Saturday, November 23, 2013
You know by now, like we do, that every neighborhood has a story. There’s a reason why each one exists separately from its neighbors. Today, some neighborhoods feel like they’re enjoying their peaks of vitality, compared not just to their past ups or downs, but also to the future’s potential; others stand some distance from what they once were or what, some day, they could be. Each neighborhood in Pittsburgh, like any neighborhood in any city, is currently moving in one direction or another, never standing still.
We say it in almost every blog post, but we’ll say it again, here. Exploring these 90 neighborhoods so that we can better get to know our beloved city – of which we’re endlessly proud – is yielding remarkable experiences. On one level, we’re seeing places and things that we otherwise would have never seen and, on another level, we’re educating ourselves on how these neighborhoods progressed or regressed into their current states and seeing, albeit with always-hopeful curiosity, what could lie ahead for residents and visitors in the future.
We knew that our day in Arlington Heights was going to be a little different than some of the other neighborhoods we’d explored to-date. This wouldn’t be a neighborhood replete with its own business-laden main street. There wouldn’t be any historic architecture. There wasn’t a well-known history of the place or any notable landmarks. Don’t worry, though; there was still plenty to experience and plenty to learn.
Arlington Heights is perched high above a bend in the Monongahela River, surrounded completely by the neighborhoods of Arlington and Southside Slopes and across the river from Hazelwood. It’s a tiny place. Actually, it’s tied for the third smallest neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh, just behind Friendship and Mt. Oliver. The population of Arlington Heights is also near least in the city – just 244 residents as of the 2010 census, but there’s an accompanying story on that!
The story of Arlington Heights is an interesting and historic one. It ebbs and flows with the changing times and hinges, throughout its timeline, on how use was made of its residential complexes in any given era.
In 1942, right in the midst of World War II when Pittsburgh’s and the rest of the country’s work forces were activated in supporting the war effort, a number of residential complexes comprised of 660 units were erected in Arlington Heights. According to PGHSNAP (Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning public resource tool and database), the neighborhood’s population boomed during this time with more than 2,500 residents – 10 times the present-day tally. The housing units were not permanent homes for workers; they were homes away from homes. These were temporary living spaces with proximity to the jobs in nearby factories. Many of the workers would have commuted down the hill to S. 22nd St. and Josephine St. where the Southside Slopes meets the Flats on the nearby St. Clair Incline, located just west of the neighborhood, which was one of a total of 23 inclines that operated in Pittsburgh at one time or another (that’s right…there was more than just the Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines). We’ll look forward to learning more about those inclines in future neighborhood visits!
Sometime after the war, the residencies were transformed into public housing units. The population continued to boom, peaking at over 2,800 in the 1950 census. Later, in line with the city’s overall population decline, neighborhood population decreased by nearly 30% with the region’s industrial collapse.
In 1999, everything changed. According to an article at the time from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city reacted to guidelines passed a few years earlier by Congress aimed at minimizing cost for redevelopment of public housing. Minimizing cost, in this case like in many others, meant that demolition of housing units and assisted relocation of stranded residents was cheaper than renovating existing structures. To the dismay of local residents, 24 of 31 housing complexes were demolished, leaving only the 7 that stand today.
We’d love to hear more from anyone in the know about this land’s status. We suspect that zero conversation is taking place regarding its potential, but maybe that’s not the case. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around this kind of real estate not being put to use; we say this cautiously, too, knowing it must be a very sensitive topic for former residents and neighbors nearby. We’d love to hear some perspective on it, though.
The Current Day
Despite being fixated on this land of the lost, we pressed on to discover what is happening in the neighborhood. We parked our ride, had a go at it on foot, and were glad we did!
We took a quick walk along Zaruba St., which sort of cuts into the circle created by the wrap-around nature of Arlington Avenue, the main drag through the neighborhood. There are four standalone homes on Zaruba St., though not all of them appeared to be occupied. These homes really catch the eye given the surrounding backdrop of uniform brick residential complexes and evergreen trees on the desolate land surrounding them.
Just around the corner from the entrance to Zaruba, near where we parked, was an interesting street called Syrian St. Another fence contained a tree-filled lot of land, perhaps private backyards of the aforementioned standalone homes, along Syrian St. As we walked we were struck by the curious wedging of tree bark within the chain-link fence. It was as if the wood had grown since its beginning around the links.
Moving along Syrian, we became especially glad that we were on foot. This was one of Pittsburgh’s 712 official city streets that is – or is partially comprised of – a set of stairs! Maybe we’ll be less excited when see a few more hundred of these, but the novelty has not yet worn off. These streets scream “Pittsburgh!”
Once we got to the bottom of this bizarre set of steps…errr street…we realized it had connected us back to Arlington Avenue at its intersection with Josephine St, which is sort of like the entrance, or doorstep, to the neighborhood. The Port Authority’s 48 crested the hill in that moment, which was a great indicator of public transit service to the neighborhood.
Next, we headed back up the stairs of Syrian St. toward the car. We reached the intersection of Syrian St. and Devlin St. when Kim’s mouth dropped in utter puzzlement while Derek looked on with delight. In a small triangular patch of grass stood a few trees, mostly barren, and on the ground around them were bocce-ball-sized, alien-baby-looking, green things. Derek shouted “monkey balls!” and remembered the trees from his childhood that grew these huge ugly fruits. The trees grew along the banks of the Kiskiminetas River and, one time, as a child (don’t tell his mom), he was invited by his elder neighbor to shoot the tree’s fruit down with a homemade slingshot. It was a one-time lesson and no monkey balls or children were injured during the session. Also, residents of Arlington Heights, please note that these suckers – technically Osage oranges – are not edible!
After this thrill, we made it to the car and headed out. On the way, we stopped for a few more pictures of the seven residential complexes and noticed some signage on one of the buildings.
The Beverly Jewel Wall Lovelace Fund for Children’s Programs
The BJWL Children’s Program in Arlington Heights is operated by Family Resources. The program “relieves job- and scheduling-related child care pressure with free, year-round, after-school and summer supervision that provides social, emotional, academic, recreational rewards…” and “enhances the safety of about 1,000 children ages 5 to 17.”
Prior to its management by Family Resources, the BJWL Fund for Children’s Programs was initiated by Lovelace, then Program Officer for the Pittsburgh Foundation, as a public-private partnership that provided “safe, enriching, and enjoyable activities” to children in public and subsidized housing environments. Today, the program continues to serve more than 18 communities throughout Allegheny County.
We enjoyed learning about Arlington Heights – not just what it’s like there today, but also its past, and the prospect of what could be in the years ahead. The residential complexes most associated with the neighborhood have served different purposes through the years – from factory-handy barracks to apartment living – but they’ve always been home for residents of Arlington Heights…high above a bend in the Monongahela and so close to an entire city below.