Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My Day in the South Hills

UPDATE, 5/25/07: Back in Dormont this morning. I did notice a "welcome to Dormont" sign heading south on West Liberty Ave. And I had some good coffee at Fredo's on Potomac Ave in Dormont.

UPDATE, 5/24/07: A friend who lives in Mt. Lebanon tells me that she prefers the coffee and pastries at Uptown Coffee.

Or, Being a Tourist in the Suburbs.

Twice a year I take the car for service at a dealership on West Liberty Avenue in the South Hills section of Pittsburgh. West Liberty Avenue is the main drag that divides two Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Beechview to the west and Brookline to the east. Not much happens along West Liberty Avenue except for car selling and car repair so my usual practice is to leave the car and walk about a mile up the road to the suburban borough of Dormont. Dormont is a typical inner-ring streetcar suburb. Not the most exciting place in the world, but, as I've said before, Dormont has a nice little business district along Potomac Avenue and West Liberty Avenue with a newly re-opened movie theater, a couple of restaurants and delis, and a used bookstore. So my usual practice is to take a walk, buy a couple of cheap mystery novels, and sit down for a late breakfast at the Dor-Stop diner. The car place calls, tells me about some mysterious problem that will cost me a couple of hundred dollars more than I thought I would spend that day, I approve it, finish my breakfast, and take a walk back down hill to get the car. A pleasant way to waste half a day. (I used to leave the car, take the bus downtown, transfer to a bus to Oakland, go to my office at the university, work for a few minutes, and then reverse the process to try to pick up the car before rush hour. An unpleasant way to waste half a day.)
Yesterday, however, one thing led to another and I didn't get the car up there until 10 am and they were backed up so they said the car wouldn't ready be before 3.

What to do?

I decided to keep walking up West Liberty Avenue until I got to the fabled borough of Mount Lebanon and its famous Washington Road business district. Mount Lebanon has the reputation for having one of the best school districts in the area, a nice shopping district, and the second-largest Jewish community in the area (after Squirrel Hill). I stopped in at Aldo Coffee, which some people say is the best in town, for a double espresso and a pastry, and enjoyed an hour or so there reading the book I had along with me. (By the way, I thought the espresso was good but nothing special which means that a) those who says it's the best are wrong; b) my tastebuds aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate the best coffee in town; or c) the barista had an off day. The pastry was ok.) Then I hung out in the Mt. Lebanon Public Library where I caught up on the last six months of the New York Review of Books. After this, I browsed for a few minutes in Rolliers, a good hardware and houseware store whose Shadyside branch (actually the original) is missed.

Then I headed back down the hill to Dormont, bought my used books and had lunch at the Dor-Stop, got my phone call from the car place and headed back down the hill all the way back to the car dealer. (After I picked up the car, I took another detour to the South Side on my way back to Squirrel Hill. But that wasn't on purpose. I forgot to get in the left lane before the Liberty Tubes and had to exit to the South Side when I came out of the tunnel.)

A couple of observations:

1) Washington Road has some fancy shops, but (unless I missed them) no bookstore (there must be one in a mall nearby) or movie theatre (ditto) in the center of Mount Lebanon's business district. So score one for Dormont (and two for Squirrel Hill) over Mount Lebanon. On the other hand, Mount Lebanon (like Squirrel Hill) has multiple nice places to sit for a long time over a cup of coffee (see above), and Dormont could use a nice coffeehouse. And the presence of a place in the central shopping district where one can buy a hammer, a spatula, a lightbulb, and a hanging plant at the same time (e.g.) is much appreciated (see above), so score another one for Mount Lebanon.

2) The legend has circulated among my crowd of young parents in the city of Pittsburgh--did you hear that in Mount Lebanon they still have half-day kindergarten? Although I have had confirmation of this from a colleague who lives in Mt. Lebo, I can now say that I have seen evidence of this with my own eyes: as I walked up to the public library a little after eleven, there were the moms and dads (only a couple of dads) waiting for their kindergartners to emerge from Washington Elementary school. Someone is going to write in and tell me how great half-day kindergarten is and how kids that little are too small to be in school all day, etc. I'm not judging, you understand--I'm just surprised that a "good" school district in 2007 doesn't have full-day kindergarten.

3) The Mount Lebanon municipal building is nice. I like the art deco design. I hope that they find a good use for it when the messiah comes and municipal functions are transferred to the new metropolitan Allegheny County government.

4) I saw no signs welcoming pedestrians and motorists to Dormont or Mount Lebanon, so I wasn't quite sure where Dormont ended and Mount Lebanon began. Also not sure where West Liberty Ave turned into Washington Rd. There was a sign at one point indicating the change in street name, but then there was a church on what was supposed to be Washington Road with a West Liberty Ave address on the sign in front. (The only "Welcome to" sign was welcoming me to Pittsburgh when I was walking north on West Liberty Avenue back to the car dealer. ) And the "South Hills" post office with a "Pittsburgh, PA" address on the front seemed to be in Dormont while the Duquesne Light "Dormont" substation was in Pittsburgh. And there were hardly any signs on West Liberty Avenue pointing pedestrians and motorists to the T (light rail) stops which, in both Mount Lebanon and Dormont, were off the main drag a block or more.
In other words, if you don't know where you are, you shouldn't be here? (I will blog another time about what I find to be the strange practice here of using a "Pittsburgh, PA" mailing address outside the city.)

5) A Boston analogy just occurred to me and might make sense to about six people: Dormont is Arlington--with businesses and commercial activity spread out all along West Liberty Avenue/Massachusetts Avenue. Mount Lebanon is Lexington with a much more clearly defined center that stretches for only a few blocks along the main drag (Washington Road/Massachusetts Avenue).


Stephanie said...

1. One of the reasons Mt Lebo is a "good" school district is BECAUSE they have half day kindergarten. They keep it this way because research points to that being healthier for the children.

2. Dormont is in the city thus has a Pittsburgh, PA. It IS Pittsburgh. Mt. Lebo is not. They have a Mt Lebanon, PA address. I am not sure what exactly makes the distinction, but I believe it has to do with taxes.

3. Dormont has had many a coffee shop. They all go out of business sooner or later.

4. Dor-Stop has the best pancakes in the entire universe.

5. Lebo kids still go home for lunch. How awesome is THAT!

6. Mt Lebo once had a movie theater that closed a few years ago. It played only indie films and is sorley missed.

Adam said...

Re #2: Dormont is not in the city of Pittsburgh. It is an independent municipality like Mt. Lebanon. I think Dormont is a borough and Mt. Lebanon is a township. Those who understand the complications of PA municipalities can explain the difference to us.

Rich said...

Came across your blog on a search. Saw the comments on Aldo. It's not the beans, as any knowledgeable coffee professional knows.

I'd guess it was (c) as everyone can have an off day, or an off minute as the case may be. It happens on occasion, even with the attention to training and skill development.

If you're ever back in the shop and you don't like the taste of the shots you have, ask the barista to repull your shots.

Given your other reviews on which coffees you like and which you don't, I'm not sure if we can satisfy your tastes as those espressos are dramatically different than what we serve, but we would certainly try.

Chus said...

This is what I think: Duquesne Light