Sharpsburg residents cautiously embrace revival
By DIANA NELSON JONES, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Oct. 21, 2017
SHARPSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Sharpsburg used to be the place where everybody knew your nickname. There were Strats, Gooch, Mooch, Toots, Chick, Fish, Mutt, Bear Hands, Half-ear and Jumpy the dog catcher. Carl Gatto was always Sunny.
"Because he's bright," said Albert Perry, the longtime housing inspector, shooting a grin at Mr. Gatto one afternoon as the two men sat with Mr. Gatto's wife, Audrey, and her cousin, Greg Domian, under the Gattos' gazebo.
"Some of these people are still around," Ms. Gatto said.
Nostalgia aside, the gazebo friends, whose ages range from 61 to 92, were more eager to talk about what's coming around — real estate prices, DeepLocal's move from the Strip District, plans to beautify Main Street, riverfront development and what's on tap.
At Brother Tom's Bakery, lunching on a bowl of stuffed cabbage soup, Charles "Chaz" Smith said not everyone is pumped: "People my age, and I'm 63, say, 'It's a fad. It'll never last,' " he said. "I'm like, 'Why not give it a chance?'
A waitress came over to see how everything was, and Smith asked what she thought of the new blue lamp posts.
"They're all right," she said, her expression saying they're really not.
"That was the old high school color," he said. "Royal blue and white."
A former antiques dealer, Smith is collecting input for a community plan for the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization. He said the waitress isn't the only one reluctant to brighten at the new hue of Main Street's once-black lamp posts. This town spent so long in a post-industrial funk that some people still think the other shoe will drop anytime.
"Change is a tough thing here," he said. "But I see a new beginning."
Two new craft breweries — Dancing Gnome and Hitchhiker — have attracted swarms of people, mostly young, mostly from elsewhere, without a single police call, said borough manager Bill Rossey.
DeepLocal, a marketing and tech innovator whose clients include Google, is tripling its office space and doubling its fabrication potential in a move to Sharpsburg later this year. "We wanted to stay as close to the city as we could," said DeepLocal founder Nathan Martin, "and we wanted a neighborhood where a lot of change is happening."
A blend of old and new
If Riverfront 47 is built along the Allegheny River, mostly in Sharpsburg, it will be the borough's largest new construction in decades. The Mosites Co. and Allegheny Development Partners propose 47 acres of mixed use, including housing and a riverfront trail connection between Aspinwall and Etna.
Before it closed at the site in the 1990s, Azcon Scrap Corp. was the borough's biggest taxpayer, so Sharpsburg is eager to see the land returned to the tax rolls, Rossey said.
The project depends on $3 million from the state to widen 19th Street into the site, and Aspinwall still has to settle on a second entrance. Mosites is discussing with the state a possible third one near the Highland Park Bridge, said Chris Minnerly, a Mosites architect.
Like its Allegheny River neighbor Millvale, Sharpsburg is already seeing housing prices jump. Under the gazebo, the talk turned to real estate.
"It's like a snowball going downhill," said Domian, borough council president. "It used to be a house was on the market for six months and now it's six days. There's a newly remodeled home on South Canal going on the market for $339,000."
Trulia reports the pending sales of two other Sharpsburg homes for $352,000 and $379,900.
"I'm just in awe that a house here could be that much," Ms. Gatto said.
A land trust to preserve affordable homes "is not something we should put on the back burner," Rossey said. "We want to keep things affordable for people who live here now."
Sharpsburg is 23 blocks long, between the Allegheny River and Route 28. Its population is a dense 3,500 people, 15 percent of whom live below the poverty line and more than 90 percent of whom are white. Properties are a mix of vinyl-sided, frame and brick row houses and detached homes with porches. A lot of people grow tomatoes and peppers in gardens or in planters on decks and stoops.
In the mid-'90s, resident Gerry DeLuca told the Post-Gazette, that one of her children in California was urging her to move there, but she said, "You can't hand a dish of spaghetti over the fence out there."
Sharpsburg is still that town.
"There's still a strong sense of family and tradition here," said Councilman Matthew Rudzki, 31, who will become mayor in January. His great-great-grandfather emigrated from Italy, as did many grandparents and great-grandparents of people in Sharpsburg. "My grandfather was a councilman, my dad was police chief. I got on council in 2011.
"We knew we needed destinations to put Sharpsburg on the map," he said. "Now, you should sit on my porch one night and watch the stream of people from Dancing Gnome to Hitchhiker. It's unbelievable."
'In love with Sharpsburg'
Brittany Reno, 27, grew up in Butler County. She did a stint with AmericaCorps in Sharpsburg after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh and found a sweet spot of potential there.
"I bought a house (in 2013) and started going to community meetings," she said. "I fell in love with Sharpsburg. I like working on this scale because your efforts can have so much effect."
Now on borough council and executive director of the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization, she is working on an eco-district plan and a land trust.
"Housing here has been affordable for a long time," she said, "but we're reading the writing on the wall. Preserving diversity of race, age and income is going to be so important in the next five years."
Rossey became the borough manager two years ago after 10 years as Tarentum's manager. With the breadth of his connections as president of the Pennsylvania Boroughs Association, he has gotten $3 million in grants for the borough. One, for $1 million from Alcosan, will help Sharpsburg, Shaler and O'Hara separate sewage lines at Ravine Street, keeping 200 million gallons of stormwater a year out of the treatment system, he said.
Collaboration extends to working with Etna and Millvale on a comprehensive plan to address the economy, housing and environment, said Nanci Goldberg, secretary of the neighborhood organization and teacher in Fox Chapel Area School District. "So it's not just 3,500 people but three times that many, which could help us leverage more investment."
Audrey Gatto has lived most of her 76 years in Sharpsburg, and most of that time it was self-sustaining.
"All the neighbors would sweep the streets," she said. "You could walk through the business district and get anything you needed."
When Miller Springs, Azcon and other nearby industries closed, people left, and more properties turned into rentals, resulting in a decline in upkeep, Domian said
"Now," Ms. Gatto said, "people are taking care of the fronts of their stores and houses again."
As Sharpsburg picks up, people wonder, will it finally shake the reputation it has suffered at least since its students first showed up at Fox Chapel Area High School in 1970.
"The first year of the merger, my first day, there was a fight," Domian said. "The principal assumed it was started by, quote, that scum from Sharpsburg. They called us river rats."
"I think the attitude is still there," Ms. Gatto said.
"It gets better over time," said her husband, always Sunny. "It'll change."
If an upside of Sharpsburg rising is that someday, its kids won't be called river rats, a downside is that no one will remember the nicknames.
Before donning his porkpie hat and getting up from lunch at Brother Tom's, Smith tossed one out for old time's sake: "Egghead. He used to own the pool hall."
Given there was a Half-ear and a Bear Hands, one wonders, was he called that for the shape of his head?
"No, I think because he was smart," Mr. Smith said. "He was an interesting character. But we still have a bunch of interesting characters."
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com