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FYICommunity and Culture

What is community?

What is culture?

Migration patterns

Creating Community


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

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What is Community?

The search for a "community" may force you to expand your thinking about just what a community is. Some are not geographical, at all, but exist as clearly and undeniably as those marked by boundaries on a map. Truck drivers, for instance, who communicate on CB radio use a common vocabulary that immediately identifies them to other members of their community. Throughout the centuries, Western Pennsylvania has been home to other similar communities, such as riverboat crews and mill workers, inextricably tied to the larger Pittsburgh community. These non-traditional communities, too, have made an impact on the city, building solidarity through language, traditions, beliefs and values.

Photo of bridge ironworkers
Rick Sebak

Ironworkers fixing the West End Bridge. Occupations develop communities of their own with unique language, customs, and folklore.

Community-creating events

To create rich traditions and strong community ties Pittsburgh's communities and neighborhoods have found some great ways to make its people feel at home. County fairs, festivals, community gardens, parades, picnics and similar activities are ways neighborhoods cement the allegiances. Sports teams, school rivalries, and neighborhood monuments and celebrations, and the like let us discover all the ways we are similar. A neighborhood diner allows everyone to get to know each other over a cup of coffee. The county fair brings everyone together to share a good time. A school football game allows the town to unite against a common "enemy."

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Photo of Ambridge color guard
Rick Sebak

Ambridge High School color guard. Parades, uniforms, sports teams, and rituals all contribute to building a sense of belonging to a community.

What is culture? Diffusion and Acculturation

Together all of these shared memories, experiences, language, and values bind people together in a culture.

"Culture is contagious," one anthropologist says! Even if there is conflict between cultures, they never fail to exchange something with each other! Diffusion is one way cultures change: A folk tradition, whether a song, a food, a folk tale, may travel across continents being continuously modified and adapted to new surroundings, languages, religions, and culture. The most bitter of enemies can share the same traditions!

Pierogie, pirohy, and pierogi are examples of diffusion--and the ladies at the St. John's Ukrainian Church on the South Side are careful to distinguish that theirs are "pirohy"!

Diffusion is when traditions move across boundaries. Acculturation is when "folk" move, taking their heritage with them. The resulting process of adjustment, adaptation, compromise, and assimilation is called Acculturation.

A typical Pittsburgh business like "Polish Hill Pizza" is an example of acculturation at work! The Strip District is an excellent example of acculturation: Its businesses represent many cultures, but almost all the merchants conduct their businesses in English. Greek-run diners are another example of acculturation.

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Clash and conflict


Home-making is not always a harmonious process: groups within a community sometimes clash, differing in their ideas of what is best for the neighborhood overall. Sometimes issues of ethnicity or diversity threaten some residents, who react in a way that emphasizes difference instead of reinforcing similarity. Sometimes dissension is economic.

The unfortunate result of this prejudice is discrimination or less obvious social injustice.

As a result of discrimination members of the community would often raise up businesses to serve their neighbors. In the Hill District Blacks supported their local businesses since they were seldom welcomed outside of the Hill. One such enterprise was LaSalle's Beauty School, a salon and beauty college in the Hill District in the 1940s, operated by Luana Graves, whose goal was to teach young girls a marketable skill beyond doing housework for white people.

Religious groups have also fought hard to live their faith against injustice in their time. Montiefiore Hospital was founded by Jews at a time when Jewish doctors where not permitted to practice in the other hospitals.

Bethel A.M.E. Church, started in the Hill District in 1808 and is thought to be the oldest Black congregation in the city, has been involved in civil rights for over 150 years. It's sister congregation in the Monongahela Valley was a stop on the Underground Railroad helping Blacks escape slavery in the South before the Civil War. Bethel A.M.E.'s congregation continued to support its members as a center for activities during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Photo of Bethel AME Church
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

The Bethel AME Church was founded in the Hill District in 1808 and has had worked since to resist social injustice.

St. Patrick's, Pittsburgh's oldest Catholic parish started in 1808 in the Strip District to serve Irish immigrants! In the 1920's, one of its priests, Father James R. Cox, worked tirelessly to help his parish "live their faith." During the Great Depression of the 1930's, he was renowned for his work with the unemployed.

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Parallel institutions

No better illustration of the difference between community and neighborhood can be found than that of the South Side. In the 1920-30s, there were well over a dozen Catholic churches in the South Side--all in different languages. They overlapped each other in physical space, but were nations apart in culture.

Parallel institutions like the South Side churches are clues of a time when a cultural group differed in some way from the "majority"--race, religion, language, or national origin. It was a practical way of dealing with discrimination (either overt or covert): The "different" group would find comfort and support by creating--usually at great cost to themselves--institutions like churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages, old folks' homes, charities and fraternal organizations. Almost every one of those South Side churches had a school where classes were taught in native languages.

Pittsburgh Courier was founded in the 1920s as a voice for newly migrated African Americans whose news the other papers didn't cover -- it gained national recognition.

By banding together, ethnic groups could become more self-sufficient by caring for each other. Voluntary associations and fraternal organizations, and charities like the Polish Falcons, Jewish Community Center, NAACP, and the Urban League provided social services lacking for their members and took political action when necessary to right wrongs.

Blacks in the Hill established not just locally owned businesses, they also sponsored community picnics and neighborhood events. When oppression denied them opportunities to fully participate in Pittsburgh society, residents of the Hill District found ways to be self-sufficient.


Though community and neighborhoods differ, they depend on each other for survival. During Pittsburgh's Renaissance I in the 1950s, the city learned this lesson the hard way. As part of its urban redevelopment plan, the City of Pittsburgh decided to build the Civic Arena in the area that was then the Lower Hill District. A thriving community with residences and successful businesses and night life was gutted of its center and the people relocated nearby or to other neighborhoods. The thought was that the community would survive in spite of being removed from its neighborhood location. It didn't work like that.

Postcard of coal fleets on the Mon

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

The Lower Hill District before and after urban redevelopment.


Allegheny Square and East Liberty also had their centers "redeveloped" as walking malls. In hindsight we can see that these new developments failed because they lacked community allegiances and associations built up over years.

Renaissance II learned the lessons from those well-meant, but misguided attempts. Preserving neighborhoods and their historical character can revitalize community by encouraging young people to stay or move in and by fostering businesses and other community activity. The Manchester and Mexican War Street neighborhoods in the North Side and the Mainstreet Program on the South Side are excellent examples of this principle at work.

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