When growing up in the 27th Ward during the 1950s many families and most of the kids looked forward to the annual community picnic in Riverview Park. The event, sponsored by the Brighton Community Club, was a park-wide event. Centered on the great lawn adjacent to the old Merry-Go-Round building, the "Community Day" began in mid morning and ended with hours of dancing well into the evening.
Most kids spent the entire day at what we considered the mega event of the summer. Upon arriving everyone bought a ticket for a buck. On the ticket were coupons for one hot dog, one glass of either "Blend" or buttermilk, one rock hard square of Neapolitan ice cream and a ticket to enter into a massive prize winning lottery. Hundreds of prize items were donated by local businesses.
Late in the afternoon most parents arrived with picnic hampers and hunted for a table or bench or clear spot beneath a tree where great food would be available to friends and family alike. After dinnertime there were races for all ages, and as it darkened outdoor movies where projected onto a sheet stretched between a couple of trees. In my mind it was a joyous expression of community.
Images of those past events came to mind when I went to the North Side Oldtimers fourth annual Unity Day event in the Allegheny Commons this August. Thinking I would spend an hour or so at this community picnic, I ended up staying four or five hours.
The North Side Oldtimers, a community group comprised of folks whose families have lived in various neighborhoods of the North Side for several generations, emerged a few years ago to show the younger generation the importance of connections between families and neighborhoods. Throughout the day families with roots in Cal-bride, Perry Hilltop, Charles Street, Manchester and the Central North Side unpacked picnic baskets and strolled about the great lawn of the Commons and around Lake Elizabeth renewing old friendships.
It was wonderful to listen to so many stories of past times. We all were laughing as we listened to a woman who grew up in Manchester describe how she was sent, as a little girl, to fetch a live chicken from Fisher’s Poultry store on Columbus Avenue. She described how she held that chicken, whose body was wrapped in a bag, by the neck straight out in front of her as she took it home. There her mother would wring its neck and dress it for Sunday’s dinner.
One of the residents of Parkhurst Street told me that everywhere he went in the park folks came up to him with the question, “Weren’t you our mailman?” He had delivered out of the Observatory Post Office on Perrysville Avenue for several decades. Having worked there in the summers of ‘60 and ‘61 I recalled with this veteran carrier mail routes that went through goat fields, cherry orchards and what are now referred to by city planners as "Farmettes."
Any and every community picnic has many activities for the youngsters and the Oldtimers were no exception. The staff of Kayak Pittsburgh worked overtime keeping their crafts floating about Lake Elizabeth. Face painters created colorful designs on most of the younger kids. Music was provided until 9 p.m. from the stage near the Aviary.
What dominated the day was a pattern of talking, feasting and reconnecting. Will Tompkins, one of the Oldtimers’ leaders, told me that they believed well over 2,000 folks spent some or part of the day in the park. As the music ended a clean-up crew, hired by the Oldtimers, worked until after midnight moving chairs, tables and tents to prepare for the events of Sunday morning.
On Sunday a worship event sponsored by the leaders of several North Side congregations took place and was followed by an afternoon of socializing and remembering good times.
The spirit of community among the myriad North Side neighbors and families was in fact what the North Side Oldtimers had hoped to achieve at the Day of Unity. Part street party, part community celebration and part Sunday school picnic, all had a good time. As many folks headed from one part of the festivities to another the most often heard comment was "see you next year, if not before."
I imagine the Oldtimers are already at work preparing for next year’s Unity Day.