Only in Oakland

The City of Pittsburgh is subsidizing some clever websites about business development in Oakland and things to do and things to find in Oakland. There's some well-done web design at work here. The problem is that the City is preaching to the choir.

Over the last several years, the City and the University of Pittsburgh have put a lot of money into new retail development along Forbes Avenue in Oakland. Older, locally-owned, and often "downscale" stores have been moved out. "Upscale" chains have moved in. For people who live in the neighborhood (especially students) and for people who work there during the day (especially University and UPMC employees), the overall tone of the boulevard is unmistakably better. It's cleaner, brighter, and there are more and nicer places to eat.

But if you weren't already in the neighborhood to begin with, why would you choose to go there? No Flash-y website will get suburbanites or East Enders into Oakland to check things out, when virtually everything that Oakland has to offer is also available locally, or at least in a nearby mall. Exceptions include some out-of-the way goodies, like Dave and Andy's Ice Cream, Spice Island, and La Fiesta (perhaps not coincidentally--these are all on Atwood, south of Forbes), and the music scene (which isn't part of the daytime Forbes Avenue streetscape anyway).

In some small shops--Crazy Mocha, on Bouquet, for example--there are flyers imploring consumers to patronize small shops and avoid the chains. This is solving the right problem in the wrong way. To make Oakland (or Shadyside, or Squirrel Hill) a place where outsiders want to go visit (and spend money), merchants' associations and those working with them (the City, the University, etc.) need to avoid the chains, and promote local small business. It's hard work, and it takes time, but the payoffs are worth it. Check out the list of merchants in my old neighborhood (Rockridge) in the other Oakland, a neighborhood that is what Shadyside aspires to be. Look ma! No Starbucks!

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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