Photo courtesy of Robin Alexander
Pieces of the Unity Mural that will be installed in Fineview and Perry Hilltop at the end of August.
By Victoria Stevans
The two neighborhoods have a long-standing history of communal and cultural ties
Fineview and Perry Hilltop, two neighborhoods with distinct, rich histories are coming together to make their communities stronger, more collaborative and beneficial to everyone.
According to John Canning, president of the Allegheny City Society, in 1787 the Northside was first surveyed by the Pennsylvania Assembly. Within the same year the hills beyond the Allegheny and Ohio rivers’ flat floodplains (now Perry Hilltop, Fineview, and their surrounding neighborhoods) were divided into multi-acre farms.
These farms were mostly populated by rich families in “country-like estates” on the hills above city property. Other families in the area settled along main thoroughfares, like Federal Street and Perrysville Avenue.
Federal Street which was known outside of the city as Franklin Road or the Venango Trail, eventually bled into Perrysville Avenue. The settlement of Perrysville was named in honor of U.S. Naval commander, Oliver Hazzard Perry.
Federal Street and Perrysville Avenue proved to be a major roadway, connecting both the northern and southern portions of Allegheny County with Pittsburgh city limits. Presently, it serves as the dividing line between Perry Hilltop and Fineview.
In 1828, the Order of St. Clare created a young women’s school and convent in the hills.
“Although the nuns left the area before the formation of Allegheny City in 1840,” Canning said. “The term ‘Nunnery Hill’ was often used to identify the neighborhood that is presently called Fineview.”
“The prominent landowning families on both sides of Perrysville Road began to have their acreage surveyed and subdivided into small plots for residential development,” Canning said. Canning acknowledged that majority of these subdivisions began occurring after the Civil War.
From 1875 to 1900, the McClintock, Darlington, McNaugther, and Pusey families in Perry Hilltop along with the Andrews, Bells, Hay, and Henderson families in Fineview, turned their large farms into apartment buildings and houses for working-middle class families employed in Pittsburgh’s businesses, factories, and mills.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electric trolley lines and inclined planes like the famous ‘Nunnery Hill Incline’ were installed in Perry Hilltop, Fineview, and their surrounding neighborhoods making commuting easier for middle class families living in the area.
The trolley lines connected both Perry Hilltop and Fineview to the neighborhoods around them; significantly connecting both areas to Allegheny City’s commercial center as well as Riverview Park.
As the 20th Century continued, Perry Hilltop and Fineview proved to be self-sustaining, even through the Depression and WWII. Residents of both neighborhoods lived, socialized, and shopped within their respective areas.
“It’s not surprising that, in 1908, the trustees of the Western University of Pennsylvania [now, the University of Pittsburgh] decided to move their institution from the center of Pittsburgh to a site nearby the Allegheny Observatory, at the crest of Perry Hilltop,” said Canning.
However after World War II, modern transportation evolved, highways began to crop up leading to large suburban developments outside of the city. Residents of Perry Hilltop and Fineview began buying houses outside the reaches of Pittsburgh and cars to get them there, leaving their old homes in states of disrepair.
Perry Hilltop and Fineview’s populations dropped greatly, according to Canning.
Now, in coordination with the city’s North Side redevelopment plans, Perry Hilltop and Fineview are beginning to form new partnerships, new pathways to downtown and are effectively recreating themselves.
In the winter of last year, the Fineview Citizen’s Council (FCC) and the Perry Hilltop Citizen’s Council (PHCC) began working together. Their decision to coalesce was in large part because of the redevelopment of Allegheny Dwellings, a public housing complex on Fineview’s Belleau Drive.
“Allegheny Dwellings is the largest development our communities have seen in many years,” said FCC and PHCC program manager, Joanna Deming. “We joined together to make sure the redevelopment has the [most positive] possible impact on our community and that residents are protected in the process.”
Allegheny Dwellings’ 271 existing housing units are slated to be torn down and replaced with both onsite (in Fineview) and off-site (in Perry Hilltop and Charles Street Valley) housing units, over the next several years. Developers are planning to provide off-site units as supplementary housing for those currently living in Allegheny Dwellings once the housing complex is demolished.
Faced with these changing developments in both of their neighborhoods and lacking the capacity to approach them separately, the PHCC and FCC formed a partnership.
“Perry Hilltop and Fineview [also] came together because their constituents have a lot in common, they share goals and demographics,” Deming said.
With the creation of their new partnership, the PHCC and the FCC fundraised to create two-full time staff positions, one of which Deming fills. The other position, Community Engagement Coordinator, is occupied by fellow Perry Hilltop resident Zeba Ahmed.
The two citizen councils have also begun hosting monthly meetings in order to create a comprehensive, constituent-driven community plan that will ensure an informed joint-vision for the neighborhood’s’ future developments and goals.
The meetings cover a wide arrange of issues ranging from public safety, real estate and housing, economic development to mobility/transportation and open spaces.
“[At every meeting] speakers come to share information on the topic [at hand],” said Deming, “Then, the community comes together to decide what they want to do.”
The FCC and the PHCC are also working to create a concrete symbol of their new partnership: The Unity Corner.
A mosaic-mural gateway sign and parklet, The Unity Corner will be constructed on the border between Perry Hilltop and Fineview the intersection of Perrysville Avenue and Federal Street.
The FCC and the PHCC have already partnered with students from the Pittsburgh Project, artist Linda Wallen, and arts educator Sandy Kessler Kaminski to create the three-paneled welcome sign.
Kaminski and Wallen act as guides for the students who in turn created the intricate mosaic. The piece features landmarks from both Perry Hilltop and Fineview, like the Allegheny Observatory and the Fineview streetcar.
Prior to the mural’s creation, students went on historic walking tours around the neighborhoods with the Allegheny City Society and talked to elder residents from both Perry Hilltop and Fineview for inspiration and historic understanding.
In addition, the FCC and the PHCC are currently working to complete multiple green space areas and mural projects. One is the Unity Corner’s accompanying parklet, which will have a stone walk way, benches, and a table along with restoring the Corner of Hope.
Originally constructed 20 years ago, the Corner of Hope consists of nine murals and parklet which pay homage to the Negro League had fallen into a state of disrepair.. That is, until students from The Pittsburgh Project with the help of Kaminski intervened. Each of the nine panels features a Pittsburgh player from the Negro League and one of his famous quotations.
“It was a good way to bring people together, to get them involved, and to show people that we are doing things, that change can happen here,” Ahmed said of the project and Perry Hilltop.
The Corner of Hope has become a significant part of the Perry Hilltop’s landscape.
“People will say, meet by the baseball murals,” Ahmed said. “It’s cool to have created a landmark, and to have done it through the power of the community.”
The project’s success is one that continues to accumulate.
This spring, The Pittsburgh Project students who worked on The Corner of Hope visited the Pittsburgh Opera and saw “The Summer King: The Josh Gibson Story,” a show that follows the life of Josh Gibson, a Hall of Fame catcher and one of the nine players featured in the murals.
The Corner of Hope project was also recognized at Pirates game on African American Heritage night, which students and volunteers from the project attended. The students were allowed on the field and their hard work was highlighted.
“I want to keep doing projects like this one,” Ahmed said, “[Projects] where benefits will just keep growing, multiplying throughout the community.”
Other entities like real estate development firm, Oakglade Realty are acting alongside the FCC and PHCC to create positive change in the two neighborhoods.
Apart from sponsoring The Corner of Hope project, Oakglade Realty has also aided in the purchase and redevelopment of three homes in both Fineview and Perry Hilltop.
Recently, PHCC sold Oakglade Realty two Perry Hilltop properties; 227 West Burgess Street and 2228 Holyoke Street “with deed restrictions to ensure affordability,” according to Deming.
Since then, Oakglade Realty has started the process of remodeling the two properties.
Oakglade Realty is also offering its office, 2246 Wilson Avenue, as a collaborative community space. Fineview and Perry Hilltop community members, whether they are starting a small business or just need a place to work, are welcome to use the comfortable, open space and its free wifi.
“The space is also rentable in the evenings,” said Deming “Right now yoga classes and business classes held [there] at night.”
Deming and Ahmed both started their new posts with the PHCC and FCC in the fall of 2016, and perhaps more than anything else their positions are proof of the two groups’ cohesiveness and commitment to each other.
“We are two neighborhoods that are stronger together, we have shared goals that will make an inclusive community where everyone benefits,” said Deming.