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Remembering Shantytown: Photos depict life in Depression-era Strip District

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

By Ellen S. Wilson

The man is intent on his shaving. He crouches to see his face in the mirror, stretches his skin taut. His vest and pants have parted to expose an expanse of clean, white shirt. He is too busy keeping up appearances to think about being photographed. He is living in a shantytown in the Strip District, early in the 1930s.

 
 
"Shantytown:
The Ed Salamony Photographs"

Opens 5:30 p.m. today with a benefit for Photo Antiquities, the Homeless Children & Family Emergency Fund, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Neighbors in the Strip. The fund-raising event takes place at Valhalla Microbrewery and Restaurant, 1150 Smallman St., Strip District. Rick Sebak is the event's chairman. One print of each photograph will be sold through auction.

"Shantytown: The Ed Salamony Photographs" will then be on exhibit at Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History, 531 E. Ohio St., North Side. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. For information, call 412-231-7881.

   
 

"You can tell he is looking in a mirror because you can see the light reflecting off of it," explains Frank Watters, director of Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History on the North Side.

He pauses. "Am I crazy?"

The answer is no, he isn't. Watters simply sees more in a photograph than most people do.

One person with a similar knack was Edward P. Salamony, a young photographer sent to Shantytown by the Bulletin Index, a publication of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph.

Now Salamony's photographs, and the Shantytown that was so nearly forgotten, can be seen in "Shantytown: The Ed Salamony Photographs," opening today in a benefit for Photo Antiquities, the Homeless Children & Family Emergency Fund, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Neighbors in the Strip.

The 15 photographs taken by Salamony and five others from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Department document life in Shantytown, built in the shadow of Old St. Patrick's Church at 17th Street and Liberty Avenue and overseen by the Rev. James R. Cox. He was famous in the 1930s for organizing soup kitchens, bread lines and a march on Washington to bring attention to the plight of the hungry during the Depression.

Salamony was born in 1910 and was a photojournalist most of his life. He spent time overseas during World War II, but for 26 years he worked for local newspapers documenting some of the more trying years of Pittsburgh's history. His connection with Watters is of more recent vintage.

Watters, Irish by birth, trained as a photojournalist in Dublin and worked for the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Irish Press and some British dailies. He was managing a quarry on Grand Cayman when he met his wife and moved with her to Pittsburgh, where he found both work and a kindred spirit at Bernie's Photo Center on East Ohio Street, North Side. There he shared a love of history and of photography with owner Bruce Klein, who had begun a small collection of 19th-century photography. Around 1991 or '92, Watters says, they decided to put their finer pieces on display and have been expanding ever since. Klein is chair of the board of directors of Photo Antiquities, which now has more than 500,000 pieces in its collection.

Watters is seeking funding to renovate the old Allegheny Social Club building at 810-812 Concord St. in Spring Garden as the future home of Photo Antiquities and the entire Salamony collection.

The selection of photographs of Shantytown, which the city burned in 1934, will, Watters hopes, "throw us into the limelight." In the meantime, he is intent on a mission to preserve and present the glorious and inglorious past.

"I love Pittsburgh,'" says Watters, 37. "I love the diversity that is here, and you never know what the next person will bring in. Everybody has their own story."

Salamony brought his story to Watters four or five years ago, when he called to say he had some old 4-by-5-inch negatives he wanted to print. "He was an older man, and he couldn't carry them all in," Watters explains, "so I arranged to meet with him at his home."

That meeting lasted three or four hours, as the two shared their stories and found common ground. Salamony had wanted to make the prints himself, but his resources were limited, and he no longer had the dexterity required to manage the equipment. Watters eventually took the 300 negatives and had two sets of prints made. It took several months, and the costs mounted. As thanks, Salamony gave Watters the negatives for Photo Antiquities.

The photographs are a record of Pittsburgh from 1930 to 1960. They include "Burning of the Island Queen," a large river boat on which an oil tank exploded killing 19 people in 1947 while it was docked at the Mon Wharf; "Pittsburgh's Singing Policeman"; and documentation of a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt. There are scenes of fox hunting in Sewickley, lovers sitting on a bench Downtown, and children playing -- as children always do -- in the dirt.

Watters promised Salamony then that he would put the photographs on exhibit. Salamony died in January 1999, and, says Watters, "it became a mission at that point to get it done."

Watters approached the Pittsburgh Foundation for support and followed their suggestion to exhibit one part of the collection. He chose the photographs of Shantytown, suspecting that it had been in the Strip, and two Brady Stewart photographs he found in the Pennsylvania Department of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh confirmed it. Until the Salamony collection surfaced, says Watters, there were only two known photographs of Pittsburgh's Shantytown, a city block housing 300 people in row after row of shacks constructed of packing crates and scrap metal.

The difference between the photographs made by Stewart and those made by Salamony is striking. Stewart's pictures document the scene as a whole, with Liberty Avenue visible in the background. Salamony's show the people, the dejection visible in one man's bearing, curiosity on the face of a child, sometimes even pride.

"When [Salamony] went to take a photo, he went to capture the people. He wanted to document what life was, not just document the place," says Watters.

Shantytown was racially diverse, and everything was shared. With careful study, the photographs, all uncropped, reveal details such as sheets barely visible on a bed. One man hunches over a kettle washing a shirt, his thick, gnarled fingers those of a laborer in heavy industry.

"They took care of the place themselves as best they could," Watters says. "These were displaced people that did not want to take handouts and couldn't find work.

"When I saw the quality of the photographs," he explains, "and that the area of the city was the Strip, I approached Neighbors in the Strip," an organization dedicated to promoting economic development in the area. "I couldn't have done it without [executive director] Becky Rodgers." She helped find some corporate funding and provided technical and administrative assistance.

"This was such an important part of the Strip's history," says Rodgers. "My dad was a Depression baby, and my grandfather had a dump truck and he used to get things down in the Strip for the entire neighborhood -- ice and meat and coal," she adds. "There's a special place in my heart for that."


Ellen S. Wilson is a free-lance writer for the Post-Gazette.

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