Submitted by John Canning
While wandering through the Northside during this crazy spring of 2014, it was interesting to see how the sporadic weather shifts affected when trees and bulbs would transform the landscape from winter’s last gray days to scenes of green leaves and pastel blossoms. The one tree, that is a sure sign of springtime is the magnificent pink dogwood in the midst of the 800 block of Western Avenue. I know it as “Jane’s Tree,” and it speaks to me of community revitalization. Every year Jane’s tree is more beautiful than ever. It certainly was this year, and it made me think how fortunate it was for that skinny sapling that it came into the hands of Jane Johnson in the summer of 1963. That Dogwood and Jane Johnson are both symbols of survivors in an urban setting that, for many years, was not too friendly to trees at all, nor to urbanists that were committed to city living.
Jane Ford Johnson, presently a resident of the Allegheny apartment complex on the west side of Allegheny Center, has a terrific story to tell about saving trees, helping kids, raising a family and preserving a congregation and a community. Jane was a tree tender long before it was fashionable. She was a community activist when many of her neighbors in the 1960s were heading out of town. She and a few compatriots managed to hold the Calvary Methodist Church together when other Northside congregations were closing up shop.
A few weeks ago I enjoyed an enlightening and long overdue visit with Jane. She described her many residences in different sections of the Northside. In her lifetime Jane has lived in Brighton Heights, Calbride, Central Northside and Manchester. When Jane was a youngster, her family lived in the community we now call Perry Hilltop, where she played in and about the windowless remnant of Brashear’s original observatory.
In 1936, one of the lowest points of the Great Depression, Jane graduated from Allegheny High School and attended the Pittsburgh Academy, where she met and, shortly thereafter, married Ross Johnson. By the early 1950s, Jane, Ross and their growing family settled in the community that is now called Allegheny West. With urban redevelopment plans to level large sections of the Northside, Jane played a pivotal role in organizing the community—property owners and tenants alike to block such stupid initiatives. Jane has always been an activist, a doer.
I first met Jane in the late 1960s when she was overseeing the hanging of a memorial lamp to honor Cora Allison, a great soul of that congregation, in the altar area of Calvary Methodist church. A year or so later, Jane and I were neighbors and coworkers in the process of community restoration. Jane was the Jane Jacobs of Allegheny West.
Looking back on those decades in Allegheny West, I recall Jane as the tree tender, the keeper of the neighborhood story, the advocate for historic preservation and the stalwart of a congregation who kept singing as well as flipping pancakes and mashing potatoes. And so, every Spring, when that Dogwood at 833 Western Avenue is in full bloom, it is, to me, a wonderful reminder of a great Northside champion.