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District 11: Urban, even urbane

Coffeehouses, research labs and leafy living define region's cultural hub

Sunday, March 21, 1999

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There may be, per capita, more coffeehouses and espresso bars in Allegheny County Council District 11 than anywhere else in the county. That might mean only that a disproportionate number of its residents are addicted to caffeine.

  Joe Dvorsky dumps fried fish from the fryer basket as Gabe Baldesberger makes fish sandwiches in the kitchen of Holy Angels Church in Hays. About 500 people eat Lenten meals on Fridays at the church. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

But if sipping a caffe macchiato while hunched over a laptop tapping out a doctoral thesis at any one of about 17 java joints in Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Regent Square or the South Side's East Carson Street is any barometer of what passes for urban sophistication, then District 11 can probably claim the title of social and cultural hub of the region.

Maybe District 1, which includes Sewickley and parts of the fast-growing northern suburbs, has wealthier residents and more college graduates. Maybe District 13, with Downtown and the North Side, can claim more theaters or sports venues, not to mention Plan B's future stadiums, within its boundaries.

But District 11 is home to Carnegie Mellon University's high-tech research center. It includes a generous slice of the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland, the city's largest employer. It has the Carnegie Museum, its extraordinary collection of dinosaur bones and world-renowned paleontologists who study them. It has Chatham College's bucolic campus, which is nestled among 100-year-old shade trees and million-dollar homes.

Many of those institutions' professors, doctors and researchers choose to live in the leafy neighborhoods nearby, unlike their counterparts in other cities. They rub shoulders with some of Pittsburgh's oldest and richest families - the Hillmans, the McCunes, Richard Mellon Scaife - and with Russian immigrants who have flocked here, drawn by Squirrel Hill's reputation as one of the last thriving Jewish urban centers outside New York City.

"I can walk to work," said Sharon Dilworth, a writer and professor at Carnegie Mellon who has lived in Miami and Detroit. "You connect with people in nonartificial ways in the shops, in the restaurants, waiting at the busway, that I could never do elsewhere."

At "blue slide" Frick Park playground on Beechwood Boulevard, children chatter in German and Japanese and Hindi under the watchful eyes of their parents, many of them here on university fellowships.

Regent Square residents, which include a sizable number of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra members, line up at night to see foreign films at the neighborhood cinema. And in Shadyside, where rentals far outnumber owner-occupied homes, young single professionals and purple-haired, nose-ringed students hang at Dancing Goats on Ellsworth Avenue or venture into Oakland to drink ginseng soda or coffee at Kiva Han. Those who consider themselves more artistic and bohemian might opt to live across the river, near the South Side's thriving East Carson Street business corridor.

Still, "I don't think that going to eat at Soba [an Asian-themed restaurant] means you've entered a world of high sophistication," said Elayne Tobin, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh who has lived in Manhattan. Unlike New York, however, "it is true that you can live a life of seemingly elite taste without have the salary that goes with it." Plus, she said, there are hidden gems to rival anything found in Seattle or Paris - such as the film series at Carnegie Museum, "which varies all the time."

"Bill Judson is just a world-class film programmer," she said. "They just finished a series on Irish cinema, [and] they did an African series that was great."

But that urbanity hardly defines District 11; it only serves to distinguish it from its counterparts represented on the new council. Besides much of the East End, this roughly q-shaped political construct includes a wide variety of neighborhoods, each of them different, each of them typical of the region.

It has Hazelwood, the city's equivalent of a struggling former mill town. It has public housing communities, such as Arlington Heights and St. Clair Village. It has the urban neighborhoods of Greenfield, Arlington, the South Side Flats and Slopes. A tiny remnant of Appalachia is tucked away in the municipality of Hays. It has Mount Oliver Borough, which refuses to cede its independence and become a part of the city. The district even has its own piece of suburbia in Lincoln Place - Gates Manor, a 1960s-era subdivision - a favorite choice for city workers who must live in Pittsburgh but want to feel as if they're in Penn Hills.

Bounded by Shadyside to the north and Lincoln Place to the south, Regent Square to the east and Mount Oliver to the west, District 11 includes parts of, but not all, the city's (and Mount Oliver's) 4th, 7th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th and 31st wards. While some of its residents, particularly those in Squirrel Hill, have been known to vote Republican, registration is so overwhelmingly Democratic at 71 percent that the GOP isn't even fielding a candidate for the district race.

Economically, the district's 20 neighborhoods vary wildly, with incomes in every range. According to 1997 Census figures, for example, the median household income for a Point Breeze resident was $61,432; in St. Clair Village it was $5,595.

"These neighborhoods have unique problems that don't compete," said Doug Shields, guiding his 10-year-old Buick Park Avenue past the old Sealtest Dairy on Brownsville Road that now houses a technical school. Turning sharply left, he stops at what seems to be a snowy field. But it isn't; it's the top of a slag heap, a remnant of Pittsburgh's industrial past, and, authorities hope, a key to the city's future.

Shields, an aide to city Councilman Bob O'Connor, is knowledgeable and loquacious about his boss's home turf, which extends across to the river's south shore and makes up about half of the county's new district.

"CMU tests its robot cars here. Kids come here to play paintball. It's a little bit of country in the middle of the city," he said.

But not for long. Because of the efforts of O'Connor and Mayor Murphy, a neighborhood is slated for construction here as part of the development of Nine Mile Run, a sharply sloped site between Squirrel Hill and Swisshelm Park. "Summerset at Frick Park," a complex of homes and apartments, will, it is hoped, attract young professionals who might otherwise opt to live in Peters or Pine.

Indeed, this slag heap is the testing ground for an idea that preoccupies and unites just about everyone in District 11's 20 city neighborhoods, whether they live in Squirrel Hill or the South Side or Hazelwood: That this city will be able to hold its own against the suburbs.

Whether that translates into an "us-vs.-them" mentality on the County Council, with the city's districts battling against the outlying suburbs, remains to be seen. But Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg was clearly trying to be diplomatic when he described the new form of government "as organized in such a way that will permit us to deal more effectively with issues facing everyone in the region."

But, he added, "In the East End, we're very much concerned with building better opportunities so that people can stay and work and contribute here."

Contented residents

Clare Connors, left, of Point Breeze, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, studies at the 61c Café in Squirrel Hill. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

In Greenfield, however, Alice Pagano isn't too worried.

"Our kids don't leave. They grow up and marry and raise families here. Everyone knows everyone else, and we all watch out for each other," she said.

She may be half right. One of Greenfield's famous natives grew up to be Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri; another, Larry Lucchino, left to become president of the San Diego Padres (although his brother, Frank, became the county's controller). Pagano heads the Greenfield All Star Cheerleading Association, one of myriad football, soccer, basketball and other athletic clubs whose intensity stands out in a region where sports is a big deal. Pagano, whose organization sent a group of Greenfield cheerleaders to the national competition last year, credits Magee Field as well as a preponderance of green lawns fronting Greenfield's homes for fostering that love of outdoor competitive sport.

"You have land here. There's space. We're not closed in. This is more like a suburb in the city. And, you can see the fireworks at the Point."

Indeed, those views are attracting higher prices for houses in Greenfield, if they are sold to outsiders at all. Despite modest median household incomes, Greenfield's rate of home ownership is high, even higher than much of Squirrel Hill's. The Pittsburgh tradition of handing homes down from generation to generation is alive and well in Greenfield, as it is in such other blue-collar neighborhoods as Arlington and South Side Slopes, although the panoramic views also have lured university professors and artists, who bet, along with Greenfield's longtime residents, that the shuttered coke plant down the hill in Hazelwood won't be belching out particulates anytime soon.

Hazelwood residents are betting on that, too. A proposal to replace the coke plant closed by LTV in 1998 appears to be in limbo because of political and financing problems. That's just fine with its neighbors, who have vociferously opposed it, in part because of a perception that most of the plant's jobs would go to union workers who live in the suburbs.

"Money would be better used in making viable jobs for people who live here," said Homer Craig, a lifelong Hazelwood resident.

Actually, before there was Squirrel Hill or Greenfield, there was Hazelwood, which attracted its share of the well-to-do, who took the old Connellsville railroad Downtown in the mid-19th century. But when B.F. Jones met James Laughlin in 1861 and the two combined steel, iron and coke facilities on the north and south sides of the Monongahela River, Hazelwood's prosperous residents moved up and over the hills to escape the fumes.

And when the steel industry collapsed, so did Hazelwood. St. Stephen Church still stands in magnificent baroque splendor above the main business corridor, Second Avenue, but stores are boarded up and youths loiter on street corners. Signs of revival are sprouting, however. The new Rite-Aid pharmacy sticks out like a bright spring flower amid the gloom. And the main street's blight obscures the fact that half of Hazelwood's residents own their homes, some of them the second, third and even fourth generations to do so. And it has one of the highest percentages of minority-owned homes in Pittsburgh - 47 percent, according to 1990 Census data. Glen Hazel, the housing project to the east, "is the nicest public housing in the city," Shields said.

Across the Glenwood Bridge to the river's south shore, District 11 follows the city boundaries to New Homestead, a sparsely populated community of wooded hills that feature more deer than residents. While developers have repeatedly announced plans for grandiose housing projects, most recently The Heights at South Hills in the 31st Ward near Hays, the steep slopes and a history of coal mine subsidence have discouraged building there. But in neighboring Lincoln Place, at the southeasternmost reaches of the city, the real estate market is relatively booming. Houses in the suburban-like Gates Manor complex get snapped up immediately, often by city police and paramedics who must live in Pittsburgh but want an acre of green.

Many of them, however, still go back down the hill to attend Holy Angels Church, a small frame building on busy Baldwin Road in Hays. With its narrow frame houses nestled in a hollow with a running creek, it could be in West Virginia. Once a tightly knit community of mostly Italian immigrants who worked at the former Mesta Machinery Plant (now GalvTech, a steel galvanizing facility), its population has declined to just a handful of people.

Still, Holy Angels continues to be an anchor, not just for Hays, but for Lincoln Place and other communities as well. And every Friday during Lent and Advent, those residents turn out for a fish fry at Holy Angels to benefit the church.

"People come from all over, Lincoln Place, Baldwin, West Mifflin, Hazelwood. We sell about 2,000 orders, mostly takeout, since the church can't hold them all," said Bud Klos, who has operated the fish fry for the past 10 years.

Neighborhood pride

Going west along the river again and up Becks Run Road, the city reasserts itself at a right turn onto Wagner Street. Newly cleared underbrush reveals St. Clair Village, one of the city's larger public housing communities, and soon, Mount Oliver Borough's clock tower and its old-fashioned street lights come into view, a new streetscape paid for with federal - not city - funds, because Mount Oliver isn't in Pittsburgh.

The "burra," as Mayor John Smith pronounces it, is an independent municipality whose inclusion in District 11 is a puzzlement. Smith said he had no idea who any of the candidates for County Council are, noting they're all from the East End.

"Taxes are low, police protection is great and we have every side street plowed when it snows ," said Smith, a retired truck driver who was elected in 1978 and still hangs out daily at Mike's Lunch, a Mount Oliver institution. And politically, he knows which side his bread is buttered on.

"If we say let's move into Pittsburgh, they'll hang you from the nearest pole," he joked. "I'm not knocking the city, we just have to be ourselves."

On Mount Oliver's streets, shoppers both white and black, peer into store windows. It looks like an integrated community, and it is, to some extent. But while many residents of St. Clair Village patronize the Foodland at Arlington Avenue and Brownsville Road, they don't necessarily feel welcome in the community, said Karen Cellars, director of the St. Clair Tenant Association.

"A lot of people have left St. Clair Village and moved to Mount Oliver, but I'm not sure they're really accepted. I'd like to see that change, with more blacks working there. I'd also like to see more middle-class people moving here."

The hillsides that isolate St. Clair Village from its neighbors have been cleaned and cleared and, a week ago, a grant for a new day-care center came through from the Early Childhood Initiative, a public-private partnership that is trying to increase the amount of high-quality child care in Allegheny County.

Nearby Arlington Heights, a 56-year-old public housing development, is slated for demolition - except for seven buildings - under a new federal plan to shut down older publicly funded facilities with high vacancy rates. And while its barracks-like appearance might be uninviting to an outsider, to many of the residents being relocated into privately owned housing, it was their neighborhood.

"It wasn't all just people on welfare. There were working people who lived there and called it home," said Linda Brown-Roach, former president of the Arlington Heights Residents Council and a Democratic committeewoman. "The cohesiveness we had in that community is gone, and there's some real grieving going on," said Brown-Roach, who is considering a move to Allentown.

She said her neighbors in Arlington, which is 95 percent white, have been welcoming, even though there was a history of tension between youths in the two communities.

"There is this stereotype about Arlington as being a racist community, and it's not like that at all," she said.

But Arlington, which spills down the hill toward the Mon and the South Side Slopes, has problems of its own. Alongside row houses covered in old Insul-brick or new vinyl siding, a few grand old Victorian homes overlook the city, begging for a renovator's hand. Its small business district, which extends from Spring to Clover streets, is struggling a bit more than its neighbor, Mount Oliver, a heavily trafficked bus route with blocks of shops on both sides.

It's a far cry from the urban renewal success story that can be found by driving down Arlington Avenue past the zigzagging Shelly and Stella streets that were recently designated historical landmarks, to the South Side.

In a recent public television documentary on this part of Pittsburgh, one bookstore owner interviewed by WQED's Rick Sebak described South Side residents as having "both kinds of blue hair" - either worn by women of a certain age or young people of both sexes. About a third of all Pittsburgh's older people live here along with young professionals. That culture clash has preoccupied this area for more than a decade, as "hip" shops and art galleries sprouted up along East Carson and housing prices in some places shot up by more than 100 percent.

But the South Side's resurgence isn't just about trendiness. The newly refurbished, sparkling gold dome of St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church lights up the sky, a reminder of its active, functioning congregation. Keeping this part of the South Side intact is what preoccupies neighborhood activists, who worry about the influx of students from the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, which in turn encourages the spread of rental housing and absentee landlords who don't maintain those properties. And they worry about the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's plans to build a sports medicine complex on part of the old LTV site along the river.

"It's not exactly what we wanted," said Roberta Stackowitz, president of the South Side Community Council. "We need more retail. We need a grocery store that can compete with Giant Eagle."

But Carey Harris, executive director of the South Side Local Development Company, can barely contain her optimism about the planned development, and said more than 70 units of housing had been built in the heart of the neighborhood, with more on the way.

"A lot of the ones who are moving in from the suburbs are empty nesters. ... They love the variety of shops and restaurants they can walk to."

Given its lively street culture and well-organized, vocal community groups, the South Side perhaps could be described as the yin to the East End's yang; of all the parts that make up District 11's whole, here is the strongest counterweight to the East End's political and cultural clout. But will that work against both of them?

"There's really this perception that the East End is over there, and South Pittsburgh is over here," Harris said. "And the challenge will be to get them to see themselves as one district with a lot of commonalities."

It's a challenge that Harris seems acutely aware of. But then, her local loyalties take over. "It is just bubbling up here," she said. "Every opportunity is at our doorstep. It is almost overwhelming. It's the place everyone wants to be." 11District0321

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