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The crowds that East Carson Street is known for, the ones that inspired its moniker as Pittsburgh’s Jersey Shore, had all but vanished last spring. The most action that the often rowdy corridor got in 2020 was during social justice protests in the summer and fall.
The character of this usually packed business district — at once a destination for people across the region and a close-knit neighborhood — has been shifting since the COVID-19 pandemic first shut down many of its businesses and then forced them to rethink if they still fit in.
The college students who typically pack many of the area’s many bars suddenly disappeared from its streets after universities shifted classes online last spring.
“I thought I was necessary,” said hair stylist Brandon Potts, who just finished barber school and was hoping to one day take over his stepmom’s Trending Styles Unisex Salon between 14th and 15th streets. But maybe people don’t need to pay for haircuts when they have nowhere to go, he mused.
Now, much of the salon’s business turns on when a customer has an upcoming Zoom meeting. And, on occasion, when a client needs to fix a home haircut gone awry.
Sitting next to Mr. Potts on a recent Wednesday in January, stylist Bobby Fletcher watched a movie as he waited for customers to make their way into the salon. It was well into the afternoon and only three had wandered in so far. This is just how it is now, Mr. Fletcher said.
When Trending Styles closed for several months last spring because of the pandemic, Mr. Fletcher drove a dump truck to make ends meet. He rents his chair at the salon and, with low overhead, said he can wait for things to get back to normal.
Whenever that happens and whatever that means.
Here is how other East Carson businesses are riding out the pandemic.
Some opened new businesses
Christine Neff, who in December 2019 bought the bar that she had managed for seven years, spent last year preparing to open a meatball joint next door.
PA Botanicals, a store that sells Kratom products, opened on the block between 18th and 19th streets, while a long-vacant building on 20th displayed a sign for a planned medical marijuana dispensary.
Viral — that’s right, Viral — a high-end sneaker store and boutique that features shrink-wrapped shoes retailing between a few hundred dollars and a few thousand dollars, an arcade-style claw machine filled with sneakers — $5 a try — and a mural of rapper Mac Miller on the wall, opened a week before COVID shutdowns began in March.
And yet, manager Daryan Robinson said sales have been strong.
There’s nothing like it anywhere in Pittsburgh, he said. Just try to find a $2,700 pair of pink felt Nikes in a mall.
Many, many adjusted their business models
“No standing at the bar,” says a sign at The Smiling Moose.
“ONLINE ORDERS ONLY!” screams a sign on the door of the new vegan restaurant Viridis, on the corner of 15th Street.
Customers hoping to sell used clothes to Buffalo Exchange, a vintage store, are asked to pack the offerings and let them sit for 24 hours before coming into the store.
At Three Rivers Vintage, the pandemic has meant the hour before noon on Saturdays is reserved for seniors and high-risk individuals.
And the annual holiday “Mingle” fundraiser put on by the South Side Chamber of Commerce in December sold tickets for patrons to visit different restaurants in groups of four. Mingling was confined to the group.
Some took advantage of federal assistance
More than 100 businesses on East Carson Street got loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, totaling millions of dollars.
When the furniture store PerLora shut down for more than two months last spring, its co-owner Lora Sigesmund went to work trying to secure a loan through the program.
“We didn’t know if we would reopen,” her husband Perry Sigesmund said in the summer.
“Fortunately, people have been sitting in their homes for several months, looking at their environment and their space, and people were pretty much tired of what they were looking at.”
Mr. Sigesmund said the PPP loans definitely helped, but the business also was fortunate that none of the customers who had placed orders before the COVID-19 shutdowns began canceled them.
“Our industry as a whole is doing fairly well,” he said, sounding guilty.
When the federal government sent out stimulus checks in April and again last month, there was a run on tattoos, the owner of a local parlor said.
The shop was pushed to the limit, he said.
Some in nighttime economy went to bed early
The same study that popularized East Carson Street’s moniker as the Jersey Shore of the Burgh also estimated there are more than 4,600 people working in the nighttime economy in the business district.
Before COVID, 76 businesses were open even after midnight. Now, last call is 11 p.m.
“Right now … it’s an earlier nighttime economy,” said Allison Harnden, nighttime economy manager for the City of Pittsburgh.
Since the pandemic hit, she said she’s finally getting traction after years of preaching how important socializing is to economic and emotional health.
Some used social media to fill in for sidewalk banter
“We have been closed for 64 days,” Piper’s Pub owner Drew Topping wrote on Facebook on May 18, preparing his customers for a reopening that would be take-out only for some time.
“We work in small places that are now too small for business as usual,” he said.
He asked customers to support the business as extraordinary circumstances (the pandemic) collide with ordinary ones (another year of a street improvement project that makes getting to the pub a nuisance.)
“p.s. We miss all of you!” he signed off. “Well ........ most of you!!”
The Streets on Carson — using colorful language and at one point a picture of a hammer and sickle in a post about “the man,” which is how its owner disdainfully refers to Gov. Tom Wolf — took customers along for the ride as it changed the menu, fought to get outdoor seating set up on 11th Street, and started serving drinks to go.
“Still closed …” the Victory Pointe Arcade and Cafe posted on its Facebook page in August — and again in January. The popular arcade shut its doors on March 20 last year and has no reopening news to share.
Some said farewell
The Rex Theater, whose parent company received several PPP loans and ran a well-received GoFundMe campaign for its employees in the spring, announced in September that it was permanently closing.
On its marquee, it put up the message: “Thanks for 11 great years. Stay safe & love each other.”
“We all hope to run into you at a concert, somewhere, somehow, sometime, down the road,” it signed off on Facebook.
Mark Bucklaw, president of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, said there’s no clear way to know which businesses will reopen once COVID eases its grip on Pittsburgh. And in a neighborhood where “you’re used to just bumping into people” to hear gossip, it’s hard to keep track of people’s plans.
At Finn McCools, the same sign that went up in the spring hangs there today: “We will reopen as soon as possible,” it says.
The bar is a perfect example of the kind of venue that’s at once quintessentially East Carson Street and all of a sudden out of step with the neighborhood’s current character.
“Mostly college clientele. Limited hours. They don’t serve food,” Mr. Bucklaw said. “What do you do with that?”
Anya Litvak: firstname.lastname@example.org