As we do every Friday, we have gyros at the Dierkens Pharmacy parking lot, Park Avenue at Main Street, until 6 or 7 PM.
When you stop at the gyro stand (when, not if), tell Oussama “Happy Valentine’s Day.” I had asked him how busy he was over lunch, and he said “busy.” And then he was asking me something today about business in general. I said “your customers all love you here.” And I closed with “Happy Valentine’s Day.” I think I taught him a new phrase. He and his assistant, Atta, had to confer for a moment, and then they said “oh, this coming Monday… Happy Valentine’s Day!” But I was conveying something from all his loyal customers, so now it’s your turn to tell him to “Be Your Valentine.”
Oussama had a little more variety, or at least some different items today. This includes “sleek,” which is kale and caramelized onions with bulghur wheat berries and blackeyed peas. He also has “baba ghanouj,” which is a puree of eggplant cooked over a wood fire, which gives it a delicately smoky taste, plus hummus, pita bread, pita chips, mujaddara (beans and rice), baklava, and one even I had not heard of, the Mediterranean food epicurean that I have been for about four decades, “Shankleesh,” a white cheese that is characteristic of the Levant.
In any event, eat Downtown tonight or sometime this weekend, …please. Don’t miss out on the experience.
I was sorry to see that a portion of the building at 500 Donner Avenue in Monessen, an elaborately designed former bank known as “the Old Health Mart Building,” dangerously fell into the street a day or two ago. I have friends and our program has supporters on both sides of the difficult debate over what to do with this building.
And with all due respect… I remember noticing the trees growing out of the joints in overhanging stone ledges and balconies as much as 25-30 years ago. The story is in today’s Mon Valley Independent in more depth. In my view, this partial collapse points to a loss for all involved and a failure on all sides, though clearly rooted in problems that were already out of control decades ago. I simply do not believe that you can revitalize a town, especially an old downtown, by removing the kinds of buildings that give it depth of history and character.
For traditional downtowns, the future is only as good as the quality things that accumulate there over time. The form of “blight” (if I have to use this almost unanchored political word that tells me nothing about what might be fixed)… (let me start again) the form of “blight” that I see most in the communities I visit is the vacant lots scattered around in places where vacant lots should not be.
Downtown buildings that adjoin and touch from side to side in a downtown typically form a “street wall,” which is a well-designed wall of buildings from different time periods, that grew together as many different builders and designers played off of each other’s designs. Each building relies on characteristics its neighbors have, meaning neighboring buildings that are older than it is.
You can replace a building with a better building (as was done over and over in our community over the last 220 years), but you can’t improve a community by filling it up with vacant lots that leave the street wall around it looking torn to shreds, where the buildings that your building was designed to play off of no longer exist for your building to do much of anything visually. It takes a long time to build back character in a community where this has happened, and you can almost never replace what you lost.
I know this first hand, having spent 40+ years trying to find ways to stitch back together the urban fabric of the little city where my family brought me into being and brought me up. Much of what you have to do when you can’t get your missing architectural elements back is plant flowers, hang banners and other ornaments, paint what you still have left, and set down good plans for a better future, which we have done in this little city, building consensus gradually over a long period of time.
But both sides of a huge political debate have failed regarding the building in Monessen, because they did not find a viable solution, beyond creating another “not-quite-a-Monessen,” just another vacant lot to mow at an address at the center of a chartered city. The challenge now will be finding ways to put something of character back. And I can’t entirely blame the young people who have tried so hard without getting very close to the goal, as the trees growing out of those cracks are older than most people who have fallen in love with the architecture and its story.
Metal roofing went up this week on the overhang recently added to the Hoffman Hardware Store building, known to most of us by the names of businesses that have been located there – the old Clover Farm grocery, Cope’s Superette, Amazing Grace, the Peddler’s Place Shop, the Potter’s Place, etc.
Thoughts from a New York housewife
I had a fun, long conversation with my brother the other day, comparing notes on my take and his take on the culture and sociology of the Mon Valley. His insights are heavily weighted toward his experiences when he worked at Combustion Engineering and then West Penn Power, but it’s also (as some of you who know him will probably attest) the outcome of the intense thoughts and careful logic of the profoundly analytical mind my brother happens to have. He distills thoughts and ideas down very well into compact truths that he tests and expresses only after feeling certain about them.
I brought up Jane Jacobs’s book, “Death and Life of Great American Cities” (which both of us should actually read – I tend to “read at books,” to find things I’m looking for). Jane Jacobs was a journalist working from New York City about 1960 when she took on the entire “Urban Renewal” movement with her “…Great American Cities.”
She did this in an era when New York planning professionals were quintessentially part of a “men’s world,” and they sometimes attacked her as “just a housewife.” But she pretty much defeated the 1950s version of Urban Renewal in the process across America. In my view, what she was fighting was often called “redevelopment,” when the actual outcome was really “un-development.”
This process cleared away, for instance, a vast section of historic downtown fabric at the center of Indianapolis for a theoretical project that didn’t happen, followed by another theoretical project that didn’t happen, etc., leaving a big chunk of land at the center of the Indiana capital vacant for some 17 years, if I remember correctly. Two thoughts that I remember from “reading at” the “…Great American Cities” book: mixed-use should not be driven out by zoning and rebuilding core areas of cities; cities need the eyes looking down from upper windows, the eyes of residents who enjoy studying their neighborhood’s streets throughout the day, because these “eyes” help to keep the city safe and to make it seem safe from below.”
Second example: “Cities need lots of shabby old buildings (or maybe it’s enough today to say old buildings) that provide affordable spaces for new families coming in and young people choosing to stay, including for people to start and try-out new business ideas.” (These are paraphrases of what she actually said in print.)
An addition is underway at the back of the historic Charles Stephens House at 11th and West Main Streets. Construction season is indeed warming up with the weather, to get things into full swing, here in the thriving and growing “little city.”
A fun call to the PDC
In preparing some documents for reporting to the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, I had the opportunity to call Bill Arrowood to clarify something. Bill recently came on the staff of the PDC as a “Field Services Specialist.” He has been traveling to various parts of the state to become familiar with all of our Main Street Programs, and he says that the south western corner of Pennsylvania is next on his list, kind of the last frontier for him. After we chatted for a while, he seemed eager to visit Monongahela.
I first got to know Bill when he was Main Street director for the South Street business district in Philadelphia, when I lived there. His office was in the coolest possible location, upstairs in the Headhouse building.
It’s part of Headhouse Market, or more properly “New Market,” which is a rather ironic name since it is now one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the entire United States. Apparently, a new facility when Philadelphia’s population was growing toward the southwestern corner of William Penn’s 1682 town plan, toward what was then a separate town called Southwark (now called Queen Village and Pennsport), the market facility was first built in 1745.
The market-house is just a narrow roof on a brick column, long enough to equal two or three blocks of the Society Hill section in the oldest part of the city, but it was once longer. In the 1700s, farmers’ market facilities were called “shambles,” which is another name sometimes used for this market house.
In 1804, a two-story building was added at each end, called the Headhouses. The one on the Society Hill end is still standing, but the Queen Village end is long gone. The Headhouse building that remains is two stories. The first floor was built as a tiny fire station, and Bill’s office was upstairs.
Before his South Street days, Bill had a separate career as a scout for movie locations. I’m sure I was telling stories in this phone conversation, as I always do. But Bill brought up the concept that what a lot of Main Street Programs do is to put the stories back with the buildings. He’s eager to help us do that.
And, yes, I did go off on a long tangent about one market house some 297 miles west of here (which was within five blocks of where I lived for about five years), but its time, you know, with the weather warming up as it has.
Some things I reported on
I finished my reports two days ago to meet a deadline, which the Pennsylvania Downtown Center passes along to all Pennsylvania Main Street Programs so some statistics can be passed up to the National Program to show what is happening in small towns in the Commonwealth and across the country that have Main Street Programs in place. The statistics help tremendously in supporting funding that trickles down through the national and state non-profit organizations. Main Street, in general, is a non-profit-based network of local organizations (and sometimes local governmental Main Street Programs) that works as a series of public-private partnerships that happen in our downtowns.
In reporting, I had the pleasure of telling about 13 new businesses that opened between December 2020 and December 2021. I also reported on 39 construction projects related to retail facilities, churches, and parking facilities that make up our downtown. I haven’t added up the dollar amounts yet, but I am sure they will be huge. Things like the renovations in the basement of Main Street Barber to create the space for the Orangery (salon) and the aesthetician’s office located there, or the new sidewalk and accessibility ramp at Frye Funeral Home, or the eight façade projects that received funding through our program in the first half of last year.
I entered information on about two dozen committee or board meetings. The online reporting program is designed to multiply things out. Our board meetings average a little less than an hour and a half, and the attendance is typically around 11 people. The M.y. Main Street committee for the “Railroad – Street Fair” met at least twelve times, sometimes for more than an hour, and sometimes with as many as 18 people at the meeting.
We reported 2,203 hours of volunteer time donated outside of formal meetings, for which the PODC calculates a dollar value of over $63,000 (based, I believe, on a figure published by the I.R.S.) We tracked 23 “media mentions” of our program and/or our downtown, although we only ever issued about five press releases. We bought very few newspaper ads, but we invested over $1,400 in a direct mail flyer that advertised events put on by six different organizations. The flyer reached over 5,000 Monongahela Area homes.
We do all of this, hoping it benefits this downtown, this community, and this city. Many thanks to the PDC for encouraging us to do this reporting and helping us to quantify what I hope is a big difference we are making here, at the center of 2030 other organizations who also work hard at making our downtown and community work well.
I will probably go into more depth on the reporting figures when I manage to tally some of the totals, such as on the 39 downtown construction projects in 2021.
[Repeated, for now from the last couple of editions; I will update the explanation in a future edition, giving things like how to register to participate.]
This is not strictly about Downtown Monongahela – in fact, it’s the far opposite – but it’s something I’ve been working on, so I thought I’d mention it. I am a board member of the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania, a group that visits a different part of the state each year, in mid-June, and hosts a tour of barns in that area. The tour guide booklet, which comes with your registration to participate, is a full-color 68-page book analyzing the styles of barn architecture and farm landscapes in the area being visited, including a complete profile of each barn on the tour. I had offered about 4-5 years ago to host a tour in our general area, and my tour was supposed to be in June 2020. It was canceled, of course, because of the lockdown, technically postponed until June 2022. The event will be from Friday June 10th through Sunday June 12th. The Friday venue will be West Overton Village Museums, between Scottdale and Mt. Pleasant. On Saturday, there will be an all-day tour, beginning near West Overton, mainly following routes 31 and 136 west, and coming as far west as the Prentice Farm in Forward Township, just over the ridge from our city. Lunch on Saturday will be a Rusyn luncheon, with haluski and kielbasa, served by the Altar Society of St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in Perryopolis. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places. On Sunday, two historic barns closer to Greensburg will be open for a drive-on-your-own tour. The Steel Farm, north of Greensburg, has a huge barn. The Pollins Farm, also known as Sewickley Manor, south of Greensburg, has been in the same family for seven generations.
Am I the only one who noticed so far that the bulletin board for community events is currently completely empty at Eat’N Park? Don’t all rush there at once… (Update as of 11 February 2022 – I checked it again two days ago, and it is still a blank slate waiting for your community event posters.)
Our online calendar is a project that several members of the Main Street Board have been discussing for quite some time. Feel free to send us a note about whatever events you may be planning that relate well to bringing people downtown. When we were publishing a one-page wall calendar on paper each month, across a period of about three years, up to 2018, the events listed added up to over 900 scheduled activities worthy of being included each year.
To learn about events in the entire Mid-Mon Valley you can also check out the calendar over on Monongahela Times – a website hosted by Dan Tregembo, our MMSP board secretary.
Don’t forget to spread your dine-in or takeout business around during this “unprecedented time” in American and worldwide history. Here’s some contact information for some of the restaurants that are open at this time:
- Italian Village Pizza, 169 West Main Street (724) 292-8170
- Angelo’s II, 111 Third Street (724) 292-8375
- Di’s Home Town Deli, 218 West Main Street (724) 292-1001
- Sweets by Mrs. C., Ice Cream and More, 260 West Main Street (724) 292-8392
- Little City Coffee, 418 West Main Street (724) 258-6285
- Two and a Fry, 1115 West Main Street (724) 310-3182
- Hog Fathers Olde-Fashioned Barbecue, 243 East Main Street (Catsburg) (724) 310-3757
- Lenzi’s Italian Restaurant, 228 Gee Street (just off East Main going east from the Pigeon Creek Bridge, before the first light) (724) 258-9885
- Detorre’s Pizza, 915 West Main Street (724) 258-3306
- Eat’N Park, 1250 West Main Street (724) 258-4654
- Great Wall Chinese Restaurant, 201 West Main Street (724) 258-8358
- Hills Restaurant, 107 Main Street, New Eagle (724) 258-5422
- Pizza Station, 187 Chess Street, New Eagle (724) 310-3191
- Cox Market, deli counter for take-out, 711 Rt.481 (724) 258-4900
- Ponce’s Place, 715 Rt.481 (Park Avenue Extension/Pigeon Creek Road) (724) 258-6654
- Pho Valley, 1160 Country Club Road (724) 310-3948
- Fox’s Pizza Den, 1235 West Main Street (724) 310-2080
Special thanks to our board of directors who dedicate so much of their time each month toward making our Main Street program run smoothly and effectively.
WE HAVE A WONDERFUL CITY!
Terry A. Necciai, RA, Exec. Dir., MMSP