Sarah Miller steps nimbly across the weathered floorboards of her new house, saying hello to the renovation crew that is taking a well-earned break in front of the building’s one air conditioner. She mentions the hideous old carpet that they recently tore up, the brick fireplace that they’ve unearthed from the wall.
“You gonna go natural on the fireplace?” says one of the workers.
“I think so,” Miller says.
“That’ll look nice,” the worker says, nodding his approval.
Miller just purchased this three-story Melwood row-house for $24,000. The 22-year-old sculptor and veteran cook has procured one of the cheapest residences in the city – conveniently located directly across from her current apartment – and is delighting in her tour of the house that will soon be home.
“There’s not much wrong with it,” she says. “Just face work. It’s not like the foundation is gonna crack in half.” Sure, the kitchen looks like a bomb-shelter and crates and debris are scattered along the floors but Miller is happy to have chosen Polish Hill, her neighborhood of one year, as the place to buy real estate. For a young woman who works close by, earns a modest income, and rides her bike around town, Polish Hill is the place to be. Plus there’s the people: “It’s a really nice community,” she says. “And it has one of the lowest crime rates in the city.”
As you drive along the steep, winding yet authentically old-World charming streets of Polish Hill, you’ll see weather-beaten houses that grace cliff-sides, concrete staircases that rise over 50 feet from one slope to the next and abrupt turns and two-way streets that can only fit one direction of traffic at a time. Built by industrial workers in the 1880’s, it’s a wonder that anyone, let alone people from Poland – a country flat as Kansas – chose to settle here, where streets and row-houses are tiered, one upon another, from the Port Authority expressway to the frontier of the Hill District.
The neighborhood boasts a wealth of paradoxes: four bars and one night-club, but no grocery store and no service station. A monumental, copper-domed church, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, that stands in the center of Polish Hill while a short distance away, students and diehard anarchists have moved into houses along Melwood Avenue, drawn by cheap rent and quiet neighbors. It’s that kind of diversity that is one of the charms and attractions of the neighborhood.
“I love the people in the neighborhood,” Miller says. “They’re either, like, ancient, or they have itty-bitty kids.”
As you approach Polish Hill, signs posted at two entrances proclaim: “Witamy do” – Polish for “welcome.” And yet life-long Pittsburghers, proud of their city, may never have heard of the mile-long wedge of land, home to slightly more than 1,000 residents. Here you can walk the quiet streets, say hello to your neighbor, and feel you’re in a small, rural town. And although there’s no commercial district, the convenient location offers Oakland, the Strip, Bloomfield and Downtown all within a short drive (or bike ride).
Polish Hill has changed over the years, but not a lot – and the residents like it that way. If you could pick only one word to describe the people here, it’s stubborn. If two, proud.
The Disaster that Never Came
When Jimmy Carter vsited Polish Hill in 1976, he had a clear rhetorical purpose: To show off a neighborhood in decline. The population had dropped over the years, and many of the antiquated houses had fallen into disrepair and local shops had closed. As the neighborhood teetered, locals founded the Polish Hill Civic Association, which essentially saved the area from collapsing into ghettohood. They worked with the City Council to build a recreational facility – complete with a basketball court, walking trails, and swing-sets – as well as the John Paul Plaza, a high-rise apartment building for the elderly.
As a measure of their stubborn pride, the Civic Association refused assistance from Model Cities, Inc., a federal program designed to reshape the image of rundown districts, on the grounds that Model Cities would make executive decisions without community input. The PHCA is currently revamping its offices and facilities, with plans for a new community hall designed for 50 guests.
The Music of the Night
Mention Polish Hill to some people and they thing one thing: Gooski’s, which still uses an old-fashioned, non-digital juke box. If you came here only for the music, you’d leave a happy patron. Catty-cornered to the Immaculate Heart church, Gooski’s is an epicenter of hipsters, musicians, punk-rockers, and Polish Hill lifers. Students shoot mean games of pool in the back, or smack ping-pong balls across a table, or gossip in private booths. The bar is dark and smoky – it could be confused, at first glance, for a second-rate dive – but the patrons are frenetic and talkative. For an obscure, two-room bar tucked between row-houses on a steep, hard-to-find street, Gooski’s is a famous destination, beloved by diehard regulars.
A short distance away, the Rock Room serves a more colorful crowd of locals, blue collar workers, tattoo-artists, and adventurous students. Once known as the Warsaw Tavern (many were sad to see the name-change), the Rock Room is a slightly brighter, slightly hipper incarnation of the old dive – an old dive that some regulars have frequented for decades. It’s like a cheaper, grittier version of Gooski’s, with its own Steel Town flavor and a come-as-you-are hospitality.
Down Herron Avenue, toward the bridge and the railroad tracks, just beyond a gravelly parking lot, stands Donny’s, Polish Hill’s little-known, well-attended gay and lesbian bar. For such a historically religious neighborhood, Donny’s can seem a little surreal – what with the pixie-cut, leather-clad women shooting pool in the corner – but the club’s motto, “Welcome to all,” is truly its modus operandi. No one but the rowdiest, most closed-minded customer is turned away – and for the most part, no one who comes through the kitchen-style doors even raises an eyebrow. Donny’s is a perfect blend of Harley-Davidson atmosphere with San Francisco attitude.
The Real Estate Mecca – For the Athletically Fit
For residents without cars, the 54C is the only convenient bus route, and commuters from Downtown face a significant walk up the meandering sidewalk of Herron Avenue. But for people who don’t mind the Melwood Avenue potholes and the eccentric neighbors, Polish Hill is an incredible bargain: Some of the cheapest rent inside city limits, and a host of fixer-uppers that are always up for sale. (Recent listings included houses for $64-74,000, plus Miller’s incredible bargain of $24,000).
Miller notes the “Adopt-a-Lot” program, which encourages landowners to manage and groom an empty lot for a certain period – usually a year – and then buy it, sometimes for under $1,000. In this case, Miller hopes to claim the lot directly adjacent to her house, which emerged when the city tore down an abandoned house and replaced it with a sod-blanketed hill. Yet another benefit for this young achiever and one more reason to make Polish Hill her home.
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer and actor. He is co-author of the Sprout-sponsored Pittsburgh Monologue Project
, just published this month.
Photos:Sarah MillerRock Room bar back roomImmaculate Heart of Mary churchGooski's barRock Room barSarah Miller's house and neighboring lotAll photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene