Crawford Grill

Crawford Grill

Here is the Crawford Grill three years before it closed, from a picture Father Pitt took in 2000 with a cheap but capable Russian camera called a Lomo Smena 8M. This was the second Crawford Grill, which opened in 1943; the first, which stayed open for a few years after the second opened, had been in the long-since-demolished part of Wylie Avenue on the Lower Hill.

The Crawford Grill was legendary in its time, and it is still a legend among jazz lovers today. It was the last holdout from a whole street of jazz clubs that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century.

Note, by the way, the name at the top of the façade—“Sochatoff Building.” The Hill was a glorious mix of ethnic groups, a place where all races and languages came together and had a good time—Greek and African and Lebanese and Russian and Jewish and German and Chinese.

Of course, the word used by the Powers That Be for that kind of neighborhood was “slum,” and it was the mission of good government to eliminate slums.

It would be oversimplifying things to say that the Hill collapsed because the authorities hated the idea of a place where different races came together in harmony. But it would not be false. There were other forces involved, but that was the biggest one. The destruction of the Hill was deliberate policy, proudly announced and boastfully acknowledged. Slums must be cleared. And the residents? Well, they’d just better not go off and make another slum somewhere else, because we’ll be watching. How can you tell whether a good neighborhood is turning into a slum? Well, if you see races mixing, that’s an infallible sign. Much public policy in the middle twentieth century was determined by the desirability of keeping races separate.

The Crawford Grill thumbed its nose at that segregation. People of all races and classes gathered there because the music was first-rate, and the food wasn’t bad either. The entire Lower Hill, including the original Crawford Grill, was destroyed to create an arid modernist wasteland, but the new Crawford Grill stayed open. Cut off from downtown and with much of its original heart ripped out, the Hill withered and the other jazz clubs faded, but the Crawford Grill stayed open. The 1968 riots after Martin Luther King was assassinated destroyed much of what was left of the business district, but the Crawford Grill stayed open. Even after the rest of the Hill had reached its lowest point, the Crawford Grill remained.

It finally closed in 2003, not from lack of business, but because the building required major repairs that were beyond what seemed reasonable to spend. In fact the club was successful enough that it moved to Station Square—but it lasted only three years there. The Freighthouse Shops part of Station Square was also in decline, though perhaps no one recognized it yet, and the traffic could not support the new club’s considerably higher expenses.

The building still stands today, isolated and forlorn. That splendid Victorian house to its left is gone now, replaced by a vacant lot. A group of neighborhood preservationists bought the building years ago, but no one has been able to do anything with it. It just sits there, with a state historical marker in front of it to remind us that it was something great once upon a time.

If old Pa Pitt were writing a short story for a literary magazine, he would end it by telling you that, late at night, neighbors still hear the wail of a saxophone from somewhere in the heart of the building. That would be the proper ending for the story. As it is, he has only the optimistic hope to offer that some day the neighborhood will come together and the doors will open and the jazz will flow again.

The Point in 1967

The Point in 1967

In 1967, the Point had been cleared and the Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt Bridges had been built. But the old Manchester and Point Bridges were still standing. The Manchester Bridge was still in use; the Fort Duquesne Bridge was famously the Bridge to Nowhere, with no approaches on the North Side end. It was built in 1963, but did not open (with actual ramps on the north end) until 1969. The Fort Pitt Bridge, on the other hand, had opened in 1959, so the Point Bridge was an abandoned hulk. Both the Point and Manchester Bridges were finally taken down in 1970.

This old slide, taken by the late Donald Bailey in 1967, was badly overexposed to begin with, and it had been stored in bad conditions, but we were able to get a recognizable image out of it with some work in the GIMP. We thank Mr. Bailey’s heirs for donating some of his pictures to the public.

Fifth Avenue in 2001

Fifth Avenue

How things have changed in two decades! Fifth Avenue at the turn of our century was a busy and fairly low-class retail district, instead of the somewhat less busy but much tonier row of specialty boutiques it is now. Above, we look eastward toward the shiny new Lazarus department store, soon to go bust. At this point there were four department stores downtown, which proved to be about four more than the traffic could support. Below, the G. C. Murphy five-and-dime store, which proudly claimed to be the world’s largest variety store, and Candy-Rama, whose sign was probably bigger than the store itself. Note also the last incarnation of a hat shop (formerly Tucker & Tucker) that had been at the same location for decades.

Murphy’s
Fifth at Smithfield

One thing has not changed at all: Pittsburghers have always been inveterate jaywalkers. Note the crowds crossing before the light has changed.

Fifth Avenue, Kaufmann’s on left

On the left, Kaufmann’s, the biggest department store there ever was in Pittsburgh, with fourteen floors of everything. On the right, Lord & Taylor, which didn’t last very long here.

Old Pa Pitt has gone rummaging in old boxes of slides and binders of negatives, so you will see more of these old pictures over the next few weeks. The pictures in this article were taken with a pair of Communist cameras: a Soviet Zenit-B and an East German Praktiflex.

Duquesne Baseball Team, 1892 or 1893

Duquesne baseball team

The borough (later city) of Duquesne was only three or four years old when this picture was taken, if the dating in family tradition is correct, but it already had a baseball team with spiffy jerseys. One of the players—possibly the boy on the ground in front with the dark jersey—is James W. Estep (1879–1948), son of George Estep, one of the founders (and later two-term burgess) of Duquesne, and it was James’ late grandson who provided us with this picture, for which Father Pitt is very grateful.

Old Pa Pitt knows nothing of the history of this team, and he would be delighted if any readers could enlighten him.

PCC Car and Schoolhouse, Bethel Park

Schoolhouse Arts & History Center

This old school is now a community center for Bethel Park. In front is a Pittsburgh PCC car, the ideal Art Deco streetcar that dominated Pittsburgh transit for a generation, restored to its Pittsburgh Street Railways livery. (It was one of the last PCC cars to run in Pittsburgh, and had been repainted in the 1980s Port Authority livery.) Yes, we do have quite a few pictures of it, because old Pa Pitt is an unashamed fan of PCC cars, which always look to him like trolleys that would run on the planet Mongo in the old Flash Gordon serials. More modern, but less futuristic, trolleys still run on the Silver Line just a block away.

PCC car
PCC car
Schoolhouse