Photo by Bridget Fertal
A community garden in Charles Street Valley.
By Victoria Stevans
Charles Street Valley, a neighborhood in the Northside’s “heartland,” has a rich history, and a promising, unfolding future.
According to John Canning, the president of the historical Allegheny City Society (ACS), the Northside – known in 1790 as Allegheny Town, then in 1824 as Allegheny Borough, and finally in 1840 as Allegheny City – first materialized in 1787.
That year, David Reddick, a Washington County surveyor and member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, was asked by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Council to stake out a plot of land across from Pittsburgh to become the center of the freshly-formed Allegheny County.
Reddick, in his resulting report, called Allegheny City’s hills, which lie beyond the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers’ flat floodplains, a “moonscape” and declared them unfit for human life.
Nevertheless, throughout the late 1700s and the early 1800s, this “moonscape,” which would later become Charles Street Valley and its surrounding neighborhoods (California-Kirkbride, Marshall-Shadeland, Perry Hilltop, and Fineview), was separated into private family-owned farms, settled, and gradually developed.
The Civil War brought economic expansion through its demand for industrial production, and afterwards Allegheny City enlarged in both population and territory.
From 1875 to 1900, the area’s real estate changed shape. The farms from the early 19th Century turned into apartment buildings and houses for working-middle class families employed in Pittsburgh’s businesses, factories, and mills.
Around this same time, the hills were further transformed by the installation of electric trolley lines and incline planes, which made commutes easier for the area’s working class inhabitants.
“Allegheny City’s hinterland [or ‘moonscape’] was front and center for real estate development. The hinterland was rapidly becoming the Heartland,” Canning said.
Charles Street Valley, specifically, was home to an incline plane that connected the neighborhood to “the Clifton Park housing development at the far end of Chautauqua Street,” according to Canning.
The Heartland communities also had trolley lines connecting them to one another. One particularly significant trolley line connected Charles Street Valley to Perrysville Avenue, a bustling hub of shopping and entertainment.
At this time, Charles Street Valley was known as Pleasant Valley.
“I imagine the space between houses in Charles Street Valley was pleasant compared to the tightly-packed houses by the mills,” Canning said, although he was unsure of the exact origin of the name.
During this time, Charles Street’s Annunciation Roman Catholic parish provided the community with schools for children from grades 1 to 12. This parish also maintained a church, rectory, and convent. However, there were also a number of Protestant congregations in the area.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Charles Street Valley inhabitants got electricity in their homes, along with modern appliances like refrigerators.
However, even with all these changes, the Heartland neighborhoods stayed self-contained.
“Shopping patterns remained quite local,” said Canning. “Throughout all the Heartland communities there were grocery stores, butcher shops, pharmacies, shoe repair shops, confectionaries, taverns, and dairy stores.”
Charles Street Valley, like the other Heartland neighborhoods, was self-sustaining throughout the Depression and Second World War.
However, after the war, neighborhoods and highways began to develop outside of the city, forming suburbs.
The creation and popularization of the automobile also impacted these trolley-centric areas, changing the pace of transportation.
During this time, many people from Charles Street Valley “left their houses in states of neglect, and moved to new homes outside of the city,” said Canning, “in Ross Township or other suburbs.”
Pittsburgh’s government – from the years 1945 to 1970 – focused their attention building new housing developments in the suburbs and connecting them to the city’s downtown business district. According to Canning, the Northside and its neighborhoods were deemphasized and disregarded. As a result, the population dropped greatly.
In the present day, Charles Street Valley is coming to be defined by its active regeneration and reconstruction.
The home of Pittsburgh’s BreadWorks Bakery, Charles Street Valley is mostly populated by families who have lived in old, historic homes for generations, or by newly-transplanted families living in neighborhood’s affordable housing, according to Angela Williams, Charles Street Valley resident and Acting President of the Charles Street Area Council (CSAC).
The CSAC is one of the constructive forces of change acting throughout the Charles Street Valley community.
In fact, three years ago the group created a community garden and walkway at the corner of North Charles Street and Brighton Road (or, as the locals fondly refer to it, “Bright-Chuck Point”).
The garden was first put into motion in 2013 when the Northside Leadership Conference was awarded a grant from Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, now called Neighborhood Allies.
“The grant was designed to foster community collaboration and improve a primary main street corridor,” Williams said.
In turn, community entities from Charles Street Valley, Brightwood, and Brighton Heights were all allotted funding to choose a vacant lot along Brighton Road and revitalize it. During this process, the three neighborhoods also created the Brighton Road Corridor Civic Group.
In the three years following the garden’s completion, Williams, her family, and other Charles Street Valley community members have come out for the annual Weed and Seed, a day dedicated the garden’s upkeep.
“Every year, May 20 is our planting day,” Williams said. “We provide free food and grill hot dogs after we’ve finished gardening.”
“This year we planted 46 perennials in addition to the 200 perennials already planted,” said Williams.
These perennials – tall grasses, daises, etc. – are positioned so that the drought-tolerant, water-absorbing plants work with the slope of the landscape.
“We wanted to make the garden sustainable,” Williams said.
The garden was designed by Lisa Vavaro, a landscape architect who worked for Pittsburgh’s City Green Team in 2013.
The 2013 grant also provided funding for a gateway sign in all three of the Brighton Road Corridor Civic Group’s gardens.
“In addition to adding beauty and utility to these lots, the gateway entrance signs will welcome and signify [one’s] entrance into the Northside neighborhood,” said Williams. “They are also a sort of branding tactic, and a way to get residents involved in community developments.”
Each of the neighborhoods’ community groups and residents have voted on the signs’ designs in order to choose “the graphics that best represent the area,” according to Williams.
The signs are being manufactured presently, and are set to be installed this summer.
However, even with this progress, many vacant, city-owned lots in the Charles Street Valley area are not being maintained, according to Williams.
“Neighborhood groups and developers are taking on the role of the city departments, and picking up the slack,” Williams said.
Nevertheless, the CSAC is looking forward to fresh to community improvement projects in its future. Most recently, the group is set on repurposing two empty lots in the Charles Street Valley area and converting them into playgrounds.
“The children living around Charles Street, especially in subsidized housing, don’t have anywhere to play,” said Williams. “Currently, they play in the street or in empty lots.”
The possible locations of these playgrounds have not yet been determined, as the CSAC is waiting for a community-wide agreement on placement, along with some resources from real estate developers of the area’s three subsidized housing units.
Once a community consensus has been reached, the CSAC plans to apply for a KaBOOM Build It Yourself Grant, which requires the group to match to the grant’s $15,000 funds, and provide volunteers. KaBOOM is a nationwide non-profit that helps communities build playgrounds quickly, safely, and affordably.
In 2016, The Sprout Fund, through the Buhl Foundation’s One Northside initiative, awarded the CSAC and ten other Northside community organizations $10,000 to revitalize their neighborhoods. The CSAC plans to use the majority of this grant money, as well as some additional resources, to match any KaBOOM funds.
“One of our long term goals is market rate housing,” Williams said, “Playgrounds are a good start to get more people in the neighborhood, and facilitate real estate development.”
Presently, The CSAC is also focusing its attention on new subsidized housing developments for Fineview constituents who are being relocated in Charles Street Valley.
According to Williams, Trek Development, a Pittsburgh-based real estate development firm, presented “preliminary schematic designs” of the new plans to Northsiders at The Pittsburgh Project around the end of last year and the beginning of this year.
“The presentation included relocating Fineview residents into market rate, mixed-income, and commercial structures to be built along Brighton Road near the intersection of Charles Street,” Williams said.
As of now, Charles Street Valley residents are waiting to see how these changes unfold. For the CSAC, this may be the chance to garner more interest and engagement from their constituents.
“We want to get more Charles Street Valley residents actively involved in decision making processes and community direction,” Williams said. “Especially with new developments like these.”
For more updates on programs that both the ACS and the CSAC are hosting or promoting, follow them on their Facebook pages: www.facebook.com/AlleghenyCitySociety and www.facebook.com/CharlesStreetAreaCouncil respectively.