The Uptown of My Childhood
by John Fries
Early one Sunday evening in 1964, I was five years old and playing with someone, I don't recall who, in front of my family's house on Tustin Street. The house, a narrow, two-story red brick structure with a front door that opened directly into the small living room, could have been a row house except that it had no other houses attached to it. But it was small like a row house, with a kitchen and living room on the first floor, two bedrooms on the second floor and a basement but no attic.
So, I was playing in the street, which is what you did in city neighborhoods in those days, and I heard my mother call my name. I jumped up, scrambled up the stoop and ran inside. Mom sat me in front of the black and white floor model television and said, "Watch this."
I watched. And there they were. On TV. The Ed Sullivan Show. Four longhaired young guys from England, singing and playing rock and roll while the girls in the audience screamed. The Beatles would become my heroes until Batman debuted on television a few years later, prompting the need for me to have a utility belt and resulting in my Batarang ending up on a neighbor's rooftop.
And like so many other childhood memories, it happened in Uptown.
Like many metropolitan areas, the city of Pittsburgh is composed of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character and characteristics. Today, they range from blocks of traditional, working-class row houses to gentrified, modern condo communities, to earthy, bohemian hipster meccas boasting galleries, coffeehouses and tattoo parlors. At various times, city neighborhoods go through transitions, swapping longtime identities for new ones. Suddenly, a quiet unassuming series of city blocks becomes a destination, or a place to avoid.
Uptown is a small neighborhood that falls almost exactly in the center of the city of Pittsburgh, between Oakland to the east, downtown to the west, the Monongahela River to the south and the Hill District, just adjacent and to the north.
The widest street and, for decades, the center of commerce in Uptown was Fifth Avenue, which hardly anyone called by its formal name. It was The Avenue, and it was Uptown's version of Main Street—six or seven blocks of Jewish-owned wholesale clothing stores, mom-and-pop shops, delicatessens, supermarkets, bars, and restaurants. An occasional parade came down the Avenue. Guys hung out on its street corners. People socialized in its taverns. Lots of locals graduated from Fifth Avenue High School, which was directly across the street from Schwartz's Supermarket and Bardyn's Drugstore. You could get your secondary education, fill prescriptions and buy groceries within the same several yards..
The narrow alley I mentioned living on as a child, Tustin Street, is a couple blocks south of the Avenue. It was maybe 15 feet from curb to curb, so narrow that only one car could go down it at a time in one direction. Our house was near the corner, just off Miltenberger Street. Not only was Tustin considered an alley, but there was also an alley between our postage stamp-sized concrete back yard (really, a patio-sized pad) and the equally tiny cement back yards of our neighbors along Miltenberger.
Most of the homes in the neighborhood were tiny, and our front steps, sidewalk and street functioned as our public square and playground. It was where we lived our lives. It was where the children played and the adults would literally sit on their front steps and converse with the neighbors on their front steps, just across the street. It was where, on some afternoons, you could smell the spaghetti sauce your neighbor was cooking as the aroma wafted through the screen of her open window and into the street. It was where, on warm spring evenings, you could hear top 40 songs or Pirate baseball games playing on transistor radios tuned to KQV and KDKA. It’s where lifelong friendships were made and occasional arguments took place.
The things you remember from a childhood spent in the heart of the city.
Even though Tustin Street was utterly urban, every now and then I'd hear the clip-clopping of horse’s hooves on asphalt and cement, just outside the front door. That meant that Hyman Fox, one of the last of the horse-and-buggy hucksters, a remnant of an earlier era, would be riding his rickety wooden produce wagon down Tustin Street.
It’s strange today to imagine a horse pulling a wagon through an alley in Uptown, but in those days, it was normal. Hyman was an old man when I was little, so I think the timing was fortunate in that I was able to experience a dying slice of Americana before it disappeared forever. According to the Pittsburgh Press, Fox was retiring just as the brand-new Civic Arena (now also gone; more on that later) was opening its doors--and retractable stainless steel dome--for the first time.
After Hyman Fox retired, it wasn't long before the “pushcart men,” as we called them—three middle-aged Italian guys whom I think were brothers--were bringing their vegetable-filled wooden carts up and down the Uptown alleys, big wagon wheels creaking with every step.
To this day, I don’t know who they were, where they lived or where they got the produce they sold. I think they may have been from an adjoining neighborhood and probably owned a small piece of land that they used as a garden. That’s probably it; they grew their own vegetables and made a living by selling them to people who lived in the near vicinity. Maybe the produce was organic. Only once did I ever hear the family’s last name, but I do recall that one of the men seemed to be the leader of the group.
Another of the men was a deaf-mute whose teeth were mostly gone. He had dark, deep-set eyes and a heavy, three-day growth on his face. He liked to interact with the Tustin Street children, and his inability to articulate rendered his voice as a wordless moan.
Unfortunately, I never got to meet him—or, even get within 10 feet of him. Something about him scared me. I think the combination of his looks, his slouchy walk and the way he tried to speak made my five-year-old imagination perceive him as someone other than who he was—a poor, unfortunate soul just trying to eke out a living in what was likely the only way he knew how. In 1964, just catching a glimpse of the pushcart men crossing Gist Street from the far end of the block was enough to send me running into the house and hiding under the kitchen table. Several decades later, I can still vividly picture exactly how he looked, acted, sounded, and moved. He was gentle and harmless; I know that now.
We were the children of working men and women. Our environment was made of cement, steel, brick and asphalt, our lifestyles were simple and affordable. The early 1960’s was a time of flight from the cities, as the well-to-do began buying ranch-style homes situated on sprawling lawns in the suburbs, then moving their families to the relative peace and quiet of the boroughs and townships that lay beyond the city limits. To us city-dwellers, those suburban outposts with their manicured lawns and spacious sidewalks seemed like a million miles away.
In the summertime, as suburbanites spent hot days basking in the sun and splashing around in their local community pools, we enjoyed a more fundamental way to cool off: when we wanted relief from the heat, someone—most often a neighborhood parent—would grab a monkey wrench and work the valve on a street corner fire hydrant so we could enjoy the explosive rush of cold water right there in the street.
There was a heavy iron cap that had to be removed from the front of the hydrant. It had threads on the inside, like a large, screw-top bottle cap, so turning it was a laborious task. But the payoff was a consistent blast of water that created a curbside river within moments of uncovering the source. Once the water was running, there we’d be, in our swim trunks and swimsuits and reveling in the refreshing wetness. Some of us would make fountains with the water by getting behind the hydrant and cupping our hands over the opening. If you pressed hard enough, you could make the water spray over everyone’s heads and against the house on the other side of the street.
You had to be careful, though. Most cars of the day—or, at least, those in our neighborhood—weren’t equipped with air conditioning. So, if a car came down the street on a hot summer day with its windows open, you had to cease and desist spraying until it passed. Or, you learned a valuable lesson about not messing with someone else’s property, as I did one day when I thoroughly soaked the interior of a neighbor’s new car and he literally chased me into my house and around my parents’ kitchen table.
Like many city neighborhoods, the Uptown of the 1960s was a mix of nationalities and cultures. Tustin Street was mostly Mediterranean: Italians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Greeks. But really, there was a richly diverse mix of nationalities that also included Germans, the Irish, Jews, African-Americans, and others.
I went to Forbes Public School, now the site of a hospital parking garage, for kindergarten. After that, I went to Epiphany School, a Catholic school located about eight blocks away, for my earliest grade school experiences. The school was adjacent to Epiphany Church, a still-standing structure that, many years earlier, was Pittsburgh’s first Catholic cathedral before St. Paul’s was built in Oakland. Epiphany Church was probably best known for the “Printers’ Masses” that were celebrated at 2:30 Sunday morning, a convenient time for the workers on The Pittsburgh Press’ third shift to stop by church on the way home after work.
Most of the teachers at Epiphany School were nuns, the kind who wore long, black habits and starched white headdresses that covered everything but their faces. At Epiphany, we practiced traditional Catholicism, starting each day with prayers. Masses were still said partially in Latin, so phrases like Dominus vobiscum were part of our young vocabularies. When Pope Paul VI visited the United States in 1965, one of the nuns wheeled a television stand into my first grade classroom so we could watch a live broadcast of him getting off the airplane.
It was also during the early 1960s that the Civic Arena opened directly across the street from Epiphany. The Arena, which was demolished a few years ago, was considered an architectural marvel because it had the world’s largest retractable dome. Years before sports facilities with retractable roofs were commonplace, Pittsburgh, and Uptown specifically, was home to the Arena’s stainless steel dome. It could actually be folded into itself, thanks to advanced (at the time) engineering that allowed for the roof to be made of several curved, pie-shaped leaves that pivoted on a cantilever.
It was around 1965 or ’66 that I entered the Civic Arena for the first time. My neighbor and his young daughters were going there to check out a trade show of some kind and they invited me along. We met right after school and walked across the street and through the parking lot to the new building.
I can still remember approaching the huge silver dome on foot for the first time and being amazed at how enormous it appeared to my five- or six-year-old eyes. We entered the building through large garage doors at floor level (the loading dock area, which was directly across Washington Place from Epiphany Church) and walked through the "backstage" area below the seats. Within a few minutes, we were at the doorway to the auditorium floor.
It's been nearly 50 years since that day, but I can still vividly remember the first time I stood at floor level and looked up at the wide domed ceiling. It felt like we were were standing under a huge, upside down bowl--and, literally, we were. It was sort of overwhelming. Over the years, of course, I attended many events at the arena--from rock concerts to hockey games. I also spent a good bit of time in the building's backstage areas as a broadcast journalist, interviewing lots of rock musicians. Once, I even got to skate on the Penguins' ice.
In the Uptown of my youth, there were lots of things to see and do. The neighborhood is bordered to the south by the Boulevard of the Allies, which is situated atop a sheer cliff. Back in the sixties, you could walk a few block over to the Boulevard at night, stand there and look across the Monongahela River at the South Side and see two things right away: fire roaring from the stacks of the steel mills and the big, lighted octagon-shaped clock mounted high on the Duquesne Brewery outside wall. The clock would alternately flash the time and the words "Have a Duke," which was the company's longtime slogan.
Times change, though. During the mid-1960s, a number of families moved from Uptown to other parts of the Pittsburgh area. My family moved to the northern end of the North Side. I was in the third grade when we relocated, and for many years, I completely lost contact with Uptown until I rediscovered it as a student at Duquesne University.
In recent years, I've visited the old neighborhood often to shoot photos of what remains from my childhood--houses, streets, storefronts--to document, and also to capture artistically, a rapidly changing part of Pittsburgh. Old homes are being town down and new buildings are taking their place. Khoury's Market, just around the corner from my childhood home, still stands at Forbes and Miltenberger, but George Khoury, who owned it for decades, passed away a few years ago, and the place has a new owner and a new name.
My old house is still there. Whomever owns it now has made some cosmetic changes including, inexplicably, filling in one of the two front windows with bricks. They also apparently removed the cement steps that my father built back when we lived there, and replaced them with wooden ones.
Oh well, it's their home now. At least the tiny cement backyard still appears to be intact.
The Uptown Project
As of this writing, Uptown Pittsburgh is undergoing a number of changes, with old buildings and houses being demolished and new structures taking their place. My objective is to document the neighborhood in words and images.
is a writer, graphic designer, photographer, and filmmaker who was born and lived his early years on Tustin Street in Uptown Pittsburgh. His website is here.
Click here to read some really old historical documents about Uptown. These were compiled by Rex Coughenour of Duquesne University.
How Wikipedia defines Uptown
Read it here.