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Uncovering Secrets of The Strip

By Rick Sebak

TV Producer bares all from his explorations of the Produce Yards

You think you know The Strip District. You know that if you want a giant fish sandwich, a dozen kinds of stinky cheese, cheap sweatshirts, tacky party favors, 500 pounds of potatoes, some carefully sliced prosciutto, fresh biscotti, upholstery fabric, mung-bean pancakes, locally made tortilla chips, or some combination of the above, there's only one place to go: The Strip.

Well, for about three months, a bunch of us at WQED frequented The Strip, gathering video, eating too many egg rolls, and working on the documentary The Strip Show. We've checked out the produce terminal at 5 a.m., the best breakfast spots, businesses old and new, and we've talked to people about this neighborhood that charms the proverbial pants off just about everyone.

And I've been surprised.

There is a lot about The Strip that I've never heard before. Its history has never really been celebrated. And most of its small (and some large) non-food-related businesses go about their work without ever attracting any attention.

So, you chow down on a Primanti sandwich or walk past Fort Pitt Candy or Roland's or Alioto's, you might assume that you're pretty familiar with this strip of land.

Think again. This place is full of surprises. Here are 10.


1. This term "The Strip" is older than you might expect. It's apparently from the fact that 11th Street (at the Greyhound Bus Station) to 33rd (the start of Lawrenceville) is simply a long, narrow strip of land. And although this area had other names, including Springfield, Bayardstown, Northern Liberties and the Old Fifth Ward, it has been "The Strip" at least since the turn of the century. At that time, a teen-age gang of some notoriety, known as the Bayardstown Rats of The Strip, used to fight with a rival North Side gang, often on ice skates in the middle the river. (Maybe they were just playing hockey?)

2. The Strip is where Pittsburgh's long love affair with heavy industry began. Its flatness makes it good for manufacturing. It has good transportation possibilities, close to the river, lots of rails. It was here that the iron industry established itself in the very beginning of the 19th century. There were glass manufacturers. Several foundries. Cotton and rope factories. A slaughterhouse. A paper mill. When journalist James Parton wrote his famous description of Pittsburgh in 1868 as "hell with the lid off," he was looking down on the fiery and smoky Strip.

3. A lot of people used to live in The Strip. A 1915 survey estimated The Strip's population as 18,000. What had been a large, 18th-century private estate became a 19th-century middle-class residential district, then an urban industrial slum by the early 20th century, full of immigrant families. As industries changed, people moved out. In 1990, the census found fewer than 300 residents, mostly in row houses and small apartments above shops.

4. Across the street from Wholey's, at 17th and Penn, the building that houses the Italian Oven used to be a church. The metal siding on the restaurant covers up what was once the Fourth United Presbyterian Church. Built around 1859, it may be the oldest church structure in the city.

5. The bubbling entrepreneurs at the new brew pubs in The Strip are not the first beer makers here. There were 19 breweries in Pittsburgh in 1884, several in The Strip: Wood & Hughes Brewery (est. 1842), Anthony Bennet Brewery (1844), and Philip Lauer on 18th Street (1888). The tall, dark factory that many people know as the Otto Milk building was originally the Phoenix Brewery (can you spot the decorative bird logo rising from the once flame-colored brick?). In 1899, Phoenix merged with 11 others to form Pittsburgh Brewing Co.

6. Have a Duke? The Gage Co. (still in the big red brick building on Liberty at 30th Street) in 1912 assembled several "Duquesne" automobiles. Originally makers of beautiful brass gauges (or "gages") for railroads, steam engines and other purposes, the diversified Gage Co. also made sturdy Gainaday washers (you gained a day if you used this new modern contraption that looked like a garbage can with a wringer on top) in the 1930s.

7. The produce yards didn't move into The Strip until 1901. The train tracks that used to go down Liberty Avenue to the Point were later ripped up in 1906. Wholesale produce people had originally clustered in the 600 to 900 blocks of Liberty, but relocated along Smallman Street to take advantage of ample space and rail yards and to accommodate their booming business. No one has kept count of the many millions of tons of fruit and vegetables loaded, unloaded and reloaded off the platform and docks.

8. Smell pretty ripe? The Sunseris' wholesale building with the white front (next to Jimmy & Nino's) used to be People's Baths. Run by the Civic Club, the public bathhouse charged 5¢ for a shower and 10¢ for a tub bath in 1915. The fee included towel and soap. Pittsburgh was a very dirty city, and The Strip one of the most industrialized parts of town, with little indoor plumbing. About 200 to 300 baths were sold each day, and if you couldn't afford the fees, you weren't turned away.

9. On Dec. 17, 1936, it rained bananas. Or bits of them, anyway. An electric spark from a fan ignited the mixture of gases used to ripen green bananas at the Pittsburgh Banana Co., on Smallman Street. The blast destroyed one end of the building, blew out 54 windows in the old school at St. Stanislaus, and weakened the church's bell towers so much that the big old tops had to be replaced. No one was reported seriously hurt, but--yes, we have no bananas--$20,000 worth of fruit was gone.

10. There were catacombs under the old St. Patrick's Church. When the Rev. James R. Cox was the very popular pastor of the city's oldest Catholic parish, he had catacombs dug out under his church, erected a lighted sign to attract the curious, and charged a fee to see the underground passageways where devotions were sometimes held. When the church burned in the early 1930s, the catacombs (under the present church's yard) were apparently filled in.

 

Crew films biscotti preparation
Rick Sebak interviews at the Breadworks


Man walking past sidewalk vendors on Penn Ave.
Rick Sebak prepares a shoot at Alioto's

From top: The crew learns the secrets of baking biscotti from Larry "Enrico" Lagattuta, hits the breadlines for Breadworks specialities, interviews folks at Jojo's, and discusses shooting at Alioto's.

 

 

 

Special thanks for most of this information to Lauren Uhl and Tracy Coffing Walther at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and the great librarians in the Pennsylvania Department at the Carnegie.

Source: Pittsburgh Magazine, photos by Ed Ricker.


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