It’s a standard Wednesday night in the streets of South Oakland. The bars aren’t particularly busy, even this early in the semester when the homework load is almost non-existent for most undergraduates. The people drinking are those lucky few that happen to have afternoon classes on Thursdays, free to knock back a handful of light beers and wake up in the PM the next day. It’s hardly a night you would consider partying on, and the empty alleyways that on weekends are so often filled with roaming, hollering twenty-somethings reflect that fact.
That is, unless you turn onto Louisa Street and pass the big, white sign with the German gentleman smiling down at you. Cross the street and inside is the biggest weekday party this side of the boulevard.
The wooden, cabin-like interior, with its cozy seating area and humble, dirt-cheap alcoholic offerings are normally mellow and subdued, but not for pub trivia. Wall to wall, the bar is packed. Gene glides effortlessly from tap to well drinks, pint glass to pitcher. It’s a well-oiled machine.
Wednesdays are the famous “Trivia Nights” at Gene’s Place, a normally unassuming bar on the outskirts of campus. Marty and Harrison, the now notorious duo who run the game for free, play everything from 1980’s Rock n’ Roll to early 2000’s power-pop, and chatter comes from all sides as teams desperately try to find one of their members who remembers what band had Keanu Reeves on bass. It’s a small, underground gem of a bar, with an eclectic set of regulars from all swaths of the community. The thing is, not many people know the rollercoaster of events that has made Gene’s Place what it is today, nor the struggles and headaches its owner has suffered to keep his dream alive.
The story of Gene’s Place begins in 1993, as Gene Ney arrives at the University of Pittsburgh as a graduate student, pursuing a doctorate in Administration of Policy Studies. With both an undergraduate and two Master’s degrees from Slippery Rock University in his pocket, Gene was no stranger to college life, and Pittsburgh was just going to be another stop on his life’s journey.
Devoutly religious, Gene was a member of Phi Kappa Theta, a historically Catholic fraternity on our campus. It was here that he was first recommended Denny’s. While those of us who have arrived on campus in the past decade and a half might immediately think of the infamous diner chain, at the time of Gene’s studies in the Steel City, it was the campus dive bar that catered to an older crowd.
Lovingly dubbed “the Living Room” by its regulars, South Oakland family men and more mature grad students were the typical patrons. Denny’s was far more subdued, absent of the undergraduates that now file in and out of the building on Trivia Wednesdays.
“My fraternity brother told me to go to Denny’s because there’d be older chicks,” Gene remembers, chuckling. “I didn’t meet any, but I got married to the bar.”
A year after first stepping into the establishment, Gene was already staying in the apartment upstairs, renting from Denny himself. On May 1st, 1997, he became manager, and only a year after that, he also became manager of its sister establishment, Thirsty’s in North Oakland.
“I got both out of bankruptcy, even though Denny had a bad habit of not paying his bills,” Gene remembers. “I tried to offer better deals, cater to a more college crowd.”
It all started with a beer that we take for granted today.
“I was the first to put Yuengling Lager on the menu. I would have it on special often, and we’d go through half a keg a night. I’d be ordering fifteen kegs at a time to meet demand.”
The area was rapidly adopting a more stereotypical campus atmosphere, and the business needed to change to accommodate it. Gene had since tried to create what he wants out of a bar, instead of following trends or attempting to change what people wanted out of their bars.
Gene finished his doctorate in 1998, just as business was truly flourishing in both places. He began teaching part-time at Carlow, a position he has kept and expanded since. Still, just out of college, the money wasn’t great. This wasn’t helped by the slightly-above-minimum-wage that he was being paid at Denny’s.
Gene wanted something more, and Denny had been entertaining the idea of selling his business to him for quite some time. However, time was flying by, and Gene had given him an ultimatum.
“We had to make the sale or I had to move on.”
Sure enough, the sale was finally made, and Gene purchased what used to be Denny’s from his former boss. He was now a proud business owner, but he had no idea the headache that lay ahead of him.
Denny had accumulated more than thirty thousand dollars in debt at 30% interest, and now everything coming into the bar, from profits to tips, went to paying off that burden. Not only that, but Denny had never bothered to remodel or update the building since buying it, and it needed a lot of maintenance. Thirsty’s was flatly abandoned, and has since become Logan’s Pub, known for its distinct purple hippo mascot. Instead, Gene focused on the South Oakland location, and poured his heart, soul, and life savings into making it the kind of bar he wished had existed for him.
Gene’s Place as we know it today officially opened on February 11, 2005. This date is a Roman Catholic holiday, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. This was commemorated by the presence of four miraculous medallions placed inconspicuously around the bar. They’re small and unassuming, but Gene is always open to inquiries about their location.
The bar has made a name for itself through mostly grassroots methods. Patrons and regulars are encouraged to bring their friends to a variety of special events – everything from “Free Hotdog Day” to “Thanksgiving Dinner” to “Board Game Night” – in order to expand the cult following the bar maintains.
The history the bar has under its various incarnations, going all the way back past the 1940’s, lends to the subdued, homey charm. The windows are block-glass, letting in light but otherwise providing no connection to the outside world. The style was designed decades back when it was illegal for pedestrians on the sidewalk to see a customer, twenty-one years of age or not, drinking alcohol inside. Vintage and reproduction signs line the wall, most famously a sign warning against the hedonism, fiendish tendencies, and debauchery of marijuana use, “the Devil’s Harvest.” Other décor includes vintage Pitt memorabilia and a hand-painted, oil portrait of Gene himself, a gift of from one of his many devoted customers.
Even with the small yet fanatical following that Gene entertains weekly, business is not always easy. “In 1993, there were thirteen different bars here in South Oakland,” Gene says, grimly. The number keeps shrinking, as any local owner will tell you.
“The number one blow to the local bar scene was in 1999, when they tore down the Pitt stadium.” With the stadium having been near campus, students and alumni had poured in, out, and between bars before, during, and after football games. Owners expected – and received – a healthy boost in business with each home game. With the Panthers and their fans now making pilgrimages to Heinz field regularly, they tend to do their celebratory or sorrowful drinking at the surrounding bars, much to the chagrin of their South Oakland competition.
“There’s a lot more than the stadium challenging local bars, though,” Gene continues, “especially the fact that Pitt now gives students free public transportation. Then there’s Uber and Lyft doing the same thing.”
With the heightened sense of mobility that Pitt students now have, campus bars are competing with previously unconsidered rivals. Now, the South Side bar crawl, as well as downtown’s more prominent drinking holes, are just as viable of options for students looking to go wild on the weekend. With a simple swipe of the fingers or a tap of a student ID, undergrads can be in an Uber or on the bus to bars all across the city.
Even deeper than the newfound competition, Gene sees the nature of social drinking quickly changing on a very basic level, unrelated to distance or price of booze.
“With Tinder and all those similar apps, you don’t need to go to a bar to meet someone anymore.” Gene explains, shaking his head. With the rise of social media and texting-based hook up culture, Gene has seen the needs, expectations, and intentions of bar-goers change dramatically. It’s been a long time coming, though, with business taking a major nosedive in 2004, and never quite recovering.
With all that said, Gene remains open, and at times thriving, in the ever more hostile climate for small businesses. He follows two major rules that he has learned to follow in the almost decade and half of bar ownership.
“First of all, be honest. Don’t lie about your booze. Don’t cheap out or cover up what liquor you’re using, and don’t cut drinks. Secondly, take care of your customers, because if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.”
Gene’s Place tries to be all about loyalty, community, and mutual respect. This includes the booze, which Gene tries to source from local providers as much as possible. He tells me, “I try to take care of the little guys. I mean, after all, I’m a little guy too.”
The cast you’ll see at Gene’s on any given night is, as stated, of all shapes, creeds, races, and styles. When prompted on what exactly his ‘typical’ cliental is, Gene doesn’t have a clear-cut answer.
“It’s mostly Pitt students, obviously, but there are plenty of other demographics. We take the people that the other bars don’t want, and the people that don’t want the other bars.”
So what is it that makes this bar such a tight-knit group? What makes this small, South Oakland hole-in-the-wall a place where people make memories that will last a lifetime? Gene has watched future spouses meet at his tables. He’s watched others get down on one knee and propose on the other side of the counter. He even took the picture. What is it that makes Gene’s Place what it is?
“It’s a home away from home. It’s a second family, and everyone’s welcome to join.