I recently saw an advertisement in the paper for the sale of the Original Hot Dog Shop. The ad specified that the name of the venerable institution—which years ago we college students called the “Dirty O”—was not for sale, just the business.
I shuddered at the thought. Given the trend in entrepreneurs naming establishments in Pittsburgh after things they once were, we might one day be eating at a Strip District restaurant called the Original Hot Dog Shop Sushi House. Or Pittsburgh might one day be graced with a Dirty O Strip Club.
Why not? Stranger things have happened.
When I was a kid growing up in Bellevue, we’d head across the bridge to West View Park, in West View. One of my buddies had an older sister who worked at the park, so we had an unlimited supply of tickets. We’d ride the rides all day, and we particularly enjoyed throwing up our arms as the roller coaster went around Horseshoe Bend.
Now, kids in North Hills have only an outdoor mall known as West View Park Shopping Center, which is located on the land that once was the park, to compare to what was a sweet amusement park. The shopping center’s greatest attraction now is its Giant Eagle.
This line of thinking was spurred when I read about Paint & Body, a new art and performance space opening up down the hill from my neighborhood, in downtown Wilkinsburg. The new venue is named after the former Earl Scheib Auto Body that the Penn Avenue building once housed. But I must admit that I find this trend of naming places after what they once were to be postmodern and boring.
Before you start calling me a player-hater, let me say that I know one of the curators of Paint & Body. I went to college with Laurie Mancuso, and she’s cool and I’m sure her place will be great. Also, I’ve written about redevelopment efforts in Wilkinsburg and other parts of Pittsburgh, and I support such efforts. But this trend of naming new businesses after things that once were has got to stop. Though it may be reassuring to some natives, such names just confuse the transplants to Pittsburgh.
A while back I was interviewing with an editor of a local publication. During the course of our conversation, she mentioned how when she first came to Pittsburgh, she didn’t understand the meaning of the name of one of the local redevelopments.
“I thought that Southside Works was a promotional statement about the neighborhood. I didn’t know it was a mill site,” she said.
I was incredulous. But not more so than when I heard that the former G.C. Murphy building in Bellevue was to be renamed the “517521” building. That’s the new name because the place has the addresses of 517 and 521 Lincoln Avenue, don’t you know?
I’m tempted to say that this trend started when the Mattress Factory art museum opened in a building that once housed a mattress factory in the North Side. I personally like the Mattress Factory, and I’ve written about it in the past. Still, I find that naming places after what they once were, regardless of their current use, is a bit disingenuous. Such naming practices are almost a way of trading on the reputation of what once was, without having earned the right to do so.
The artistes hanging out at the Mattress Factory may never have set foot inside a real factory, but still, how can you cast a pall on the brilliance of the installations? College boys hanging out in the Church Brew Works might never have attended a mass, but hey, they like the beer. After a while, the names begin to lose meaning.
I expect that soon we will have the Cookie Factory Condos in the old Nabisco plant in East Liberty. And who knows, if we’re lucky, Oakland may some day have the Schenley High School Business Development Center.
Given this trend, folks in the image gap committee might want to consider a new slogan: “Pittsburgh: It was here.”
There’s an old joke among those who aren’t Pittsburgh natives. If you ask for directions to somewhere in Pittsburgh, the joke goes, a Pittsburgher will give you directions using landmarks of places that no longer exist. For a while now, people in Pittsburgh have been naming their businesses after places or things that no longer exist. I just wish they’d be a little more original.