It’s been a long road back for Garfield. Besieged by poverty and crime for decades, the East End neighborhood first turned a corner in the late 1990s, when Friendship Development Associates encouraged artists to buy up vacant storefronts along Penn Avenue. When Unblurred took place in 1998, it was the first arts crawl in Pittsburgh.
Today the neighborhood, with its vibrant main street and central location between Lawrenceville, East Liberty and Bloomfield, is increasingly coveted by developers, business owners, and home buyers alike. It’s truly on the cusp, says Paige Ilkhanipour, marketing director of the Pittsburgh Glass Center. “It’s what Lawrenceville used to be.”
Get to know Garfield September 9th through 11th as the community hosts the NEXT 3 Days event with a block party Friday night, a street fest on Saturday and an Open House tour on Sunday. And read more about it here.
Tea and Coffee
Most conversations about Garfield are centered on Penn Avenue, the neighborhood’s main artery and home to most of its restaurants, galleries, businesses and community organizations. Strictly speaking, the south side of Penn Avenue belongs to Bloomfield. But longtime residents will tell you that Bloomfield has Liberty Avenue, and that Penn Avenue, from Negley to at least Mathilda, has always been considered Garfield.
Jack Sweeney grew up in Garfield in the ’40s, at the corner of Penn and Winebiddle. “Once you grew up in Garfield, you were bonded,” he says. Sweeney moved away in the ’60s but returns for Christmas parties and golf outings with friends he grew up with. Now living in Shaler, Sweeney visited one recent Friday just to check out Bantha Tea House. “Garfield was a tough neighborhood when I grew up,” he says. “I would have never imagined a tea house in Garfield.”
Across from Bantha sits Artisan Tattoo, one of the city’s most esteemed tattoo shops. Owners Meliora and Jason Angst met at one of the first Unblurred events and have been operating on Penn Avenue since 2011. Meliora says that the community of business owners along Penn Avenue is very close-knit, and she hopes it stays that way with the sudden influx of new businesses and residents to the area.
Artisan, in addition to functioning as a small boutique and art gallery, is also home to the city’s newest coffee shop, Artisan Cafe. Owner Tyler Bryan has worked as a barista for over a decade and helped to open a number of other coffee shops, including Zeke’s in East Liberty. He appreciates the low-key vibe of the neighborhood and says that it gives him a chance to focus on quality. His is the only shop in the city where one can find a Slayer espresso machine, and he uses Kyoto-style glass towers to make his cold brew, to bring out a brighter flavor, especially in lighter-roast coffees, he notes.
Another Garfield venue that blurs lines is Mixtape. Part cafe and part lounge, Mixtape is a place where local residents can enjoy a cocktail after dinner or chill over coffee and board games in the afternoon. Last but certainly not least is the highly regarded Commonplace at Voluto, an outpost of the popular The Commonplace Coffee Company.
Garfield is home to one of the more diverse stretches of restaurants in the city, from New American to Vietnamese. One of the most well-known is Spak Brothers Pizza, opened in 2008. The vegan-friendly establishment makes killer wings (regular and seitan) and strives to offer food that is locally-sourced and sustainable. “The community has always been very welcoming,” says longtime Spak employee Cody Maze. “We’re happy with the neighborhood we chose and the relationships we have built.”
Toward East Liberty, noted restaurateur Richard DeShantz (of Meat & Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye) plans to open his latest restaurant in the former Salt of the Earth location, which he bought this past spring.
Across Penn Ave., at the former location of Quiet Storm, is the inviting Spork. The new restaurant from Chef Chris Frangiadis is a “chic, cozy space” says NEXT’s food editor, Drew Cranisky. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, from homemade pastas to housemade charcuterie—even the pastries on the miniature cookie table dessert. It has been a popular spot since opening.
For something more casual, BFG Cafe offers pizza, gyros, and hoagies for eat-in or carryout. The BYOB location is heavy on Greek fare and light on price. Further down Penn sits a pair of understated but exceptional neighborhood restaurants in Pho Minh’s and People’s Indian. People’s has an impressive lunch buffet for under 10 dollars, which includes a rotating menu of more than a dozen saags, daals, masalas and desserts. Pho Minh’s has been open for 12 years and is consistently ranked among the best Vietnamese restaurants in the city. Finally, Pizza Fiesta has taken over the space formerly occupied by Calabria’s, because a neighborhood can never have too much pizza.
Penn Avenue is home to dozens of art galleries, studios, maker spaces and more, each with their own distinct character and flair. The best way to experience them is during Unblurred, a free, neighborhood-wide arts crawl the first Friday of the month when local institutions open their doors for all to see.
“The one thing Garfield does well is experimentation in the arts,” says Christine McCray-Bethea, owner of ARTica on Penn Avenue and founder of the Geek Art/Green Innovators Festival, or GA/GI. When she opened her gallery and studio eight years ago, there was a sense of “pioneership” among business owners. “We were bootstrappers who wanted to make a difference.” While Penn Avenue still hasn’t recovered from the three years of road construction on the main artery, she hopes that longstanding businesses won’t be left behind in the current rush to build along Penn. “We already put blood in the soil,” she says. “We’ll hang on as long as we can, but we have no idea how things will turn out.”
A few blocks away from ARTica is Level Up Studios, a new performance space that bills itself as a “dance, music and visual arts incubator.” “It’s about making sure that all neighborhood residents benefit from the art and culture of the community,” says co-owner Mario Quinn. Featured recently in NEXT, Level Up exists to create positive change in the neighborhood by giving today’s youth a safe location where their creativity and talents can flourish.
Another gallery of note is Most Wanted Fine Art, owned by Jason and Nina Sauer, founders of the Penn Ave Arts in Motion and Pittsburgh Art Car Festival. In addition to being a gallery space and hosting an artists-in-residence program, Most Wanted is home to poetry recitals, live music, and a host of other live performances. The Sauers moved to Garfield in 2005, in large part due to the strength of Unblurred. Jason says the neighborhood is safer, cleaner, and more desirable than ever, but he, too, wonders what the future holds for the area. “More restaurants and more affluent boutiques are coming,” he says. “There’s no stopping it.”
Just some of the other studios and galleries in Garfield include Alloy Studios (host of the NEXT 3 Days kickoff party September 9), ASSEMBLE, BOOM Concepts, Bunker Projects, Clay Penn, the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, and The Center for PostNatural History, the only museum in the world dedicated to the influence of human desire on biological evolution. Keep an eye on NEXT in the coming weeks for a feature devoted to the Penn Avenue arts scene and the creative work of these galleries as well as a story on real estate in Garfield.
But wait, there’s more:
It seems like every day new businesses are opening in Garfield. Yoga Hive already calls the East Liberty side of Penn Avenue home, and One Point One Yoga is opening up at the other end of Garfield. Gluten Free Goat Bakery is setting up shop between Mixtape and Local 412, one of the few city venues for local hip-hop (it’s also an appointment-only boutique). Speaking of local music, DIY concert venue The Mr. Roboto Project sits right across from Spak.