The Storefront Project: Few retail sites remain in Mexican War Streets
March 18, 2012 8:00 AM
1242 Palto Alto St. as it looks today.
The corner storefront at 1242 Palo Alto St. in the Mexican War Streets, was a grocery store for decades. In 1960 it was the Clover Farm Grocery and is today a private home. This photo was taken in 1940.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Storefront Project -- an online feature dedicated to showing the historical transitions of retail corridors throughout the city -- launches its second installment on post-gazette.com today.
As the inspiration for this project, the Mexican War Streets area is an exception to the focus on retail corridors. The historic district in the Central North Side was once dotted throughout with retail. Today, the area has four active retail storefronts where once there were more than 30.
Most are houses now, their shop windows replaced with doublehung residential windows. Some still have their storefront character while others have disappeared -- two storefronts were eliminated when Gentry Way and Alpine Street were created as east-west alleys, and several were in buildings that were demolished many years ago.
The series' first installment, in August, was Centre Avenue from Roberts to Kirkpatrick in the Hill District (http://old.post-gazette.com/pg/11226/1166781-53.stm). To determine how the tenants have changed, I consulted city directories and interviewed longtime and former residents. Feedback from readers did not refute the directories, but I realize now there are mistakes in the city directories based on the credible memories of neighbors and former residents.
The boundaries of this installment spill out of the Mexican War Streets historic district to include larger parts of the Central North Side -- between North Avenue and Armandale Street south to north and Buena Vista and Arch streets west to east.
The War Streets have been my neighborhood since 1998, and I have often wondered what kind of shops operated there. The years I chose for the project citywide are 1930 and 1960, although I used the 1961 directory when the 1960 edition was missing and historic photos from any decade are included and welcome.
Rich Marasti grew up in this North Side neighborhood in the 1950s and '60s. He is certain that in his youth 1213 Monterey St. was a candy store run by a man named Jack. There is no indication of retail at that address in the city directory, only the name Fred Alsbach. Candy stores are usually designated as confectioneries with an abbreviation such as "conf."
"I remember every candy store," Mr. Marasti said, pointing out how brick now fills the space where once there was a storefront window.
"I was about 15 when it closed, which would have been the mid-'60s," said Mr. Marasti, who consulted with his relatives to support his memory.
He recalls that 614 Jacksonia was Alessio's Cleaners. The 1961 city directory gives us "Larson & Rahe, rst" -- short for restaurant.
Anna Murchison has lived in the neighborhood since the 1930s and remembers it as a beauty shop.
"I know that because I worked there," she said.
On a recent walk of the neighborhood, Mr. Marasti pointed out the former Nat's Bar on the northeast corner of Taylor and Buena Vista.
"They had the best fish sandwiches," he said. "My mother used to send me to get some every Friday."
He also remembered the neon sign above Yee's Laundry on the southwest corner of Monterey Street and Sampsonia Way, where there is no longer a building. "Mr. Yee used to sit out on the steps all the time," said Mr. Marasti.
The current Buena Vista Cafe was Newell's Drugs and right behind that was Mike Negrelli's barbershop, he recalls. After the barbershop closed it was vacant for a while, then became a jitney station.
"The Monterey Pub has always been a bar," he said.
He gets the buzzer on that one: Before he was born, in 1930, it was the Monterey Barber Shop.