Introducing Urban Connectivity: Pittsburgh's Strip District

December 12, 2006 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The Strip District - it sounds like a red light district but it is really a region of Pittsburgh, PA known for its wholesalers, restaurants and funky shops. The Strip is a favorite weekend destination for Pittsburghers and is a must-see for out-of-town visitors.Traditionally, the Strip District -- a flat strip of land on the south shore of the Allegheny River, just east of Downtown -- was filled with warehouses and small factories. The restaurants were there primarily to service the Strip's workers. It has only been in the past 20 years or so that retail shops, wholesalers with retail front ends, restaurants and dance clubs have opened.The Strip is not for the faint of heart. It’s not the product of an oh-so-neat and tidy master plan. The Strip has weathered hard times and boom periods, evolving to meet the changing marketplace in a rugged and frequently chaotic fashion. It is a place where dreams are made and broken.


At the end of the 18th century, James O’Hara purchased a parcel of land along the south bank of the Allegheny River, comprising much of the present day Strip District, as a location for his country home. The Strip would not remain a gentleman’s estate for long, however. The curious juxtaposition of isolation from Eastern markets due to the difficulties of overland travel and easy access to the West along the rivers, coupled with the Strip’s abundance of level land adjacent to the river, set up an ideal scenario for the development of industrial and commercial enterprises.

Throughout the 19th century, men of vision and vigor flooded into the Strip, founding iron mills, foundries, glass factories, and a multitude of supporting industries to serve the local market and provision the waves of emigrants headed West. The arrival of the railroad and the Civil War further stimulated the burgeoning industrial development, and many of the names that have become synonymous with Pittsburgh - Carnegie, Westinghouse, and Alcoa, among others - built fortunes in the Strip and cemented Pittsburgh’s role as a leader among industrial centers.



By the late 19th century, heavy industry began to desert the obsolete city mills in favor of more technologically advanced facilities on less expensive tracts of land outside the city. But the Strip abhors a vacuum, and thus lured a new industry into the abandoned landscape. Wholesale produce merchants relocated from downtown to take advantage of convenient rail transportation in the Strip. Industrial buildings, shops and homes fell before the juggernaut of enormous warehouses and produce auction houses. The produce industry thrived in the Strip, surviving floods and fires, disease and depression, shortages and Shantytowns. 

The second half of the 20th century, however, pitted the wholesale produce industry against two formidable opponents that ultimately spelled disaster. Interstate highways and trucking replaced railroads, and chain stores purchasing directly from producers replaced independent grocers, signaling the decline of wholesale produce as the stronghold of the Strip. 


As businesses and residents sought greener pastures, the Strip slid into the disagreeable position of “area in need of revitalization.” The Strip attracted the attention of government officials, businessmen, and private interests who vied to propose projects that would completely change the nature of the Strip. The worst point came when the Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned a huge amount of property in the Strip, announced its intention to demolish everything between 11th and 21st Streets and replace it with office buildings and apartments. Fortunately, a series of serendipitous events intervened and the Strip escaped the heavy hand of urban planning to once again determine its own destiny.


Into the fray came Benkovitz Seafood, which after ten years of leasing “temporary” quarters, committed to the Strip by erecting a first-class wholesale facility accompanied by a retail outlet. The success of the retail operation encouraged other wholesalers to expand into the retail market and electrified the imagination of a whole new generation of dreamers. Multi-generational family businesses like Consumers Produce, Parma Sausage, Pennsylvania Macaroni, Stamoolis Brothers and Wholey’s were joined by an eclectic array of new businesses that filled existing consumer needs or created new niche markets. Ethnic food merchants, such as Euro Greetings, Labad’s, Lotus Foods, and Reyna serve Pittsburgh’s increasingly diverse population, while specialty stores appeal to everyone from gourmet chefs to those in search of the perfect, one-of-a-kind gift or decorating accent. 

Restaurants gravitated to the Strip, creating exciting dining options ranging from the upscale sophistication of Eleven and Lidia’s to the hometown comfort of Primanti’s and De Luca’s. Innovative nightspots brought new life to vacant warehouses and The Boardwalk finally offered Pittsburghers a view of the river. The Heinz History Center and the Society for Contemporary Craft added a touch of culture to the Strip, further enhanced by studios for artists and designers who were inspired by the quirky charm of the neighborhood. Advertising and marketing firms, high tech companies, and non-profit groups have all found the Strip a hospitable location. 

Finally, the Strip is enticing its residential community to return. Initially the return was only a trickle of forward thinking individuals who took advantage of the dramatic spaces offered by the Strip Lofts or nestled into the few remaining row houses and apartments. This trickle will likely become a flood with the addition of the Cork Factory, a brilliant renovation of the Armstrong Cork Factory. 


Jacksonville, on a whole, has never really embraced the idea of the preserving historic fabric as a part of urban redevelopment. However, the Strip District's success and vibrant, cultural atmosphere is an example of what's possible when older abandoned buildings (known locally as "eyesores") are saved and restored on a grand scale.

What makes the Strip District unique and special is the re-use of historic warehouse and commercial structures. The architecture, promotion of the area's history and preserved setting combines to from an integral part of the district's vibe. As we in Jacksonville search for ways to pump a little life into our core, every effort should be made to promote the history of our city and incorporate the few older structures still standing, such as the Annie Lytle School and t he Brooklyn Fire Station, into those redevelopment plans.