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Over three days in 2019, the annual Deutschtown Music Festival on the North Side drew 35,000 people — driving hordes of music lovers into restaurants, bars and shops on nearby East Ohio Street while showcasing a business district bordered by historic brick homes.
The next year, the event went dark because of COVID-19.
Some of the public gatherings that are so much a part of what makes this historic Pittsburgh neighborhood a community continued even as masks appeared on faces and new restrictions tripped up business plans — but they weren’t the same.
Fewer shoppers came to the Friday farmers market in 2020 in the city’s oldest park, Allegheny Commons, for example. And those who did were more likely to go home after making their purchases rather than stay for supper and a drink.
“The whole street really took a nosedive,” said Mark Fatla, executive director of the nonprofit Northside Leadership Conference, a community redevelopment group. “It’s been dead. You got to be creative right now.”
Being creative is one of the things that businesses in the four-block business district of East Ohio Street have done to hang on at a time of government restrictions on public gatherings, restaurants and retail stores. That and keeping the faith that they can get back to their regularly scheduled plans after the pandemic’s been licked.
A historic corridor
Deutschtown is the name given to the East Allegheny neighborhood that was settled mostly by Germans and developed between 1850 and 1900. Sturdy brick buildings along the main street date from the 1860s to 1880s, and many remain intact.
One of the things the business district has long had going for it is that East Ohio Street has been a center for commerce for generations. In a typical year, more than 100,000 cars travel through the corridor daily, according to the Northside conference.
Of course, that was before the COVID-19 pandemic emptied Downtown offices and streets and sent people home to work. The number of visitors has declined — how much is uncertain — but the business district hasn’t lost its appeal.
The slowdown in trade prompted 15 Deutschtown-area businesses and nonprofits to apply for loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, including a church program that needed the stimulus funds to keep operating.
Justin Fitzgerald and partner Nicki Cardilli weren’t among the recipients of the low-interest government loans. But they might illustrate the neighborhood’s resilience — with or without a helping hand.
After 4½ years of operating a food truck, last summer they defied the pandemic and opened Coop Chicken & Waffles at the corner of East Ohio Street and Cedar Avenue, a busy intersection with a nice view of the park.
The business was operating in the black from the day the store opened in August, Mr. Fitzgerald said, the same month the number of new COVID-19 cases plateaued in Allegheny County.
The cases in the county would rise sharply four months later, but the Coop is still serving up food.
Coop Chicken & Waffles employs 10 people, and Mr. Fitzgerald said he would like to add another five. COVID-19 may have suppressed sales, he said, but not significantly. Although the pandemic has cut walk-in traffic to a minimum, takeout orders have risen, and the eatery recently signed with a meal delivery outfit.
‘An easy place to live’
The secret sauce of East Ohio Street, an eclectic mix of chic restaurants, wig stores and boarded-up storefronts among buildings dating from the 19th century, is not what you can see, according to the rising North Side chicken magnate.
“If I walk outside and walk down the street, it’s not what I see, but what I feel,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, 31, a Houston native who worked as a software engineer for 10 years before getting into fast food.
“There’s a bigger force in the area that’s driving economic activity. You can just sort of feel the energy. It’s amazing.”
The energy is conveyed by the street’s vibrancy, the number of shoppers, despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Laverty Jewelers has been an East Ohio Street fixture since 1948. Stephanie Russo, 48, who worked in corporate human resources and took over the jewelry sales and repair operation in October 2015, said old-time residents of the neighborhood are among its biggest cheerleaders.
“We’d had such tremendous growth in the residential neighborhood,” she said. “People really root for this district. There’s a great memory of what this once was. That’s part of the fun of living in the city.”
In addition to the fun, there’s also the competitive advantage that neighborhood places like Laverty’s offer: convenience, plentiful parking and competitive prices when compared to big box stores, she said.
“There’s just such a tremendous spirit on this street,” she said.
A few blocks away, a $5,446 loan through the Paycheck Protection Program helped Josh Cozby keep two employees on the payroll last spring when the number of infections was soaring.
Like Mr. Fitzgerald, he’s not giving up on his dream because of a pandemic. In his case, that comes in the form of a larger space for his store along with a coffee shop a few blocks away.
The 48-year-old former high school teacher owns the Government Center in the 500 block of East Ohio Street. The store sells new and used record albums and, until the COVID-19 outbreak, featured a small space in the back of the store for live music.
He and wife Christy, 47, Oregon natives and the parents of two children, decided to pursue a different lifestyle in Pittsburgh after leaving careers in teaching.
“We didn’t really know where we were going, and we kind of fell in love with Pittsburgh,” Mr. Cozby said, especially the prospect of living and working in the same neighborhood. “We just like it here.”
At the moment — as vaccines slowly roll out to the population and the pandemic drags on — the Cozbys, who live on James Street, are renovating a two-story building at East and Foreland streets.
They plan to move the record store into a space that’s twice as big as the current one. They also plan to rent two apartments in the building and open an espresso bar there by summer, adding more employees to the area.
“It’s an easy place to live,” Mr. Cozby said.
Kris B. Mamula: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699.