Challenges and opportunities
To be fair, not everything has succeeded. Honest John’s, a nice restaurant on Eighth Avenue, closed, as did Blue Bonnet Bakery when the owner retired.
However, Nancy B’s Bakery is still making the best cookies in Pittsburgh (this is not up for debate), even though the shop’s namesake recently passed away.
Although Enix Brewing — a Spanish-flavored brewpub that restored an old hardware store (and secret upstairs bowling alley) — closed during the pandemic, Golden Age Beer Co. recently stepped in to take over this impressive space. Golden Age is from the team behind two of Pittsburgh’s best bars, the Independent Brewing Company (which specializes in beers from Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania) and tiki heaven Hidden Harbor, both in Squirrel Hill.
“When we looked at the brewery, we fell in love with the Homestead community,” says Golden Age owner Pete Kurzweg. “You see this in some of the best places in the Rust Belt, where it has a resilience to it — it’s not fixated on its former chapter. A lot of folks here are looking ahead, to what’s next.
“With that said, it has a strong and beautiful heritage. This is the same community that fought the Pinkertons (armed contractors hired by Carnegie Steel in the Homestead Strike of 1892).”
According to Ingram, Homestead primarily has a marketing problem.
He says he took a five-page pamphlet created to promote Rockwell Park in Homewood and showed it to Mayor Burwell. “I said, ‘This is what you need for Homestead.’ And he took it to heart.
“That’s the problem — all you hear is the negative stuff. But do people know there’s a music venue? A speakeasy? Two wine bars? No.”
When asked about the neighborhood’s main challenges, Burwell surprisingly mentions “signage.”
“I think that people do not know what we have to offer,” he says. “People look at the Waterfront, but don’t look at Eighth Avenue. We have things like a new bar that came in, Eon, and a couple other Black-owned businesses that came in recently.”
On almost every block, Homestead (and neighboring Munhall) are beautiful old churches, schools, and other institutions — the physical residue from thousands of workers arriving from all over the world to work in Homestead’s steel mills over the past 150-plus years. Many are vacant or underutilized — but a surprising amount have found new uses in recent years.
A church has been converted into a unique indoor rope-climbing course, the Dragon’s Den. The Homestead Masonic Hall Lofts have transformed a forgotten institution into attractive apartments. The former St. Michael’s church now houses the communications firm and event space This Is Red.
Another key development goes by the unusual name of Bowtie High.
Developer/realtor Jesse Wig, originally from Erie, and his partners purchased the old Bishop Boyle High School on Ninth Avenue near Voodoo Brewery and transformed it into 31 apartments (27 one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom units). The old gymnasium is now a fitness center with bikes, free weights and a basketball court. Rent range from $1,100-$1,600.
Wig also owns the former Schwab Industrial School across the street.
“It’s a really cool building with a large spiral staircase and black slate steps,” he says.
Wig was originally looking at creating 24 apartments here, dubbed Bowtie Low, but thinks it could actually fit more smaller units.
Over by the Carnegie Library, Wig has purchased an entire block — currently just a grass lot — on which a number of single-family homes are planned, in the $375,000 to $450,000 range.
These developments are way above the average house price in the area, but Wig sees a demand for them.
“They were wondering why (new) people won’t live here,” says Wig, of the general disinterest in Homestead until now. “Well, a big chunk of people are not comfortable taking on renovations. And as you know, a lot of these houses were in disrepair. So once we started providing that (renovated/updated) product, people started moving in.”
According to Burwell, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is still about $720 in Homestead, and two-bedrooms are approximately $785.
“You have be careful that you’re not pricing the average person out,” he says. “It’s affordable, but we have to be careful right now. I’m getting a lot of phone calls from, like, people in Texas asking to buy my properties. I keep my properties very affordable.”
Homestead is hosting several Homestead Live Fridays this year in venues throughout the Eighth Avenue business district, featuring local performers, art exhibitions, food, beer and activities each evening from 6 to 10 p.m. Dates are May 20, July 8, August 12, September 16 and October 21.
“In many ways, Homestead is coming out of the pandemic in a stronger place than where it was just a few years ago,” says Carly McCoy of Rivers of Steel, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the region’s industrial heritage. “New businesses like Golden Age are bringing renewed energy to the Avenue, while others like KSD & The Radio Room have a community focus embedded in their business model.
“The community has been actively working together to be supportive of one another’s efforts … There is also a celebration of the region’s heritage — and not just its steel heritage,” adds McCoy. “The new mural of Josh Gibson by Jeremy Raymer on the back wall of the Voodoo Brewing Company reflects a reverence for a local icon, while the work of the Josh Gibson Foundation connects his legacy to a new generation.”
The future seems bright for Homestead and its neighbors, though nothing can be taken for granted.
“I think Homestead’s going to get a great turnaround,” says Burwell. “I was born and raised here; my family goes back to the early 1900s. I’m committed to doing the best I can do to bring Homestead into the 21st century.”