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Time unkind to some Pittsburgh city neighborhoods

Bob Bauder
| Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, 11:22 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
John Canning, 74, a retired history teacher who lives in the Mexican War Streets, recalls having classmates from the Verner neighborhood in the 1950s. “Most of the people I knew who lived in Verner were Irish,' he said. 'It had its own train station.”

Andy Syka nearly cried the last time he visited his childhood stomping grounds in Woods Run.

It was a far cry from the North Side neighborhood he knew as a child with stores, houses, factories and plenty of children.

“The last time I was there was about 11 years ago,” said Syka, 93, of Sunnydale, Calif. “All that was left there was the penitentiary. Urban renewal finished that place. Of course the flood of '36 didn't help.”

Pittsburgh's Planning Department still considers Woods Run one of the of the city's 90 neighborhoods, making it a holdover from the days when people lived in places such as Verner and Chicken Hill.

Local historians and residents say highways, expansion and the city's shrinking population have decimated some neighborhoods while wiping out others.

Mayor Bill Peduto vowed to make neighborhood revitalization one of his administration's top priorities. Rebuilding neighborhood business districts and residential sections block by block is key to the city's economy, he said.

Pittsburgh, founded in 1758 and incorporated as a borough in 1804, grew from 67 annexations of abutting municipalities.

“I think people are amazed at how many different neighborhoods Pittsburgh has and how many different neighborhoods have survived,” said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research. “There's nothing fixed in stone about city neighborhoods. If you look at it over time, things have changed, boundaries have changed and people don't always agree with those boundaries.”

Residents still refer to a section of Uptown around the Birmingham Bridge as Soho. The backside of Mt. Washington near the West End Circle was called Chicken Hill, because residents raised chickens on the hillside.

Paul Sentner, a longtime Elliott resident and West End historian, said he remembers neighborhoods such as Shalerville and Seldom Seen — both along Saw Mill Run — that fell victim to construction of the West End Circle and Banksville bypass in the 1950s. He said the city tore down a good portion of Seldom Seen to construct housing that was never built.

Shalerville was in the area of Woodville Avenue between Shaler and Lime streets.

“There was a school in there,” Sentner said. “They called it the Luckey School, and the ballpark was called Denny Field. If you look at a map today, there's nothing there.”

The field was named for Ebenezer Denny, the city's first mayor once the city was incorporated in 1816.

Verner was a small factory community below the McKees Rocks Bridge that developed around the long-gone Pittsburgh Forge and Iron Co. It was part of Allegheny City, which Pittsburgh annexed in 1906.

John Canning, 74, a retired history teacher who lives in the Mexican War Streets, recalls having classmates from Verner in the 1950s.

“It was a working-class neighborhood,” he said. “Most of the people I knew who lived in Verner were Irish. It had its own train station.”

An expansion of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority plant in Woods Run wiped out the community in the 1950s. All that remains is Verner Avenue, which dead ends at a set of jersey barriers.

Canning said construction of highways — Route 65 and interstates 279 and 579 — took out large portions of the North Side. Construction of Three Rivers Stadium played a part, too.

Neighborhoods such as Swiss Hole, Duquesne and the Ward faded from memory.

Canning said the Ward, now the North Shore, was dense with factories and tenements along the Allegheny River.

The city bulldozed it with promises of better housing in Allegheny Center, he said.

“I remember it as being a very rundown part of the North Side,” Canning said. “Streets like Lacock and General Robinson, most of those were filled with rooming houses. That was the whole thrust of building Allegheny Center. The goal was they wanted to have decent housing for poor people, and then it never panned out.”

Highway construction demolished Swiss Hole, named for 19th century Swiss immigrants who settled in an area between Chestnut and Voegtly streets.

Chuck Thieroff, 63, is one of the few residents left on South Canal Street in what was Swiss Hole.

“These were all row houses on this street,” said Thieroff, 63, looking at empty lots where homes once stood. “I met a lady who lived here and grew up in the neighborhood in the 1950s. She was appalled at what happened here. According to her, it was a thriving community at one time and a good place to grow up.”

Mike Benner, 50, a city police detective, said construction of I-279 killed his old neighborhood in the East Street Valley. Benner remembered there being butcher shops, bars, barber shops, eateries and meat packing houses.

“It was a great community because there was a lot of large families,” he said, “There were 11 of us in my family including half brothers and sisters. As a kid, I always remember my dad taking me and my brothers down to Charlie's Barber Shop and getting us all crew cuts. Then my dad and the barber would go next door and get a shot and a beer.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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