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Millvale: True Grit


Attic Records: The place for rare discoveries - PHOTO: HEATHER MULL
Millvale's residents "have never been noted for proclaiming from the housetops their own virtues, nor depreciating those of their neighbors," according to a municipal history penned in 1911. And that hasn't changed much. Nor has residents' disinclination toward flights of fancy. The area's name, given in 1868, bluntly combines the two features that distinguished it then: mills and two narrow valleys.

Despite the easy commute to Downtown and proximity to the emerging neighborhoods of Lawrenceville and Bloomfield, Millvale is hardly a fashionable address. Like many Pittsburgh-area mill towns, it remains a humble, down-to-earth community amid the shadows of its industrial past. As of the last Census, the borough was home to 4,028 souls, down a third from its 1900 population. And that was before the recent flood.

In its earliest history, the area was known as Girty's Run, after a wild and lawless frontiersman from the region's colonial past. That name ? and savage proclivities ? lives on in the deceptively gentle stream that flows through the borough. In September of 2004, rainfall from Hurricane Ivan caused that little rivulet to spill over its banks and submerge Millvale's low-lying areas, including much of its business district. To this day, ask any resident and you'll hear stories of that catastrophe; on weekends, you can still hear the sounds of hammers as flood-damaged properties are renovated.

A milkshake from Pamela's P&G Diner - PHOTO: HEATHER MULL

Yet Millvale is not without its charms. Bordered by Route 28 and the Allegheny River on one side, the multi-use Riverfront Trail is an access point for fishing, canoeing and kayaking, and runs along the river to Downtown via the North Side. Single-family homes perch on the wooded hills overlooking Millvale's main business district; similarly elevated is St. Nicholas Church (24 Maryland Ave., 412-821-3438), a Croatian Catholic church whose yellow-brick exterior is visible from Route 28. Inside the church you'll find one of the city's great art treasures: murals painted in the Depression by Maxo Vanka. Executed in a Mexican muralist style, these works fuse a searing social critique -- angels wearing gas masks! -- with a soaring religious vision.

The business district itself runs along Grant and North avenues, and offers storefronts that seem transported from the past. You can stop for a homemade scoop from the old-timey candy counter at Yetter's Ice Cream (504 Grant Ave., 412-821-1387); take up model rocketry at Esther's Hobby Shop (219 North Ave., 412-821-2415); or gawk through the looking-glass at the gaudy creations inside Jerry Kitman Finer Furniture (220 North Ave., 412-821-1311).

Then there are the bright murals of Lincoln Pharmacy (232 North Ave., 412-821-2379), an old-fashioned drug store that serves as Millvale's unofficial gift shop. The pharmacy also houses a Pamela's P&G Diner which offers the same rich, crêpe-style pancakes you'll find in city locations, but with a smaller crowd than you'll typically find at the Squirrel Hill and Oakland. (Also, the Sunday brunch crowd is more of the after-church variety than college kids who woke up with a hangover and a stranger.)

Across the street you'll find Jean-Marc Chatellier's Bakery (213 North Ave., 412-821-8533), considered by many the finest French bakery in the Pittsburgh area. Maybe the wafting aromas of fresh croissants and French pastries seem incongruous amid the gritty, working-class environs ... but an equally odd sight is the steady stream of BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus SUVs bringing the bakery's well-heeled clientele to the area.

The entry to Chatellier's Bakery - PHOTO: HEATHER MULL

Richies with a sweet tooth aren't the only invaders to prowl Millvale's quiet streets. On any given night, you'd think the town had been taken over by goths, metalheads, hippies, or ? worst of all ? teen-agers. What draws them from all over the region is Mr. Small's Theatre, a 650-capacity live-music venue housed in the former St. Anne's church, located just off Grant Avenue (450 Lincoln Ave., 412-821-4447). Over the past few years, it has become one of the city's premiere venues, hosting sold-out performances by the likes of Sonic Youth, Ryan Adams, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Dinosaur Jr. and Pittsburgh's own rising talents, including mashup artist Girl Talk. The Mr. Small's complex, owned by Mike Speranzo and Rusted Root's Liz Berlin, includes a large skate park located along the Allegheny River and recording studios, including a new North Side facility.

Music fans of the collecting persuasion will already know and love Attic Records (513 Grant Ave., 412-821-8484). Readily identified by its bright neon and its colorful Sgt. Pepper-style mural, Attic Records is a collector's paradise of rare LPs and 45s (especially soul and R&B), as well as used CDs.

And let's not forget the watering holes. For a cheap draft, a bite, and perhaps a hard stare from the locals, Millvale offers plenty of dark corners to slink into, whether it's the neighborhood Italian joint Tony's Bar & Grill (139 Howard St., 412-821-9822), the divey Happy Day Lounge (313 North Ave., 412-821-9838) or some of the Mr. Small's crowd spilling over into the Double L (307 Grant Ave., 412-821-2647). Strangers to these climes might do well to start with the landmark Grant Bar & Lounge, located just off the Route 28 exchange at 114 Grant Avenue (412-821-1541), offering pub fare and over 70 years of history. For a younger crowd, pool and a jukebox, try Bar Millvale, a few blocks from the central business district at 616 North Ave. (412-822-7228).

In all, Millvale offers a set of seemingly incongruous characteristics: a gritty history and a beyond-unpretentious present, coupled with a few pop-cultural destinations and convenience to Downtown. With all that in Millvale's favor, the next flood it faces may be made up of newcomers.

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