Oakcliffe's residents are putting South Oakland enclave on the map
July 2, 2011 8:00 AM
Residents of Oakland, left to right: Michelle Panasiuk, Joan Dickerson, Bernardine Swiech, Rob Brewer with dog Tiger and Dave Panasiuk.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Before the bus route was cut this year, the 84B's marquee recognized Oakcliffe as a place, even if the Port Authority misspelled it as Oakcliff.
"We'll take whatever we can get," Dave Panasiuk joked the other day as a group of his neighbors gathered on Ophelia Street to talk about their little-known patch of South Oakland.
At its westernmost, it climbs up from Forbes Avenue to an overlook with a view of the South Side and Downtown. Three hundred homes fall inside a tight weave of streets within the Boulevard of the Allies, Bates Street and the Parkway East.
The enclave has made its presence known with a reinvigorated Oakcliffe Housing Club. The group has a seat at meetings to help plan for Oakland with people who get paid to do that -- including the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. and the UPMC Community Relations Board.
"It's made a huge difference knowing all these groups," said Mr. Panasiuk, a fourth-generation resident.
Oakcliffe recently got its sloping southern border designated a greenway by Pittsburgh City Council. One of the club's main projects is to develop trails through its woods and reactivate a tunnel under the parkway and the Eliza Furnace Trail as a Downtown connector.
Venture Outdoors, a nonprofit that has obtained an $800 grant for the club from the Colcom Foundation for tools, supports the project as "another wonderful natural amenity in the region and an additional way for residents to stay active," said Lora Woodward of the outdoors group.
The tunnel was used by mill workers to get to work on Second Avenue and is in "great shape," said Mr. Panasiuk, whose wife, Michelle, helps him lead the club and do its heavy lifting. He said development of the greenway is also one of the early priorities to emerge from the Oakland 2025 master plan forums.
The housing club was so named because early projects tackled the need for better housing and code enforcement, Mr. Panasiuk said.
Oakcliffe has a good stock of flat-roofed row houses with porches. Ophelia Street is notable for a row of detached side-hall houses built for steel company foremen and supervisors, known as "the five Sisters."
The neighborhood's largest entity is Community Human Services, an organization founded in the early 1970s to help the community deal with instability that came with population loss and absentee landlords. It set up in an empty storefront where people could meet to socialize and play cards and bingo.
The nonprofit has grown into a citywide outreach service for people who need housing and other support, but it continues to serve discounted community lunches and dinners.
"It's a great way to meet different people," said Joan Dickerson, a 27-year resident who grew up in the Hill and has been active in the housing club since it formed in 1989.
She remembers Oakcliffe's need to make a political statement at that time.
"We wanted to distinguish ourselves from South Oakland and Oakland and ask for things from Pitt and the city," she said. Residents had begun to feel underserved and suddenly very small amid institutional growth.
The narrow streets are often packed with parked cars, but traffic has abated since the club successfully lobbied the city to install orange pins at the base of Ophelia Street so drivers couldn't cut through from Forbes.
Mr. Panasiuk, ever sunny about his neighborhood, said it reached a milestone recently with a house that sold for $100,000. Its aging population of homeowners is also getting a boost from youth.
Rob Brewer and his wife, Lottie, moved to the neighborhood last summer after his stint with the Army in Germany. Still serving, he is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is an undergraduate.
The couple found Oakcliffe "by luck," he said. "We didn't want to spend time commuting. We found a large house [on Ophelia Street] for a good value. And the views are fantastic from the second and third floors. This is one of the reasons we chose our home."
Bernardine Swiech, a third-generation resident, grew up in the 1940s and '50s on Ophelia Street when there were small markets, a butcher, a shoe repair shop, a dry cleaner and a barber.
"There used to be a lot more permanent residents and children," she said. "We have very few children now" and a lot more university students. "But there is still a strong sense of community. You know you can count on neighbors to look out for you."
The neighborhood is distressed by the block-long weedy lot of a former car dealership and will be saddled with a vacant church when St. Hyacinth Catholic Church on Craft Place closes in August. A weedy lot is something the club can work on, Mr. Panasiuk said. A vacant church beside its long-vacant school is a bigger challenge.
"There's a lot to do," he said. "But our thinking is to have a whole lot of good ideas and start working on the ones you can do. And then just keep working on them."