Pittsburgh's Polish Hill is a neighborhood in transition

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

It is a place where almost everyone has a nickname: Unz, Buzz, Punchy, Miss Josie, Kitty, Breeze and his daughter, Little Breeze.

It was home to thousands of Polish immigrants in the early 1900s. Then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter sported a Polish Hill T-shirt as he stumped for votes there in 1976.

Pittsburgh's Polish Hill, perched over the steel mills that once lined the Allegheny River and belched smoke and soot around the clock, is a neighborhood in transition today, home to almost 1,300 people.

A mix of old and young, it retains an inherited sense of community, said Mark O'Connor, a Slippery Rock University professor of English and a Polish Hill resident who wrote “Holy Ghosts,” a historical essay about Polish Hill that appears in the current issue of The Massachusetts Review, a quarterly literary magazine.

“I like the mix. ... It is so rich with history,” said O'Connor. “One man was on the USS Missouri during the surrender of Japan in World War II.”

Regis Myszewski, 87, was a teenage sailor aboard the Missouri and woke up Sept. 2, 1945, to see the Japanese coming aboard.

“You couldn't see the water for all the ships,” he said. “They didn't tell us what was going on and then the Japanese were there surrendering their swords.”

Myszewski, who grew up on Polish Hill, likes the neighborhood.

“My next door neighbor, I went to school with,” he said.

In its heyday, Polish Hill had 27 stores, eight grocery stores, a meat market and dry cleaner, O'Connor said. Most of them are long gone, although a resurgence is under way with younger people moving in and remodeling homes. About 25 percent of the people are ages 20-34, according to the Census Bureau.

During the past 10 years, Polish Hill has become an “in demand neighborhood” with a diverse population, said Leslie Claque, one of its new breed of residents who “just fell in love with the place.”

“There's an energy here ... a really good feel to it,” she said.

Heidi Tucker, 33, lives a block and a half away from the Lili Cafe on Dobson Street, the popular corner eatery that she owns that serves as a sort of community center and meeting place.

“It's a strong community. ... Everyone knows everyone,” said Tucker, whose customers include older people and what she calls “coffee culture kids” — educated young adults with interests in music and the arts.

Fires played a big part in this urban renewal.

“In poor neighborhoods, most buildings were made of wood, not brick, so if one house went, it could spark other houses,” Claque said.

That's a fact not lost on people who live or have lived there.

“Every single person I talked to has a fire story,” said O'Connor, who has lived in Polish Hill for five years and spent six months researching the community as part of a sabbatical project.

The culture clash between former mill workers and the younger crowd is working out because they “have the exact same desires,” O'Connor said. “I think there's hope, actually.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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