Walkabout: Holiday arts market helps renewal effort on East Ohio Street

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Of all the commercial corridors that have not quite taken off, East Ohio Street in the North Side's Deutschtown baffles me the most.

The Victorian architecture is stunning and could be beautiful again with a little love. There are a number of universally appealing businesses but not enough to make it fully healthy.

The challenge could be the retail district's three-block brevity. But its location right up against Interstate 279 could be seen as a plus.

The Northside Leadership Conference, the Historic Deutschtown Development Corp., the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Allegheny Center Alliance Church all have been trying to move it toward a tipping point by investing in businesses. The latest -- the New Allegheny Market House -- just opened for the holidays in the former Wheeler's Paint store at 502 E. Ohio with a "biz buzz" grant of $7,000 from the URA.

The leadership conference and the Deutschtown nonprofit partnered to buy the property last year but had not found an appropriate tenant when the concept of an artists' marketplace presented itself.

"I was receiving calls from artists asking about space to sell their wares," said Emily Honhart, the leadership conference's business development director. "There's a real need for that."

The building is about 3,000 square feet. A dozen arts and crafts makers will sell their work through Dec. 28 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays.

Most of the vendors are North Side residents whose work features jewelry, accessories, photography, decor items and vintage goods, including clothing.

Renay Warren's jewelry business, Sircles, is one. She sells her work to other stores and on commission. A Troy Hill resident, she said she is "excited about the possibilities" of the market house.

"It can be either one storefront or three," said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference. "There are three separate bays. We're willing to be patient to get the right thing for the district. We don't need another crummy convenience store."

Mr. Fatla is not baffled that the retail corridor has not taken off. He cites competition from stores Downtown and on McKnight Road and not enough public money to support development.

A number of vacant storefronts represent "a generational changeover," he said. "We have a lot of old businesses that are coming to an end. Natural vacancies present an opportunity to recruit new businesses that are providing better goods and services."

Ten years ago the street had three pawn shops. It is down to one. To discourage payday lenders, the Allegheny Center Alliance Church opened Grace Period to offer free loans of up to $500.

The Historic Deutschtown nonprofit owns several buildings on East Ohio, as does the URA. Mr. Fatla said a request for proposals will be issued early in 2014 for redevelopment of three of them.

By its name, the New Allegheny Market House recognizes what we have lost and what so many people want back. All the efforts to re-create market houses, from the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip to the numerous pop-up ventures that include the one on East Ohio, lack the thing that make the old-world market houses so compelling: real need.

They predated supermarkets.

The original Allegheny Market House, built during the Civil War, was demolished in 1966 in one of the great architectural crimes of the 20th century, which was further exacerbated by the construction of Allegheny Center Mall. During its heyday, East Ohio Street was a teeming commercial corridor that was several blocks longer.

Local architect Gerald Morosco described the old market house as "a curiously beautiful architectural confection -- Romanesque being the essential ingredient -- but sweetened with curvaceous gestures along the roofline that offered hints of the Baroque with a regular sprinkling of a vaguely Asian influence at the decorative terminals on the cupolas. Taken all together, the composition was quite befitting a public food emporium at the town center from an era in which such buildings were celebrated in contrast to the banal boxes which enclose our 'supermarkets' of today."

Alas, it is never to be replicated. But the trend back to trying something like it is an encouraging one.

For more information on the New Allegheny Market House, visit www.newalleghenymarkethouse.com.


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

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