There’s a lot of past in the present of Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville, and the two haven’t always commingled peacefully. With a burgeoning spate of new restaurants and shops bringing national attention to the Butler Street corridor, and neighborhood real estate development at an all-time high since the 19th century, it’s easy to forget what made one of the city’s hottest areas so desirable in the first place. The faith of long-time residents, community leaders and local business owners made this happenin’ place really happen.
These establishments are a link between the old Lawrenceville and its rebirth as a bustling and popular area. Here are six businesses that have not only survived but thrived through it all.
5483 Butler Street
Many of the businesses in Lawrenceville had an influence on its resurgence simply by staying when others were leaving. But not many can say they had as direct an impact on the course of the neighborhood as Jim Nied. He’s the fourth generation of a family who has always owned taverns, going back to his great-grandfather in Homestead. Nied’s grandfather, Ted, opened Nied’s Hotel in 1941.
Yes, Nied’s Hotel really is a hotel. “I call it a rooming house,” Nied says. “We have a hotel liquor license and can rent rooms by the day or week, but we’ve never let it out as a regular hotel.” The upper floors of the building are occupied by several long-term tenants, Nied included.
Nied says he watched the neighborhood’s transformation “from the driver’s seat” by accident: He became involved with various community organizations in the late 1990s when a vacant parcel next to his bar was being redeveloped into a shopping plaza. “I was only supposed to be going to meetings to talk about parking, but I wound up more involved,” he says. “Nothing would have happened in the neighborhood without Children’s Hospital, National Robotics Council and other big businesses,” he says. “When you put 3,000 living wage jobs in a neighborhood, it’s bound to come back.”
Nied’s is renowned for its fish sandwiches and live entertainment, including its namesake, the Nied’s Hotel Band. In warmer weather, bands play free live concerts on a stage outside the bar, a practice Nied plans to continue, though he’s not afraid to embrace new ideas for entertainment, a recent one being “bluegrass meets bellydancing” with country and Middle Eastern music.
Nied credits his own business success to a tried and true fact: “We’re not hip and happening,” he laughs. “I don’t see anything changing.” Though self-deprecating, Nied has been embraced by the newer neighborhood watering holes. He recently was a guest bartender at Spirit as part of a community garden space fundraiser.
O’Bannon Oriental Carpets
380 Butler Street
Walking into O’Bannon Oriental Carpets is a sensory experience. The colors, patterns and scents of hand-woven carpets will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a Middle Eastern bazaar. That’s because owner Kristen Rockwell actually visits Turkey, Iran, Nepal and other countries to personally source her store’s wares.
Rockwell, who studied fiber arts at Carnegie Mellon, is the third owner of O’Bannon Oriental Carpets. “I have always had a love of textiles, but never dreamed it would lead me to owning an Oriental rug store,” she says.
The business has been around for close to 40 years, the past 10 in Lawrenceville. Rockwell moved the shop from its original location in Squirrel Hill because it wasn’t in a true business district. However, she nearly didn’t wind up in Lawrenceville at all. “It was a colorful place,” Rockwell says of the neighborhood in 2004. “It was still raw. I needed to move the shop and so I spent a year searching for a new location.” Finally, a chance delivery to a client in the Blackbird Lofts led Rockwell to her current storefront, then in rough shape.
Though the hand-woven carpet industry itself is in uncertain times due to economic and diplomatic influences, Rockwell is thankful for the support for small businesses she has found in Lawrenceville. In particular, she credits the support she’s received from fellow women business owners past and present. “Old Lawrenceville is still here and I think that’s a presence that we need to thank, too,” she says.
As for the future, Rockwell would like to see more diversity in the types of businesses that settle on Butler Street. “I want the businesses that stay to hold the bar high, bring the best of what you can do, if it’s food, retail,” she says. “You present what neighbors can walk and get; you keep that local living really living.”
4207 Butler Street
Hambone’s Pub has been a bustling presence in central Lawrenceville for 28 years. With a robust regular schedule of events including open mic nights for live music and comedy, pub trivia and obscure board games, it’s a bar and restaurant with more of the communal atmosphere of a traditional English pub.
Wagner Quality Shoes
4313 Butler Street
While most of the businesses on this list would qualify as “old school,” none can hold up to the “old” part better than Wagner Quality Shoes. Founded in 1854, the company is only 10 years younger than neighboring Allegheny Cemetery.
The original store was in Sharpsburg, just across the river from Lawrenceville. That store closed in the early 2000s in favor of expanding into other concept stores around the greater Pittsburgh area. Wagner has been at its current address for more than 80 years.
Mark Wagner, part of the sixth generation to work in the business, credits the company’s niche selection for its staying power during Lawrenceville’s tougher years. “It’s always been more of a destination store,” he says. “We never really relied as much on foot traffic to bring people in.”
The newfound foot traffic has been a pleasant bonus for the shop. “I have noticed with the resurgence of Lawrenceville, there’s a lot more people just stopping in,” Wagner says. “Business has been up over the past couple of years and I think it’s because the neighborhood is a place people want to come to now.”
The store’s selection hasn’t changed much—they will always carry the specialty brands they’re known for, according to Wagner—but it has grown. “We’re adding new things, trendier things we can put in the window,” he says.
Wagner has found common ground between the neighborhood’s old guard and its legions of newcomers. “People really do value shopping small and locally in Lawrenceville and we’re the epitome of that,” he says. “Our oldest customers here appreciate that, and our new customers do too.”