Darkness Rising in Pittsburgh's Allentown Neighborhood
Who woulda thunk it? Little ole Allentown, tucked away atop the shadowy hills just south of downtown Pittsburgh, has become a hotbed for businesses with an awesomely dark twist. Back in the day, this small neighborhood thrived due to its proximity to downtown, but in recent years the area has struggled to find its stride amid Pittsburgh's rebirth. In 1888 Allentown became the first area west of the Allegheny Mountains with an electric streetcar (or, "the T", as yinzers know it). The T ran through Allentown to keep those hilltop residents connected to downtown, along with the five inclines that also served the neighborhood. But those inclines closed, the T doesn't run through anymore, and the entire city suffered an enormous blow after the steel and iron industry collapsed in the 1980s. Up until recently, many Pittsburghers had almost forgotten about Allentown. When new businesses wanted to set up shop, they seemed to choose every neighborhood but Allentown. Hell, I lived in Pittsburgh for two whole years before making the trek up those hills to check it out. But thankfully, things seem to be changing for the better up on that hilltop. New businesses have opened up, and more people are dropping in to see what the area has to offer. Over the course of several single-digit days in January, I chatted with some of the fine folks behind this positive change. Black Forge Coffee House, The Weeping Glass, Onion Maiden, and Skull Records were kind enough to open their doors to a girl with a camera who asks a lot of questions, and give me a look in to why they chose Allentown and how their unique businesses came to be. This photo essay is about them. Scroll for more.
Black Forge Coffee House opened in August 2015 on Arlington Avenue and instantly became a hit. It was the first of its kind to open in Pittsburgh, giving folks a new reason to venture over to Allentown, and paving the way for other, similar businesses to follow. In forging their business (pun SO intended!), owners Ashley Corts and Nick Miller wanted to pay homage to their blue collar roots, hence the name Black Forge and tough-as-nails anvil logo. With a dark, mellow vibe, this coffee house is perfect for lounging with your favorite buddy and a warm beverage, or inhaling a vegan blueberry muffin while gazing at the awesome art-covered walls. If you're one of those people who insists on taking their laptop to a coffee shop so you can "get some work done", fear not, there are plenty of tables and room to spread out (just a heads up tho, we all know you're stalking your ex on Facebook). All coffee and food products sold at Black Forge are locally sourced, with exclusively roasted coffee from Zeke's, teas from Gryphon's, pastries from ThreeFifty, sandwiches from Community Kitchen, and lots of vegan treats from Allentown's own Onion Maiden. Each month, the space plays host to a variety of fun events including stand-up comedy, podcasts, live music, community events, painting classes, open mic night, poetry readings, and much more. For a full list of upcoming events, head over to the Black Forge Facebook page to find out what's happening.
For the non-coffee drinker, Black Forge has a very nice variety of teas and tea lattes. Co-owner and barista Ashley fixed me up with a wonderful chai latte that actually tasted like magic. I didn't know magic had a flavor, but thankfully now I do and it can be found at Black Forge Coffee House. Please do yourself a favor and go order one.
Do ya like sipping coffee and playing old school video games? Well, my friends, this is the place to be. The game shown above, aptly named Coffee Crisis, was specifically developed for Black Forge by Mega Cat Studios. It's an "arcade-style beat 'em up" single-player game released for the Sega Genesis. Cozy up on the couch at Black Forge to crush alien overlords, or order your own copy from the online store and play in the comfort of your underwear.
When you walk into this dark little oddities store on Warrington Ave in Allentown, prepare to be amazed. Like, no joke, this place is literally amazing. And beautiful. And perfectly depressing. And magically unusual. And I don't have enough words to describe it, really. Part curiosity shoppe, part event space, The Weeping Glass opened in Fall 2017 with a focus on odd art, unusual gifts, natural history, antiques, and all things morose. The wonderfully macabre space is filled to the brim with interesting art and objects from all over the world. Tarot readings, taxidermy classes, and the monthly Midnight Death Parlor are just a few examples of the special events hosted here. What is this Midnight Death Parlor, you ask? Each month, The Weeping Glass welcomes a different performance artist to tell a candle-lit tale of tragedy and murder. Themed cocktails and dark delicacies are curated and served, and exclusive ephemera is created for each event. Sadly, January's Midnight Death Parlor of Edgar Allen Poe is already sold out, but keep your eye on The Weeping Glass Facebook page for more details and upcoming darkness.
Part of the reason I started this website was to meet interesting people and learn new things, and so far I've hit the jackpot. I was delighted when The Weeping Glass co-owner Kelly taught me about Mari Lwyd, a wassailing folk custom found in South Wales. At Christmas time, the tradition is to carry a mounted horse skull on a pole while you are hidden under a cloak or sackcloth. This is a regional representation of a "hooded animal" tradition that appears throughout Great Britain in various forms. The Weeping Glass actually hosted a winter solstice celebration back in December, complete with the Welsh Mari Lwyd.
The Weeping Glass folks are up to all kinds of strange and dark things these days. Their sister project, Morose & Macabre, hosts The Atrocity Exhibition at Rex Theater, an annual procession of "the beautiful and grotesque" featuring a wicked cabaret of unusual artists, entertainers, and vendors. Founded in 2009, The Atrocity Exhibition is Pittsburgh’s largest and fastest growing annual underground event. Be sure to catch it this Spring!
Is there a void in your tiny black heart because you don't have a raccoon baculum (penis bone) in your strange collection of things? I feel your pain, I really do, and I'm here to tell you that The Weeping Glass can help. Head on up to Allentown and pick out your very own raccoon penis bone for $17.50. Go ahead, wear it as a necklace.
Opened by friends Diana "Dingo" Ngo, Elyse Hoffman, and Brooks Criswell in Spring 2017, Onion Maiden is a self-proclaimed "punk rock-fueled, heavy metal-spawned food purveyor specializing in vegetable-based Asian and American comfort food." They first had a plan to roll out with a food truck, even went to the length of purchasing a truck, but when an affordable and kitchen-ready space came on the market in Allentown, they jumped at the opportunity to open a full size brick and mortar restaurant. Music and food have always gone hand-in-hand for these three pals, because many of the punk and metal bands they listen to are actually vegetarians and vegans themselves, fueling their music with animal-rights filled lyrics. Diana, Elyse, and Brooks wanted to combine their vegetarian/vegan lifestyles with the music that inspires them and, boom, Onion Maiden was born.
The menu and decor reflect a harder, darker edge with black ravens illuminated by candlelight and menu items with names like STRAIGHT TO HELL, FUCK NAZI SYMPATHY, and KALE SATAN, but the food is bright, fresh and delicious, and the staff is warm and friendly. I ordered the STRAIGHT TO HELL rice noodle salad with tofu, lemongrass, peanuts, and herbs. My husband went with COFFINS, a scallion pancake taco with jackfruit, enoki, cabbage, five spice, jalapeño, soy, and kale. Both were outrageously good. When we dined there, the line was out the door on a Wednesday evening. The vote is in, people: punk-rock vegan fare is a massive win in Pittsburgh!
Onion Maiden's baked goods are quite the hit, and we Pittsburghers are lucky to have their tasty vegan treats sprinkled around various establishments throughout the city, including: Black Forge Coffee House, Artisan Cafe, Lili Cafe, and Liliput. Some of their donuts even have pentagrams on them, how fucking cool is that?
Hours: Wed - Sat 12pm - 8pm / Sun 12pm - 6pm
Dusty opened Skull Records on Warrington Ave in Fall 2017, next-door to Onion Maiden. Pink animal-print walls lined with funky art and merchandise let you know right away that this little record store specializes in punk and heavy metal music. Skull Records is one part of a larger project that Dusty is involved with. He also operates Skull Productions as a show promoter, as well as Skull Fest, a summer music festival that takes place at different venues around Pittsburgh in August. The record store hosts a variety of events, listening parties, band appearances, book readings, and performances. In addition to metal and punk vinyl, Skull Records houses an eclectic mix of records, magazines, posters, VHS tapes, merch by Blasphemy Clothing, and locally made artwork.
During my visit, the shop was getting ready to unveil some rare Pittsburgh punk records from the early eighties by a band called The Five, a very exciting find for any record-collecting yinzer. The staff are super knowledgable and friendly, which makes Skull Records a truly great place to buy and sell vinyl. Dusty has a real love for music, and that shows with the incredible time, care, and heart he's put in to curating Skull Records. He loves Allentown, and hopes unconventional businesses like his can continue to thrive there without being compromised by the growth and drastic change some other trendy neighborhoods in Pittsburgh have seen. Get yer ass up there and find some sweet tunes and swag!
With help from amazing small business boosters like Work Hard Pittsburgh and Hilltop Alliance (both located in Allentown), these funky businesses have a chance to create their own weird little haven in one of Pittsburgh's great neighborhoods. It seems to be a place where you can be a bit more out of the ordinary, plus have the freedom and space to spread your wings and let your freak flag fly high. In this neck of the woods, property is much more affordable compared to neighborhoods like Lawrenceville, East Liberty, and Bloomfield. I expect this means we'll see even more wonderful and unique businesses open up on the hilltop real soon. Can't wait to see what the future brings for Allentown and all the lovely folks I had the chance to interview.