First Person / Lawrenceville: Hip then, hip now

It's been a happening place ever since it was settled 200 years ago

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Every story has a beginning and mine began in Lawrenceville, just the same as my parents and their parents.

Hearing the early history of how the community became home to immigrants from so many ethnic backgrounds, I often thought of all the circumstances that had to line up for my Italian grandfather to meet my German grandmother and for my Russian grandfather to meet my Polish grandmother as each of their families settled in Lawrenceville in their various row houses between 34th and 44th streets in the early 1900s and worked hard to build new lives.

I was born in St. Francis Hospital and spent the first seven years of my life in Lawrenceville in our home on 39th Street, directly across the street from Arsenal Park. This was an era when families became synonymous with the neighborhood as well as its landmarks where they worked, worshiped or attended school — places such as the Iron City Brewery, St. Francis Hospital, the steel mills, St. John the Baptist and St. Augustine’s.

Quite a bit of history was made and recorded within blocks of my home.

From its founding in 1814, Lawrenceville has been at the center of important historical events, including the Allegheny Arsenal explosion in 1862 when 78 people perished — mostly women and children — marking it as the worst civilian disaster of the Civil War.

Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine received international attention when 137 students at Arsenal School were the first to participate in a widescale program to wipe out polio in 1954.

And in the early 1960s, I was fortunate to attend the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center when Fred Rogers frequented the school as a training ground for early childhood development studies.

Celebrating its bicentennial this year, Lawrenceville has been getting a lot of buzz as Pittsburgh’s hippest neighborhood, and rightfully so. Home to many new artists and designers, it’s seen as a trendy community on the rise, with one-of-a-kind shops and cafes and hosting some of the city’s biggest arts events. The neighborhood has undergone such a revival that national publications are touting Lawrenceville as a happening place with affordable properties and first-rate restaurants less than three miles from Downtown.

But wait, we already knew that.

Long before The New York Times dubbed Lawrenceville a go-to destination, it was a neighborhood where deep roots were seeded.

Growing up in Lawrenceville made such an impact on my friend Rich Cywinski that he can still recite his membership number to the Boys Club of America on Butler Street where he, like countless others, spent nearly every day as a kid during the 1940s and ’50s learning about sports, crafts, cooking, hobbies and almost any activity imaginable.

He remembers Lawrenceville as a character-rich walking neighborhood that barely slept due to the high volume of shift workers. At any time of day or night, the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks of Lawrenceville was continuous as residents walked to businesses, movie theaters and the all-night diners that were popular gathering places.

Yes, Lawrenceville emptied and deteriorated a bit when the steel and manufacturing slide struck Pittsburgh in the 1980s, but there’s no lamenting that the storefronts and landmarks of Lawrenceville are stark reminders of what once was a bustling community — because it still is! The vitality of today is equal to that of the immigrant days, and the enthusiasm of the revival is refreshing.

The Lawrenceville Historical Society has been researching, documenting and building an archive of the community’s history and next Saturday, July 12, will sponsor the ninth annual Doo Dah Days: The Stephen Foster Music and Heritage Festival.

This family event, co-sponsored by the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association, kicks off at 11 a.m. at the Butler Street entrance to Allegheny Cemetery and offers free concerts, a trolley tour of historic Allegheny Cemetery, horse-drawn carriage rides, food and other entertainment.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of Lawrenceville by William Barclay Foster (father of composer Stephen Foster) and the historical society has issued a commemorative coin that will be available for sale. This year also marks the bicentennial of the Allegheny Arsenal, which served the military from 1814 until 1926. Ron Donoughe has created a beautiful anniversary painting of the arsenal gatehouse, copies of which also will be available.

Help is needed to compile a pictorial history and the search is on for old photographs or renderings of churches, schools, buildings, businesses, residents or landmarks from as early as the 1800s. So if you have roots in or connections to Lawrenceville, comb through those old family scrapbooks and boxes in the attic. If you find anything to contribute, please contact the Lawrenceville Historical Society at or me at Lawrenceville’s next generations will thank you.

Joann Cantrell is a writer working on a book for Arcadia Publishing, “Lawrenceville.” Her first book, “Legendary Locals of Pittsburgh,” was published earlier this year.

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