Brian O'Neill: North Side history, in living proof
March 6, 2016 12:00 AM
University of Pittsburgh
East Street Valley looking toward Swindell Bridge, 1931
1839 Howard Street, where Bill Gandy lived as a child.
East Street and Howard Street, circa 1870.
Helen and Joe's Cafe at the corner of East Street and North Avenue.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tens of thousands drive the Parkway North every day through a ghost town they can’t even see. Some refugees from that East Street Valley, most of them just kids when their families were forced to move to make way for the big road, figure it’s past time for a reunion.
One’s planned for 3 p.m. Saturday April 16 at a storefront museum on East Ohio Street. It’s at least as spacious as the taverns that line that street, so the same people that PennDOT squeezed out decades ago ought to be able to squeeze in. An East Street Valley Reunion page on Facebook had 110 people interested and 48 more committed to attending Friday.
Bill Gandy was among those uprooted in the late 1960s for a highway that would take two more decades to open. His family lived in a three-story rowhouse on Howard Street, which still parallels the highway’s western side, albeit stripped of all homes and stores. There remain only odd steps and foundations scattered amid the grass and weeds.
When the state came for the Gandy home, Bill wasn’t yet 2 years old. The Gandys moved to Northview Heights, and other families went to new apartments on Spring Hill or took the state’s money and bought in the North Hills. The highway ultimately displaced more than 1,400 homes and businesses.
Mr. Gandy was sharing his story in the Allegheny City Historic Gallery at 433 E. Ohio Street. The walls are lined with ancient photos, mostly black and white, showing the streets and corners we pass every day living a previous life.
It’s a collection he began sharing online a few years ago. Other amateur North Side photo collectors such as Betty Muschar and Bob Rathke brought more images, and now the gallery can access more than 100,000 photos, including many from the University of Pittsburgh and the Heinz History Center. It all entered the real world when this spartan museum opened last August.
City Councilwoman Darlene Harris helped gather about $17,000 in city and Urban Redevelopment Authority funds that covered startup costs and a year’s rent. There’s free admission 11 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and its contents are a revelation to many who aren’t aware of all that Pittsburgh once was, and may be an inspiration to those who dream big about what this city might be again.
Bill and his wife, Kim, whom he met at Perry High School in the 1980s, host the place. Mr. Gandy says, “I’m broke, but I’m happy.’’
High on a wall near the front door is an oversized photo from 1897 of the Nunnery Hill Incline, one of at least four inclines on the North Side, that ran westward from Fineview down to Federal Street. A brick house still standing at the corner of Federal and Henderson streets was once the incline entrance, Mr. Gandy said.
Those brush strokes on the city’s history — and Allegheny City’s history before it was annexed and became the North Side in 1907 — are part of what will be “an online archive that could rival the Heinz History Center.’’
Mr. Gandy believes, somehow, salaries are on the horizon. For now, “Sometimes you gotta sacrifice.’’ Every now and again, a grateful visitor plunks some money on the counter and says, “Get yourself some lunch.’’
The museum website has videos sharing everything from 1960s home movies in Northview Heights to recent walking tours that morph old photos into new streetscapes. It also sells T-shirts touting the Oliver High School (1925-2012) Bears, Allegheny City, the East Street Valley and even a long gone North Side disco and drive-in movie theater.
Sales revenue is plowed back into framing and other museum supplies, Mr. Gandy said. He’d like to eventually offer help with genealogy searches.
I told him of the book “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It’’. Written a decade ago by Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a psychiatrist, the account of uprooted communities includes the demolition of the lower Hill District in the 1950s to make way for the Civic Arena. Dr. Fullilove makes a persuasive case that these massive disruptions, which occurred in more than 1,600 American communities, had impacts more traumatic than is commonly understood.
Mr. Gandy agreed, saying that if it didn’t happen to you, “you don’t know what it feels like.’’
Ms. Muschar says she’d love to “rebuild” Howard and East streets, if only through photos, if enough are brought in.
Another reunion for those who remember Allegheny’s old First Ward, leveled to make way for Three Rivers Stadium, is scheduled at the museum at 2 p.m. Saturday April 9.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947
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