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Ethnic neighborhoods becoming thing of past

Sunday, May 25, 2003

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The ethnic enclaves that are Pittsburgh's colorful quilt of European nationalities still exist, but their intensity fades with every decade.

You can still attend a Mass in Polish on Polish Hill, play bocce on a community court in Pittsburgh's most Italian neighborhood -- Morningside, not Bloomfield -- or hang your personal beer stein in the rathskeller of Troy Hill's German singing club.

  Online Graphic: Ethnic Pockets


But the number of ethnic churches and clubs has dwindled, as have the concentrations of nationality groups in places well-known for them.

Between the national censuses of 1990 and 2000, the percentage of local residents counting themselves among the major European immigrant groups that settled in the Pittsburgh region declined for nearly all nationalities. That included the Germans of Millvale, Italians of New Castle, Slovaks of Munhall, Hungarians of Hazelwood and Ukrainians of the South Side, among other longtime ethnic centers.

The German-descended residents of Reserve represent the only people and place where a single nationality group constitutes a majority of a community's population. In listing their ancestry in the 2000 census, 50.6 percent of residents of that suburb bordering the North Side said they were at least partly German.

In the 1990 census, the Germans of Spring Garden and Troy Hill; in the adjacent suburbs of Millvale, West View and Etna; and from more rural Jackson and Evans City in Butler County all represented a majority in their communities. The same held true for the Poles in Pittsburgh's Polish Hill section before 2000.

"When you have intermarriages and people move out to the suburbs, everything changes after that," said the Rev. Joseph Swierczynski of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill.

The church is the center of a neighborhood where the census counted 617 people of Polish ancestry in 2000, compared with 937 in 1990. Swierczynski figures his church out-Poles the neighborhood, however, with an estimated 900 of the church's 1,000 families having Polish background.

The neighborhood's groceries still sell special meats and candies imported from Poland, but local Polish-language classes ended with the shutdown of the church's school in 1997.

People now have to travel down the hillside to Lawrenceville for language classes. Central Lawrenceville is 30.1 percent Polish. The region's largest Polish concentration outside Pittsburgh is in Glassport, where 23.8 percent of the population listed that ancestry in 2000.

(The Post-Gazette's review of census ancestries focused on municipalities and city neighborhoods of more than 1,000 people, to account for the possibility of misjudging nationality sizes in small communities. The ancestry question was only on the census long form, received by one of every six households.)

The Germans, who represent nearly 26 percent of Allegheny County's population, make up the region's biggest nationality group. More than anyone or anywhere, they remain most dominant in sections of the city's North Side and communities just outside it.

Troy Hill is most often identified with German ties, partly because of its sizable churches populated by German Catholics and German Lutherans, the Oktoberfest at the Penn Brewery and the distinctive Teutonia Mannerchor, with more than 2,000 members who embrace German food, singing and culture.

But adjacent Spring Garden actually has a higher percentage of Germans, and still higher numbers live in Reserve, where German farming families such as the Brenckles settled a century ago. Many of their descendants remain.

"I guess it was for the land. ... It was rich and near the center of Pittsburgh," said Lois Brenckle, who helped her late husband run a produce farm and nursery for many years. She has turned it over to a son, Don, who grows vegetables and plants in 15 greenhouses on the Mount Troy Road property.

Another Brenckle son operates a farm in Evans City, where nearly half the population is of German background. That Butler County community was more than 60 percent German in 1990, as was Troy Hill.

The region's second largest nationality group is the Irish, who make up more than 18 percent of Allegheny County's population. They assimilated and spread everywhere soon after arrival in the 19th century, rather than standing out in pockets.

Upper Lawrenceville showed the highest concentration in 2000, with 35.6 percent of its population claiming to be all or part Irish. Many communities are at least one-fifth Irish in background, with city neighborhoods of Swisshelm Park and Duquesne Heights around 30 percent and the suburb of Green Tree a leprechaun's whisker shy of that.

When people think Italian around Pittsburgh, they often think of Bloomfield, with its Liberty Avenue commercial district of Italian restaurants and other enterprises bearing Italian surnames. A billboard advertises the neighborhood as Pittsburgh's "Little Italy."

But the ethnic group is even more dominant in Sharpsburg, which is 36 percent Italian, more than twice the county average. Taylor, Ellwood City and New Castle in Lawrence County are all above 30 percent also.

Sharpsburg Mayor Donald A. Ferraro, 51, remembers growing up outside the now-gone Italian BGI Club, where "if the men playing bocce out back would see you, they'd start talking Italian, because they didn't want you hearing what they were talking about."

The bocce tradition is alive and well today in Morningside, where the community built the John L. Delsignore Bocce Courts, recently improved and expanded by the city. Morningside, just more than 29 percent Italian, has a slightly higher percentage than Bloomfield.

Nick Iezzi said native Italians still speak the language at the courts, "especially when they get excited." But helping to explain the neighborhood's fall from 36 percent Italian heritage in 1990, he read off names of some of the recently deceased bocce club members -- Delsignore, Caliendo, Alioto and Lombardo among them.

Deaths of the first wave of European immigrants and their children explain much of the region's percentage declines, along with migration into communities by other nationality or racial groups. The tendency of upwardly mobile succeeding generations to move elsewhere, though often close enough to continue attending their original church, is another large factor.

And the farther removed people get from their ancestral homeland by time and intermarriage, the less likely they are to list it on a census form, though researchers have also seen a swing toward higher ethnic consciousness in recent years.

Groups focused on "fun food and famous people" to promote their national heritage some years back, but are more serious about culture and education today, said Joseph Makarewicz, former head of the Pennsylvania Ethnic Heritage Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The ethnic groups are helping younger people realize that, 'Hey, you're an American, but with a cultural heritage that gives you something unique that other people don't have,' " he said. "That's the thing more ethnic groups are doing today -- promoting identity."

While the Germans, Irish and Italians are far more numerous than other ingredients of the region's melting pot, sufficient people consider themselves Serbs, Croatians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Carpatho-Russians, Poles, Greeks and Slovenians to hold their own nationality days annually at Kennywood Park.

They and other groups support the celebrated Nationality Rooms at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning. Many have their own weekly radio shows on two AM stations, WPIT and WEDO. Several have extensive insurance organizations marketed to group members, such as the William Penn Association for Hungarians, and widespread social clubs such as the Polish National Alliance and Sons of Italy.

Eastern European groups were well-represented in the region's mining and mill towns, the remnants of which show up today. The Mon Valley towns of Whitaker, Munhall and West Homestead have the largest Slovak concentrations, ranging from 22 to 19 percent.

Hungarians are most prominent in the Washington County mining communities of West Pike Run, where they are 11.5 percent of its population, and West Brownsville, at 8.4 percent. They exceeded 10 percent of Hazelwood's population in 1990, but were down to 5.7 percent a decade later.

Beaver County is a Ukrainian center. Harmony's population is about 8 percent Ukrainian, Baden's 7 percent and Ambridge's 6 percent, the same as McKees Rocks.

Michael Komichak, a McKees Rocks resident who has hosted a Ukrainian radio program for 53 years, noted that while the community's only Ukrainian social club closed in the 1990s, one can still attend a church service there in the native language.

The best example of a melting pot neighborhood, as it always may have been, is Pittsburgh's South Side. Carson Street's arts-and-bars redevelopment bears little trace of the neighborhood's multicultural roots, but its 2000 population was 22.6 percent German, 21.5 percent Polish, 20.7 percent Irish, 12.9 percent Italian, 4.4 percent Slovak and 4.0 percent Ukrainian, among others.

"If all you know of the South Side is Carson Street, you get a very artificial view of the neighborhood," said Joe Bielicki, a South Side lawyer of Slovak background.

"It was always like living in Bosnia, in that everyone was all mixed together here," Bielicki said, "and the ethnic ties are still strong. The ethnic life really occurs off of Carson Street in people's homes on the holidays, and in the social clubs and churches."

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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