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The businesses on the stretch of Penn Avenue that falls between Lawrenceville and East Liberty have worked for years to build a vibrant arts community full of galleries, shops and restaurants that is more than just a through-way.
But it hasn’t been easy.
A 1998 arts initiative to get artists to live and work on the block brought galleries and then restaurants and shops that benefited from the foot traffic. It even brought monthly gallery crawls that led to more revenue in one night than some places saw in weeks.
The 2008 economic recession took some of those businesses back out. A construction project in the early 2010s tore up parts of Penn Avenue, cutting off access to sidewalks, parking and revenue. Then 2020 happened.
“We were just getting to the upswing,” said Nina Gibbs, the community engagement and planning specialist with the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., the two neighborhoods surrounding Penn Avenue. “I feel like it ended before anyone really got to enjoy it.”
Yet again the business owners on the block are adapting.
John Mahood, who owns a marketing and web design company that has been on Penn Avenue since 2005, said COVID won’t make business owners call it quits.
“The spirit’s always been there. It’s there today even during COVID; people are just a little bit in hibernation,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be awesome.
“[But] we might have to wait a minute.”
A balancing act at One Point One Yoga
Megan Flinn, owner of One Point One Yoga, released the studio’s first virtual class video on the same day Gov. Tom Wolf closed all in-person, nonessential businesses. The timing was coincidental.
Suddenly, her longtime vision of creating an online community was the only option. “So every day after that we were putting out one video for people,” Ms. Flinn said.
By June, the studio was able to open its doors again but — after talking with students — Ms. Flinn decided to stay virtual. Most people weren’t willing to wear a mask.
Instead, the studio went outdoors in parks and shared spaces and, eventually, to students’ backyards. “People came in their cars, they left in their cars and we had time in between when we got to be together again,” Ms. Flinn said.
Amid all of this, she was still paying rent on a studio she didn’t use.
Her own story is a bit like that of the block’s. Before the financial stress of COVID-19, she had been battling the financial stress that comes with an unexpected surgery and cancer diagnosis. Just as she was getting back on her feet, the virus hit.
She applied for about 20 loans and grants but since her teachers were considered independent contractors and the first round of Paycheck Protection Program funding was meant to cover payroll, she didn’t get any initially. When she finally did, she got only enough to cover half a month’s rent.
Instead of cutting teachers’ salaries, she offered fewer classes, paying them the same rate but fewer times a week.
By September, the classes had shifted back inside, but only about a tenth of the normal customers returned, Ms. Flinn said. Some didn’t feel comfortable going anywhere, some wanted to go somewhere where a mask wasn’t required and some lost a job and couldn’t afford the classes.
Next September, Ms. Flinn will have to make a decision: renew the lease or go back to a business model she used to follow of practicing yoga wherever there’s space.
“There’s only so much savings that a person can dip into,” she said.
Doing more with less at East End Community Thrift
Between Winebiddle and Evaline streets on Penn Avenue sits the East End Community Thrift, a volunteer-run shop that has been selling dishes, clothing and winter coats since 1993.
The thrift store closed for most of the spring and summer, even after state guidelines permitted reopening. Volunteers needed time to clean and organize donations that hadn’t stopped coming in even when shopping was off-limits.
When it did reopen, store manager Shawna Hammond could tell by the steady stream of regular customers, often those who live in the neighborhood and stop by two or three times a week, that they were glad to have it back.
“They want somebody to talk to.”
The thrift store is run by the neighboring Thomas Merton Center, a social justice organization. The store is funded primarily through donations and other fundraisers, which has become more challenging amid a pandemic, said executive director Gabriel McMorland.
It has only raised prices one time in its history — from $1 to $2.
Getting the design team off the bench at Imagebox
The design team at Imagebox, a marketing and web services company, has been “sitting half on the bench” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, said founder John Mahood.
The developers, on the other hand, are working double. “We say ‘yes’ to everything,” Mr. Mahood said. “All these little things that maybe in non-COVID days I might have said, ‘oh, heck, no’ … Now, we’re absolutely here to help.”
In October, the company was balancing about 150 projects — up from the 80 or so a normal workload would entail. Because the projects were smaller than usual, profits were still low.
Most clients moved away from the print products, leaving the designers on staff with little to do.
In March, Mr. Mahood applied for federal PPP funding. He credits the loans for keeping the designers on staff, using that time to teach them new skills in web design and other training. “As the world opens back up, we’re going to be able to do all the great things we were able to do pre-COVID but also we’ve picked up a ton of new skills,” he said.
And he and his 14 employees will probably continue working from home, at least part of the time, eliminating any need to expand the space.
“Do we have to invest half a million dollars to put a building in the back?” he said. “Now, we invest $15 a month in another Zoom account.”
Grilled cheese from LA and donations from 412 Food Rescue
Everyday’s a Sunday, a breakfast and lunch cafe, has doubled as a pick-up spot for people in need of food for the last two years. The restaurant collects food donated to 412 Food Rescue, a local nonprofit, and turns it into Sunday dinners and other meals for families.
The restaurant didn’t get involved in the work because of COVID, but owner and chef Natalie DeiCas said the number of people in need and the number of donations has continued to go up since the virus hit.
“It’s devastating just to see families not be able to eat,” she said. “But it’s wonderful to be able to provide them food.”
At Everyday’s a Sunday, Ms. DeiCas said the restaurant had to let two employees go from the eight-person team and has watched orders and revenue fluctuate since March. At first, it felt like they were one of the only restaurants still open for takeout, so the orders kept rolling in. Later, as other restaurants came online, revenue dipped.
The cafe is partnering with other virtual restaurants, what Ms. DeiCas called “ghost restaurants,” from Los Angeles to roll out their menu ideas to Pittsburgh customers. The LA restaurant gets a cut of the profits and Everyday’s a Sunday gets some new dishes, from cheesesteaks to breakfast burritos to grilled cheese.
Ms. DeiCas didn’t apply for the first round of funding from the Paycheck Protection Program. This time around, she plans to fill out an application.
‘Up and above’ guidelines at Artisan
Jason Angst didn’t agree with some of the health and safety guidelines coming from the CDC — at least not when it came to an eight-hour-long tattoo session that involves artists getting up close and personal with their work.
From his perspective at Artisan Tattoo, 5001 Penn Ave., wearing a mask wasn’t going to stop the spread of the virus for that long of a period of time.
Mr. Angst set up an elaborate procedure to go “up and above the CDC’s guidelines” and insisted the tattoo artists have a conversation with clients about the risks. “I said all that, everybody agreed to it, nobody did it,” he said. “So I closed the business.”
Now, he’s operating as a one-man independent contractor and financial and health concerns have meant he lost about 40% of his usual business.
Mr. Angst was able to receive funds through the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program and later through some unemployment benefits. He owns and lives in the building and his overhead costs went down significantly once the other artists stopped coming in — and once he turned off the heat more often than not.
Financially, things are OK. Mentally, it’s been harder.
“At this point I’m solid, I’m stable [financially], I have leveled off in a way that is comfortable and only slightly anxiety inducing,” Mr. Angst said. “The largest difficulty is actually just making it to work.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever been … There are days when I can’t get out of bed.”
Piping hot decisions from Bantha Tea Bar
At Bantha Tea Bar, COVID-19 had been affecting operations long before Pennsylvania mandated business shutdowns.
Most of the tea that stocks the shelves comes from India and China, said co-owner Jack Ball. So when the virus started affecting manufacturing in China, it delayed the tea shipments. As international travel slowed, the tea ended up stuck in one country or another.
“It’s going to be a long time before it gets back to normalcy,” he said.
At Bantha, which opened in 2015, Mr. Ball said the shop feels the loss of the different types of customers it served: nonprofits that gathered for meetings, “laptop campers” who set up a workstation and stayed for hours, and out-of-towners who found the store online and wanted to check it out in person.
Now Mr. Ball finds people like to come in, experience the teas and then go outside to settle in at an outdoor table or take the mug on a walk through the nearby cemetery.
Bantha started offering a “tea of the month” subscription service in November, partnered with a local restaurant to offer deals on takeout meals and rented space to the neighboring bike shop.
Mr. Ball has had to do some rearranging, sometimes paying vendors late or apologizing when he can’t make the usual orders. Bantha’s co-owner owns the building and has temporarily paused rent payments.
Mr. Ball is optimistic the spring will come with some loosened restrictions.
“If we can go back up then, then that’s fine, it’ll be OK,” he said. “But if there’s another shutdown and nonessential businesses and all that, it’ll be really difficult.”
Lauren Rosenblatt: firstname.lastname@example.org