The 52nd Street Market in Upper Lawrenceville looks more like a neighbor’s front stoop than an everyday neighborhood store. A bench, flowers, watering can, and “Welcome” sign adorn the teal entryway. Inside, the community corner store is bright and colorful with a repurposed coat rack inviting patrons to grab a wicker basket and linger for a bit. Beside the windows are two small tables and several chairs for anyone opting to enjoy their Ron Style Chipped Ham Sandwich or Dora’s Go To Veggie while relaxing in the warm pleasantries of the store.
This market is the work of owners and co-founders Deirdre Kane and Dora Walmsley, two dedicated residents of Upper Lawrenceville who have been involved in their neighborhood since well before opening their market in March 2014. Deirdre — who is energetic, welcoming, and generous — and Dora — who refers to all their customers as “neighbors” — met in a nearby community garden, and opened their market in the hopes of making a meaningful impression on their piece of Pittsburgh.
In a neighborhood that is home to young transplants and lifelong residents alike, the 52nd Street Market brings both continuity and a fresh perspective to a changing Upper Lawrenceville. Until falling vacant several years ago, this space had been a corner store since the 1920s. Today, the shelves are stocked with staples like bread and eggs, but also with items that residents wouldn’t have seen in the twenties.
“We describe ourselves as having everything from quinoa to chipped ham, and that’s what, really, we’ve tried to maintain, that diverse product mix, so it’s welcoming for everyone,” explains Dora. Whether customers are looking for classic peanut butter and jelly or vegetarian meat replacements, they can find them here.
The market even spreads its support beyond Upper Lawrenceville, by serving as a platform for other local small businesses working to get their food products off the ground. Alternating with familiar brands like Campbell’s and Cheerios, Pittsburgh names such as Zeke’s Coffee, Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches, and Allegro Hearth Bakery line the shelves on 52nd Street.
But it’s not just about the food they sell. One could easily walk into this market and get lost in all the signs of community engagement, from flyers for neighborhood events, to a seed library and kids’ coloring zines. Dora and Deirdre envisioned their store as not only catering to diverse needs, but as an inclusive third space where, as Dora says, they can act as a “bridge between old and new Lawrenceville.”
“It’s a place where neighbors meet neighbors,” says Deirdre. “It’s not a bar, it’s not a restaurant. It’s an informal space where you could be chatting and having a cup of coffee with your neighbor.”
The market has quickly become a fixture in the area, and the pair has gotten to know many of their customers. Both spoke fondly of Ron, who has been devoted to the market since its early days. He helps to close in the evenings and has carried groceries for other neighbors. A recent retiree whom Dora describes as having a “meat and potatoes” background, he has always been open to trying new foods, and is a vocal advocate for the market. His mark on the store is clear even when he’s not there: the first sandwich on the menu is “Ron Style,” and Dora and Deirdre have dedicated a chair to him.
As good neighbors do, Dora and Deirdre look out for their regulars, who in turn give back to their market. For two elderly sisters nearby, the 52nd Street Market is their primary grocery store. One man, whom Dora and Deirdre had first met as a customer, became their friend and did the flowers at Dora’s wedding. Another neighbor recently had a stroke, so the market checks in with her to see if she needs anything. And, in the spirit of providing customers with what they want, the market carries Cherry Garcia and stopped putting nuts in their banana bread, just for her.
The market sees new customers all the time. When I came to chat with Deirdre one evening, she was speaking with a young woman who had just moved from San Francisco to settle down in Lawrenceville — because of the community. Deirdre beamed and welcomed her to the neighborhood.
Even a few kids popped in for snacks while I spoke with Dora, who greeted them by name. The women keep games and books in the store, sometimes they help the kids with their homework, and sometimes they scold them — all for the sake of being good role models. Deirdre, especially, was proud that the kids are seeing female entrepreneurs. On the wall near the flyers for community events is a list of store rules that the kids wrote, with items such as “No stomping,” and “Be nice to everyone.” Deirdre made sure I saw her favorite line, about a past employee: “Don’t overwhelm Chet.”
During the school year, the market is the kids’ meeting place before catching the bus. Here, they can get breakfast if they need it. “Lawrenceville has a very shiny veneer, but there’s definitely pockets of poverty,” says Deirdre. “And we see them on a regular basis, especially the kids in the morning.”
Just down the street is the Lawrenceville chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians: the ladies’ chapter recently launched the Post-It Forward Program, which the 52nd Street Market was able to facilitate. To help neighbors in need, customers can buy post-its for three dollars apiece, and each is good for one breakfast sandwich. So far, they have shown great support.
“The LAOH donated, initially, a lot of the post-its, but then we just tell our customers, and the one lady, Pam, every time she comes, she buys four,” Deirdre explains. “It makes me very happy to have them on hand when the kids come.” And when Deirdre sees one particular gentleman, whom she knows to be in need, she reaches out and offers him a sandwich.
Community members have clearly taken note of Dora and Deirdre’s efforts: all along the glass behind the counter are handwritten thank-you notes and well-wishes. And these neighbors have jumped in when the pair have had trouble. Last year, after the store was covered in graffiti, about a dozen people — headed by members of Lawrenceville United — showed up to scrub the front clean.
“They just coalesced around this space without us doing or lifting a finger,” Dora recalls, gratitude welling up in her voice.
The market is clearly a success because of Dora and Deirdre’s tireless work and devotion, but they have the support of a community, too. “It has everything to do with the amazing, supportive, wonderful neighborhood that is Lawrenceville,” says Dora fondly. “This is why I wanted to live in this neighborhood, because of the people, and to have roots and to be able to walk down the street and know people.”
“People are just involved,” says Deirdre. “If you live in Lawrenceville, you sort of just love it, and you are invested.”
Leslie Gordon is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Food Studies at Chatham University, and has a background in history and German language. She spent a summer working as a research assistant for Food Guy Adventures. Her main professional interests are in food access, policy, and communication, but in her spare time, she has been exploring the food scene in her adopted city.