North Side's 'Mala Jaska' deteriorates as Route 28 grows
Helen Kusar sold her house in old Mala Jaska to PennDOT two years ago; now she lives in Reserve with her daughter.
Traffic whizzes by 1208 E. Ohio St., the former home of Helen Kusar.
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The sidewalk along Route 28 is as wide as it needed to be when the road was East Ohio Street all the way out to the 31st Street Bridge and people parked on the curb. Children rode tricycles on that sidewalk.
Today, a layer of gray grit coats every surface. The sidewalk is a strip of weeds and rubble. A pedestrian feels like a ribbon whipped by the constant whoosh of traffic.
The neighborhood, once known as Mala Jaska after a village in Croatia, has been succumbing for decades to the needs of traffic. In its last gasp, it is down to a few households.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has seven remaining to buy. The Post-Gazette found just two properties occupied, one where Rose Zupsic has lived all her life.
"It's a heartache after all these years," she said. "Our move was to be in May, but we haven't heard."
"We were supposed to be out last month, but we're still looking for a house," said her friend, Herman Korosec. "[Age] 85 ain't no time to be moving.
Mala Jaska's south side was shorn when the road was widened to four lanes in the 1920s. PennDOT intends to widen the road again and has been negotiating with homeowners on the north side for years.
Chilly dead air wafts from most buildings between the 16th and 31st street bridges. The pale-green siding on Helen Kusar's house -- the one she sold to PennDOT last year -- wears a blurred tag of graffiti. All around it, vacant windows are boarded. Crumbling steps go nowhere into the hillside.
George Nerolich has lived for 61 years in the 1100 block with his wife, Catherine. The house was in her family. "I don't think there's anyone left," he said from the doorway. Almost defiantly, he raised his voice and said, "We used to sit out here on our stoops."
Robert Sladack now lives in Reserve. He calls his old neighborhood "a desolate jungle" now.
In 2007, he sent PennDOT a list of five residents who wanted to be bought out. Two have already moved.
"What they're trying to give you for a house is B.S.," said Mr. Korosec. "A woman who works for PennDOT took us out to look for houses, but she must have been given a list of houses no one else could sell. I'd like to ask [William Woods, PennDOT's district right-of-way administrator] how his parents would like to move on $75,000."
Jim Struzzi, a PennDOT spokesman, said the prices are based on fair market value. "We try to reach an amicable settlement with everyone. Some people are very happy with the offers that are made," he said.
"We pay to help people move. We follow the process we have to follow. We have been doing this for years."
As their neighborhood vanishes, Mrs. Kusar and Mr. Sladack try to fill the gaps in the streetscape with stories about children, the hum of life: hordes of men walking to plants and factories along the Allegheny River and the stockyards on Herr's Island; doors of businesses propped open in summer, people sweeping, calls from houses; people lined up to buy roast lamb after Mass; guys sharing beers on their stoops; kids swimming and playing basketball at the Sarah Heinz House.
"A man would come along in a truck selling fruits and vegetables, and if you didn't have cash he used to give it to you on credit," Mrs. Kusar said. "There was a farmer who came with fresh chicken.
"In winter, I remember carrying coal so my dad wouldn't have to do it when he came home."
The early residents came from the Croatian village Jastrebarsko, known commonly as Jaska; "Mala" means "little." It became 90 percent Croatian from the Pennsylvania Brewing Co. all the way into Millvale. Mala Jaska residents pooled hard-earned nickels and dimes to build St. Nicholas Church in 1901, and it served as the neighborhood hub before the congregation began sifting away.
The building has been vacant for years. Weeds have overtaken the hillside grotto. The diocese wants to sell it, and no one has put forward the money it would take to restore it into a museum, as the Friends of St. Nicholas has proposed.
Mr. Sladack said he thinks the church will succumb, too. "It was my church for 70 years. I was baptized there, my children were baptized here."
Mrs. Kusar was the oldest of seven children. Then she was Helen Karas and her father was a carpenter in the stockyard. As the family grew and needed more space, it moved often. "But I lived all my life on East Ohio Street," she said. She moved in with her daughter in Reserve last year.
She married Charles Kusar in 1943 and they had five children of her own.
"The last place we lived [as a family] was about $25 a month. We lived in three rooms and an attic. There was an outhouse. No bathtub. We used galvanized tubs and heated water on the stove.
"It was a colorful life," she said. "A lot of hardship, but we used to manage and repair things."
Mr. Sladack said that by 1955, when he married and left the neighborhood, "it was starting to thin out and get run down."
Even in its present condition, he said, "a lot of people have had trouble with leaving. How can you leave a place you've lived all your life? Some people who had wanted to sell [to PennDOT] now are saying, 'This is our lifetime house.' They're torn.
"This is your place in the world, and it tugs on you."
Mrs. Kusar said she does feel sad that her neighborhood is almost gone. "I guess as time went by I just accepted that people who were friends had to move away. Then I moved away."
First Published May 20, 2009 12:27 am