Buying a home in the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh during the 1960s posed particular challenges to some, like James and Betty Robinson, who, during that time, had reason to invest their money and lives there. James had been the University of Pittsburgh’s first Black varsity football player and, at one point, was in talks to join the Steelers. However, his life took another route when he became a pastor, and upon signing on to lead the Bidwell Presbyterian Church, he and Betty believed he couldn’t fulfill that calling without living among the congregation.
It wasn’t quite that easy, though. Banks refused credit and real estate agents wouldn’t broker sales in the small neighborhood where decades of redlining, white flight, and general disinvestment had withered away profit margins. But the Robinsons were undeterred.
When a decaying mansion on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue captured their attention, they set their sights on it, resorting to driving around, knocking on doors, and asking whoever answered whether the building might be for sale. They struck a deal with the owner to secure the 20-room Victorian estate for $10,000 (about $100,000 in today’s money, according to Forbes’ online inflation calculator).
Within their first few years there, a riot erupted outside the Robinsons’ home after a young Black man was shot and killed by a white neighbor. Their son, James Jr., watched it from the top of their stone steps.
“All of a sudden, bricks started to be thrown and I'm standing right down along the steps there,” he tells Pittsburgh City Paper as a proxy for his aging parents. “It all started on my own door steps. It was a big, huge crowd ... it lasted all day from afternoon to evening.”
Similar — although usually smaller — outbreaks of anger and violence were commonplace, he recalls.
LaShawn Burton-Falk, executive director of the Manchester Citizens Corporation, says that in addition to instances of acute racism like the murder that sparked the riot, much local frustration stemmed from top-down development interventions that made Black communities pay the price for affluent white residents in other neighborhoods.
“Because this was a community of color, there wasn't the investment that there should have been,” Burton-Faulk tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “And as a result, you know, African-Americans did not have the same level of voice.”
Mapping out injustice
In the late 1930s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration mapped out every American city to determine their fitness for a federal home lending program, almost all of Pittsburgh’s lower North Side was redlined “hazardous” — meaning unfit for government investment.
Of Manchester, the surveyor noted “Dirt, filth, smoke etc. low type community. One of the toughest sections of Pittsburgh,” and counted its proportions of “foreign-born” and “negro” residents as additional markers against it.
While the federal government pumped money into the suburbs, Manchester suffered decades of population loss and disinvestment. By the time the Robinsons arrived, cities like Pittsburgh were exploring new road systems to cater to the suburban communities buoyed by these federal investments.
A PennDOT study published in 1954 proposed a plan for a highway extending the Ohio River Boulevard from its endpoint on California Avenue to the Fort Duquesne Bridge at the Point. According to Dan Rooney and Carol Peterson’s Allegheny City: A History of Pittsburgh’s North Side, the study noted 2,700 residents and 830 buildings would need to be removed or relocated.
The same study proposed an alternative route that would cut through parts of the Mexican War Streets, but that option reportedly faced steeper opposition from those in positions of power.
Around the same time, the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association published a proposal outlining sweeping changes for the North Side and bemoaning “the burden of obsolescence and decay” that supposedly characterized the area.
From this plan came the move to rezone Manchester’s western flank as the “Chateau industrial zone” and, further east, the destruction of the historic Allegheny Diamond. It also proposed leveling the Mexican War Streets to make room for new high-rise dwellings — but this of course never happened.
When the Robinsons arrived, discussions about the Ohio River Boulevard extension were in full swing. Efforts to oppose it became a foundational motivation of the Manchester Citizens Corporation, which they helped form in 1965.
“MCC, as an organization, was formed as a result of [the proposed extension of] Route 65 because our forefathers legit stood in front of bulldozers to keep them from demolishing what's currently intact residential housing, because they had already done demolition of the Chateau corridor,” Burton-Faulk says.
The project moved along despite organized local resistance. But it wasn’t completed for more than a decade. In the process, the community lost a thriving business district along Beaver Avenue, with grocery stores, pharmacies, retailers, churches, and a school, while surrounding residential blocks were cleared away by the city’s industrial program.
Throughout the 20th century, highway construction made casualties of several other Pittsburgh neighborhoods — usually those with high proportions of people of color. Fifty years earlier, Pittsburgh’s thriving Chinatown community was ripped apart to make way for the Boulevard of the Allies, running from Downtown to Oakland. Several years after the Ohio River Boulevard tore through Manchester, another North Side community, Deutschtown, was similarly carved up by the construction of I-279.
Righting past wrongs
“It's truly a story — and it’s not just Manchester and Chateau — where these big infrastructure projects were cutting through literally the middle of, particularly Black, communities across the country,” U.S. Rep Summer Lee tells City Paper.
In hopes of one day putting things right, Lee and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey recently helped secure a $1.4 million grant to study ways of reintegrating Manchester and Chateau.
The money, awarded to the MCC, could help the organization realize a long-held objective. For years, its small staff has worked to find ways to topple — or at least puncture— what’s known within the community as the “Great Wall of Manchester,” a concrete palisade hanging below the raised highway and blocking all view of the other side.
Ideas put forward so far include building aesthetically considered underpasses with parks and retail sections, to raising the parallel Beaver and Chateau streets to the level of the highway to create multi-model transit routes with rapid busways and bike and pedestrian lanes.
But proponents are keeping open minds until the study is completed.
“We now have a responsibility of figuring out the most equitable way of connecting these communities,” Lee says. “A lot of the leaders in Manchester are of course present and have been present in this work for a really long time. We’re gonna talk more with them and we’ll know more specifically what they want to do.”
If the study impresses the Depart of Transportation, the MCC has a chance of receiving an additional batch of funding to put the plan in action.
Lee says she’s cautiously optimistic.
“There was a wrong that was actuated by government forces, whether it be in terms of funding, policy, so there is a government solution too, and the responsibility to acknowledge the role in which these institutions and agencies have played.”
The Robinsons’ legacy
When the Robinsons learned their efforts to oppose the highway were falling on deaf ears, they turned their attention instead to meeting the needs it had helped create.
After witnessing the riot outside the family home, James Sr. felt compelled to find ways to help the community’s youth find constructive outlets for their deserved frustration, his daughter-in-law Debby recalls.
The church had saved up enough money to fund a new sanctuary, but James Sr. instead chose to spend the funds on a youth center where they built a basketball court and later a roller rink.
“It’s still there,” Debby notes.
James Sr. also spearheaded a trade school on Jefferson Street in Central Northside that later relocated into Chateau, where it came to be known as the Manchester Bidwell Center.
Betty, an educator, was meanwhile tending to the educational needs of the community. Sensing the city-run elementary school wasn’t entirely sufficient, she set up a free after-school program that later morphed into one of the city’s first charter schools, where Debby, also a teacher, taught for more than two decades before recently retiring.
All this, according to Burton-Faulk, shows the resilience that’s held the Manchester community together despite the construction of a highway that physically tore it apart.
“In response to taking away a school, we're gonna provide one. In response to … taking away food here — even at the school — food is provided. With whatever the need was, there was something created to take care of that,” she tells CP.
“This organization is in response to the attempt to demolish, and while some of the physical demolition did occur, the mental and emotional resilience was not trampled on. I mean, this community has figured it out, over and over.”