Can a physical place hold memories? Can it recall stories about passersby and the way things used to be? Think about all of the old homes in Pittsburgh. The ones still standing since the height of the steel industry. The ones that survived waves of people coming and going, whole neighborhoods shifting and adapting, just waiting for the brighter days that have come around again.
Do you have a specific place in mind? For me it’s my grandparent’s home, a small row house on South 15th Street just off East Carson in the South Side. I can see the small concrete steps that blend in with the sidewalk and the wrought iron handrails leading up to the stoop. The gray bricks on the front bleed into a dull yellow siding that squares off perfectly at the top into a flat roof. There are still metal overhangs above each window, painted white with green stripes on either side.
The left side of the house is literally touching its neighbor, creating a partially roofed alleyway that leads to another entrance and reveals a true city backyard: more concrete, bricked gardening space and the intrusive view of another house on the next street over.
Inside the hallways and stairwells are tight. Standing at a certain height means ducking most of the doorways and entrances. Some of the remodeling, renovations and general shifts help modernize the house and make it feel up to date. But there are still giveaways that offer up glimpses of the past. The land line with the spinning dial. The rows of Duquesne Brewery bar signs and mugs in the basement. The wall of high school portraits of my dad and uncles that move like a timeline into photo collages of my cousins, brother and I as children.
If I close my eyes and really think about it, images of the South Side are some of my earliest memories of Pittsburgh in general. I remember being in the car and crossing “Mook” Bridge (10th Street), knowing that meant I was almost at my grandparent’s home. Christmas Eves were spent piling in that tight basement with all of my cousins, going around one by one saying what we were thankful for before we were allowed to open presents. Weekend breakfast trips to the Strip were always predicated by a stop at South 15th. Most of all I remember hearing all of the stories about the unique experience of growing up there passed between my dad and uncles, wishing I could recreate something similar.
And having grown up just outside of the city; I always saw South Side as a way to inherit Pittsburgh as home. Even though everyone from the general, Greater Pittsburgh Area just says they’re from Pittsburgh, sometimes it feels like particular areas carry a little more weight than others. And I coveted that authenticity, even if it was secondhand.
The house itself was built in 1900. My grandmother grew up there. My grandfather lived on neighboring South 16th Street. When they married they moved into the house on 15th and raised five children while also housing another family member. That’s over 100 years of family history in one, small place.
Sometimes old age comes with the unfortunate necessity for unwanted change. Recently for my grandfather that’s meant moving out of his house and out of the city altogether. A whole lifetime of memories and experiences left in that one, small place. In my mind that house and neighborhood are so closely tied to the image of who my grandfather is, but the stories and old memories never really leave. Instead they help illustrate the marvels the house has grasped over the years.
For five kids growing up in South Side, it was paradise. Its doors were never locked and children never inside unless absolutely necessary. South 15th Street was the hangout for the youths of every neighboring block because of the endless possibilities of the old St. Adalbert Schoolyard that became the vessel for every sport and activity. The house gazed on at basketball, whiffle ball (where everyone was required to bat left handed due to the lot’s layout), acclaimed 500-lap bike races and attempted Evel Knievel stunts.
The basement played host to Steeler Sundays, where family, friends, and neighbors gathered to watch the great teams of the 70s. Half time always left room for a quick game of “slow motion tackle,” a variation on traditional football since every game was played on concrete. Though it was meant to improve safety, the gray definition of what constitutes slow motion meant that every game inevitably went full speed after the first possession or two.
If winter left enough snow on the street, hockey sticks and nets unsurprisingly made an appearance, only to be moved with each passing car. As for the cars, most families only had one. Learning to drive meant navigating the tight streets to the only grocery store in the area: the small mom and pop place that everyone went to on 14th Street. And the parking chair was not only legal, but widely respected.
Mornings before school, the house watched as my dad and his brothers lined up one by one so my grandmother could comb their hair. School was an easy walk across the street or down a few blocks over the bridge. Back at home limited rooms were shared using triple bunkbeds and dividing lines. And prior to updated ductwork, its walls did their best to keep in the heat through cold winter nights. In the kitchen, multiple variations on meals were made to ensure everyone was satisfied. Families managed by working multiple jobs, and kids never wanted anything more because everything was provided.
A left off the stoop and up the hill sat an apple factory at the end of the street where my dad held his first job, loading and unloading trucks for delivery to Pittsburgh area restaurants. Behind the factory, train tracks run near wooded areas. Only in Pittsburgh can you be in the thick of the city but find a way to walk along trails and build tree forts. Train hopping became a means to travel several blocks at a time, taking my dad and his brothers towards Ormsby or the opposite direction to get to 12th Street. But no matter how far they strayed, the trains always brought them back to that house on S. 15th.
The house stood and watched as the kids outside grew up while the steel industry faded. The old timers who could gather their pensions stayed. But for the young people who had just started working in the mills, believing it would be there for the rest of their lives, new plans were made. People moved away, learned new trades and chased new opportunities, but the house was still there.
It stood through the dark, quiet years, before new change came to the surrounding streets. A hotel at the foot of the bridge. New shopping centers and local businesses. The local watering holes turned into all-night clubs, cocktail bars, and sit-down restaurants. A new generation of people working in the city and an influx of college students saw some of the houses’s neighbors bought, sold, rebuilt, and torn down. Shiny new apartments line the riverfront and directions were no longer given based on where old structures used to be, but where people used to live.
For my grandfather the change was challenging. It was no longer his neighborhood. Many of the faces he’d known had moved on or left the area. And the 24-hour party on Carson brought undesired elements to his end of South Side. I empathize with the frustration he must have felt, quietly watching while the winds of change battered his surroundings for better and worse.
I’m not sure what will happen to the house now. Maybe it’ll stay in the family and its stories will continue, until the next wave carries it up again. Maybe it’ll adapt and find a way to fit in South Side’s new world order. Maybe more young families will begin their lives there, starting a whole new chapter in the little house on 15th’s book.
I know for my grandpa, my dad and uncles, my cousins and brother, and even me, that house will always represent some aspect of home. A slice of personal history and nostalgia in the middle of a city ripe for a new future. It’s said that home is where the heart is, but that doesn’t give enough credit to the places that carry the weight of memories and stand tall through the incessant march of time. These days it’s hard to come across a place with so much heart of its own.