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Revitalizing Brookline - Major Hurdles

There's plenty of blame to go around for Brookline's revitalization woes.

Brookline has a number of hurdles to overcome if it wants to see a true and lasting revitalization, and the most important blame falls squarely on the businesses and citizens of the neighborhood.

We could talk about parking and taxes and roads all we like, but let's face it--these are things that are really out of our hands as Brookline residents. We make our feelings known to the city council and to our state government, and we have to live with what they give us, until next election when, if they haven't given us enough, we can vote them out (though Western PA's Demoractic choke hold for the past century plus makes it difficult to effect real change at the governmental level). So let's focus on what we can change.

I was out with my wife yesterday on our way to drop off some paperwork for her job. Along the way we stopped on the Boulevard to grab a cuppa at Cannon Coffee. We parked, as it happened, right outside of the new Isis Cafe, located where Brookline Produce once was. I looked at the business and my heart sank to see a brightly flashing "OPEN" sign in the window...but not a soul inside.

Seriously. Not a soul. Not a single person sitting at a table.

That's a near-death-sentence for a new business.

Now, one could argue that part of the issue is that the Isis Cafe still has the gigantic "Brookline Produce" sign hanging in front of it instead of a nice, big "Isis Cafe" sign, and I'm sure that's part of the issue. But it got me thinking that there are some bigger issues at hand in Brookline that absolutely have to be addressed before we can enjoy the revitalization that we'd all love to see.

Firstly, the businesses need to start taking responsibility for their own success. What I mean by this are things like advertizing, visible signage, and most importantly of all, real hours. The Isis Cafe needs to get rid of that Brookline Produce sign and replace it with a sign for their current business so people actually see they're there. And now many businesses along Brookline Boulevard are only open from 10-5, Monday through Friday? How do you expect to have a thriving retail or service business if your only hours of operation are while everyone in the city is at work and can't patronize you?

A shop or service business should be open until at least 7 or 8 PM--that's just rote and should be accepted as common knowledge. Some businesses should be open later. My friends and I would spend a great deal of time at Cannon Coffee if they were open until 10 instead of 8.

Advertizing is a trickier issue. Commercials on TV cost a lot of money, and advertizements in local newspapers are almost passé these days--it's arguable how much publicity that would generate. Yet even still, businesses absolutely must take the initiative to get the word. Flyers and menus are great options--Pizza establishments have been operating that way for years. But you need a "street team" of people willing to hit the bricks and deliver said flyers door to door. Stick them in mailboxes or roll them up and put them in the handles of screen doors. Sometimes old-school ways still work. Word of mouth is all well and good, but you need to attract an initial audience before you can get word of mouth. Did anyone know that Isis Cafe has a sampler special on Saturdays where you get to taste a large variety of things on their menu at a very affordable price? Probably not, because a lot of people don't even know they're there yet, let alone that great deal. I'm not giving details because I want people to contact Isis directly to ask about it.

And no, I have no affiliation with them. I'm just kind of picking on them and using them as an example, because they're the new kid on the block, and it was noticing their emptiness that inspired this blog. Also, I would really like to see a new business on the Boulevard succeed.

The use of these storefronts is another issue that springs to mind. It's great that we have a few of our city and state reps right up on the Boulevard with office space in our neighborhood, but really, how many people walk in there on a daily basis to talk to Natalya Rudiak, and how much space does she really need? Said space could be rented out to a new business that would actually improve the local economy. Now I'm not saying that our representatives should move out, but rather that they should really have MUCH smaller spaces, and leave the bigger spaces for actual businesses to fill.

So okay, I've put out what I see the big issues are with existing businesses, but how about a larger issue--people in Brookline don't seem to do anything to support new businesses. We all complain about how we need more new businesses to revitalize the area, but when one opens up...nobody goes there. This leads to vacant storefronts because said new businesses can't pay their bills, and potential new businesses see it as a bad risk because, well, nobody will patronize them if they open in Brookline. People in our community tend to be insular and creatures of habit. They've been going to the Moonlight or the Brookline Pub for decades, so that's where they go. As Sweet Brown might say, "ain't nobody got time for nothin' else."

Brookline residents need to spread the love a little. Don't abandon your favorite watering holes--by all means continue to patronize legacy businesses often. But give the new places a shot as well. Stop in, see what's going on, and drop a few bucks on a drink or a trinket. This will not only help new businesses, but it will continue to build Brookline as a community. Step out of your comfort zone and you will often discover something new and exciting that you never knew you'd enjoy, and you may make some entirely new friends to complement the ones you've had for a long time.

Now finally, let's turn to the landlords who own property on the Boulevard. I can't claim to know what rent is but I expect it varies wildly. One business owner who just has a hole-in-the-wall space told me it was because it was all he could afford. Then there's that huge and recently-failed new convenience store space down by the cannon which was advertized a couple years ago at $500/month, which is obnoxiously cheap for a commercial space of that size. The problem here is twofold: rent control and lower rent for the more expensive properties would be an excellent idea, if landlords could be counted upon to put their own greed aside for the betterment of the community. Not likely, but we'll give them the benefit of the doubt for our purposes here.

A bigger issue, and one to which landlords should open their eyes, is the nature of the businesses opening. The aforementioned convenience store, for example. That place was filthy, disgusting, and poorly run from the moment it opened its doors. The owners, one got the sense, leapt into it without looking or thinking, banking on the low rent to give them success. Frankly, that place would've been far better run by the owners of Cannon Coffee or the Geekadrome, who could be in a space double their size for way cheaper.

What am I saying here and what does it have to do with the landlords? The answer is simple: landlords with commercial space should take some time to actually vet their prospective tenants. For example--got a business plan? Let's see it. If not, then you don't get to rent. Sure, this is asking landlords to take on more time and responsibility in getting tenants, but think about it. It's far better in the long run to have a tenant that's going to last, take care of the property, and pay you rent on a monthly basis for years to come, than it is to have one who opens shop for six months, destroys the property, then closes down and vanishes, leaving you holding the ball for the year-long cleanup and repair job while the property sits vacant, then forcing you to have to raise rent to recoup your costs. 

Brookline is caught between an older generation who liked things the way the were and shudder at the thought of young upstarts coming in, and a younger generation--those young upstarts--who want the world but aren't taking responsibility for making it once their doors open. And hovering over it all are the landlords, who could do more to control rent and vet tenants, and the community at large, who don't support new startups as strongly as we should. If we want Brookline to once again be a vibrant community, we all need to work together to make it happen.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Concerned Citizen February 25, 2013 at 04:14 PM
You make some excellent points. Your main point is in fact the biggest problem; the hours that the businesses keep. Everyone does need to pitch in and work together to make it happen, but I doubt you'll see many (if any) landlords do their share. But I think realistically the hours the stores keep is their biggest problem. And your point about the "young upstarts" couldn't be more accurate. Everyone wants something more but no one is willing to do anything. And that goes for a lot of areas, not just Brookline. I would love to see the boulevard get revitalized, but there seems to be a lot to overcome. It's a shame.
Erin Faulk February 25, 2013 at 04:20 PM
Great entry Jason, and thanks for sharing. For those who do want to get involved, Brookline has several community organizations that meet each month, and the public is encouraged to attend. Here are the dates and times of those meetings: http://dormont-brookline.patch.com/articles/do-you-know-when-brookline-meetings-are
Bob Dobbs February 25, 2013 at 07:24 PM
yes much agreed on the signage issue with Isis Cafe and for the non-sensical hours. i have been meaning to go try them out and will, soon . i will say, the blvd. can sometimes be menacing later at night with the thuggy teenagers and drunks mulling out gordon's bar. i was followed once or twice and i'm sure i was going to be mugged or worse both times . considering it's the cops' neighborhood of choice, it can still be a bit shady, after-hours. i agree whole-heartedly on the get out of your comfort-zone thing with the moonlite patrons/zippys/pub. this is part of a bigger problem brookline-wide with the old boy narrow-mindedness and I hope it can evolve beyond that around here . it will, slowly, as more people move into the area that aren't from the south hills or even pittsburgh. need more of that and less yinzer-y elements, imho .
Spiltpop February 25, 2013 at 08:07 PM
I've mentioned the hours before, too. If I could shop at 7:30 or 8, I would shop more. I do spend more at Dollar General because they are open till 10. Life isn't Mayberry for most people. I wish I were home in Brookline all day, but that just isn't possible. And, the Isis call out is funny as the last several times I drove along the blvd I looked for this new cafe and never could see it. Now, at least, I know where it is. As far as Brookline's reputation, I do have problems getting folks to come try Mateo's, but it's delicious. I buy from Las Palmas frequently, and mention it to friends but they rarely make the trek from other South Hills communities even though they'll run to East Liberty where the cool kids go. We have better Chinese and better Greek food than more expensive places. I always try our State Store first, though I've gone by if there's no parking. Carrying more than a bottle or two gets heavy if you have to walk a couple of blocks. On the other hand, I've made Pitaland runs for people who don't live in Brookline but know their reputation. Our sister community Beechview suffers even worse business problems but they have some great places to go to, too. They had one of the best Mexican restaurants I've been to. The new place, Casa Rasta is great. I haven't tried the butcher yet. I include them because taking care of Brookline, Beechview, Dormont, and other small businesses in the area takes the same interest in making our part of the world better.
Jason Vey February 27, 2013 at 05:40 PM
Regarding the "thuggy" teenagers and shady streets, firstly, a lot of them are just kids. Heck, I used to hang out on street corners with my crew when I was a kid and we never really bothered anyone (though Bob, I acknowledge your experience with being followed). Secondly, if more businesses stayed open late, to encourage more folks to be on the streets, they would by definition become safer. Criminals don't like witnesses. One of the problems with Beechview is the crime. That needs to be gotten under control.
Concerned Citizen February 27, 2013 at 06:27 PM
Jason and Bob, you are both right about Beechview. Sadly, there will be no revitalization for Beechview like the one being undertaken by Brookline. I believe that Brookline can be revitalized, but there doesn't seem to be much that can be done about Beechview. I lived in Beechview for a year back in the early 90's, and live in Dormont (where I grew up) now. The difference 20 years can make! Beechview seems beyond repair at this point. It was starting to get bad when I lived there and has gone so far downhill that it doesn't look like it will change for the better. Brookline is a different story. There are still plenty of people that care about their community enough to want to bring it back to the "glory days," but too many people with nothing invested in the community in Beechview (including landlords who couldn't care less about the types of people they move in) have made it what it is today. I have hope for Brookline though. I do hope that the recent interest in revitalizing the community makes a difference.
erika March 01, 2013 at 08:42 PM
Several years ago, around 2004 or so, business man bernardo Katz had bought up many of the buildings and promised to revitalize beechview. For some reason he pulled out and screwed them - ran off to the tropics somewhere leaving many of his properties in foreclosure. That certainly didn't help beechview's current plight.
erika March 01, 2013 at 08:44 PM
Also agree that i would shop A LOT more on the Boulevard if the stores were open until 9. I don't get home until about 7 if i have to work late. I try to get up there still as much as possible.
Erin Faulk March 01, 2013 at 08:54 PM
I've heard about this, too, but I don't know all the details of the situation. Beechview actually has a lot of its own community groups, but I don't think they're as well-advertised as they could be. Beechview has a great community garden, for example, and if anyone is interested in taking part in that there's a meeting about it this Saturday (March 2): http://patch.com/A-2wmR
Susan Hinz March 15, 2013 at 05:12 AM
I understand life us different now than say 20 years! People don't walk to the businesses on the Blvd! Take cars!!! I'm a walker!! We have some nice stores and to make them work, get people to know what's up there! The Blvd is getting changes! New streets, new sidewalks, maybe more benches! One of the problems is garbage on streets! You cannot have a nice area, if people don't care! Some do, but not enough! There us a pretzel shop, an ice cream shop, and don't tell me you don't know it's there, since 1970. Actually I work there and where are the people!! If people don't shop there, of course it will fail! Once the Blvd is updated and looking nice there should be a special celebration! I lived here since 1989 and worked at the I/c Shop since 1990. We need the younger generation with children to use these services! People need to go to businesses and talk to owners! I bet Cannon Coffee would sty open longer! They have a very nice coming together on Wednesday nights, if people only knew and for free, except coffee! Free wifi also! We need to get the word out! I like the idea of getting fliers out at homes, have children for a little deliver them! The Brookliner does a good job of advertising business! You can pick a copy up at the I/c Shop when delivered! Life is what people make of it! We need vitalization of our small business areas in Pittsburgh!
Robert L. Beiler April 02, 2013 at 03:20 PM
Hi Erika..I'm sorry I didn't see your posting before now. Bernardo Katz was no businessman, he was a "con-artist" who came to the USA thru the Pgh Symphony. both he and his wife were musicians. After being introduced to many local politicians, he convinced them that he has great wealth and ambition to do good for the city. These politicans (who should remain un-named) helped Katz aquire property and loans. He is resposible for moving Espanic speaking people to Beechview to occupy the property he purchased there, and as you mentioned, he promised to "revitalize" Beechview. He also made deals to purchase building downtown. Mainly what he was running was a "Ponzi Scheme" with Pittsburgh realistate. When it finally caught up to him he escaped back to Argentina leaving his wife and family living in a nice house in Mt. Lebanon that couldn't be touched because it was in her name. To the best of my knowledge he has never been prosecuted and I believe his family moved back to Argentina also but I never followed up the story. He "stuck" a lot of people and is a major embarrassment to some "big player" politicians in the area. (even though it is not discussed)

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