Pittsburgh’s Chinatown was a small but a lively downtown feature and Boulevard of the Allies was the burgeoning force that slowly squeezed the life out of it.
Chinatown in Pittsburgh began to coalesce in the late 1800s, a stop in the trail of those scrambling to California to take part in the Gold Rush, according to the Post-Gazette. By the early 1900s small grocery stores, gift-shops and restaurants had popped up. They supplied the community with Chinese goods. A quaint park sat between Ross and Grant Streets, a meeting space for Chinese immigrants to catch up on the latest news and play mah-jongg. Racism of that era made it difficult for Chinese to assimilate in Pittsburgh and they found community in Chinatown, which the Post-Gazette in 1979 labeled a “ghetto-like area.”
The heart of Chinatown was on Second and Third Avenues between Ross and Grant streets, bussed by two rival Chinese fraternities: the On Leong Labor and Merchants Association and the Hip Sing Association.
They were the unofficial rulers of this small Chinatown, with occasional gang confrontations in the 1920s and 30s to assert power.
With the construction and expansion of Boulevard of the Allies the presence of small Chinese population downtown Pittsburgh was short lived. When the construction was first dedicated in 1921, it extended from Grant Street and Second Ave to Oakland. The Boulevard and other infrastructure projects grew more expansive with time, and the Chinese community was slowly squeezed out.
Parking lots replaced Chinese goods shops. The Yee Haim store at 519 Second Ave. was one of the few stores left, according to a Post Gazette article from 1942.
By 1959, only three Chinese families remained.
Today, the only physical trace left of this community is the Chinatown Inn restaurant. The Inn is located in the former On Leong Labor and Merchants Association building and the ornate red pagodas trimmed with pale green carvings are the only remnants of its former function.
Still, it only tells a small part of the tale of Pittsburgh’s Chinatown, a history now faded into a distant memory.
– Grace Kelly (The Pitt News)