There may have been a time when every American city had a place like The Strip in Pittsburgh. Cincinnati still has Findlay Market, Columbus has North Market, Charleston, SC its City Market, and New Orleans’s French Market is still going strong.
These are areas of a city where vendors of all sizes and flavors seem to assemble to participate in simple commerce. In Pittsburgh it’s The Strip consisting of three city blocks on either side of Penn Avenue just north of the downtown.
My wife and I stumbled upon it after having lunch at Lidia’s Italian restaurant just off of 14th Street and Penn. The matridi told us about it and said he liked going there when he needed an escape from his job.
The Strip is a hodgepodge of permanent vendors selling ethnic foods, meats, poultry, seafood, vegetables and groceries of every nature. Toss in a several bakeries, an assortment of restaurants, and a sprinkling of taverns.
Interspersed with the permanent stores, at curb’s edge and protected by pop-up awnings, are the street vendors. Selling everything from Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirts, to sunglasses, ethnic art, vintage clothing, knock-off purses, footwear and socks, baked delicacies, and plenty of street food including a gal selling grilled pizza and a fellow sitting under an umbrella serving up raw oysters from a bed of ice.
In my study of blues music I’ve often read about a Chicago district, Maxwell Street, that must have been similar to The Strip but much larger. The history books talk about how lively Maxwell was and how many famous blues musicians cut their chops playing for tips on its street corners.
During our visit to The Strip we only encountered one entertainer, an older musician playing brief excerpts of popular standards on a very old trombone. Like always we dropped some folding money into his bucket. People who make your visit more pleasant are working people and depend on your patronage just as any of the other retailers.
I don’t know about the Short North area of Columbus, but one can still find a group of musicians jamming at Findlay Market in Cincinnati. New Orleans, of course, is famous for its street musicians, mimes, jugglers, tap dancing kids, and much more. Street life in NOLA is alive and well, even after the devastation of Katrina.
Mostly urban areas like The Strip are disappearing from the pressure and lure of major shopping malls. For me, though, I can’t conceive of a modern mall having the vibrancy of life found in the everyday streets of a large city. These places are real, they have a history and a reality that could never be matched by some architect’s contrived vision of what life should be like.
If I was to ever consider moving to a city I think I’d want to live in a second floor flat, above an Italian bakery, in a place like The Strip.