Independence Hill: An Entrepreneurial Collage
Insights into the eclectic shopping district along 26th and Peach
You've probably noticed it steadily taking shape, colorful storefronts popping up along Peach Street. No, not that part of Peach Street. The shopping district — between 26th and 24th streets in particular — is gaining more and more of an identity. It even picked a name for itself: Independence Hill.
It's a fitting name. Aside from the vaguely patriotic feelings it may or may not conjure up around the Fourth of July, it signifies an ownership, a groundswell of autonomy. Made up of a multitude of self-owned small businesses that extend past those two blocks, the name could also be thought of homophonically (albeit clunkily) as an "independent's hill."
From Federal Hill Smokehouse down to Interglasstic Studios, there's a lot to experience. There are anchors that have found success for over 20 years, like Grasshopper and Chicory Hill Herbs — heck, Ink Assassins just turned old enough to legally get tattooed. There are fresh spaces finding fans like Dapper Don's Barber Shop and the Gypsy Jewelry Box. There are even shops about to sprout up as well, like the Tipsy Bean coffeehouse.
"It's nice to be around other businesses, especially eclectic businesses" said Emily George, owner of Pointe Foure Vintage Boutique. She confessed that "because we all have our own small businesses it's really hard to get together and try to get meetings going."
It was at one of those meetings that the group found a name. The name was suggested by Scottie Freeman, owner of both Fat Lenny's ice cream shop and the Hippie and the Hound vape shop. Fat Lenny's is one of the quintessential shops along Independence Hill. Bursting with personality, its purple facade is flanked by bright flags and banners (keep an eye out for plenty of Ween Easter eggs, too), and of course, its faithful unicorn mannequin. Prior to coining the district's name, Freeman and others liked to refer to it as "Hippie Hill," but as Freeman himself laughingly clarified "not everybody is a hippie, in all fairness."
One person who is definitely not a hippie is the owner of Black Eagle Goods, Dave Steele. Covered in tattoos from head to toe, the charismatic entrepreneur helped found Ink Assassins in 2000 along with Eric Michael Schauffele. After a few years in Philadelphia, he returned and eventually opened up his unique shop. "It was fun because people didn't know what to expect, and we really are taking a turn more towards the curiosity and oddity factor now. Bringing that to the neighborhood has been really fun and opened a little more weirdness to the eclectic powers of Independence Hill." The shop, filled with captivating vintage finds and taxidermied animals, expanded quickly, moving right across the street to a larger location. The old spot will soon be the home of the Tipsy Bean and Strongman Services LLC, both owned by Gisele Litrell (who also founded French Maids cleaning services).
"I think Erie has needed exactly this type of shopping district for a long time," explained Diane Nieratko, co-owner of Grasshopper, the iconic "Hipnique Boutique" that welcomes guests to the Peach Street corridor. "What is happening now is what we envisioned when we first moved in 22 years ago." For years, Grasshopper and Chicory Hill Herbs stood out along Peach Street, particularly the Grasshopper's towering title character — guitar in hand, atop a mushroom — gracing the south facade of the building. Diane, along with her husband Dave have expanded their store as well, but in a bit of a nontraditional avenue. "We purchased a property in Jamaica about six months ago. We have been working hard on it every chance we get," Nieratko said happily. Their new store is located in Negril, on the western coast of the country, next to the famous Rick's Cafe.
Along with plenty of fun window shopping and curious browsing, there are businesses like the Learning Ladder Early Child Care Center. As a non-retail business, co-founder Kenya Johnson sees that they "still mesh well with the neighborhood and other businesses. We brighten the area up with our little smiling faces as we take our daily walks." A positive force surrounded by "good vibes," Learning Ladder adds an important piece to the bigger picture that is Independence Hill. "We have high traffic in and out of our building due to the fact we have 65 children enrolled that potentially get dropped off and picked up daily. We look at this as a good thing because it gives a chance for our parents and their children to experience all that is taking place on Independence Hill." Started by Kenya and Sean Johnson, the business is located in the former Forward Hall building, and opened its doors in 2015 (and yes, there's still a bowling alley in the basement).
The future looks bright for Independence Hill, but it still has its share of obstacles. George has her own vision for the district, drawing from similar locations in Toronto and Atlanta. Her wishlist includes artist-designed crosswalks, with signage lining the street, as seen in Little Italy and The Colony Plaza. The neighborhood is already at work designing and installing a lighting system that can be color-coordinated to suit the whims of each shop. "We're trying to do anything sustainable, like with painting different planters or tires," she added. All of these things, combined with the block's already vibrant nature, will not only make it "pop," but will potentially decrease traffic speeds as well. Peach Street being one of the main thoroughfares in town is a double-edged sword. Though it's an oft-traveled route for automobiles, it's certainly not as pedestrian-friendly as it could be.
Nieratko sees "lots of new store owners with fresh ideas coming into the neighborhood, promoting the neighborhood as a destination." She's also quick to note the snapshot of the district coming into focus, citing that "the creativity and individuality of each store has given the neighborhood a pulse of its own."
One time when that larger picture is clear is during the monthly Flagship Flea markets. The entire area pulls together, inviting other vendors and creates a unique open-air marketplace every second Saturday of the month, the next one taking place July 14.
"We have a great family in the area and are ready to keep stepping the game forward and onward," asserted Steele. "The Independence Hill area is really striving to be the hip local spot to hang with friends, do some shopping, and become the safe little spot that you can plan a fun day trip around while meeting some friends or making some new ones," he continued.
"In the next few years, we see the Independence Hill neighborhood being a staple in the city where many can come and get away from their normal shopping experience," Sean Johnson predicted.
"We're trying to rebuild this city. Let's look to the future. The past is fine, there's nothing wrong with it, but let's not live in the past," Freeman excitedly proclaimed. "Let's look into the future, and for Erie, I think the future is independence."
Nick Warren can be reached at email@example.com