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The Insider Guide to Coraopolis

Abby Mendelson Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sam Jampetro

Sam Jampetro, a deceptively young-looking Anglican priest with bright blue eyes, a ready smile, and an easy manner, works where he prays, and vice versa, at 1000 Fifth Avenue. It’s the office of Coraopolis’ Community Development Corporation (front room) and the Charis247 Church (back room), a faith community which he describes as “a little more relaxed” than your standard Anglican church. (Well, the conga drums in the corner are a dead giveaway.)

Directing the former, serving as pastor of the latter, Jampetro, a third-generation Coraopoliser, and others are working to bring Coraopolis back to what it once was — or a reasonable facsimile thereof. When Fifth Avenue crackled and was spiffed up with new awnings all along the commercial strip. When there were six bowling alleys, three movie theaters, and too many dance clubs to count. Most important, when the population was a robust 11,086 (1940) instead of 6,131 (2000). “This was the place,” he recalls, “that people came to for recreation.”

These days, they’re banking on the big sports complex in nearby Neville Island and the many soccer fields that will bring in big numbers of out towners. Perhaps they, along with those people on the Montour Trail, will discover Cheers (your up-from-under sports bar), the Jailhouse Saloon, and `Anthony Jr.’s, with its truly outré Frank Sinatra imitator on Saturday nights.

The draw for residents, of course, includes the annual Memorial Day parade, complete with street vendors, snow cones, fire trucks, and folding chairs holding people’s places; as well as the St. Joseph parish festival every August. “There’s a certain continuity in that one piece of community life,” Father Jampetro allows. Still, he says, “Corapolis kept itself alive, but got kind of sloppy.”

Just 1.36 square miles of Ohio River landing, some 15 miles west of Downtown, easily accessed by both I-79 and Route 51, the 2.5-mile-long slice of pie is bordered by Thorn Run and Montour, Neville Island across the river, and hilltop neighbor Moon Township.

Like so many things Pittsburgh, the history of Coraopolis stretches back some 250 years, to the time that the Crown granted interpreter Andrew Montour some 350 acres. By 1773, Robert Vance, a member of Washington’s regiment, had built a log stockade — and grandly called it Fort Vance. Within 30-odd years, the area had morphed into something more civilized and called itself Middletown.

By 1840, the area’s most prominent family had become the Watsons, who owned a sawmill, and later a gristmill. In 1886, the name changed for good, to Coraopolis, either for 16-year-old Cora Watson or Greek for Maiden City, depending on which legend you prefer.

With the Industrial Revolution, Part II, hitting Coraopolis hard, in 1892 the village hosted the country’s first high-speed electric streetcar system — along with Consolidated Lamp and Glass, which employed 350 people. As a steel bedroom community, with its solid houses and easy access, Coraopolis folk worked in the shipyards and mills of nearby Neville Island, Aliquippa, and Ambridge.

Like virtually every traditional Tri-State river town, Coraopolis got hit with the double whammy of mill closures and demographics — what had once seemed like nothing so much as pasture land in Wexford and Washington County was suddenly irresistible for sub-divisions. As the mills closed, businesses dried up and blew away. And good, old fashioned leadership seemed in short supply.

The Old Railstation

Now, those trends may be reversing. Business is trickling in to Coraopolis, drawn by good location, solid real estate stock, and safe streets. Civitas, improved public spaces, will help as well, according to Jampetro, who points to the old railroad station, which the CDC is working to restore as a museum and coffee shop — and stop on the Montour Trail. Designed by accolytes of Henry Hobson Richardson in the style of the master himself, the 2,000-square-foot station closed some 30 years ago, and while all subsequent plans to renovate it have failed, no one has yet razed it. “Everyone,” Jampetro says, “has always understood that it was special. Now, we want to frame it as a symbol of hope.”

Borough of Coraopolis Clock

Actually, a bit more than hope may arrive from nearby Robert Morris University. With RMU’s main campus just over the hill in Moon, its athletic center right across the Coraopolis Bridge on Neville Island, and some 600 collegians already living in Coraopolis, “students figure strongly in our plans for revitalization,” Jampetro says. “We’re in a window of opportunity in terms of people’s willingness to hope again.”

If you build it — or if you believe it, apparently — they will come. Or so say the business owners who are literally banking on a renaissance based on proximity and dollars and sense. Real estate is solid and prices are low. Now’s the time!

Or so say a truly eclectic array of entrepreneurs, fitness center to yoga studio, media transfer companies to engineering firms, plus the requisite pizzerias and old-time hardware stores. “You know the kind,” Jampetro says, “with the old wood floor rubbed down smooth.”

Main Street to Broadway, Fourth Avenue to State Street, “there’s a lot of interesting things going on,” he adds.

Suburban Landscapes Garden Center

Developer Chris Connolly, who has invested in residential and commercial property in Coraopolis for twenty-some years, agrees. “It’s a great, untapped area,” he says. It’s got a lot of potential.” He cites the major roadways, the building up of Neville Island and the affordable rents as major draws. And he wants to know why five major engineering firms have recently moved in. Robert Morris University? A highway project? “Something is going on,” he says.

And there’s more. Take, for example, the multi-storefront Victory Media Center, with its 27 employees and trio of armed-forces-related magazines — G.I. Jobs, Military Spouse, Vetrepreneur. Created nine years ago in Chris Hale’s Moon Township basement, within a year, Hale & Co. had moved to Coraopolis. “Cheap,” he gestures.  “We needed cheap.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” Hale adds, plus benefits all around, not the least of which is that everything is walkable — the bank, dry cleaner, grocery store, car service, drug store, lunch. “That,” he says, “is a tremendous advantage. That kind of convenience creates a better, more productive employee.”

So do all those cozy Colonial Revivals and Victorian fixer-uppers just a short stroll away on Ridge Avenue and further, creeping up the hill toward Moon. “You’re starting to see that turnaround,” nods Vincent Tucceri, an attorney involved in local development. “We’re really excited.”

Excited to the point of adapting a 20,000-square-foot building — complete with original hardwood floors and tin ceilings — for contemporary use.

Jim Baricella

A little less contemporary is Jim Barricella’s nearby Off the Avenue, a cornucopia of some 50,000 antiques and collectibles. Books to buttons to bowls to all kinds of brac-a-brac, he’s got 3,000 square feet of it. A six-year veteran of downtown Coraopolis, “my business has been recession-proof,” he says. “It’s a really great town,” he adds. “I feel comfortable here. It’s a walking community. I haven’t been to a mall in six years.”

Off The Avenue

Just as people find their way to Barricella’s, so they come to Segneri’s Wine Cellar, Sam Segneri, prop. Opened by Signor Segneri Sr. in 1954, the Wine Cellar draws a healthy cross-breed of customers, working-class Joes to the Sewickley upper crust, who cross the river for Segneri’s 20 different pasta dishes, tripe, polenta, wedding soup, scrumptious home-made lasagna and to-die-for chicken parm. “If you keep the food good and consistent,” Sam shrugs — he’s large on shrugging, “people always come back.”

Finally, we swim over to Uncle Joe’s Scuba — that’s right, a bright, ocean-blue storefront scuba shop not in Shadyside or Sewickley but in Coraopolis. “It’s quiet,” owner Joe Petrella says. “It’s safe. It’s a friendly little town.”

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Abby Mendelson’s latest book, End of the Road, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and

Photos: Sam Jampetro; Off the Avenue; Suburban Landscapes garden center; the old railway station; “Uncle” Joe Petrella; clock; Jim Baricella

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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