, a running track, a soccer field, a swimming pool, a golf course and ample hills for sledding. The views from above and beneath the bridges running through it are enough to warrant a visit. Both are venerable, splendid and well-maintenance, much like Squirrel Hill itself.
Captions: Forbes and Murray; JCC; Avalon; Ritas; an ofrenda at Mexico Lindo; Acoustic Music Works; yerba mate at Tango Cafe; blue slide at Frick Park.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen