Northside schools reflect area’s rich history, diversity
Studying the timelines of three local schools stirs up memories of the former East Street Valley.
By Anthony John Wiles Jr.
Editor’s note: As part of the writer’s research for this story, he interviewed past and present residents of the Northside, including members of his direct family.
Photo: Schiller Classical Academy, founded in 1872 as Third Ward School No. 2, was named after Frederick Von Schiller, a German philosopher and literary figure. Courtesy of Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center
The Northside of Pittsburgh comprises 18 “official” neighborhoods such as Brighton Heights and Troy Hill—and dozens of small, undesignated yet history-rich communities, such as the Charles Street Valley and Woods Run tucked between the hills and valleys north of the Allegheny River. Many communities such as the East Street Valley and “The Ward” (today’s North Shore) have been demolished and wiped from maps yet they still remain home to countless memories.
Much like its neighborhoods, the schools of the Northside are a reflection of the area’s rich history and cultural diversity. They played vital roles in historic events, such as the usage of Manchester’s Conroy School as a drafting station during World War II. Some schools served multiple communities, such as McNaugher Junior High, while others, including Spring Hill Elementary, were neighborhood-based.
This article pays tribute to three historic schools: East Street, Schiller, and Northview Heights. Two of these schools have histories that trace back to the days of Old Allegheny, while the other is reflective of the changing demographics and development of the Northside in the middle part of the 20th century. Only one is still in operation today.
Schiller (East Deutschtown)
Named after German philosopher and literary figure Frederick Von Schiller, the current Schiller building, which is located at 1018 Peralta Street in the former East Allegheny—now East Deutschtown—was constructed in 1939. However, this school has been in existence since 1872, when it was founded as Third Ward School No. 2. Originally a part of Allegheny City’s public school system, it served students in East Allegheny and the lower East Street Valley.
Just a year after the school’s opening, the first principal, Reverend John Davis, was elected the superintendent of Allegheny City schools. Davis’ own career is evocative of the educational changes occurring on today’s Northside, at that time. He started his career teaching and managing private schools in the area, before shifting to public education the same year Schiller opened. As public education became more available during this time, schools such as Schiller were founded in heavily populated areas such as East Deutschtown.
East Allegheny was part of the Third Ward of Allegheny City. The ward also included Allegheny Center, the Central Northside, and part of Fineview: Soon, these neighborhoods would have their own schools, leaving Third Ward School No. 2 to serve the students of East Allegheny. In 1913, Third Ward School No. 2 was renamed to Schiller School, reflective of the area’s German heritage and student populace.
Historic Deutschtown is the historic center of the Northside’s German community, as well as neighborhoods such as Troy Hill and Spring Garden. In its heyday, the neighborhood contained German Lutheran and Catholic churches, businesses, hundreds of families, and The Teutonia Männerchor, a historic German social club active to this day.
Throughout its history, Schiller has served as a focal point of its community, and today, the Northside as a whole.
Census data shows that due to suburbanization and the construction of highways, East Allegheny—like the Northside as whole—lost much of its population after the 1950s. Likely because of this, Schiller transitioned to serving students from a variety of east Northside neighborhoods. Today, it is one of four middle schools still operating on the Northside.
Known today as the Schiller STEAM Academy, serving grades 6-8, the school has a rich, 150-year history of educating Northside youth. Its physical and historical legacy continues today, and it is one of the few original Allegheny City public schools still in operation.
East Street (Former East Street Valley/Perry Hilltop)
Originally part of the Allegheny City public school system, East Street School was constructed in 1884 as the Twelfth Ward School No. 1, serving students in East Street Valley, which is part of today’s Perry Hilltop neighborhood. Throughout its history, East Street School competed for pupils with local parochial schools such as St. Boniface, which was a short walk from its brown brick location at 1612 East Street. However, by its fourth year of operation, the school enrolled nearly 800 students, though dipping slightly and fluctuating between 500 and 600 students throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
East Street School was expanded in 1912, to include eight additional classrooms, and a playground was proposed in 1920. In 1913, an evening school was operating, serving both child laborers who couldn’t attend during the day, and many of the schoolchildren’s parents and other neighborhood adults.
The East Street Valley was a primarily rural area, bordering Ross and Reserve Townships and Observatory Hill. As other areas of the Northside, such as Perry Hilltop and Spring Hill began to be built up by the 1920s, residents flocked to the East Street Valley. They formed a close-knit and active community that became an integral part of the Northside patchwork of neighborhoods up until the construction of the I-279 Expressway during the 1970s.
Although she did not attend East Street School, Gina Leone Marsden, a Ross Township resident, grew up in the East Street Valley during its final days and reflected upon her childhood in the neighborhood. The community she remembers was a vibrant and family-focused working class enclave.
“I grew up right off of East Street, 218 Mount Pleasant Road. The house that we lived in was originally owned by my mother’s grandparents, the Grant family,” recalled Marsden, whose family lived in the neighborhood until they settled in McCandless Township due to the construction of the I-279 Expressway.
She recalls that despite tensions existing between residents of the Valley and those of the Northview Heights housing project, she had several friends who lived in the community. Marsden also remembers that even though the 1960s and 1970s were an era fraught with racial tensions both in the city and nation as a whole—Oliver High School, for example, had multiple race-related riots during the 1967-1968 school year—the East Street Valley was a close-knit, color blind community.
“Back then, it was funny that our street had both Black and white [families]. We all lived together on that street, played on the same baseball teams. We ate at each other’s houses. Our parents sat out on the porches at night and talked,” Marsden said.
“I have so, so many wonderful memories of living on Mount Pleasant Road—which leads from the current I-79 Expressway to the Northview Heights community. I loved that you could walk to the bottom of the hill to all of these tiny little stores,” she said, detailing the commercial vitality of the East Street Valley.
According to Marsden, businesses at the foot of Mount Pleasant Road and East Street included Walt & Millie’s Dairy, a Boron gas station, Early’s Pizza Shop, Fannie Farmer’s candy shop, and the Casaloma and Valley Tavern bars.
In addition to this, she remembers visiting the original Tom Friday’s Market on East Street.
“As a kid, it was a little scary going there because Mr. Friday always had blood on his apron, from the meat. You could actually ask him to cut the cow, pig, lamb, etc., anyway you wanted.”
Marsden even recalls a slaughterhouse that existed on East Street: “Every time we would drive past it in the summer, we would die of the smell!”
Although her family would sometimes visit Allegheny Center Mall to do their shopping, she says that anything they needed could generally be found in the neighborhood.
Marsden recalls an idyllic childhood in the neighborhood, with strict but doting neighbors.
“Our neighbor, Mr. Stotts, could whistle so loud that if we kids were over on the next street, we would hear him and know we were in trouble,” she said.
“We played games like ‘Red Light, Green Light, Yellow Light, Stop,’ ‘It-Tag,’ ‘Red Rover,’ and stickball. The big kids looked out for the little ones, and everyone looked out for everyone’s kids. All of our neighbors looked out for each other. It was so good.”
Marsden still remembers the day in 1973 when her family received an imminent domain letter declaring that their home, and neighborhood, were to be destroyed in order to build I-279.
“One day we kids came home from school, and my mother was crying. All she said was that we had to move. Apparently, the letter was from the county, saying that they were going to tear down our house [to make room for the highway]. My mom had never lived anywhere else, and neither had we. It was the saddest day,” she said.
By 1980, the neighborhood of Marsden’s youth would be all but nonexistent, its former residents scattered across the county. Saint Boniface Roman Catholic Church and a few hillside houses are the only remnants of a once thriving Northside community.
NorthView Heights (Northview Heights)
The area that is today’s Northview Heights neighborhood was annexed by the City of Pittsburgh in 1931. Up until then, it was part of rural Reserve Township and remained isolated from neighboring Spring Hill and the East Street Valley. Developed by the City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority in 1962, the Northview Heights housing project soon became home to thousands of residents. Its goal was to provide affordable housing to underserved communities both in the Northside and across the city. Some families made their home there after being displaced by the building of the Civic Arena in the then bustling lower Hill District and the construction of Allegheny Center.
During the 1960s, NorthView—as it is colloquially known—was home to white and Black families, but soon became predominantly Black as time went on. Ethnic tensions in the community were nil, despite numerous recounted clashes with residents of other areas. Many residents recall a peaceful and tight-knit community that existed in the vistas of Northview Heights.
“NorthView has always been a neighborhood in which everyone looked out for each other. I always felt a strong sense of security and safety in NorthView. Everyone knew each other. There was always a strong sense of pride within our neighborhood,” says Dr. MiChele Holly, a Pittsburgh Public Schools administrator and a former resident of the NorthView Heights community.
“I really felt that NorthView was a community of caring. It set the foundation for who I am as a person, how I have evolved, and the basis for my fundamental belief system.”
Now principal of Sterrett Classical Academy in Point Breeze, Holly was the final principal of the NorthView Heights Elementary School, before its closing in 2012.
“I really enjoyed attending NorthView Heights Elementary. It was an extension of my experiences in NorthView Heights as a whole. So, returning home as the principal of the school in which I attended, was the epitome of gratification. I really saw this as an opportunity to give back, reconnect with families, and continue to create great memories.”
Active in community service, and a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Holly is passionate about giving back to the people and communities who have made her into the person she is today.
“I often tell my story to families that I come across as a reminder to them that your circumstances do not define who you are. When I see children in NorthView, I see myself….and I want them to look at me and say ‘I can do that… I can also do better… I can be whatever I want to be.’”