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Recent History of Allegheny West

  • Part 1
  • Part 2

Part 1: Urban Renewal

In February of 1962, the people who lived and worked in our community would have proudly called themselves “Northsiders”. To their east was the West Park, the downtown of the former Allegheny City called The Diamond, and beyond that Cedar Avenue marking the entrance to Deutschtown. To their west across Allegheny Avenue was Manchester, and beyond that the communities of Chateau and Woods Run. Everything else around us was “The Northside.”

Many of these people had been born here. But many more had arrived as part of the influx of workers that had begun during the Great Depression, accelerated during World War II and exploded in the housing shortages of the 1940s and 50s. It was that rapid population growth that had converted block after block of grand old residences – both rowhouses and mansions – into apartment buildings and rooming houses. The dense population made for lively streets, bustling parks, and thriving business districts.

But change was in the air.

In smoke-filled meeting rooms downtown, plans were being made to “fix” the Northside. Old buildings, narrow streets, and average people didn’t look enough like the bright airy suburban utopia that had now enthralled America. Pittsburgh was pioneering a new concept for cities: Urban Renewal. The idea was introduced to the world in the late 1940s as Gateway Center and Point Park bulldozed their way into existence.

By 1958, the North Side, Hill District and East Liberty were on the drawing boards. For the land north of the Allegheny River, a superhighway would slice east to west – utilizing the former Allegheny Commons park as an already-owned right of way for most of the journey. The highway and its ramps would obliterate the 80 acres of park – plus Deutschtown, Chateau, Woods Run and much of Manchester. The downtown of old Allegheny City would be leveled – more than 300 large buildings – to construct an enclosed shopping mall, office and apartment towers, and brand new townhouse communities.

The neighborhood to the west of the old park would become a highway interchange, supporting a college campus and an industrial park.

The demolitions had already begun here in earnest.

The 900 block of North Lincoln solved a nascent prostitution problem by taking down most of the buildings on the block. The first big warehouse distribution structure sprouted at the corner of Lincoln and Galveston – awaiting its promised highway connections. The 800 block of Brighton Road was cleared by the Italian Sons & Daughters of America to construct a National Headquarters with good sightlines to the interstate. Allegheny County created a “take zone” to acquire and level all of Ridge Avenue’s Millionaires Row in favor of a soon-to-be-built college.

And so it was that in the early months of 1962, the people of yet-to-be-named “Allegheny West” began to discuss a novel idea.

Perhaps it was time to control their own destiny.

Part 2: The Johnsons

On March 31 of 1962, Jane and Ross Johnson sent a letter to a few other property owners in the area of the Northside that we now call Allegheny West. Jane had been born right here in the neighborhood, only a short time after it had ceased to be the City of Allegheny.

She and Ross lived at 934 Western Avenue, and also operated Allegheny Real Estate, on the next block. They were raising their children here, and in the decades to come would sell houses to some of our community’s early pioneer “newcomers”.

Jane especially was able to see this area not for what it was, or even for what it had once been, but for what it could become. She had a talent for imparting that vision to others — including this writer when he bought his first house from her in 1977. She would ultimately remain active in the Allegheny West Civic Council — frequently as a member of the Executive Committee — well into the late 1980s.

When Jane passed away only a few years ago, she had lived to see her neighborhood far surpass anything that she could have imagined. From the perspective of the 21st Century, it was easy to understand that she and all of those who followed had succeeded most in attracting new believers — decade after decade — who would then take up the torch and forge ahead.

But in March of 1962, Jane and Ross wrote to their neighbors:

The lower Northside in the immediate years ahead will undergo a major transformation. But what impact will these major improvements have on our particular area…?

The Lincoln-Beech-West Park section of the Northside has some unusual, if not unique, characteristics. There is its proximity to downtown; its orientation to West Park — the spacious and attractive section of the Commons. Here are some of the best residential structures built in a previous era…many of real period and architectural character.

However, Lincoln-Beech is now a 75-year-old community with some structures that are not just old, but have been neglected and abused and can be regarded as substandard. Regrettably, we have developed a reputation as being a second-rate neighborhood, perhaps a reputation we in part deserve.

Can anything be done to effect a general improvement?

Our purpose in sending this informal letter to about a half-dozen property owners is to ascertain if they would favor that we make an organized effort to improve the area and, if so, would join us and add their signatures to send a similar statement and invitation to a larger representative group pointing toward an organization meeting.

Jane and Ross mailed their letter, and waited to see if anybody would respond to the call.