The Digs | Past vs Present

Past vs Present

Using photographs from the Pittsburgh City Photographer archive, compare Pittsburgh's decades-long transition from an early-20th century industrial city to its modern day culture.

Photography & research John Hamilton

April 24, 2019

Part two of an occasional series
Past vs Present: Part one

From 1901-1979, Pittsburgh’s city photographer built an archive of thousands of photos that document the city’s industrial growth, peak and decline.

As Pittsburgh continues a decades-long transition from being an industrial city, the Post-Gazette set out to see how different the city looks today compared to the early- and mid-20th century.

Standing where the city photographer stood, we recreated nine photos from the archive, showing how the city’s buildings, streets and neighborhoods have changed over time. Exploring what changed and what stayed the same reveals some of the history of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, people and culture.




Craig and Winthrop Streets

“If Minnesota is the State of Hockey, if Detroit is Hockeytown and if Buffalo is the City of Hockey, then surely this city at the confluence of three rivers is Hockeytahn, as they say here in their singular drawl.”

That’s how The New York Times began a 2010 article on the city’s importance in the history of hockey. And perhaps no moment from the city’s hockey history is more important than when Christopher Magee converted a trolley barn in Oakland into a ice rink and auditorium in 1896.

Dubbed the Duquesne Gardens, the arena would soon become the “preeminent hockey building in America” and “make the city … a hotbed for hockey in the early part of the century,” the PG’s Ed Bouchette wrote. With its famous artificial ice, the Gardens was the first arena to attract players from Canada to play professionally in the US.

The Pittsburgh Press reported on a night at the Gardens in 1908 that saw games between all four teams in the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League, which is said to be the first professional hockey league in the world.

“Professional hockey pleased hundreds at the Duquesne Gardens last night,” the Press reported. “Two swift games were presented. The players were full of vim and played hockey at all stages.”

In 1920, the U.S. men’s national team was founded at the Gardens. The squad would go on to win silver at the sport’s Olympics debut. And from 1925 to 1930 the Gardens was home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the city’s first NHL team, and a slew of minor league and semi-pro teams.

Though the arena was once unparalleled for its size and ice making technology, it was antiquated by the late 1920s, when the Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden could fit twice as many fans as Pittsburgh’s arena.

The arena was demolished in 1956 to make room for an apartment building, leaving Pittsburgh without a hockey arena until the Civic Arena opened in 1961. The NHL returned to the city six years later when the Penguins were founded.


Palen Way

Though the City Photographer Collection locates this 1924 photo in Marshall-Shadeland, residents of the area might refer to the area by its historical name — Woods Run. The PG’s Patricia Lowry described the area in a 2006 article about a recent renovation the Woods Run Carnegie Library.

“Woods Run isn't an official city neighborhood, but it has always seemed to me to be one of the most quintessentially Pittsburgh places -- a valley village with some neatly kept gardens and frame houses stacked on the hillsides.”

The community today is a common sight in Pittsburgh — a few businesses and empty lots are scattered among single family homes, some perfectly maintained and others a bit neglected. In a 1980 Pittsburgh Press article, residents pointed to Urban Redevelopment Authority projects in the 1960s and 70s as contributing to a decline from the community’s days as a thriving business district.


Rialto Street

For residents of Troy Hill, Rialto Street is a vital connection to the rest of the city.

But with a 25 percent grade and barely enough room for two cars, Rialto Street is undeniably dangerous during winter weather. The city for years has placed temporary barriers at the steep section during inclement weather. But the wooden barriers didn’t stop some drivers who moved them to access the hill, councilwoman Darlene Harris said, leading the city in 2010 to erect cement barriers for the winter months.

In letters to the editor after Ms. Harris’ announcement, residents called the idea “shortsighted” and lacking community input. Writers complained that the actions of “the occasional ‘idiot’” who moves the barrier were causing the entire neighborhood to extend their commutes.

The next year saw the hill closed for 2 ½ years due to construction at intersection at the bottom of the hill. In those years, Troy Hill’s appreciation for “Pig Hill” — a nickname from the days when pigs were driven up the hill from stockyards on Herr’s Island to slaughterhouses in Spring Garden — only deepened.

"You won't find anybody unhappy," Ms. Harris told the PG before the reopening in March 2014.

"It's about time," said Jim Bougher, a Troy Hill resident and local business owner.

But like in 2010, the movable wooden barriers are still problematic today. A photo posted to Reddit in January 2019 shows a car stuck on ice ¾ of the way up the hill. The poster accurately called it “the most terrifying possible scenario that exists on a Pittsburgh road.”


Goodyear Service Station

Articles about Pittsburgh’s West End Village are always quick to mention the neighborhood’s ideal location — close to Downtown and just across the river from the North Shore. But infrastructure problems have plagued the neighborhood, causing heavy traffic and effectively blocking pedestrian traffic. It’s an issue residents have battled for decades.

The Pittsburgh Press in 1939 wrote that local businessmen rallied in support of the state’s plan to build a “hill-side extension” of Saw Mill Run Boulevard that would eliminate congestion in the West End. West End leader J.T. Fox said the extension would end congestion in the village and called it "the best plan I've ever seen and there have been a lot of them in the past.” Some residents said it would free up parking and space for pedestrians in the West End, but others worried about the possible loss of business from those who drove through the village.

Fast forward 36 years and the West End’s vibrant shopping district was decimated. A sign hung in an abandoned storefront reading “Send Help,” reported The Pittsburgh Press. A local pastor said Main Street reminded him of a ghost town. “One by one the businesses left; now even the undertaker has gone.” The only thing that remained? Traffic.

Recent years have seen a bit of a resurgence in the West End. There’s been efforts to fix ongoing traffic problems and a few new shops, restaurants and apartments have brought a bit of life back. But the neighborhood hasn’t reached the potential West End advocates envision. “It's like being a Pirates fan wondering every year if this might be the season," The PG's Diana Nelson Jones wrote in 2013.


Schenley Park and Forbes Field

“It requires a woman every time to come forward with a public improvement in Pittsburgh,” public works chief Edward Manning Bigelow told the Pittsburgh Daily Post in 1899.

He was referring to Mary Schenley’s gift of $1 million worth of land for the city to build a public park. “No wonder the chief was inclined to mix a little wormwood with his enthusiasm, for, while the donation comes from a woman, half a hundred men used all the influence in their power to prevent her giving it,” the paper wrote. Bigelow, the “father of Pittsburgh parks,” is credited with persuading Schenley to donate her inherited land — an inheritance she almost lost because of an international scandal in 1842.

Mary Elizabeth Croghan, a 15-year-old student at a New York boarding school, fell in love with Capt. Edward W. Harrington Schenley, a 43-year-old British army officer and twice a widower. The only heir to Pittsburgh’s largest estate eloped and ran to England with her new husband.

Writing in 1951, the Pittsburgh Press said the marriage “touched the life of every Pittsburgher. Pained the circumspect Queen Victoria. Sent millions of dollars of Pittsburgh rents to England. Gave the Pittsburgh Pirates a bigger playing field. Provided young lovers a quiet place (Schenley Park) in which to spoon. Threw the Pennsylvania Legislature into an uproar…”

Mary’s father, William Croghan Jr., fainted when he first heard of the marriage. When he came to, he said he’s shoot his new son-in-law on sight. He sent an armed ship after the new couple. After that failed, he pushed a bill through the state legislature that blocked the captain from touching Mary’s inheritance.

Croghan eventually forgave his daughter and upon his death in 1850, Mary received her vast inheritance. She owned much of Oakland and the North Side as well as large sections of Downtown, property that became increasingly valuable in the booming Steel City.

Her vast estate was fully sold off by 1951, with her last heirs in England receiving a final sum of $538,089, a fraction of the millions made off the land investments of Mary Schenley and her ancestors.


Knoxville Incline

When the “hilltop” was booming at the turn of the 20th century, residents of Allentown had eight nearby inclines to access the rest of the city. The most famous of them was the Knoxville Incline, featuring a curve in the middle of the track that some thought was “not practical” when it was first conceived. But, The Pittsburgh Press reported in 1890, “trial trips were so successful that the idea was proved correct.”

Oddly, many early news stories that mentioned the incline involved fights. That 1890 Press story, for example, noted that “orderly South Siders” witnessed “workmen … engaging in two of three hard fought battles.” Six years into the incline’s operation, The Pittsburgh Press again reported on a fight. This one started with a “pleasant talk on political issues” until one man called another a scab for working at a non-union shop. One of the men was cut and “several women [were] badly frightened.”

But those stories were just slight hiccups in the history of the beloved incline. When the incline closed in 1963, the Post-Gazette quoted a woman who said, “the passing of the incline is like the passing of an old friend.” Those on the final rides of the incline shared memories and talked about what the incline meant to their childhoods. Some had more practical reasons for lamenting the closure — one resident said she’d have to get up an hour earlier to get to work on time.

The incline closed due to a lack of traffic, something not at all surprising given the ongoing population loss in Allentown. From 1940 to 2010, Allentown lost 70 percent of its population, according to a 2017 Post-Gazette story. And the neighborhood has continued to face public transit closures — the Port Authority cut T service in 2011. When a train derailed in August 2018, the Post-Authority was forced to route the T through Allentown, but it rolled through the Hilltop without picking up any passengers. Though the neighborhood has decent bus service, community leaders say a light rail could do a lot to bring further development to Allentown, which has seen a growth of restaurants and businesses in recent years.


Joe Dobbs for Constable

“Evidently considering the disfiguring of public property as swell training for public office … political candidates are already decorating the city," the Post-Gazette wrote in August 1935 under a photo of political endorsements painted on bridge in Greenfield.

The city photographer captured this example of political graffiti during that same election cycle on the 28th Street Bridge in Polish Hill in support of Joe Dobbs and John “Kiddo” Fiorucci. The two men became well-known politicians in the Sixth Ward, with Fiorucci going on to serve as alderman and Joe Dobbs winning the election for constable and later serving as Allegheny County coroner. Even after his election, Dobbs continued to manage the Immaculate Heart baseball team. Then he took another job in the coroner's office in 1941, setting up a conflict between the constable and Alderman Fiorucci.

Dobbs asked to have two deputy constables appointed to help fight the numbers game, a sort of local lottery that was popular in many Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Dobbs claimed the gambling was “rampant” but Fiorucci disagreed and suggested Dobbs was too busy with his coroner job.

“The numbers business isn’t rampant,” the alderman said, according to the Pittsburgh Press. “And besides, Dobbs doesn't do any work as constable himself. He hasn't done any since the six months following his election..."

The judge in the case deferred his decision on adding deputy constables and the feud didn’t appear in Pittsburgh newspapers after that.


Fifth and Liberty

There’s a lot going on in this Downtown street scene from 1919. Pedestrians and motorists navigate the intersection at Fifth and Liberty, walking past signs for shoe shines, a “typewriter hospital” and a massive sign pointing toward the entrance for White Dentists.

For a period in the early 1920s, White’s was a prolific advertiser in Pittsburgh newspapers. The dentist practice — which occupied the entire second floor — sold their product to the city as a magic remedy that will help you “remain young” and “make you beautiful.”

In a 1920 ad in the Pittsburgh Press, White’s claimed good teeth make you able to “speak in public,” “story vital body forces,” “control yourself,” “sharpen the five sense” and “advance in society,” among other claims.

White’s ad campaign also brings up an interesting case of early 20th century journalistic ethics. The dentist practice placed an advertorial — a advertisement written in the style of a news story — in both the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press. Calling White’s Dentist one of the “finest” and “best equipped” dentist offices in the country, the ad cites affordable prices and skilled employees. But readers of the Press could be forgiven for thinking the writing came from a reporter — the paper omitted the word present at the bottom of the ad in the PG: Advertisement.


Our Way

This section of Our Way, like all of the Lower Hill District, would be almost unrecognizable to the people in this 1937 photo. City planners in the late 1950s demolished much of the Lower Hill, “a vibrant melting pot of new immigrants and African-Americans,” as a 2018 Post-Gazette project described the neighborhood.

Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority was on a mission in the 50s to improve some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods through a policy known as urban renewal. The redevelopment plan in the Lower Hill demolished the entire neighborhood and displaced thousands of people. It “raised new questions about the government's power to alter a neighborhood's social, racial and economic fabric,” according to a 2000 PG story, and was one of many projects that turned public opinion against the URA’s policies.

“So many people were first-generation Americans, and their parents had worked so hard to get here,” Anita Lopatin Smolover told the PG in 2018. “For them to see their homes torn down was a tragedy.”

This spot on Our Way is now part of Downtown — the Lower Hill is no longer an official neighborhood. This area along Fifth Avenue was spared from the main Lower Hill renewal project, the Pittsburgh Press said in 1958, but was part of an extension of the project. The language newspapers used about the renewal projects makes it a lot easier to understand why the city urban renewal was a once-popular policy. The articles about Our Way make no mention people who’d be displaced by the redevelopment, instead focusing on the dirt and smell of the alley.

“... the Redevelopment Authority will ask the Federal Government to scrub Our Way and other pest holes in the 58-acre Bluff Street renewal project,” the Press wrote, adding that the alley was “long a foe of Hill District filth.”

“As the Lower Hill rebuilds, Our Way could embarrass the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the people of Pittsburgh,” another article reads.

John Hamilton: or on Twitter @jham1496

Related Links | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette




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