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Strong Community Roots Sustaining, Supporting Etna’s Revival

Once a bustling, industrial neighborhood, the Borough of Etna lost some of its shine when the mills began to close, and it lost some of its visibility once Routes 8 and 28 were constructed.

But today, Etna is undergoing a revival. Even native Pittsburghers may be surprised to learn that the small, one-square mile borough was the first in the country to be certified as an EcoDistrict, a neighborhood that engages in sustainable development.

Though only approximately 3,400 people reside in Etna, about 200 businesses operate there. If two words were to describe the business climate of Etna, they would be ‘friendly’ and ‘engaged,’ said Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage.

“The business district is very engaged in the community. We do events for families like winter ice skating on the main drag where businesses participate and donate money or provide candy,” she said. “Etna has always been that way—very people-oriented. We’ve gone through some hard times, and people really help each other out.”

The community also has an active economic development corporation (EEDC) that engages in fundraising events to help new and older businesses, such as providing façade grants to help businesses update their buildings.

Visitors will not find any chain stores in Etna’s main business streets but rather an eclectic mix of new and old, such as Winschel Hardware, established in 1885 and the oldest business in Etna; Pollak’s Candies, in business since the 1940s; and the newer Divertido, a store that carries new and vintage goods.

Kiya Tomlin is a newcomer to the borough, having originally opened her women’s clothing store in East Liberty and her manufacturing space in Homewood. “I always envisioned having one space where we could do everything—sell and manufacture—in the same space,” said Tomlin, adding that having two locations was not efficient.

“I like going into underdeveloped neighborhoods, those that need love and care and attention,” she said of searching for a new location for her business. When she saw her future building in Etna, she knew the space would be perfect for her, even though she was unfamiliar with the borough at the time.

“I have to admit that the little curved drainage gutters down the sidewalk was a selling feature; they had really done a lot with curb appeal before we got here,” she added.

Fast forward to today, and Tomlin is a proud Etna businessowner. Her comfortable and stylish clothing line is displayed in her storefront, along with the production of the clothes in the same space. “During the pandemic, we used that time to really give the store a different, more experiential look so people can see the clothes in motion on real people and get a feel for the vision of the clothes unlike in a typical store,” she said.

There’s something about shopping that can build up an appetite, and fortunately, Etna offers a variety of restaurants, such as Porky’s, owned by Chad Jockel. The restaurant has occupied the same building since 1895, with the name changing to Porky’s in the 1940s; Jockel bought the place and rebranded it in 2018, adding 30 taps and transforming it into a BBQ-style restaurant.

“We looked at about 30 different properties; the second we walked into this one, we instantly fell in love. We also fell in love with the neighborhood and wanted to do as many things as we could for Etna,” said Jockel.

Pittsburgh is known for its pierogies, and perhaps no one is more dedicated to making these palatable Polish potato pillows than Carl Funtal, owner of Cop Out Pierogies. Funtal serves customers from around the country and is happy with his decision to operate out of Etna.

“My vision is somewhere between a Mayberry and a Lawrenceville, where people can get around nicely but prices aren’t quite as high,” said Funtal of his outlook for Etna’s future.

Alongside these established eateries, new restaurants are flocking to Etna, including the Rear End Gastropub & Garage, which is scheduled to open in a limited capacity this summer with a full bar. Co-owner Mike Rios and his partners were anxious to open up a restaurant, and when they saw the former garage become available, they thought it was the perfect opportunity.

“Since it was built out of a 1940s-era garage, we wanted guests to have an experience based on the pre-interstate road trip, like Route 66,” he explained. “Families would jump in the car and drive across the country. Along the way, they’d run into different stops for food, so we wanted to mirror that in our menu and drinks.”

Etna also has its share of art spaces and dance studios. Gretchen Shelesky opened Ideal Dance in 2010, which holds classes for toddlers through adults and is one of the only studios in the area to offer dance classes for those with special needs. The studio’s dancers come from all over Pittsburgh.

“I love the location—it’s got a wonderful full wall of windows on the street side which, with the help of our full wall of mirrors, really fills the whole studio with natural light,” Shelesky said.

In keeping with Etna’s theme that everything old is new again, as well as a nod to the borough’s industrial past, the New York-based development company, the AM Group, is refurbishing a turn-of-the-century pipe factory and converting it into an 86,000 sq. ft. tech/flex space at 51 Bridge Street.

“The bones and layout of the building provide a great opportunity and space for the growing industries of today and the future—robotics, AI (artificial intelligence), R&D, manufacturing and life sciences,” said partner Tom Sabol.

Renovation will start in the coming months. “Once we saw the building, we fell in love with it and also fell in love with Etna,” Sabol said. “There is a strong business and entrepreneurial sense in the community.

“You also notice what the borough has done with the streetscapes: they redid a lot of the sidewalks through a beautification process. You see a vibrancy in the neighborhood that we wanted to be a part of. The borough and all the businesses have been extremely welcoming to us,” Sabol added.

Business owners agree that there is a lot of strong support between those who own businesses in the area and the larger community. “Everybody is very helpful, and people patronize each other’s businesses; the borough is very helpful as well,” said Rios.

“Etna has a great working-class feel and is super friendly,” added Jockel. “Everyone works hard, and everyone is willing to help each other; the community is fantastic here.”

Rios does not believe that Etna needs to reinvent itself, but to grow from where and what it already is. “It has a nice community feel. We want to grow and not lose that. For a long time, Etna has been a sign you see on 28 that people pass through. We want to let people know that Etna is on the map,” he said.

“Etna is really quaint,” added Tomlin. “It’s like a flashback in time where you get that old-town, homey, comfortable feeling, as opposed to other areas of the city where it's just a bunch of shops. There is some character about Etna that makes it feel like it's 50 years ago, in a refreshing way.”

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