WQED changes Lives
shop WQED


Western PA History Bridges and Buildings Rivers and Valleys Folks in Community The Arts Having Fun

FYIPeopling Pittsburgh


Statistical snapshot

Migration patterns

Creating Community


Peopling Pittsburgh <
Community & culture
Family & faith
Individuals & heroes

Related video
Discussion & Activities


The words "neighborhood" and "community" are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. The two are usually dependent on each other. A neighborhood is a place-- without a community, it lacks a "spirit" and can never be a "home." A community is a group of people with a common goal--they need a place to come together and a neighborhood is often that place.

It is useful to think of neighborhoods as the body for its communities' soul, spirit and mind. The neighborhood provides its communities food, shelter, livelihood, and a place for communities to come together.

South Side youngsters playing a traditional game of hand jive.

Photo of hand jive
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks


In fact, some of the best neighborhoods harbor many overlapping communities simultaneously --that's what cultural diversity is all about. Interesting things happen when communities meet and cultures overlap.

video icon Related video stories:

The physical trappings of a thriving neighborhood are easy to spot. Their commercial districts have stores in every storefront. People walk on the sidewalk and stop to chat--sidewalk vendors try to loose them of their cash! Commerce and industry are how neighborhoods make a living.

How neighborhoods make a life, though, is by taking care of its community members' health and spiritual well-being. For that it needs churches, temples, hospitals, senior homes, child care centers. It must nurture minds and challenge souls with schools, theaters, and galleries; provide places to kick back and rest or play. And above all, neighborhoods must provide a safe haven for its residents with comfortable and attractive housing.

video icon Related video stories:





Statistical snapshot

The rolling geography of our area breeds distinct neighborhoods. Because they are physically separated by rivers or streams and steep hills or valleys, they tend to stay culturally and politically separate. Allegheny County has an incredible 130 separate municipalities and the City of Pittsburgh identifies over 80 neighborhoods in the city of Pittsburgh! Of course, the geography is only the setting in this drama: It is the people who have created those communities and the neighborhoods that house them.

Photo of Knoxville street
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Knoxville a neighborhood on Mount Washington. Detached houses with even a small patch of lawn are much favored by Pittsburghers!

Migration patterns

The peopling of western Pennsylvania began 12,000-18,000 years ago with the first migration to the area by Native Americans slowly moving west from their point of arrival, the Aleutian Strait in Alaska. Just like their counterparts in Europe and Asia, they developed many cultural groups (tribes) with separate languages, religions, architecture, clothing, and other customs. The Monongahela people were the group inhabiting western Pennsylvania at the time of the first European settlements on the East Coast. With the Europeans, however, traveled their diseases. In fact, their diseases traveled ahead of them by being transmitted by Indian traders. By the time the first Europeans explored this area in the early 1700s, the Monongahela people had vanished, victims of disease. By that time, eastern tribes had been pushed westward by English settlement on the Coast and the Iroquois Confederacy moved into western Pennsylvania to resettle.

The first Europeans to venture into western Pennsylvania were fur traders of French and British background. After the British won their claim to the area in 1758 (see Western Pennsylvania History), English Scotch, and Scotch-Irish slowly come in to settle farms or work in trades. Pittsburgh's population was only 300 by 1790, so it was clearly not a magnet for migration! One reason was the cultural conflict that was going on here: Until the Treaty of Greeneville was signed in 1795, Native American's had not relinquished their claims to the region.

Until 1830, migrants to western Pennsylvania continued to be primarily English, Scotch, Scotch-Irish. The Scotch and Scotch-Irish in particular were attracted to the "west" (as our area was considered until the War of 1812), because they were subject to prejudice from the more "genteel" English on the East Coast. (This is why we are among the most Presbyterian of areas in the United States!) This phenomenon is called the push-pull effect and is a story that will be repeated over and over. For migration to happen, conditions at home must motivate people to leave (push) and conditions at their destination must seem attractive (pull). Free African Americans also made their way to Pittsburgh, where they could set up shop as skilled craftsmen, always in short supply in America, but particularly so in the west.

Some "push" events in Europe changed the nature of migration to America: A potato famine in the mid 1840s left Irish peasants starving and political upheaval made German men subject to forced military conscription. Pittsburgh and the region were attractive destinations: Ample farmland was still available cheaply and employment was available in growing boat-building, shipping, glassmaking, and other manufacturing industries. Thousands of Irish and German immigrants found their way to Pittsburgh. The Irish--poor, unskilled, and Catholic--were subject to ridicule and discrimination and low-paying jobs. The Germans, not having weathered a famine, tended to arrive with more skills for higher paying jobs or capital to buy land. Immigration was running at such full steam during this era that in 1860, foreign born residents made up half of the population!

During the same era, brave souls in southwestern Pennsylvania became involved in the covert migration of many slaves escaping from the South. Free blacks and white abolitionists were conductors on The Underground Railroad, which was very active along the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers. Most of the "passengers,' however, did not stay in the area, moving on to Canada instead because of the danger of being returned to slaveowners under the Fugitive Slave Act.

video icon Related video stories:

In 1890 the character of immigration changed dramatically. Between the explosive growth of Pittsburgh steel industry and its need for cheap, unskilled labor and agricultural depression and political unrest in eastern and southern Europe, the stage was set for the largest migration ever! Millions of Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Slovenians, Ukrainians, and other eastern Europeans took advantage of cheap transport to arrive in Pittsburgh ready to work in the mills and transplant their cultures to the neighborhoods nearby. By 1920, two-thirds of Pittsburgh's population were foreign-born or had parents who were foreign-born!

World War I, however, cut off the flow of immigration as it increased the demand for steel. This was the "pull" opportunity for thousands of African Americans in the South. When their pool of white workers was no longer available, industries were willing to hire blacks, who eagerly left Jim Crow laws and share-cropping economic conditions behind.

This "Great Migration" began in World War I reached its peak during the Great Depression in the 1930's. But Blacks coming to Pittsburgh to escape poverty and oppression found conditions weren't much better here. Pittsburgh ranked second only to Newark, NJ, in terms of bad housing, and some men even lived in railroad cars, which they rented for five cents a night. Congress eventually passed legislation to improve living conditions.

Photo of two mean on Wylie Avenue
Archive of Industrial Society, Hillman Library

Wylie Avenue in the 1930s.

Just as other ethnic groups in the city before them, the Black community put their roots down by establishing churches and other institutions. One of the most powerful and diverse neighborhoods was the Hill District, just east of the Golden Triangle beyond Grant Street.

The Hill District was a first stop for several migrant groups arriving in Pittsburgh. First the Irish arrived in the mid 1800s, then Jews in the late 1800s, then African Americans in the 1910s. As each group became established they tended to move to the suburbs to be replaced by the next group of migrants.

video icon Related video stories:

After World War I immigration slowed almost to a standstill after Congress enacted quota laws. Pittsburgh's population continued to grow, however, until hitting a peak of 676,806 in 1950. Allegheny County's population hit a peak of about two million in 1960.

Since the 1970s, however, the push-pull factors have not been working in Pittsburgh's favor. In a reverse of the immigration boom of the 1890s-1930s Pittsburgh's population went in to a rapid decline after the manufacturing jobs. After the loss of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s-1990s, young people left the area to find work. Pittsburgh's population was 369,879 in 1990, only 57% of its peak in 1950. Allegheny County's population declined also, though not as drastically to 1,336,449, 66% of its peak population.

While the region has lost its manufacturing jobs, its new economy has need of technology and medical positions. New immigrants from Asia and the Middle East have come to make their homes here. Much more mobile than immigrants of 100 years ago because of the automobile, these newcomers don't cluster in neighborhoods. But like all others before them, they feel the need for community, so build houses of faith and other institutions to keep their cultures alive.


[Previous] Introduction
Teachers' Guide Home