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Pittsburgh Community History

By Laura Ferguson

 Just south of downtown Atlanta, in an industrial wasteland of abandoned railroad buildings, is a small neighborhood with the unlikely name of Pittsburgh. Relatively few have heard of it. It has been in decline for decades, noted mostly for its gangs, crack, and hookers. But Pittsburgh is like an aging, addled rock star: rough-looking, but with a great story to tell. Through its 125-year history, it bears the milestones that have taken black people from the murky outback to the cultural forefront, and reveals itself to be the granddaddy of all ‘hoods in what rap artists calls SWATZ (southwest Atlanta).

Back in the day, before cars and planes, people got around on foot or behind a donkey and cart, or, if they were going really far, they could take a train. So everyone worked downtown and lived on the outskirts. When the first houses started going up in Pittsburgh, in the early 1880s, Pittsburgh and Mechanicsville formed the southern boundaries of town. Beyond that was the country. Both communities sprang up around a railroad repair-facility, the Pegram shops, built by a predecessor line of the Southern Railway, now part of Norfolk-Southern. To this day, railroad tracks running north-south divide the two communites. Mechanicsville was named for the large numbers of train mechanics, both black and white, who settled there. There was also a section of fancy houses in Mechanicsville, where successful merchants such as the founder of Rich’s department stores lived. But Pittsburgh was different. From the start, it was a black neighbhorhood, and it’s unique in that it has remained so to this day. That there would come a time when Pittsburgh, named for the similarity of its grimy pollution to the steel mills up north, would find itself in the path of progress, that people would want to live in shotgun houses or cavernous warehouses like those by the tracks, or that just being from Pittsburgh and neighborhoods like it would have currency – these are things that, in the old days, residents could never have imagined.

Recently Pittsburgh was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a boon to current efforts to tow Pittsburgh from its mire. One of the more notable projects is the re-development of the Pittsburgh Civic League Apartments, a a low-income housing project so riven with crime that, in 1996, some Atlanta police officers were convicted of being on the payrolls of resident drug dealers. The complex, built by Pittsburgh residents in the 1970s to help the less fortunate among them, has been razed and is now being replaced with a vast apartment complex that has every bit of the appeal of a Post property. This makes it seem possible, for the first time in a long time, for businesses to sprout up on McDaniel Street, a once thriving commercial district that has been stagnant for some time. To help it along, city and community planners are proposing decorative street lamps and landscaping, among other improvements. All of this follows the conversion of the historic, yet once dilapidated, Crogman School into loft apartments, a comely symbol of renewal amid a rich green landscape. But hope is tempered by the scores of smashed windows in old abandoned houses and hastily built new ones that serve as reminders that the streets are still mean streets.

Pittsburgh is caught between the hopeful promise of its future and the traumas of its past, at a crossroads on the winding road back to respectability. This time, however, Pittsburgh may just make it, encouraged forward by a force it has never experienced before: a slow but steady market demand spurred by the popularity of intown living. Its closest kin, in terms of characteristics, is Cabbagetown, its white cousin to the northeast that has become, in recent years, a destination spot. (Virgin chairman Richard Branson had brunch at the Carroll Street Cafe last fall.) The two neighborhoods grew up around industrial plants a stone’s throw from downtown and have defined boundaries that gave forebears a sense of safety from a taunting outside world; they both have clapboard houses built closely together and a main street of sorts for shops and restaurants that residents can walk to; and they both have small rustic churches on just about every block. If the proposed Beltline makes it to implementation, it will be a nice amenity for Cabbagetown, but for Pittsburgh, it would be transforming. The intown rail line is slated to roll through the southern boundary of Pittsburgh, a tired and gray industrial area, infusing it with millions of dollars for parks, bicycle paths, shops, restaurants and, as currently proposed, a boarding station at the corner of University and Metropolitan Avenues. The only thing Pittsburgh would need then, to push it over the top, would be a barber shop on McDaniel Street to attract the Bentley-driving hip-hop crowd looking for inspiration from the oldest ‘hood in the ‘hood – and an MTV crew. Not that Pittsburgh is home to a many famous people. In fact, you have to dig pretty hard to find just one, but there is a celebrity connection of sorts: former police chief and current Clayton County Commissioner Eldrin Bell grew up in Pittsburgh, and one of his children, singer Justin Guarini, was runner-up to Kelly Clarkson on American Idol.

When the first houses started going up in Pittsburgh, in the early 1880s, it had been a scant 15 years since the Civil War ended and black people were freed from slavery. It was hard to eke out a living on farms and former plantations, with cotton prices depressed, so farmers by the drove, black and white, headed to the booming Atlanta to find work and a better life. Black men were limited to jobs on the lower rungs of commerce; as butlers in wealthy white households, bellhops in downtown hotels, and porters and laborers with the railroads. Their poor white counterparts found work in mills and factories, and alongside black men in tedious hard work with the railroads. But as the years passed, a good many black residents found a measure of economic success and moved into the middle- and upper-classes of a thriving black community. This created tension with uneducated, rural white people who were not willing to give up their sense of superiority over their black brethren. They were, in effect, the first rednecks. And in the early days, they would band together in torrents of violence and make life hell for unsuspecting black people. "Well, after dark a colored man wasn’t allowed in Cabbagetown at all," recalled one resident in a series of interviews that became Living Atlanta: an oral history of the city, 1914-1948, authored by Clifford M Kuhn, Harlon E. Joye and E. Bernard West. And in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when just about everyone got around by streetcar -- whites in front and blacks in back – there were more likely to be conflicts on lines that ran to poor white areas.

The tract of land that became Pittsburgh was initially owned by a white real-estate investor by the name of H.L. Wilson. When a portion of the tract was subdivided into the first lots to be auctioned off, the blueprint was recorded, alongside that for Grant Park, in Atlanta’s very first plat book: Plat Book 1. The lots, for the most part, were purchased by white investors who built rental houses with the hope of reaping a good return on their investment some day. Black men flocked to the area with their families to try to get work with the railroads, good money compared to the small change of farming. Many of them were hired as laborers at the Pegram shops. It was a gritty occupation. The early steam engines spewed sparks and flames, and with little attention paid to environmental pollution, the area was awash with oil and dirt, a dumpster of sorts for railroad refuse. The women worked mostly as maids, the only kind of work they could get. They would leave in the morning to work in white households and come back in the evening to tend to their own. Their neighbhorhood was a place where they could sit back and relax, be among their own people, a refuge from the day-to-day degredation of being black in a white-dominated society. They had their troubles, but they also had good times. "Baseball was the popular sport," remembers a Pittsburgh resident in the liner notes to Living Atlanta. "Everybody had teams. And people – you could put some kids out there playing baseball, and before you knew a thing, you got a crowd out there, watching kids play."

Early on Pittsburgh had a more diverse population of black residents. Clark College, with its educated professors and students, was on the southeastern tip of Pittsburgh, in an area then called Brownsville. And there were two theological seminaries nearby, one of which became the Salvation Army Center for Officer Training. Once former slaves and offspring of former slaves began making a little money, they started businesses along McDaniel Street – stores, restaurants, and laundromats – places black people could frequent without being ushered into a "colored-only" section. One former slave by the name of Carrie Steele Logan raised enough money to buy four acres in Pittsburgh to build an orphan home, becoming one of the first black people in Atlanta to own property. Pittsburgh also had its share of whiskey-drinking and illegal gambling -- vices of the day for white people too -- but there were enough residents of sound mind and good intentions to keep it all together, a strong social fabric born of the shared weight of oppression and struggle for survival. It provides deeper meaning to the sense of community Pittsburgh residents always talk about in interviews.

As the decades rolled from the 1800s into the 1900s, an emerging black upper-class, with all of the hallmarks of success – tailored clothes, nice houses, social clubs – added fuel to the fire of lower-class white people angered at how they were being upstaged by those they deemed lesser than they. The most notable success story was that of Alonzo Herndon, a former slave who built three well-appointed barbershops downtown, catering to the white elite, and went on to found the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and amass vast real estate holdings. His achievements were a source of pride for all black Southerners. But during this time of hope, there was a dark threat looming. Reports of lynchings had become commonplace, the Ku Klux Klan gained momentum as a political force, and rock-and-bottle fights between blacks and whites, including one in Piedmont Park, were on the rise. While white movers and shakers were not engaged in street combat, they none-the-less waged war against the advancements of black people with laws and restrictions designed to keep them in check, Jim Crow laws, which dictated, among other things, where black people could live. Middle- and upper-class black families gravitated to neighbhorhoods by Morehouse and Spelman on the west side, and the Fourth Ward, along Auburn Avenue, on the east side. But the vast majority of black people were poor and lived in sprawling shantytowns, such as Darktown and Buttermilk Bottoms, by where the Civic Center now is, and Pittsburgh. "Many striving African-Americans joined whites in fearing the crime and vice associated with these neighborhoods," writes David Fort Godshalk in his book Veiled Visions, about the 1906 Atlanta race riot. But if you were a black man running from trouble, you could slip in and find safe haven. "Especially after sundown," he writes, "police officers and other whites entered black working-class neighbhorhoods, particularly Pittsburgh and Darktown, only with reinforcements."

It is amazing, by today’s standards, how newspapers used to describe black people: "buxom negro woman," "jabbering darkies." This vilification amped up in the summer and fall of 1906 when local newspapers – there were four, including the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution; the other two didn’t survive – trumpeted accusations of black men raping white women. And it hit a crescendo one warm night when white mobs took to the streets, chased down black people, and beat them with clubs and makeshift weapons. One of the victims was a barber fleeing the main Herndon barbershop on Peachtree Street; he was attacked so severely he died. Other victims were trapped in streetcars and clubbed, sending streams of black people to the emergency room at Grady Hospital. After four days of rioting, the official death toll was just 10, a serious undercount by the estimation of scholars. Two of the victims were from Pittsburgh. During the rioting, hundreds of black men had gathered in Brownsville, on the edge of Pittsburgh, to try to form a defense against another assault. Police stormed the neighborhood and arrested more than 200 black men. In the end, newspapers blamed the violence on what they deemed black troublemakers, and the bally-hooed charges of rape were found, in most of the cases, to lack merit.

In the 1930s, Clark College moved from Brownsville to the west side, to become part of the Atlanta University Center, along with Morehouse and Spelman. This move left Pittsburgh without its best ally. It also left it without the calming influence of educated elders. In the 1940s and 50s, Pittsburgh families started moving gingerly into nearby neighborhoods. If they were to stray too far into white areas, they would risk having a home-made bomb tossed onto the front porch. It became more common for working-class neighbhorhoods to, once again, have black and white people living together. But it was still a big deal when a black person moved into an "all-white" neighbhorhood, as it was for baseball great Willie Mays when he bought a house in an upscale San Fransisco neighborhood, and made headlines across the country. But the people of Pittsburgh were holding down the fort and trying to make the best of a tough situation. While rumors of cocaine use had been floating around for decades, cocaine was not bought and sold at the level it is now. Back then moonshine, corn whiskey, was at the height of popularity, especially among the lower classes of blacks and whites, and that was where you could make a few dollars. The city would periodically crack down and tons of illegal brew would be confiscated. According to one newspaper article, a black man had some in his car when cops chased him into Pittsburgh. He got out and took off running down McDaniel Street.

With the Civil Rights Movement gaining momentum in the 1960s, under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the last vestiges of the Jim Crow laws were soon to fall, ending legalized segregation. This led even more Pittsburgh residents to move to middle-class mostly white neighbhorhoods close by, such as Capital View Manor, Adair Park, and Sylvan Hills. It was also the start of white flight. As more white families fled to outlying suburbs, more black families bought their houses, and what resulted was a downward spiral in real estate prices. Houses in Pittsburgh, you couldn’t give away, which is why so many of them have been abandoned through the years. This era also saw aggressors in the race war switch sides. Angry young black people were now more likely to instigate street battles than white roughnecks.

In the 1970s, the only news article about Pittsburgh had to do with its battle to get rats under control. And the 80s were not much more eventful. The 90s, with the Olympics front and center, brought big hopes for Pittsburgh residents. They saw how many tax dollars were going into Mechanicsville and Summerhill, neighboring communities that athletes and spectators would pass through on their way to the stadium, and thought that now might be their chance. But Pittsburgh was too far off the parade route to catch any of the confetti money.

Now that Pittsburgh is starting to see light at the end of a very long tunnel, it may not only recover, but exceed, the liveliness of its heyday. There is a new train coming for a neighbhorhood that, throughout its history, has always been on the wrong side of the tracks.

Copyright 2006, Laura Ferguson Archives