There’s no simple solution to Pittsburgh’s affordable housing problem. But what if there was a neighborhood minutes from Squirrel Hill with houses selling for less than $150,000 (and many for less $100,000)? Welcome to Homestead (and the adjacent communities of West Homestead and Munhall).
There’s a walkable, historic main business district on Eighth Avenue, Andrew Carnegie’s most beautiful library and a music hall that hosts national touring acts, the region’s largest movie theater (AMC Waterfront 22), game room (Dave & Buster’s), and even a comedy club (The Improv).
Add in unique cultural assets such as the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center, Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural Center and Rivers of Steel and breweries and taprooms in restored buildings (Golden Age, Voodoo). There’s also a ton of retail, ranging from big-box stores at the Waterfront (Target, Costco, Aldi) to unique local shops (Pip & Lola’s Soap, Freshman Vintage, Retro on 8th).
However, Homestead’s reputation is mostly still stuck in the post-industrial doldrums, where it’s more-or-less been since the Homestead Steel Works shut down in 1986. There are problems with crime (including a recent triple shooting) and at least a third of the storefronts in the main business district (Eighth Avenue) are empty or abandoned, many in advanced states of decay.
But Homestead is working hard to bridge the vast gap in public perceptions between the bustling Waterfront shopping center and the heart of the community.
“We’re trying to change the narrative that it’s just an old steel town,” says John Burwell, recently elected as Homestead’s first Black mayor.
Now, for the first time in decades, better days seem to be getting closer.
A turning point?
At the corner of Eighth Avenue and Amity Street, there’s a muddy empty lot. On the wall of the building behind it soars the steely-eyed face of the Homestead Grays legend and Negro Leagues home run king Josh Gibson, painted by muralist Jeremy Raymer. Inside that former municipal building is Voodoo Brewery, slinging craft brews and pizza with garage doors open to the outside.
But there are plans for that vacant lot as well.
Brandon Ingram is proposing a mixed-use building with 20 market-rate apartments above a large space for retail. Construction could start as soon as next spring.
Ingram owns about 20 properties in the Homestead area (and sat on the planning commission in West Homestead for nine years). He grew up in Manchester on the North Side, then lived in the South Side and Lawrenceville when both of those neighborhoods were still struggling to overcome decades of postindustrial decline.
He now lives in Homestead — where he’s had a house for 20 years — and feels like all the same elements that led to success in the South Side and Lawrenceville are here, too.
“I like the access,” says Ingram. “I like having the Waterfront there. I love this old-timey kind of look (on Eighth Avenue) too. To me, it’s like the South Side or Lawrenceville before it got trendy. It’s still in its edgy phase.”
Next door to the proposed development is Ingram’s office, home to several growing tech firms. When we met, he was wearing an Uber Advanced Technologies Group hoodie (his former employer). He estimates that he has his hands in at least 15 companies across the tech and real estate spheres, and plans to grow many of them in the Homestead area.
On the other side of Amity Street, the storefronts have been remodeled and repainted, with a new beer distributor that has just moved in.
Across Eighth Avenue, the monolithic columned former Monongahela Trust Co. bank has been transformed into perhaps the strangest combination of uses in Western PA — an escape room complex, an ax-throwing arena, and the Co-Sign Speakeasy, which is decorated in ornate Prohibition-era style.
There are two new wine bars in the area, including The Forge Urban Winery and Eighth & Hays, which also features a fairly ambitious menu. Bars like Blue Dust, Duke’s Upper Deck Cafe and Dorothy 6 Blast Furnace Cafe trade on the area’s blue-collar steelworker roots, with pierogies served alongside craft beers and the occasional rusty industrial remnant as decor.
And there’s KSD & The Radio Room, a tattoo studio/art gallery/small music venue.
“You put all this stuff together — it’s not one thing that makes Homestead attractive for me,” says Ingram. “I like the diversity.”