With a history of community residents work to recapture neighborhood’s past and give shape to its future.
By: Victoria Stevans
This article was the Winner of a General Feature, Nondaily Newspapers at the 2018 Press Club of Western PA Golden Quill Awards.
Eighteen years after its closing, remnants of the Workingman’s Beneficiary Union’s (WBU) history can still be found in its wide, empty rooms.
On the building’s main floor, a sign that says “The Millennial Bash 1999” lays flat on the barren, wooden bar while a disco ball still hangs overhead. The room is empty. The partygoers who once counted down into a New Year are gone, replaced by freshly stripped floors, naked walls, and shavings of recently discarded paint curled on the floorboards.
By the time the confetti and plastic champagne glasses leftover from the WBU’s Millennial Bash were drank, swept up and discarded, the building itself closed down. The following years have left a film of dust on the room’s disco ball.
The upper floors are muggy. Within them, the air is stagnant from the lack of fans, open windows, and activity. As a result, each room feels like it’s holding its breath.
One of the rooms has tall stacks of framed photographs. The thin, antiqued frames have filagree roaming across them, flourishing at the edges. Each of them hugs an identical picture of men standing in rows on the WBU’s front porch, some smiling and some straight-lipped. In each snapshot the faces change, the facial hair changes, the suit fashions change, the years etched below the picture change: 1911-1912, 1920-1921, 1944-1945, but the building never changes.
The porch in the picture is still there.
Downstairs dayworkers buzz. They move from room to room with power tools and kick up a thin dust with their boots.
Natasha Dean is also working on the main floor. Plaster speckles her hands and clothes, she has just finished texturing a wall.
Dean and her boyfriend, Bill Brittan, are co-owners of Rescue Street Farms, one of the two businesses that now exist on the former WBU property. In 2015, Brittan bought the land behind the old building for their farm and by proxy the WBU.
“It was pretty much left as it was,” said Dean, gesturing to the building around her.
For the last year, Dean and Brittan have been updating the ground floor of the WBU, stripping down the walls and floors minimally in an attempt to keep as much of the original venue as possible.
Even with twelve months of work behind them the pair have not waded through all of the relics left by the previous tenants, however they have pieced together a narrative of the building’s past.
The WBU acted as a social offshoot of The Workingman’s Beneficial Society, an organization that provided benefits to a member’s family after his death.
“It is definitely a space of a lot of history for everyone in the neighborhood,” Dean said. “We have had so many people pop in and tell us stories. 70-year-old men [will stop by] and say ‘I remember when I was a kid, you know, this and that.’ It’s cool to see the history and the stories behind it we had no idea we were purchasing anything like that.”
As evidenced by the leftover posters and framed photos, the WBU was an integral meeting place, wedding venue, and party scene for the eclectic Spring Hill community throughout the 20th Century. Although, the building was abandoned at the start of the 2000s.
When the WBU was founded in the mid-1800s, its membership was not as all-inclusive as it proved to be later in its life.
The WBU was comprised solely of Catholic, German-speaking men from Western and Eastern European states like Austria, parts of Bohemia, Switzerland and Hungary, according to John Canning, president of the historic Allegheny City Society.
In fact, the WBU’s initial population reflects the population of Spring Hill at its inception.
From around 1850 to 1870, the neighborhood was settled as individuals living at the base of the hill in East Deutschtown moved up to Spring Hill’s peak.
“Clearly, Spring Hill was in its early decades – late 1870s through the 1920s – a little Germany,” Canning said.
During these early decades, Pittsburgh, Allegheny City and neighborhoods like Spring Hill grew as schools, churches and social clubs – like the WBU – were built and heavily attended.
At this time, most of Spring Hill’s residents were working or middle class families, who earned their living in the meatpacking industry, on railroads, in breweries or in factories – like Heinz Co.
During the Great Depression and The Second World War, Spring Hill, and its working-middle class residents, stayed close-knit and insular as they shopped and socialized within the community.
However, the cadence of life in Spring Hill began to change as the next, post-war generation matured, moved to the suburbs, and – in some cases – left their family homes in states of disrepair.
Spring Hill, like many of its fellow Northside neighborhoods, sank into a post-war slump.
However, social organizations like the WBU allowed Spring Hill residents to maintain the neighborhood’s community-centric sentiment even through its lulls.
Today, Dean and Brittan hope that the refreshed WBU will still retain some aspects of the original.
“We hope to be able to host some meetings, [or] have some picnics here,” Dean said. “We hope it can be a really positive space for people, like it used to be.”
Currently, Dean is revamping what used to be an eight-lane bowling alley in the space to make an open, rentable, multi-use space for weddings, parties and gatherings.
Dean and Brittan are also building out a portion of the WBU property for another local company: Spring Hill Brewing.
Greg Kamerdze and Mike Seamans, the owners of and forces behind the brewing company will be opening its doors in the upcoming months.*
Throughout the process of the WBU’s remodeling and Spring Hill Brewing’s construction, Dean, Brittan, Kamerdze, and Seamans have relied on the consultation of Spring Hill residents in order to keep the space community-focused and collaborative, like it was throughout previous decades.
In fact, neighborhood locals helped shape Spring Hill Brewing’s hours to fit their lifestyle.
“We tried our best to give [Spring Hill neighbors] a lot of input in the process,” Dean said.
Although taking on the ambitious remodel of the WBU and the construction of Spring Hill Brewing has diverted some of their time away from farming, Dean and Brittan still grow and distribute food under Rescue Street Farms.
Currently, the farm is growing: Beets, potatoes, garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes, kale, and ground cherries.
Rescue Street Farms also operates off-site as an extension of Shadyside Nursery. Brittan, who owns Shadyside Nursery with his brother, created the farm as an agricultural addition of his original business.
After harvesting, the farm distributes to specific, local restaurants through a grower’s co-op called Grow Pittsburgh.
Much like Dean and Brittan, the members of the Spring Hill Civic League (SHCL) are using their green thumbs to revitalize Spring Hill and repurpose its history.
According to lifetime Spring Hill resident and president of the SHCL, Robert Sobocinski, one of the League’s upcoming projects will include taking foundation stones from the Jesus Chapel of German United Evangelical Protestant Church, which was recently torn down, and using them to make a planter box for Spring Hill’s community garden.
“We want to to keep that landmark [the church] around, and use something old to make something new,” Sobocinski said.
Like the WBU and its relics, the church-stone-made box will serve as a material reminder of Spring Hill’s recycling process, the neighborhood’s mission to mold their history into an active present.
The new planter box is set to sit adjacent from a mural and parklet on the corner of Homer and Walz Street.
During his past five years as acting president of the SHCL, Sobocinski has worked hard along with his fellow board members to create change in Spring Hill while retaining the neighborhood’s longstanding commitment towards building a tight-knit community.
“[Spring Hill is] starting to get back to the way I remember it being when I was a kid,” Sobocinski said. “I remember it being really community driven, and focused on the good of the neighborhood. My goal is to make it more community driven, and to get that feeling back.”
Most recently, the SHCL has been putting the brunt of their energy into renewing Waisenhaus Park.
The community organization structurally revitalized the park earlier this year by building picnic tables and benches. Now, the SHCL is implementing programs to further bolster community events within the greenspace.
Over the last several years, the SHCL has begun hosting monthly movie nights, a fall festival, a Halloween parade and a holiday tree lighting in Waisenhaus Park.
For Sobocinski, behind each of these new improvements and events is the intention of deep, communal connections.
“I want every event to feel like it’s with my family,” Sobocinski said.
Spring Hill and its constituents have provided Sobocinski with more than one found-family. In fact, the Steel City Boxing Association, a non-profit organization that gives Northside youth a chance to get involved with amateur boxing has been an avenue through which Sobocinski discovered another kind of family.
Steel City Boxing was started in 2000 as the passion project of Mike Morgan, Joe Sesky, and Doug Sesky. In 2008, Sobocinski took over Steel City Boxing and has been running it ever since.
“The main focus has always been helping at risk youths, teaching them a craft – an art. Teaching them that it’s not about fighting,” Sobocinski said. “That’s a common misconception that [boxing is] about violence, nothing could be farther than the truth. There is a lot of sportsmanship involved, these kids are friends. The competition is the competition and it ends when the bell rings.
Steel City Boxing provides free classes for children and teenagers at every skill level, along with supportive coaches who help any boxer – new or experienced – reach his or her goals and potential.
“We deal with things on an individual basis, some people come in with some experience, [others] with no experience, we tailor it to them,” Sobocinski said. “People can just workout, people can just spar, you never have to get into the ring if you don’t want to.”
Like the SHCL, Steel City Boxing takes care of a community garden on the corner of Spring Garden Avenue and Vinial Street.
Annually, the Steel City Boxing staff and their boxers-in-training make their way down to the garden to plant and maintain the plot.
Much to Sobocinski’s delight, Steel City Boxing’s planting days have become a favorite for most of the kids training with the organization.
“Kids might not still be fighting for the gym, but they will come back for the summer and want to participate in a planting day. They are always a part of things,” Sobocinski said.
In maintaining its garden plot, Steel City Boxing is not only nurturing and physically creating leafy growth, but its is also supporting an emotional growth in the community, allowing the neighborhood’s youth a second family and a place to dedicate themselves towards.
Similarly, along with growing flowers and vegetables, the SHCL and Rescue Street Farms are fostering a space for Spring Hill’s residents to come together and create new memories.
Spring Hill’s new developments and organizations – like Rescue Street Farms, Spring Hill Brewing, the current board of the SHCL, and Steel City Boxing – are all drawing from and repurposing the community culture left behind by Spring Hill organizations like the WBU, tapping into their people-first policy. And hopefully, creating new landmarks, like well-worn stones in a community garden or carefully placed tiles in a mosaic mural, to be found and reprocessed by the next generation of Spring Hill community members.
*Editor’s note: Brittany and Dean do not own/operate Spring Hill Brewing only the WBU building/property