Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh's Polish Hill Is My Polish Hill

Douglas Pilarski

Is There A Neighborhood Story In Your Life?

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Welcome to Polish HillPinterest

Polish Hill is a small neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is a place near and dear to my heart. My family lived there for more than 50 years. Hardworking men - many of whom were Polish immigrants, made a life there. They owned houses, raised their families, and supported local shops and they made a life. Polish Hill is as vibrant as ever today.

I think back to that neighborhood every once in a while. I thought I would share my Polish Hill with you. Is there a neighborhood story in your life too?

When I see pictures, I am reminded of when I was a kid. Not much has changed 100 years later. Polish Hill faces north and overlooks the Allegheny River and the Bloomfield bridge.

My Grandfather used to take me down to the train tracks that run along the river to throw stones in the Allegheny. I remember filling a paper box. Once we had enough, we would pitch them into the river - one after the other.

The family home on Melwood Avenue was 4 stories. A basement and 3 stories above the street. There were two balconies on each of the first two floors. We propped the upstairs windows open with a wooden stick. Isn't it funny what you remember?

The third floor was an attic. When we were visiting, we would climb the creaky old wooden steps and turn on the lights. It was like a time warp. There were old trunks full of old stuff. I remember we would dig through those trunks and find all sorts of old top hats, costumes, newspapers, jewelry, and other things.

My Grandfather worked in the fruit yards and was also a Vaudevillian. Some of the items in the trunks were costumes. We would sit and look at his collected items.

Thought I would share some of the street scenes and buildings that are so etched in my mind. Quite a remarkable place.

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Immaculate Heart Of Mary Church Dominates the PH SkylinePinterest

When I was a kid, my Grandfather would take me to ring the bells to announce mass in the bell tower. I remember holding onto the rope, the bell would pull me off the floor and put me back down again.

The streets looked pretty much the same from one to the other. The houses have not changed much even today although new homes are being built. Metal awnings, asphalt shingles for siding, 2 step walk-ups off the street. No front yard. Parking was street only. Only a few homes had garages. I never imagined it would be trendy.

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Immaculate Heart of Mary Church - Always in View!Pinterest

The Jones and Laughlin Steel began business in 1852. Large numbers of Polish immigrants settled the neighborhood after the mid-1800s.

Immigrants could perform these difficult and dangerous jobs in the mills without learning much English. The backbreaking work fed the family.

My Mother's side immigrated from Cracow in the 1920s. Ludwig, my Grandfather, worked for J&L for decades.

Titans of industry and finance teamed up to fuel industrial growth in the tri-state area. Legendary names like Carnegie, Jones, Laughlin, Scaife, Mellon, Hillman, Gary, Moore, Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Frick, and others played unique leadership roles critical to the early industrial growth of the nation and it all happened in Pittsburgh.

J. P. Morgan formed U.S. Steel with a merger of Carnegie Steel, Federal Steel, and National Steel. U.S. Steel began business with no less than 300 steel mills on the first day of business. The company was valued at nearly $500 million in 1901. Today, a merger like this would top $15 billion. Andrew Carnegie was the first CEO at U.S. Steel. J&L had been in business for nearly fifty years and now had a fierce competitor.

After World War II, highway construction was supported by the federal government. New residential areas were developed in the suburbs. Polish Hill and other neighborhoods began to lose population as some of its more established residents joined the suburban movement, a process seen in many established cities in the U.S. My Dad moved to the South Hills suburbs from Oakland in the fifties.

Polish Hill has many residents who are descendants of immigrant ancestors. PH is attracting new residents who value its scale, walkability, and proximity to jobs and amenities.

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Cobblestone Streets remain from the early 1900sPittsburgh City Photographer

A closer look at the cobblestone streets with Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the distance.

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Melwood Avenue before the street was paved. Circa 1900Pittsburgh City Photographer

Pittsburgh streets are still paved with granite Belgian blocks which are referred to as cobblestones. City Engineers used these blocks for more than 75 years starting from the early 1800s. Before cars took hold, horse-drawn carts with wooden wheels were everywhere. The blocks were an inexpensive option for paving and caused their share of broken wagon wheels and noise.

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Melwood Avenue circa 1908Pittsburgh City Photographer

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Melwood Avenue taking shape.Photo University of Pittsburgh Historic Pittsburgh Collection

This plate shows the layout of Melwood in 1889. I figure Polish Hill became a neighborhood around 1840 or so. Many families in Poland were displaced and moved to other nearby countries like Austria and Czechoslovakia. This accounts for a smear in culture, dress, food, music, and shared words in different languages.

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The neigborhood is known for hilly streets.Pinterest
neighborhood

Typical street in Polish Hill

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Polish Hill in the mid-thirties.Photo Carnegie Museum of Art Collection.

You can see the mills going full song. The smokestacks from the mills pumped soot, steam, and smoke into the air day and night. Slag piles glowed at night.

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A train dumps a load of slagSource: CMU Nine Mile Run Greenway Project.

America needed its steel, and Pittsburgh was the central source. Not to mention Jones & Laughlin and U.S. Steel were the major employers of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Hunky is an ethnic slur used in the United States to refer to a laborer from Central Europe. It originated in the coal regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Mill Hunky was used to describe a mill worker in Pennsylvania.

New steel mill workers were fresh off the boat. Once processed through Ellis Island in New York City, they traveled to Western Pennsylvania.

My Dad told me men were recruited by the steel mills to work in Pittsburgh. The mills paid for their passage and that of their family. Many found work performing hard manual labor in the mills.

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Seems like this sign has been there forever.Pinterest

This sign, painted on the side of the house, is a landmark.

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Polish Hill is home to one of the grandest churches.Photo Google.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Pittsburgh is referred to in Polish as Kościół Matki Boskiej, one of the oldest and largest churches in the city.

Located on Polish Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it is a prime example of the so-called Polish Cathedral style of churches. It is both opulent and grand in scale. My family has attended Sunday mass there for more than 100 years.

In Polish Hill, the steps of Pittsburgh quickly connect pedestrians to public transportation and provide an easy way to travel through this richly populated area. Polish Hill is built on the side of the hill, so stairs and retaining walls are everywhere.

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This flight on Herron Avenue requires some repair. Photo City of Pittsburgh PhotographerPhoto City of Pittsburgh Photographer.

The Polish Hill neighborhood has 16 flights of city steps — many of which are open and in a safe condition.

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Polish Hill street at sundown.Photo Pinterest.

Street scene showing the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.

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My grandfather lived here.Photo Google Maps

My Grandfather lived here from 1920 until he passed in 1975. The house my Dad grew up in.

Riding home in the car after visiting Grampsie, my brother would open his hand to reveal a coin. I answered him back - with one of my own. Gramps never failed to press a quarter in our hands when we left his house.

We were pals.

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Douglas Pilarski is an award-winning writer & journalist based on the west coast. He writes about luxury goods, exotic cars, horology, tech, food, lifestyle, and workplace issues!

Beaverton, OR
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