Recent History of Allegheny West

Part I: 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 II: 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.

Part III: Winds of Change

In April of 1962, the residents and business people of our community – not yet called “Allegheny West” – were surrounded on every side by an uncertain future. That a few of them were considering banding together for the general good was very bold indeed.

The “powers that be” in the city, county and state were basking in the glow of international media – hailed for “The Great Pittsburgh Renaissance”. The first of its kind in America, this unprecedented vision was even then transforming an industrial slum at the Point into a new state park and the gleaming silver office towers of Gateway Center. At the Melody Tent site in the Lower Hill District, a “residential slum” was giving way to a new entertainment acropolis – anchored by the newly opened Civic Arena, and soon to add concert halls and museums.

A new phrase had been coined right here: “Urban Renewal”. And already announced were the next two planned blockbusters: the extreme makeover of the East Liberty shopping district and the complete demolition and replacement of the former City of Allegheny town center. In each of these projects, hundreds of substantial buildings would be demolished to make room for an entire new city – formed in the image and likeness of the American suburb.

This new city rising on the Northside wasn’t limited to the former center of Allegheny. There were several big satellite projects that would extend this grand vision across all of the lower Northside. This new “suburb in the city” would have its very own interstate highway slicing east to west. The neighborhoods of Chateau on the west and Deutschtown to the east, along with the length of the Allegheny Commons park, would provide the highway’s route and right-of-way.

The neighborhood north of the Allegheny Commons park would be leveled and replaced with a vast complex of garden apartments. An immense public housing development would level and replace much of the Manchester neighborhood. And the land immediately to the west of the park would be divided between an industrial park along the highway and a county college campus.

Citywide, there were thousands of businesses and residents being displaced by eminent domain takings of entire neighborhoods. And nationwide the broadest public sentiment was enormously supportive of this concept. If the Smoky City could do it, anything was possible.

“Out with the old, in with the new.” And Pittsburgh was finally at the forefront of an important new urban movement.

But buried deep in those Master Planning blueprints were a handful of tiny streets. And on those streets, a few ordinary people had started looking for a way to be heard.

Part IV: The 70s

From its founding in the summer of 1962, through adoption of the official name as that decade drew to a close, the Allegheny West Civic Council had concentrated on just a few basic needs.

First had been the question of gaining participation by those who lived and worked in our community. A fair majority believed that banding together in the face of sweeping change was an imperative in order to preserve and enhance the neighborhood. But there were also some who dismissed the effort as foolhardy and futile, preferring instead to reluctantly plan for their eventual displacement by “the powers that be”. And yet another segment saw opportunity in the words “urban renewal”, even as they hastened to acquire more properties on which to speculate for future highway and industrial development.

Another early necessity was the creation of a new identity for a few hundred people in a tiny neighborhood that only a short time earlier had just been “the Northside,” along with 60,000 other folks.

Of course, the impacts of huge construction projects to the immediate east, west and south meant a massive surge in traffic, noise, dirt and general disruption.

And perhaps most challenging was the broad perception that the entire area had already been irrevocably planned for eradication.

The only interest in real estate came from speculators anxious to buy low and sell high when their land was condemned for a government “take”. Many residents and businesses were planning their own next moves — outward.

Although it took years, rather than months, and an immense amount of volunteer effort, by the time AWCC marked its tenth anniversary in 1972, real progress had been achieved on all of these fronts.

New one-way street patterns on Beech and Lincoln brought a dramatic change in the impacts from the construction mania swirling all about. Beyond achieving two tranquil islands for the residents, this plan also demonstrated the ability of the young community to work successfully with local government to affect positive change. Perhaps most importantly, here was solid proof that a different outcome could still be achieved if we worked together.

In need of a way to both draw positive attention and to attract new residents and businesses, an annual event was created.

The Allegheny West SpringFest became a prominent feature on the calendar the third weekend of May each year. This was quite an extravaganza: a self-guided tour of homes—often between 10 and 20 on a single tour — alongside a lively street festival with vendors filling both blocks of Beech Avenue, as well as continuous performances of music and theater staged throughout the neighborhood.

After only a few annual SpringFests, Allegheny West had established a very distinctive profile through coverage by the local media. Each year’s event was followed by a flurry of new buyers who liked what they saw and wanted to be part of this up-and-coming place. Many of those who had considered leaving were now more than happy to stay. And there was a solid consensus that working together, we could address even our biggest challenges.

And so it was that by the mid 1970s, the people of Allegheny West started looking around at all of the really tough things that needed to be done—empty or abandoned buildings, vacant lots, nuisances and eyesores.

Rather than wait for “somebody” to do “something” about these, maybe there was a way to speed things up. Maybe “somebody” could be us.

The next phase was just about to begin.

Part V: Mcintosh Row

As we continue to celebrate the Civic Council’s 55th Anniversary this year, many of our newer neighbors may not know this next part of the Allegheny West story. So if you’ve ever wondered “where all of the money goes” from our annual House Tours — or why we always need to maintain serious reserve funds — read on.

By the mid-1970s, the members of the Allegheny West Civic Council had accomplished a great deal. In just over a decade since its founding, the AWCC was hosting one of the region’s largest and most successful annual house tours: the Allegheny West Springfest, on the third weekend of May. In doing this, the AWCC had begun to attract younger newcomers, many of them choosing to rent or buy in the community after first discovering us by taking the tour and meeting their enthusiastic future neighbors.

At the same time that an influx of new residents was offering hope for a revival of the proud neighborhood, there was still plenty of ongoing physical deterioration—even the frequent loss of significant buildings to demolition. As it still is in 2017, the pure dollar economics of land value dictated that the “highest and best use” for all of the land in Allegheny West was as vacant surface parking lots to serve the many needs on our periphery. The income generated by this great demand for parking spaces couldn’t be offset by other commercial or residential values. And so it was that great old buildings continued to be torn down for parking lots.

Since the early 1970s, the row of six buildings at the corner of Western Avenue and Brighton Road had been crumbling rapidly. After a couple of small fires, a few collapsed roofs, and the demolition of the two buildings right at the corner, it was all too clear where the wrecking ball would be moving next.

Two of the newcomers, recent resident John Canning and realtor Jean Dittmer, joined fifteen-year resident Alex Watson in advocating a radical concept: What if we could buy and restore all six of the dilapidated buildings at the corner? Just because nobody on the private market would do that, it didn’t mean that we couldn’t do it ourselves. Now all we needed was half a million dollars!

John, Jean, and Alex met endlessly with the foundation community for grants, and persuaded six different banks to each participate in a portion of the project’s funding. To add even more direct neighborhood value to the project, it was designed with four small refurbished storefronts to attract new businesses to Western Avenue. Elsewhere in the buildings were a total of ten fresh apartments, kept affordable through rent subsidies so that folks who might be displaced from their longtime AW homes would be able to continue living here.

All of this would also set a standard for historic preservation that could serve to encourage other property owners. And it would be owned and managed by the AWCC to assure ongoing maintenance.

McIntosh Row was a monumental accomplishment—the first of its kind in Pittsburgh. But none of those proud neighbors who gathered to celebrate its completion in 1979 could have imagined what was to follow. The success of this first brick-and-mortar project would lead to many others by the Allegheny West Civic Council over the next four decades—many millions of dollars spent to save and restore endangered properties in every corner of the tiny neighborhood. It would also lead to the region’s first Community Development Corporation.

But along with those moments of achievement there would also come times of great conflict. For those earlier speculators who had bought cheap property here in order to “sell high” when the bulldozers came, the attraction of new residents and businesses, enhancing the quality of life and preserving old buildings had never been part of their plan.

The watershed decade of the 1980’s was about to dawn…

Part VI: The 80s

As we continue our year-long celebration of the Civic Council’s 55th Anniversary, our story has entered the 1980s. Every December, our neighborhood calendar is dominated by the event that was born early in that decade, and remains both our biggest source of funds and our best goodwill ambassador to the outside world: The Allegheny West Christmas Candlelight House Tour.

As big as it is, our annual Christmas Tour was preceded in the 1970s and 1980s by an even bigger Allegheny West undertaking: SpringFest. This annual event was the catalyst for many now long-time residents and businesses to settle in our community. But after being crushed by torrential rains in 1980 and 1981, the Civic Council sought a marketing/fundraising tour format that would be less dependent on weather, cost less to produce and require fewer volunteers to operate. We also hoped to find a way to rise above the clutter of nearly two dozen annual house tours
that dotted the region.

In the early 1970s, the people of Allegheny West had initiated a program of public relations to attract new neighbors, and instituted an annual two-day event intended to publicize the community. The Allegheny West SpringFest was held on the third weekend of May each year. SpringFest was a very large house tour featuring as many as twenty homes open for touring—from fully restored Victorians to “works in progress” that had just been gutted. Tour visitors would purchase their tour ticket and receive a guidebook and map, which they could follow as they strolled through the neighborhood on a self-guided circuit.

On SpringFest weekend, Beech Avenue was cleared of cars and became a very large outdoor festival, with dozens of vendors for antiques, crafts, plants and artwork. Food selections ranged from open pit barbecue and gyros to burgers and dogs — and even a quaint ice cream parlor staged in a shady garden. Throughout the neighborhood, entertainment stages featured dozens of live performances by musical groups of every genre, as well as live theater, puppetry, dance and even poetry recitals. Professional stages and seating were installed at both ends of Beech, and front porches on Beech and Lincoln were pressed into service as additional stages. Pony rides, clowns, and magicians entertained the kids. Horse-drawn wagon rides (Clydesdales!) offered a narrated tour of the neighborhood. And visitors enjoyed displays of antique cars, watched artisans working at white-hot forges in iron or glass, and learned macramé or chair caning. Hot air balloon ascensions even provided a true birds-eye-view…in 1979 we almost lost then-Mayor Dick Caliguiri as he was cutting the ribbon to open the event from the basket of a balloon 100 feet above Brighton Road!

Our first Christmas Tour, in 1982, was planned in just seven weeks. The three day event featured six restored homes decorated for a nineteenth-century Christmas, and introduced the new-to-us concepts of advance ticket sales, timed group tour departures, and tour guides for each group. As the first holiday home annual tour in the city, it was an immediate success — as it remains nearly four decades later.

After the last tour group had left on the final night of that first year’s tour, all of the six homes’ owners gathered for a late dinner at 937 Beech Avenue. Seated around the table were a dozen exhausted-but-happy neighbors. Some had been painting ceilings literally as the first group on Friday was entering their home.

They ate because they were starved, and they chattered excitedly because each had wonderful stories of this new kind of tour to share. And although it was late and they were all very tired, only Alex Watson actually fell asleep at the table…really! For the next 30 years, he would laugh and acknowledge that he had never been so tired in his life.

Part VII: 55 Years Later

From the May 2017 Allegheny West Gazette’s Letter from the President — There is great serendipity in the timing of these five new developments for the center of our neighborhood – coming as they do exactly 55 years (to the month) after the founding of the Allegheny West Civic Council in May 1962. All five of these new plans come to our May Membership meeting with a positive endorsement from the AW Housing & Planning Committee. They include the dramatic transformation of a former problem bar, the rehabilitation of a property neglected for decades and our first new construction of single family houses in more than a quarter century. And those new houses will rise from currently vacant lots, in an attempt to replicate the appearance of the original houses on that site – demolished more than forty years ago!

This flurry of great new vitality for our neighborhood would undoubtedly have been beyond dreaming to the dozen long-ago residents who gathered on May 24, 1962 in the Community House of Calvary Church. Their goal was to find a way to shape and direct the fate of their tiny community, faced with grand plans by powerful outsiders for transforming all of the “lower Northside” into a cloned suburban utopia. The plan that was formed that night in 1962 was recorded as a single sentence: “Don’t sit back and complain – joint collective action gets results.”

Across the many years since that proclamation, those folks – and the hundreds who have succeeded them – have taken that mantra to heart. The people of Allegheny West have worked long and hard together to determine what we want for our part of Pittsburgh, as well as what we don’t want. We have articulated that vision to others persuasively, ceaselessly laboring to attract new companions who would embrace the challenge and become part of its realization. We have aggressively (and successfully) supported those new recruits in their efforts, even as we have aggressively (and successfully) opposed those whose efforts were contrary to our cause.

It is true that Allegheny West has a reputation for being tough. That attitude was born in 1955, when a handful of our predecessors resolved to protect and forge their own community in the face of overwhelming odds. That couldn’t happen without a willingness to take a responsible position and then stand your ground. Even more fundamental was their core belief that this neighborhood already is a great place to live and work and play. And for those who would diminish or jeopardize this place, they learned how to say “NO” – to government officials, institutions, developers, speculators and all manner of interlopers. The fruits of this unwavering conviction, and the courage to defend it, could not be more clearly visible than in these new development proposals being unveiled at our May 2017 Membership meeting this Tuesday.