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Real 'Burgh: Billy Buck Hill

A remote neighborhood on the South Side Slopes with a grand vista has a storied past

Monday, July 03, 2000

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If you know people who think they know everything about our beloved city, from its chipped ham to its Dahntahn, ask them this question:

 
  Laverne Clark helps longtime neighbor Mildred Kubisiak during her daily walk on Huron Street. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

What the heck is Billy Buck Hill?

"It is acclaimed on continents from here through Asia," said Ed Jacob, president of the South Side Slopes Association.

A photo of Billy Buck Hill appeared in the June 1978 National Geographic magazine in a story about Pennsylvania's scenery, said Laverne Clark, a lifelong resident, who stored a copy away as a cherished memento.

Only a local could pinpoint the neighborhood.

"The photo was just our hillside," Clark said proudly.

The caption said it was "coveted" for its vistas.

"We have a grand view of Oakland and Downtown," Clark said, except for the weeds that block the chain-link fences of the ball field and playground.

In 1990, The Pittsburgh Press identified Billy Buck Hill as one of Pittsburgh's best kept secrets.

"Many people who live in the South Side flats have never been up here," said Clark, 50, a third-generation resident and sort of a neighborhood historian.

 
    Where is Billy Buck Hill? Click here to find out.

 
 

Billy Buck Hill is part of the South Side Slopes, the hilly part of the South Side. It is a tightly knit community, founded by Germans. Its homes, mostly tall and skinny with terraced gardens and spectacular views, have been passed through generations of families.

"I am new to this neighborhood," said Kathleen Kucerovy, 61, of Shamokin Street. "I am here for 39 years. Believe me, I am considered new to this neighborhood."

Unlike many Pittsburgh neighborhoods whose boundaries bleed into each other, Billy Buck Hill is defined by its cliffs and rugged terrain and long flights of city steps leading to the flatlands.

Billy Buck Hill is on the west side of South 18th Street. It is bounded on the west and south by St. Paul of the Cross Monastery and Retreat House and on the east by Oporto Street.

The neighborhood has its own sign, a grand "Welcome to Billy Buck Hill" at Yard Way and St. Paul Street, not far from St. Paul's Monastery off South 18th Street.

But where did Billy Buck get its name?

"My grandmother told me there was a store up here with a couple of billy goats in the yard," Clark said.

"Yes, goats lived there," said Regina Kubisiak, 78, another lifelong resident.

"There were goats," said Mildred Kubisiak, 84, who ended up with the same surname as Regina Kubisiak when she married Joseph the iceman. He was the brother of Regina's husband, Edward.

Clark was glad to hear the old-timers verify the goat story. The Pennsylvania Room of the Carnegie Public Library also has an index card about Billy Buck Hill provided by Mary Jane Schmalstieg, a South Side Slopes historian who recently died.

The library's information said goat hill/Billy Buck Hill was near Winters Park on St. Paul Street, off Baldauf Street.

"Only in Pittsburgh would you get this kind of information," said Barry Chad, senior librarian.

Chad said it is probably Billy Buck Hill that the late Pittsburgh author, Olive Price, refers to in a book called "Three Golden Rivers" that was published in 1948.

The University of Pittsburgh Press recently released the book as part of a new collection called Golden Triangle Books for young readers, said Margaret Kimmel, a Pitt library science professor who is editor of the collection.

"Three Golden Rivers" is a fictionalized story about four orphans who, while searching for a place to live in 1847, discovered a shanty house at a place called Goat Hill above Birmingham on the South Side.

Jacob said the South Side Slopes, which has between 5,500 and 6,000 residents, is divided into many "sub-neighborhoods" by topography.

"The slopes has 68 different sets of steps. That's one of the things that makes it so interesting," Jacob said.

 
Jimmy Chapman sends a beachball back to Johnny Gaylor as Johnny's sister, Tina, enjoys their new pool on Shamokin Street, Billy Buck Hill.

(Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

 

There are no billy goats on Billy Buck Hill today, although the terrain is well suited for them.

Strangers who discover the neighborhood usually are doing some aerobic exercise by climbing the 313 steps -- by a Post-Gazette reporter's count -- that begin at a stop sign at Yard Way and Pius Street. Locals find that amusing since they have been using the steps to get to work, to school, and to grocery stores on Carson Street for years.

Frank Renk, 77, a lifelong resident, said there's a total of about 500 steps to the bottom of South 18th Street, where the terrain finally levels out.

"We used to take them two at a time," Renk said.

"I walked those steps at 4 or 5 a.m. for 34 years," said Kucerovy, who used them to commute to her job in the dietary department of South Side Hospital.

Until recently, Mildred Kubisiak, walked to her doctor's office and the Schwartz Market on East Carson. Her doctor wondered how his octogenarian patient stayed in shape and asked her one day what she does to keep active.

"I said, 'I like to walk,' " she said. The doctor asked her where she lived. Kubisiak pointed way, way up the hill. "I said, 'See, way up there,' " pointing to Billy Buck Hill.

Renk still walks the steps to the flats below. As a child, he only had an hour for lunch at St. Michael's parochial school on Pius Street.

"I would walk up the steps, eat lunch and walk back to school," he said.

Walking sometimes is easier than maneuvering through the neighborhood by car, which is like traveling through a maze.

If you proceed straight on St. Paul at the Billy Buck welcome sign, you'll have to find a place to turn around because St. Paul dead-ends at a cliff.

It's better to turn left on Yard Way, which looks like an alley, but will bring you into the heart of Billy Buck Hill -- Shamokin, Huron and Oporto streets.

There's another way out, a cut-through called Short Street that allows cars to weave down to Pius Street, as long as they don't encounter any oncoming traffic. Clark said her daughter won't drive it, but she is not intimidated.

"I have come down here frontwards, backwards and sidewards," said Clark.

With this kind of terrain, Billy Buck has a historical record of famous mishaps, like the time the milk truck flipped over while making its deliveries and the time, much earlier in history, when an accident created quite an odor on Billy Buck Hill.

Before the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, a "honey scooper," a horse and wagon that cleaned out the outhouses and hauled away human waste, was trekking through Billy Buck Hill one night when the horse lost its footing.

"It went over the hill and ended up near 18th street," Clark said.

In recent years, delivery trucks and fire trucks have had a hard time maneuvering through the narrow winding streets.

The fire-truck issue has been a matter of concern for years, throughout many parts of the Slopes.

Jacob said the city had ordered a smaller pumper truck, which was being custom-built and should arrive by late summer or early fall.

At Oporto Street, a natural boundary on the east side of Billy Buck Hill, the hillside drops precipitously and the only protection is a guardrail. Clark said a child fell over the hill one time.

"Her dad had to go down on a rope to get her," she said.

Billy Buck Hill was founded by German Catholics, most of whom attended St. Michael Catholic Church on Pius Street, which was one of the major churches in early Pittsburgh.

"Pius Street used to be bustling, with an A & P, all sorts of ethnic groceries, a tailor, a butcher shop, a candy store and a man who used to make shoes," Regina Kubisiak said.

Most of that disappeared by the early 1950s.

In the old days, Billy Buck residents also had their own mom-and-pop stores and even a club, where residents liked to play cards. They also used to sit outside and play musical instruments.

Stores no longer exist on Pius Street or on Billy Buck Hill. St. Michael's Church closed in 1992 when the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh reorganized the South Side parishes into Prince of Peace.

But it is still a tight community.

Some young people have moved away, leaving the old-timers behind like Renk, who spends much of his time doing odd jobs for his neighbors, many of whom are related to him.

He weeds their gardens, cuts grass, paints the fences that divide their lots and goes shopping for elderly residents who can't get out.

The neighborhood still has its share of children who swing and slide at its Winters Playground or play whiffle ball at its Winters Field. The two are stacked like steps at the ends of Huron and Shamokin streets.

There's even a child celebrity: Larin Miller, 12, who won the National Marbles Championship in Wildwood, N.J. last month.

Years ago, there were nonstop sports at the ball field, neighborhood parties and benefit events, Kucerovy said.

"At that time, St. Paul's Monastery was active in the neighborhood. The priests and brothers used to play ball with the kids. You had to play baseball to live here," Kucerovy said.

The playground, which was renovated about three years ago, is a popular place, even for children of other neighborhoods. Now a cool thing for a youngster to do on Billy Buck Hill is to venture down the city steps on roller blades.

On Sunday mornings, especially in the fall, a group of adults who moved away sometimes return to play football on Winters Field and soak up the atmosphere of a community that is uniquely Pittsburgh.



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