The Jaison's building was used for bingo games after the store went out of business in 1985. (Laura Malt Schneiderman/Post-Gazette)
By 2020, the Jaison's building was condemned. (Laura Malt Schneiderman/Post-Gazette)
The former Jaison's building was demolished in January 2022. Property owner Barry L. Stein said he hopes to put a restaurant with a drive-through window or a bank with a drive-through window on the site. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)
This is the story of ghosts — the ghosts of a city's main street.
McKeesport is the second largest city in Allegheny County and sits at the confluence of two rivers, making it ripe for renewal. Revival has unfolded along the city's perimeter, but redevelopment along McKeesport’s Fifth Avenue has been slow to come. Activity is beginning to sprout in the 300 block, led chiefly by Murrysville real estate developer Jonathan Stark working with city and county officials.
"There's already some small activity going on — people walking around," Mayor Michael E. Cherepko said. "That, to me, was unbelievably satisfying."
McKeesport suffers from the same problems as other Monongahela Valley communities — the collapse of the steel industry that was the linchpin of the local economy, leading to a massive exodus of people and subsequent poverty. In McKeesport, the economic base was built on its steel tube and pipe manufacturing plant, the world's largest producer of tubular goods at one time, employing more than 9,000 workers at its height and giving its hometown the nickname of “Tube City.” The plant closed in 1987.
An April 12, 1958, view of National Tube Co. in McKeesport. (Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Co. Records/University of Pittsburgh)
The population fell from a high of 55,355 in 1940 to an estimated 17,493 in 2021, according to the U.S. Census. The people who remain are disproportionately poor. McKeesport has a median household income of $28,881, compared to Pittsburgh's $50,536, and 30.3% of its residents live in poverty, according to the census bureau.
As with main streets nationwide, Fifth Avenue also suffered from the shift of the population to the suburbs, the rise of regional malls and the closing of family-run businesses when their owners retired.
The Eastland Mall in North Versailles helped drive many retailers in McKeesport out of business. It was virtually empty by July 2000 when this picture was taken. Amazon.com plans to build a distribution hub at the location. (Martha Rial/Post-Gazette)
But Mr. Stark and Mr. Cherepko point to other factors that also sapped Fifth Avenue of energy:
- The construction of Lysle Boulevard in 1938, which runs parallel to Fifth and is closer to the Monongahela River, created potent competition for the older street. Now, businesses that might once have faced Fifth, like Rite Aid and Dollar General, face Lysle. Some businesses on Lysle demolished parts of Fifth to make parking lots. And Lysle, with its high-speed five lanes of traffic, discourages pedestrian traffic.
- Many property owners along Fifth allowed their buildings to remain unoccupied and deteriorating until they were unsalvageable. The city is trying to raze these, leaving spots like the north side of the 500 block almost entirely leveled.
The beginning of the end for Fifth Avenue as a shopping destination dates to 1976. In that year, a spark ignited on the roof of The Famous department store at Fifth Avenue and Market Street. Fifty-mile-an-hour winds swept the blaze to neighboring structures, incinerating seven buildings.
The conflagration only emphasized the beginning of McKeesport's decline — The Famous was already out of business when the fire started.
The Famous, "McKeesport's Big Store," in flames, May 21, 1976. (Post-Gazette Archives)
More Fifth Avenue retail closings followed:
- Henry B. Klein men's clothing, 1111 Fifth Ave., circa 1981
- Cox's department store, 300 block of Fifth Ave., 1982
- S & S Shoe Store, Gene's Beauty World, Gene's Hallmark Shop and Jaison's, 200 block of Fifth, 1985
- G.C. Murphy Co., 531-535 Fifth Ave., 1985
- David Israel men's clothing, 507 Fifth Ave., 1991
- Helmstadter Bros. clothing, 519 Fifth Ave., 1995
- Kadar Men's and Young Men's Apparel, 320 Fifth Ave., and Rubenstein Shoes, 316 Fifth Ave., 2001
Commercial activity moved to the city's edges along Eden Park Boulevard, Lysle Boulevard and Walnut Street.
Today, the structure with arguably the best-maintained exterior and landscaping is occupied by the Social Security Administration.
The trimmed lawn, healthy trees and tidy facade of the Social Security Administration, 540 Fifth Ave. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)
A look back a hundred years shows how drastically Fifth Avenue has changed.