Head a bit farther down the rivers for great places to live, work and play.
Photos by Heather Mull & Jim Judkis
/ MARS / ADAMS TOWNSHIPS /
This southern Butler County borough of barely 1,700 people features a large metal model of a classic flying saucer straight out of a ’50s sci-fi movie, sitting in the middle of the town square. Yes, there’s a statue of a bulging-brained alien that peeks from the back of a vintage railroad car at the town’s now-defunct train station, one of the last surviving depots from the old Pittsburgh and Western Railroad, which once ran through here. And yes, the local schools’ teams have long been dubbed the Fightin’ Planets.
But residents’ passion for Mars goes way beyond its occasional galactic vamping. “We play up the whole alien thing for fun,” says Mannie Taimuty-Loomis, who was born and raised within the Pittsburgh city limits. But Mars is special because of much more than a name: “It’s got a small-town feel, but this is a very highly educated area, a highly professional area,” says Taimuty-Loomis. “It’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family.”
Many Mars residents (it’s true — some people call them Martians) have positioned themselves here precisely because the city is the perfect distance away — a 25-minute commute to downtown (if there’s no traffic on I-79.) But some of the city’s attractions have begun finding their way to Mars. Double Wide Grill, for example, just opened a location here, well north of its flagship on East Carson Street. And more and more destinations once found only in more crowded locales (like McGinnis Sisters) are popping up in the Mars/ Adams Township area. The school district even offers Mandarin Chinese as one of its foreign language choices.
Part of Mars’ appeal is its strategic location along State Route 228, which connects the major north-south artery of Route 8 with U.S. 19 and the heart of neighboring Cranberry Township. At the same time, Mars is a great staging area to points north: it only takes 30 minutes to get to Moraine State Park — and some of the best farmers markets in the region dot the landscapes of nearby Evans City, Valencia and Zelienople. Yet a decidedly mellow vibe — quieter than you’re likely to find in the exploding development of Cranberry — still reigns in this more-than-a-century-old borough and much of surrounding Adams Township.
Back in 1973, in a book on Mars’ centenary, resident Lester Kennedy offered this prediction: “The future of the Borough of Mars will depend largely on the economic growth of the surrounding area.” In those days, Cranberry was barely a blip on the map. Now, you might say, Mars (and the township around it) is more than a bedroom community for Pittsburgh; you could argue that Mars is Cranberry’s very first suburb.
“It’s not ‘the country,’” says Taimuty-Loomis. “There’s too much going on. But you do feel like you’re kind of removed from the hustle and bustle. ... We’re getting everything the city gets without being in the city.” Life on Mars — or, rather, in Mars — is exactly what she’s looking for. And for those keeping score at home, Mars is precisely a 38-minute drive from, well, Moon.
/ HAMPTON /
On Sunday evenings in the summer, something magical happens in the western part of Hampton Township. Deep in its tree-lined subdivisions, people go out on their decks or into their yards before kicking back. As dusk creeps in, music drifts through the air and washes over them.
It’s coming from the stage at Hartwood Acres, the nearby county park that hosts big-time acts at the end of many hot-weather weekends. Picnickers come from all over the region to set up tailgates and hear tunes at dusk — but for residents, it’s simply part of the landscape of warm summer nights.
Longtime Hampton residents will tell you there’s a magical alchemy to the place they call home. It’s 20 minutes from the city, and full of newly built and spacious homes — yet horses roam large properties, and local farms still sell eggs and zucchini from their sheds. Hampton has some of the most forward-looking schools in Pennsylvania; however, it is also one of the county’s most history-rich areas. It has the amenities of Cranberry, but without the sense that most everything is newly minted. In Hampton, there is a patina — a sense of continuity that comes from being one of the region’s older suburbs.
A lot has changed in this wooded community, but the sensibility hasn’t: Hampton still manages to be city and country at the same time. “It’s small. Everyone is familiar,” says Kristin Light, who is raising two boys and a girl in Hampton.
Two years ago, Family Circle ranked Hampton No. 2 on its nationwide list of the 10 Best Towns For Families. This came as a proud moment — but it was hardly a surprise to a community that is constantly lauded for its school system, which boasts the highest graduation rate of all public schools in Allegheny County. What’s more, Newsweek once again named the high school one of the nation’s best last year.
Hampton’s location along Route 8, with a coveted Pennsylvania Turnpike exit in its midst, makes it easily accessible from pretty much any direction. It’s been that way for many decades; the predecessor to Route 8, the fabled Butler Plank Road, reaches back well into the 19th century. Even before that, Hampton was a central part of what were known as the Depreciation Lands — real estate north of Pittsburgh that was given to Revolutionary War veterans after independence. Many of Hampton’s original residents lie in tiny, well-preserved cemeteries around the township, and the Depreciation Lands Museum documents the lives of those who received the land and helped settle the area.
Hampton, its residents say, tends to draw people back. It looks toward Pittsburgh and away. And for its residents, that’s just fine.
/ SHARPSBURG / ASPINWALL / BLAWNOX /
One sunny afternoon, the haze is thick in the front room of Allegheny Smokeworks along Freeport Road in Blawnox. Three men are chatting — a salesman, a physical therapist and a writer. “The thing I love about this town,” says the therapist, drawing on his Rocky Patel cigar, “is that you’re probably not here unless you’re trying to be here.”
That’s sort of the story with Sharpsburg, Aspinwall and Blawnox, three communities that straddle the Allegheny River on a sliver of land by the water. Many Pittsburghers only see these communities as they pass ’em by on Route 28. But if you do decide to make the start-and-stop drive that hugs the edge of the Allegheny, a trio of fascinating places and a cool post-industrial vibe unfold before you.
Sharpsburg may have a mill-town heritage, but it’s also the spiritual birthplace of the American condiment — it was here that H.J. Heinz created, bottled and sold his first horseradish after the Civil War. Aspinwall and its extensive medical community are anchored by the vast UPMC-St. Margaret complex. Tiny Blawnox — another steel town, named for the Blaw-Knox Co., which once held sway — now blends an old-time company town flavor with a diverse Main Street that features antique shops and the wonderfully named music emporium Pianos N’ Stuff. Smack in the middle of these three communities stands the Waterworks Mall, with stores and a multiplex theater that draw shoppers from eastern Pittsburgh.
The patch of land across from Waterworks has seen some big-time expansion in recent years; it’s now a full-on waterfront community called Chapel Harbor, tucked away between the railroad tracks and the Allegheny. Tightly packed houses are sprouting like summertime weeds and a 5-year-old UPMC independent-living community, Lighthouse Pointe, pulls in retirees from all over the region.
Sharpsburg is well known for its public water access, and the Fox Chapel Yacht Club offers great waterfront leisure time. Less than a mile away, a group called Friends of the Riverfront has been working for several years to make sure Aspinwall has direct access to the river from several points; members have developed and maintained a new trail along the water. In October, they purchased the property where the Aspinwall Marina once sat and are raising money to build a park that would include more trails and a walking platform over the railroad tracks linking Freeport Road with the water. That would, they say, give a potential 22,000 residents who live within 3 miles of the property better access to the river.
But as good as the water is, the food is even better.
You won’t find a lot of high-end, well-heeled eateries here, nor would you want to. Just good food and atmospheres to match: From the well-hidden Silky’s Crow’s Nest, right on the water in Sharpsburg with a spectacular view of the Highland Park Bridge towering above, to Burgatory in the Waterworks Mall, to the Starlite Lounge in Blawnox with pierogies so succulent they attracted the attention of the Food Network’s Guy Fieri. In between are places like Pug’s Tavern (grab a great fish sandwich at great price), Tai Pei Chinese Restaurant and Jimmy Wan’s Restaurant and Lounge (some of the tastiest Chinese food in the area), and the Aspinwall Grille (where it feels like the steak should cost twice as much). Cap your evening with live blues at Moondog’s, owned by the same people who make the enormous pierogies two doors down at Starlite.
Many waterfront communities get more attention, but dollar for dollar — and experience for experience — there are few better, more authentic stretches of riverfront community in the area than the sliver of land that begins at the eastern edge of Etna and ends just shy of the Hulton Bridge into Oakmont. Next time you’re sick of driving Route 28, stop and explore these three communities and grab a bite. Odds are you won’t be sorry.
/ PETERS TOWNSHIP /
To characterize Peters Township can sometimes present a puzzle, even for its residents. No single label seems to quite fit. Is it an up-and-coming bedroom community? A suburb? An exurb? A small town at the edge of a city? Or is it something else entirely? One thing Diane Page is certain about: It’s her home, and it has everything she needs within a few minutes’ drive.
Page grew up around here after her parents moved to the northeastern Washington County community in 1973. At that time, Peters was quite rural, given its proximity to Pittsburgh. “I guess it could have even been considered the country,” she says. She left for 20 years, and when she returned, it was both the same and different. Today, urban professionals are everywhere, and services and goods abound. “There’s so much opportunity here now,” says Page, who owns Page Signs in McMurray. “It has really turned into an upscale place to do business.”
Peters is a place where property values are strong. Anything you need is immediately available. Yet you can still go to the store and run into several people you know.
With the recent openings of two outpatient centers in the township, medical facilities are well-represented, and it has its own community TV station. Peters’ own slogan reflects this self-definition: “Everything the city has to offer and more ... in a rural setting!”
The land where Peters Township sits used to be much farther from the larger community to which it belonged: Until 1781, the area was actually part of Virginia. Even now, it retains some of that rural flavor; it’s home to two working farms, where residents can buy produce and plants. And it’s actually closer to an independent-league baseball park — the Washington Wild Things are just 20 minutes away — than it is to PNC Park. It’s also within striking distance of The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, southwestern Pennsylvania’s harness-racing capital.
With quality of life being such a prime mover for choosing one’s community, Peters seems positioned perfectly to straddle that urban-rural line so many of today’s communities covet — to give its people access to everything in close proximity without feeling like a city. “I feel like I can participate in my community and give back, yet I’m still maintaining the privacy and feel of being in the country,” Page says. And in the end, perhaps, that’s the best label for modern Peters Township: a small town for the 21st century.
/ ROBINSON TOWNSHIP /
Success, it’s often said, is about location. And few locations are more prime than a hill smack between downtown Pittsburgh and the airport, with two of the area’s biggest highways nearby. That’s where Robinson Township sits, and it shows. To give you some sense of how many people pass through, consider this: The Mall at Robinson has seven million shoppers come through its doors each year.
It’s obvious, but it bears repeating: If you want shopping and dining galore, Robinson Township in Pittsburgh’s western suburbs should be on your personal map.
There’s nothing surprising about having access to a bottomless salad at Olive Garden and riblets at Applebee’s in the same neighborhood. But ask people around the region about eating in Robinson, and eyes widen with visions of buffalo wings, sushi rolls and sandwiches stuffed with fries. (Yes, Cranberry, we know you’re trying to give Robinson a run for its money.)
This patch of suburbia is home to most every chain you could imagine. The local favorites are all present — Primanti’s, Mad Mex, Ichiban, Saga and Bocktown all have outposts here. And national crowd-pleasers (Red Robin, Longhorn Steakhouse, Cracker Barrel, Red Lobster, Joe’s Crab Shack and P.F. Chang’s, to name a few) fill Robinson to the horizon.
Hungry office workers trek from nearby Coraopolis and Moon to grab lunch at Robinson’s Chipotle and Chik-fil-A locations, while shoppers at Settlers Ridge (home to a Giant Eagle Market District location) and the Mall at Robinson have uncounted options between them. Even those who come furniture-hunting at Robinson’s sprawling IKEA can find sustenance in the store’s café, where Swedish meatballs are forever at the ready.
With all of this at hand, it’s easy to assume Robinson’s charms are limited to being a great place to stop while waiting to pick up relatives at the airport. But if you come to that conclusion, you’ll be missing out.
“Part of what makes Robinson special is the diversity of people. Many people move here from out of the area. But then, a lot of people here are born and bred in Robinson,” says Sharon Helfrich, director of the 5-year-old township library. “History is important, and we also have progress.”
Settlers Cabin Park, named for the remains of an 18th-century log cabin found on the site, offers more than 1,500 idyllic acres, including a wave pool and a dive pool nestled amid rolling hills. On summer nights, outdoor movies draw crowds of families to Twin Hi-Way Drive-In on Steubenville Pike. For much of the spring, summer and fall, hikers and joggers stream to the Montour Trail, a path that runs more than 330 miles from here to Washington, D.C.
Robinson even has its very own breakaway republic. Embedded in the township, and entirely surrounded by it, is Pennsbury Village — an independent borough that consists entirely of townhouse condominiums. The wooded community of fewer than 1,000 people, which calls itself “Pittsburgh’s Best-Kept Secret,” seceded from Robinson in 1977 for the most American of reasons — its people thought they could “govern our affairs more effectively and equitably than a distant and disinterested authority.”
Location, Helfrich says, will always be a huge part of Robinson’s appeal. “There’s a small-town feel. But we have access to downtown, to the airport. ... It has everything.” Shopping, dining, and a healthy dose of nature — that’s Robinson Township in a nutshell.
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