Businesses booming in Pittsburgh's Polish Hill

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Two months ago, Polish Hill had five businesses you could walk into to buy something, most likely beer.

Now it has nine.

And the new ventures on the block are broadening this city neighborhood's little retail district.

Alfred's Deli and the bars Sarney's, Gooski's, the Rock Room and Donny's Place now have the company of The Urban Gypsy -- Paulette Still-Khouri's vintage, handmade and floral goods shop on Brereton Street -- and three businesses that opened this month at the corner of Dobson and Hancock streets.

"Isn't it amazing?" said Susan Constanse, whose title at the Polish Hill Civic Association is "staffski." "We're really tickled."

Lili Coffee Shop and Mind Cure Records opened last week in a building that Mark Knobil and Catherine McConnell bought two years ago and renovated. Bill Boichel opened his doors a week earlier on the third floor. His Copacetic Comics had outgrown its former space in Squirrel Hill.

Ms. McConnell said the original plan was to find a retail interest for the street level and renovate the rest into apartments. But the sprinkler system that's required for apartments was $50,000.

"So it had to be retail, and I thought, 'Who on earth will locate a retail business on a third floor in Polish Hill?' " said Ms. McConnell. "It just worked out in a way we never dreamed."

Collectors of comics and old records are exactly the type of people who will bother to climb stairs. Collectors have already been arriving.

Jeffrey Alexander, a record collector who owns the Morning Glory Cafe in Morningside, was flipping through the bins recently at Mind Cure Records. He worked in record stores for 20 years, he said, "and this collection seems to have been selected for [good] condition and rarity, also musically, though I know that is subjective."

Mr. Knobil said three businesses on one corner is a start in returning the neighborhood back to people who want destinations they can walk to from home.

"One of our biggest problems is absentee landlords," he said, "and this building had been substandard apartments" before being boarded up. "We didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands."

The convergence of all the parties at 3138 Dobson St. -- a long-ago butcher shop -- might have begun when Ms. McConnell finally decided to find out who lived in the house with the cool fence.

She and Mr. Knobil moved to Polish Hill eight years ago. Rob Levkulich bought his house four years ago and was in the yard behind the corrugated metal and redwood fence when she pulled over and introduced herself.

Some time later, they were both at a meeting of the Polish Hill Civic Association and talk turned to the building Ms. McConnell and Mr. Knobil had just bought. Mr. Levkulich let them know he wanted to open a coffee shop.

Michael Seamans, who has lived in Polish Hill off and on for eight years, had wanted to buy the building himself at one point. He let the new owners know he wanted to start his own record store there. He had worked for eight-plus years at Paul's CDs in Bloomfield.

For the unclaimed third floor, he suggested his friend, the comic book merchant.

Renovations started at the end of 2008 and had decades of building code improvements to scale. A structural engineer had to make sure the second-floor vinyl wouldn't be too heavy. Mr. Knobil and Ms. McConnell tore out the plywood and stingy '70s windows and installed big windows onto the street.

Mr. Levkulich exposed the brick behind the plaster and finished the wood flooring. The original stamped tin ceiling that was black is now white. Polish Hill artists even have their work displayed in the coffee shop.

At The Urban Gypsy, too, Ms. Still-Khouri displays the work of Polish Hill artists, including greeting cards and soaps. She collected all of her wares from local places, including a 1912 display case from Horne's and a couch from the William Penn Hotel.

"This neighborhood is my investment," said Ms. Still-Khouri, who bought an old home in Polish Hill 12 years ago. To open her shop she left a job in corporate finance. "I had this concept for a long time. This is just some of the stuff I have" as a collector of vintage furnishings and accoutrements, including old hats and jewelry. She also sells handmade items and flowers.

During a traffic jam outside the shop one day, she passed out flowers to stopped cars.

The synergy of this retail boomlet echoes an energy Polish Hill has been gaining.

"Something's happening here," said Carrie DiFiore, Mr. Levkulich's partner. "The neighborhood has a lot of interesting people and a real mix -- people who have lived here their entire lives and young people moving in and a layering of artists. People seem to be excited. Business has been steady."

The coffee shop benefits from record and comic book collectors but also from traffic that short-cuts through Polish Hill to get Downtown from Oakland and points east.

The owners and tenants say they think the convergence of the three businesses in one spot will be a notable business model.

If David Grim of Sharpsburg is typical, they're on to something.

Working on his laptop at one of the tables at Lili recently, he said he's a friend of Mr. Levkulich's, a longtime patron at Copacetic Comics, "and I love records. This is a cultural center when you come right down to it."


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at blogs.sites.post-gazette.com.


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