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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette got a tip in 2016 that a trove of records in the city Urban Redevelopment Authority’s basement could help tell the story of the upheaval of the Lower Hill District in the 1950s.
A search turned up files on 336 properties — their descriptions, assessments, photographs, inspection reports, some with cringe-worthy comments, and the amounts the owners got for buildings that would be razed for redevelopment.
URA staff members said they didn’t know what happened to the rest of the documents; there had been almost 2,000 properties in the Lower Hill. The files predated any of the employees, plus the basement had had water damage over the years. A lot of stored records likely became dumpster bait.
But the records that did survive provide a wealth of material that enhances and helps correct the narrative of the Lower Hill’s demise.
In 1955, when Pittsburgh City Council voted to redevelop the Lower Hill, roughly 8,000 people lived among about 400 businesses. When crews began knocking on doors to evaluate properties, Joe Suriano kept the faith.
His family rented at 1306 Bedford Ave., across from a park, where the Boy Scouts Laurel Highlands Council building stands today. Joe and his brother were newsboys.
“My dad worked for the county elections department and walked home every day for lunch,” he said. “We didn’t have a car.”
In 1956, they were given three months to move. They decided on Beechview, a neighborhood on the streetcar line. Although they packed with heavy hearts, they believed their church, St. Peter’s —- a magnificent Gothic property on Fernando Street — would survive the wrecking ball.
“When we heard the plans, I remember people saying, ‘What do you mean they’re going to tear our church down?’” Mr. Suriano said, his voice in hushed disbelief. “It had a beautiful grotto.”
All these years later, during an interview at his daughter’s home in Mount Lebanon, he became emotional talking about the church.
“I guess it would have died anyway,” he said, “with nobody there.”
By 1959, nobody was there.
The URA’s $21 million project to build the Civic Arena as the new home of the Civic Light Opera, the Crosstown Boulevard and Chatham Center was underway.
The city housing authority would relocate 1,551 families, 29 percent into public housing. A URA survey in 1953 showed that of 1,885 total families in the Lower Hill at that time, 67.1 percent were black, 32.9 percent white. Their average annual incomes were not too far apart. In today’s dollars, those averages would be $26,068 for white families and $25,360 for black families.
The URA tracked the relocations. Most black families moved to the Middle and Upper Hill, a few to Homewood. Most white families moved to Uptown and the South Hills — Brookline, Beechview, Mt. Washington and Mount Lebanon.
The documents bring to light two themes:
The URA paid property owners fair to generous amounts.
The owner of six stores with rented rooms upstairs received $68,200 — about $625,000 today — on an assessed value of $42,655 even though the condition report deemed the buildings “in terrible condition and beyond reclamation.”
The owner of a two-story brick rooming house with entrances on Crawford and Fullerton Streets received $11,600 -- $106,704 today -- although the condition report read, in part, "Owner will not repair. Everything sagging and falling apart. Fullerton St. walls dangerous."
Many properties were in good condition.
City officials cited deplorable conditions to justify eliminating an entire neighborhood, yet reports and photographs of many properties would have justified preservation had preservation been a dynamic of the mid-1950s. Similar buildings exist today in protected historic districts throughout the city.
Besides St. Peter’s church, the lost treasures included a round-cornered beaux-arts bank; masses of three-story Victorians with tall, arched windows, elegant detail and handsome lines; and dozens of buildings that had been rooted with social and cultural capital.
The URA based its site selection on the substandard majority, though, and it didn’t hurt its cause that the Lower Hill was right up against Downtown.
In a report to city council in 1955, Mayor David L. Lawrence wrote of “the social desirability of complete clearance” of the Lower Hill to become an extension of the center core of the city. Its redevelopment would make “a mighty stride toward Oakland.”
The obvious message was that, for the movers and shakers, the Hill District was merely a bridge to other places.
With racial and Big Brother overtones, such attitudes were eliminating neighborhoods in nearly every city by the late 1950s.
Those attitudes also framed assurances that the future would be better for those who had to leave.
This picture of the Lower Hill was published in The Pittsburgh Press on March 26, 1951, and accompanied a story announcing the redevelopment of the neighborhood. "City to Rebuild Slum Areas in Hill District," read the headline. The story quoted Mayor David L. Lawrence as saying 100 acres would be "uprooted and rebuilt." (Post-Gazette archive)
“They had visions of this big glorious opera house [the Civic Arena], not recognizing that there was this place — right here — stocked with jazz and nightlife,” said Carlos Peterson, whose family moved from apartment to apartment ahead of the wrecking ball. “As beautiful as it was, they didn’t understand it was a culture. I can still hear the jukeboxes and see the kids dancing in doorways.”
When it was still a neighborhood, the Lower Hill was densely and almost whimsically configured, like a rickety game of Mousetrap, from its carved-up interiors to its alleys — a jumble of wooden stoops, unexpected doorways, makeshift walkways, niches and cubbyholes.
The Lower Hill had granted young Carlos the sense of belonging to a place. Then that place began disappearing by the day, the week, the month.
The Clay Way tenement that would be the family’s last residence in the Lower Hill was dilapidated when they moved in. Carlos was 7 at the time. His mother and six siblings had moved there from Elm Street when Elm was being cleared out.
On Clay Way, he said, “We’d go up on the roof, and the lights of the Gulf Building would reflect on our faces.”
In his unpublished memoir, “Once Upon a Hill,” he wrote of those last days when his family’s building was surrounded by debris, “… flattened buildings stretched as a humped ocean of brownish brick.”
He and his brothers watched the buildings come down.
“I liked the way they’d stagger like shameless drunks,” he wrote, “collapsing in dazzling clouds of dust. … Thundering sidewalks pulsated shockwaves through my shoes.”
Hill District men showed up on the construction site looking for work, but no one offered it. They collected whatever salable debris they could find and knocked mortar from bricks to salvage them.
“I remember houses around us where the people had moved, but the phones were still connected,” Mr. Peterson said. “A lot of stuff was left behind. Moving costs money. We tossed 78 [rpm] records in the street [like Frisbees].”
“I watched as building by building came down,” said Anita Lopatin Smolover, whose family operated Tri-State Leather Co. on Fifth Avenue in what is now considered Uptown. “It broke my husband’s heart.”
Her parents were born and raised in the Lower Hill. The family had converted a building they owned into upstairs apartments, but when people realized the site was doomed, no one would rent them.
“So many people were first-generation Americans, and their parents had worked so hard to get here,” she said. “For them to see their homes torn down was a tragedy.”
Joe Suriano watched the unbelievable happen — the destruction of St. Peter’s, its playground, its school, its residence for nuns and priests, its grotto.
His family had moved to Beechview, but he chose to attend Connelley Trade School on Bedford Avenue, “so I could still be there,” he said. He was another witness to the destruction. “It was tough. Then they put in the Crosstown, and the Hill was more isolated.”
“There’s no glossing over the need for rehabilitation,” said historian Laurence Glasco. “But it was not in people’s thoughts to rehab back then. It was just, ‘Wipe it out.’ [City officials] had their eye on what they wanted.”
At the time, many black leaders were on board because they had been asking and waiting for the city to finally invest in the Hill. Their support of the redevelopment hinged on their belief that housing for the displaced would be built on the site and that construction companies would hire Hill District workers, Mr. Glasco said.
“They didn’t get either one.”
The URA cited the need for higher housing standards. It contracted with the housing authority to manage the properties it had bought and to continue renting them until each one was scheduled for demolition.
Politicians touted their plans as being for the greater good, making examples of abundant hazardous conditions: Who wouldn’t want something better than dirt cellars, coal or no heat, buckling floors, rickety staircases, rusting fire escapes, rotting window sashes, bad or no plumbing, garbage and vandalized shells?
Inspectors described many buildings as fire traps, uninhabitable and, in one reference, “a veritable rabbit warren.”
But the city had allowed conditions get that bad, letting landlords — many of whom lived outside the Hill — get away with code violations that the final reports so diligently spelled out.
When it was Clay Way’s turn to die, Mr. Peterson said, “I just remember my mother saying, ‘We’ve got to find another place to move to.’”
They had run out of places in the Lower Hill, but everyone was trying to stay as close as possible. His uncle, who had lived on Elm at the same time they did, had moved to Clark Street. Carlos’ mother moved the kids to Rowley Street, east of Crawford.
In a photograph of a vacant lot on Crawford Street — the farthest east that bulldozers would go — five children watch men taking pictures of the property. Two children stand straight and tall, side by side, as if posing for the photo.
In numerous images, the camera captures people watching from windows, doorways, stoops and the street.
Melvin Cherry and Sanford David were boys in those days. Mr. Cherry lived on Fernando Street, across from St. Peter’s Church. Mr. David lived in the Middle Hill.
They played on the Civic Arena construction site.
Mr. Cherry described his family of renters as “gypsies.”
“We were poor. We wouldn’t get a nicer house” to move to, he said. “But my mother kept all 10 of us together.”
Staying one step ahead of demolitions, they moved from Fernando to Webster to Gilmore, then farther up Gilmore, above Logan Street.
Mr. David said the relocations affected more than residents and store owners.
“They displaced the hucksters, the guy who sharpened knives, the guy who took a bucket of putty around and fixed windows.”
“The guys who sold vegetables and blocks of ice in the summer,” Mr. Cherry added.
Much later, when the David family was in the way of redevelopment for what is now the Crawford-Roberts housing, they got the offer of “a better place,” Mr. David said. “My mother resisted. She said, ‘I own this.’ My family had owned it since 1935. The improvement displaced her from the people and place she knew.”
When the inspection contractors knocked on the door where Carol Johnson’s family rented on Sachem Way, an alley near Logan Street, the Johnsons were already dealing with loss — a searing one.
In 1953, their 10-year-old Julia had been strangled, her body left on a playground near the family’s home.
“She was 10 and I was 9,” Ms. Johnson said. “When you saw her, you saw me.”
Their life was ripped again when they were given a deadline to leave Sachem Way.
“My mother told us we had to move. We didn’t want to. She had grown up in the Hill. My dad, too.”
They found a place in Homewood.
“It was more expensive because it was a house,” she said. “My father drove a truck for a pickle company, and my mother stayed home and took care of us kids.”
As the years passed, the Civic Arena became a touchstone, “that place where we had lived and my sister had died,” she said. “I would walk around the Civic Arena and reminisce about me and her. We would go as a family and mourn her and, in our minds, feel her.
“The demolition of the neighborhood tore our lives apart, but when they tore down the Civic Arena, it was another blow because it was a symbol. It was a landmark of my sister.”
Norma O’Rourke’s family owned three grocery stores and several houses in the Hill. One home was on Epiphany Street across from the old Franklin School.
“My aunt Mary Marino was the youngest of eight, and she remembers her brothers always dressed in suits. They wrote numbers,” she said, referring to a gambling venture. “I guess many people did in the area. The family name is Mete, but any of the properties or grocery stores may have been under my great-grandfather’s name, Vincent Pagliaro.”
Two of their stores were on Logan Street. It ran from Fifth Avenue to Bedford Avenue and “was nothing but stores, one end to the other,” she said.
In the mid-1950s, stores began closing in a domino effect of vanished customers and abandoned tabs, including the stores the Mete family owned. When they vacated, they left their stores and moved to Brookline.
Amid the uncertainty, three other stores on Fullerton Street had started keeping unpredictable hours by then — the Car Stop Sandwich Shop, Charlie Hing’s Chop Suey restaurant and the Eureka Barber Shop.
The inspectors’ report that these stores were “only open in the afternoon, evening or not at all,” sound vaguely critical of a no-win situation. Their final verdict was that the cluster of buildings — with walls in dangerous condition, no water on the third floor and no fire escapes — “should not be permitted to stand.” That was an easy call. The wrecking ball was already swinging.
Mr. Peterson said it wasn’t until many years later, at his mother’s funeral, when he took a break and went to the basement of the funeral home, that he was struck by what once had been his.
“I saw all these Teenie Harris pictures of the Hill District on the wall. I realized I felt things I should have felt before, that this was my culture.
“Sometimes when thinking about it, I’d cry for no clear reason.”