The Storefront Project: Starting with Centre Avenue, interactive PG series will map growth and change in city neighborhoods


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In 1930, David Somerman's Poultry, Pober & Doctor Meats and Jacob Winer's Fish Market shared the building at 1805 Centre Ave. in the Hill District. In 1960, it was home to Melnick Pershing grocers and Faigen's Fish Market.


PG INTERACTIVE


Merchants were still cleaning hats in the 1960s, and Nicholas Skarvelis did that at 1905 Centre Ave. The Jewish Daily Forward shared 1862 Centre with the Palace Candy Shop. Cheesy's Sandwich Shop was one block east.

About 100 storefronts lined the nine blocks of Centre Avenue between Roberts and Kirkpatrick streets in 1930 and 1960. Today's retail on the same stretch is so scanty, the streetscape so transformed, that most storefronts and many addresses no longer exist.

As in all cities, Pittsburgh's mom-and-pop retail was what drove neighborhoods before the urban renewal of the mid-'60s. We all know that, but the names that fill old city directories and archived photos of storefronts create a poignant exhibit of social and ethnic transitions over many decades.

These transitions over time lie at the heart of The Storefront Project, which launches today. Beginning with that portion of Centre Avenue, it will include more corridors as we make progress. Your feedback, information, stories and photos will be invaluable in helping us enrich the site.

The site opens with Centre Avenue between Roberts -- where the Crawford Square townhomes end -- and Kirkpatrick, which is now anchored by the Hill's Carnegie Library branch.

The Mexican War Streets is up next, followed by Brereton Avenue in Polish Hill and Broadway Avenue in Beechview. Waiting in the wings: Beaver Avenue in Manchester, Second Avenue in Hazelwood, Homewood Avenue in Homewood, Federal Street through the Central North Side, Fifth Avenue through Uptown and Bedford Avenue in the Hill.

My partner on the project, Laura Schneiderman, created the interactive mechanism online. Special thanks to Miriam Meislik at the University of Pittsburgh photo archives library for embracing the project and being invaluable in supplying photos to help it along.

As it grows, with your contributions, The Storefront Project will be a repository of stories, photos and historic details, a tool for people to reconnect with their old neighborhoods and those of their parents and grandparents and a one-stop site for a layered look at our history through its small retail.

Researchers, planners, demographers, genealogists and historians may also find it valuable.



The Storefront Project started not as such but as a personal investigation of my own North Side neighborhood, the Mexican War Streets, last summer.

Including Doug's Market and the Buena Vista Cafe -- both just outside the historic boundaries that give the neighborhood its name but no less my neighborhood -- I counted four active storefronts. The other two are the Monterey Pub and Wilson's Barbecue.

But while walking my dog, I noted storefronts on every street. Some are vacant and some serve as homes. I got curious and began studying city directories. I chose those from 1930 and 1960 and was staggered by the density of enterprise in my little enclave -- more than 30 retailers in 1930 and a few shy of that in 1960.

I copied the addresses of all the retailers from those years and came back to the neighborhood to see what the same addresses are today. Some are Victorian homes, not storefronts at all, and I concluded that the seamstress and beautician had customers come into their homes.

Some brick facades look altered to suggest they were once small retail stores. For instance, what was described as a butcher shop on North Taylor is now a house. You can see discrepancies in the brick that covers the facade. Brick the size of a storefront window is a different shade and texture than the brick of the rest of the facade.

Richard Yee was one of many Yees who had laundries in the city. In 1960, his storefront was 1303 Monterey St. Rose's Beauty Shop was across the street and Fred's Cafe was one block south, where the Monterey Pub is now. In 1930, that same building was the Monterey Barber Shop.

I had so much fun at storefront sleuthing, I decided to investigate the histories of storefronts in other neighborhoods. To start, I chose Centre Avenue through the Hill, Broadway Avenue in Beechview and Polish Hill's Brereton Street. With my own neighborhood and these corridors researched, I proposed The Storefront Project to my editor.

My plan is to investigate the city's storefront history as entirely as possible to make The Storefront Project a comprehensive and unique tool for Pittsburgh.


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at post-gazette.com/localnews.


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