Steelers owner Dan Rooney on the Graybar gridiron, Allegheny Center and the neighborhood he loves
December 22, 2013 12:00 AM
A young Dan Rooney in an undated photo.
The Allegheny Market House, demolished in 1966, took up a block at the intersection of Federal and East Ohio
The old Allegheny City Post Office is now part of The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
Sean Simmers/Pa. State Archives
A City of Allegheny Water Bond from 1891.
Lake Elizabeth in Allegheny Commons’ West Park
Sen. John Heinz History Center
H.J. Heinz workers loading a rail car, about 1904.
By Dan Rooney
North across the Allegheny River lies a flat plane that stretches for about 3,000 yards to Monument Hill, named for the Civil War monument erected there. The hill stopped progress on the flats. The North Side began as a place across from Forts Duquesne and Pitt at the Point, where the Allegheny from the north meets the Monongahela River from the south to form the Ohio, which flows west to the great Mississippi.
Native Americans once used a path on the North Side to go along the Allegheny to the Ohio. It was a main East-West road. At one point, there was a very large tree with one side open. Native Americans used the tree as a meeting place that was safe from attack and out of most of the bad weather.
Between the late-18th and late-19th centuries, the area grew rather quickly -- from a village to a borough to Allegheny City. The population increased. It was a boomtown. Allegheny eventually became the third-biggest city in Pennsylvania, a significant place for businesses to negotiate all possible arrangements, especially real estate.
The opening of a canal in the 1820s and railroads in the 1850s contributed to the growth. There was a great spirit -- the excitement of the booming population, new factories and steel plants, river barges bringing in new products.
By the 1890s, an eight-block area in the vicinity of Ridge Avenue had become renowned for millionaires' homes. This was the center of social life for the area, including Pittsburgh, the city to the south. There were grand parties each week. High society would have dinner receptions and all possible elaborate social activities.
The population continued to grow, causing the neighborhoods to spread out -- from Federal Street to Perrysville Avenue, up to Perry Hilltop, past Riverview Park and from Brighton Heights to Woods Run to Bellevue.
The well-to-do built summer homes in Sewickley and Sewickley Heights. They were beautiful mansions in their own right. The train came through Sewickley and down to Allegheny, emerging at Fort Wayne Station in time for work. These leading citizens could return at day's end back to their homes for dinner and parties.
There was some boat traffic, but the river was used mostly for industrial navigation. Many beautiful churches and special buildings were built during this time.
Everything happened here. The future was bright and hopeful. Farther north, there were excellent opportunities -- open space for real estate and industries and new colleges, such as Allegheny and Grove City, were popping up.
Of course, the politicians in Pittsburgh saw their opportunities and what they could gain by taking Allegheny City. Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny in 1907, and the area became Pittsburgh's North Side.
Growing up here in the 1930s and '40s, I was intrigued with the neighborhood. I watched our home being renovated. There were major houses on both sides of Lincoln Avenue. It was a grand place. We had a backyard and played all the sports. During World War II, we pretended the yard was a battlefield.
The neighbors were particularly nice and would talk to us and suggest things we might do. We could go to Allegheny Commons and play football and baseball and use the lake for swimming. I learned to ice skate on that lake.
At the corner of Lincoln and Galveston avenues was a big lot and a pile of broken bricks, where one of the grand houses had been torn down following a domestic dispute. We played there often on the bricks. The property was purchased by Graybar Electric Co. We called it Graybar Stadium and played football there during the season. It was a great neighborhood.
I went to St. Peter grade school, near Federal and East Ohio streets. That was the center of old Allegheny, where you would see everyone who came to shop and enjoy the activity. It was truly the center of all the happenings in the neighborhood. The excellent Boggs & Buhl Department Store was there, as was the market house, Carnegie Library and post office. Later, the Buhl Planetarium was built in this location. I remember sitting there under the stars. It was an excellent teaching aid.
Then the flight out of the North Side began. Houses were sold. Many were demolished. Every house on the south side of our street was torn down. Today, only three houses remain on the west side of Lincoln Avenue.
By 1950, influential men saw the need for revival. They formed a committee to plan for the future. They developed a plan, which included Allegheny Center, a complex of shops and offices that altered the North Side's landscape and street grid.
In more recent years, some historic buildings have been saved, and new amenities added. People again found the North Side a wonderful place to live. It is truly a place for the ages.
The North Side, a special place. Where is it today?
There is still a spirit here -- one of pride. It is a happy place. There is a feeling that things are going well, that the economy will bring new business and more hope.
We have begun a return to the grandeur of Allegheny City. People are returning to live on the North Side because it is so convenient, just across the Allegheny from the Golden Triangle. There are two wonderful parks -- Allegheny Commons and, a few miles north, Riverview Park. They both need a fair amount of development and maintenance.
There are still great avenues, such as Beech Avenue and the Mexican War Streets, and there are still mansions in Manchester and on Ridge Avenue. The structure of Route 65 lends itself to the neighborhood's continued development -- everything on the west side, to the Ohio River, is basically industrial and commercial while everything on the east side is residential.
There is plenty of space to expand east of Route 65. There are many places available to build good homes and businesses, to establish grocery stores and other amenities that neighborhoods need to prosper.
We have other excellent assets -- the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Science Center, the old Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh now home to a senior center and a new library on Federal Street. The Mattress Factory, churches, new restaurants and places of entertainment also call the North Side home.
Then we have the North Shore, the area nearest the Allegheny River, with the two great stadiums, Heinz Field and PNC Park. The North Shore also has new hotels, office buildings and the Rivers Casino, and there are plans for new family housing.
Now, there is a new mode of transportation. The North Shore Connector light-rail extension moves people to and from the neighborhood for school, work and entertainment.
To have a great city, it is essential to have fine schools with good teachers and the amenities that make for an environment where children can learn. Pittsburgh has always had good schools. Community College of Allegheny County is a fine college that brings many to the North Side to begin their higher education.
There were at least 16 high schools in Pittsburgh at one time. Now, there are nine. Mike White, a Post-Gazette sports writer, wrote a story suggesting that there was a shortage of boys playing football in Pittsburgh. Currently, there are only six high-school teams playing football in the City League. The new homes being built on the North Side are smaller than in the past, and that translates into fewer students.
Health care in Pittsburgh is excellent. Allegheny General on the North Side and UPMC provide good care.
Yet there are problems. Allegheny Center is a failure, and it is time to come to reality and do something about it, like starting over. Nearby, the west side of North and Federal streets can be developed.
Allegheny Commons remains a wonderful place to rest, play tennis and all sports and enjoy a unique experience -- ice balls from Gus and Yia Yia.
From the beginning, the city has taken Commons land to build needed facilities when the property could have been taken from other areas, such as Manchester or the Strip District, with available space. The park has suffered from a loss of green space.
The greatest destruction was the Pennsylvania Railroad, opened in 1851, which cut through the largest open area in the park. Allegheny High School, the National Aviary, the telephone building, St. Peter Church and Martin Luther King school also took away beautiful parts of the Commons.
The North Side is so vital to the future of Pittsburgh. Fortunately, the North Side is a special place -- the location, the space, the people, the energy, the pride. It is here. We have it. Let's keep it special. Make it better. Keep it clean, well maintained, safe. Let's use the land and the talents of the people, motivate them to live and work in such a wonderful environment.
Where is the North Side today? It is here. Open the window and see.
The future has begun. What is our collective vision of the North Side? What can be done?
It will be the jewel of Allegheny County. The prospects are endless, with commitment from all. Investors in real estate and in big and small business can have a very good return.
There are about 18 smaller neighborhoods making up the North Side, each with a need for provisions.
The focus is again on the plane of the Indian Road. The North Shore with its new developments dominates the area. The North Shore Connector will transport more people across the Allegheny River to live, work and play. There are still too many open lots and areas in need of redevelopment.
But the North Side was, is and always will be hard to beat.
Dan Rooney (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lifelong resident of the North Side. He andCarol Petersonare co-authors of "Allegheny City: A History of Pittsburgh's North Side," published this year by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
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