For almost five decades, the once-elegant East Ohio Street has bowed to the forces of low expectation. Despite many respectable businesses, momentum has been on the side of check-cashing services, daytime barflies, skulking hookers, drug dealers, panhandlers, loiterers, weedy, littered lots and vacant storefronts.Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Darrin McMillen, center, manages the just-opened Priory Fine Pastries, owned by Mary Ann and Ed Graf, who formerly owned the Priory Inn, also on the North Side.
Click photo for larger image.
The North Side's main thoroughfare was starving for some good news when Ed and Mary Ann Graf supplied it late last month -- with sugar on top.
Priory Fine Pastries opened Oct. 22 at 528 E. Ohio St. in what had been a vacant Rent-a-Center. It is named for the Priory Inn, which the Grafs opened in a former parsonage on nearby Pressley Street in 1986.
Master baker Darrin McMillen, the store manager, said he wants the Priory bakery to be "a destination for cookies." The large variety of cookies share display cases with European-style tortes, cinnamon rolls, fruit pies and cream pies, birthday cakes, cheese cakes, coffee cakes, cream horns and muffins. The shop will sell La Prima coffee and BreadWorks bread.
McMillen, a 1985 graduate of Connellsville Area High School, began his baking career for Giant Food Stores Inc. in Harrisburg. He has more recently been a production manager for the local Loafers Bread Co.
The pastry shop would hold promise as a gathering place, but seating is restricted because there is no handicapped-accessible bathroom. The Grafs say they are hoping to get a variance to add a few tables and chairs eventually.
The mood on East Ohio had lifted visibly even before the bakery doors opened. By the dozens, people wandered in ahead of opening day, asking "When?" and gushing, "This is great!" They lingered to dwell on the pastry cases and well-lighted pale peach walls as if by a miracle the shop had landed there. It was by anything but.
The Grafs spent a year hurdling obstacles -- codes, rules, denials and do-overs -- to make the pastry shop part of a broader plan for the street's future. Ed Graf, the grandson of a Swiss-born Troy Hill dairy man, had joined a development team to target vacant store fronts on East Ohio last year when he became part of the solution.
The Grafs bought the stately light brown, brick four-story, invested more than half a million dollars in state-of-the-art equipment and renovations, including historic tin ceilings, and created upscale apartments in the three upper floors.
"We saw the upsurge of home ownership in the neighborhood, with more to come in the Heinz lofts," Graf said. "We established a list of businesses we'd like to see locate here."
The list includes a delicatessen, a butcher shop, a white tablecloth restaurant, a candy store, a bookstore and a restoration-products store. These would fill in the spaces among the current shops, including several bar-restaurants, quick-food stores, a hardware store, pawn shop, paint store, flower shop, record store, jeweler and pharmacy.
At the bakery's pre-opening party, the neighborhood's morale corps turned out for champagne, cookies and salutes to the Grafs for their vision and perseverance.
"Isn't this great?" said Betty Schwarz of Spring Garden. "Now I don't have to go to Shadyside."
"There are some of us left who still believe there's a lot in old Allegheny City to offer people," said Mary Wohleber, a lifelong North Sider and Troy Hill historian. Her 88th birthday coincided with the champagne party, and master baker McMillen presented a cake. The revelers, elbow-to-elbow, burst out in "Happy Birthday," after which several older men continued with a verse in German, once the first language of East Allegheny.
Devastated decades ago when construction of highways for the northern suburbs butchered and eliminated huge chunks of the North Side, the neighborhood also lost more than half the main business corridor. East Ohio Street was once packed with commerce all the way to Federal Street, where the Commons began. Efforts to save the inner city in the '60s borrowed suburban sensibilities. Beautiful architecture was destroyed for high-rise apartments and an indoor mall that never spoke to urbanites; Allegheny Center Mall is now an office building.
"I hate shopping centers," said Mary Ann Graf. "I like being able to go from store to store along a sidewalk."
Debbie McClain of the Northside Leadership Conference said the most recent focus on East Ohio brought survey groups among the North Side's large employers and neighborhood councils into the planning: "Everybody is clamoring for a business district," she said. "We asked people what would have to happen to get you to shop there, spend lunch time, stay after work."
The conference hired Steve Greenberg, who led the Pittsburgh Pirates' vision for PNC Park and the commercial opportunities around it, as a consultant.
"I think with the pastry shop we finally broke the ice and can really move forward from here," Greenberg said. The "ice" -- that old Pittsburgh resistance to change -- "has made it a real challenge."
But in less than a year, he said, "we have sold 401 East Ohio, the old Community Savings building. Carlisle's [the bridal shop that moved recently to the Strip after 115 years on East Ohio] has been sold, and we're working with the developer to create lofts and provide a retail tenant." Two law offices are considering relocating to the street, he said.
"When I brought people over to show them properties, they really started to see the benefits of the location. There's an incredible amount of potential in that neighborhood, maybe more so than other neighborhoods because of the significant residential area, some affluence, lots of employers," proximity to Downtown and numerous tourist attractions.
Among the hopeful neighbors, other East Ohio Street merchants are perhaps the most enthused.
"Some of our customers brought some cookies over to me" just before the bakery opened, said Rick Whitfield, assistant manager at Bernie's Photo Center across the street. "Some kind of thumb-print chocolate ... a Danish chocolate ... kind of a dark chocolate. Umm, and I think it had almonds. Oh my gosh, they were so good."
Former city councilwoman Barbara Burns opened Sweet Time Cafe and General Store four years ago on East Ohio. It is also a U.S. postal facility, and she owns the adjacent store front, where her renovations are on hold: "I'm waiting for the street to improve a bit," she said. "But I'm encouraged by what the Grafs are doing. It makes me increasingly confident and interested."
"We all feel encouraged," said Bob Ludwig, whose family's flower shop has been on the street for almost 50 years. "It's European, first-class, and even the visual of it gives you hope that things are going to turn around."
Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 11, 2004) Food -- In a story about a new pastry shop on East Ohio Street, North Side, the caption with the photograph accompanying the story incorrectly identified Mary Ann and Ed Graf as owners of the Priory Inn. They are the former owners.