A local author's "resurrection" of Allegheny City has its ups and downs. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A local author's "resurrection" of Allegheny City has its ups and downs.

Resurrecting Allegheny City: The Land, Structures & People of Pittsburgh's North Side
By Lisa A. Miles
Self-published, $12, 275 pages


Here's why I think the troops will be in Iraq for awhile: Allegheny City was forcibly annexed by Pittsburgh a century ago, and people are still pissed off. In a preface to Resurrecting Allegheny City, state archivist Jerry Ellis quotes a longtime resident saying, "When we secede, I'll carry the flag across the bridge."

Such sentiments in what we now call the North Side bode ill for world peace. But on the bright side, such militancy has led to admirable results. Some of Pittsburgh's most notable historic-preservation efforts began in the North Side, and the area has generated a handful of locally produced histories, the most recent of which is this self-published work by resident Lisa Miles.

What distinguishes this work from earlier efforts is that Miles had access to a newly unveiled treasure trove of historical records. In recent years, state archivists have rediscovered and restored volumes of Allegheny City's municipal documents, the official records of Allegheny's glory years in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Document junkies can only envy Miles' early access to this material, and her excitement at having it is palpable. Not surprisingly, the book frequently emphasizes property and infrastructure development, the things you'd expect government records to focus on. And the resulting material is more interesting than it may sound.

There can, after all, be a kind of nostalgic music -- like a carousel in the distance -- in something as mundane as a list of 1890s amusement licenses. Who wouldn't want to see the "Ford Paw Circus," or the "Theatrical Mechanic's Association"? Whose heart wouldn't be moved by an official report that conditions at the local poor house -- where dwell the "indigent and unfortunate whose lot may be cast among us" -- have been improved, and that inmates "enjoy that artificial warmth necessary to their comfort during the winter"?

There are many such artifacts in Resurrecting. You'll also find the occasional anecdote about Allegheny's wayward, fugitive islands. Or about how (for example) trolleys on Perrysville Avenue would speed up on the downhill, while the "motorman swore ecstatically, and the student riders cheered."

These charms are, however, somewhat offset by spotty sourcing -- I can't tell where the trolley anecdote came from, for example -- and Miles' sometimes awkward syntax. And the book's biggest strength can also be a weakness: The sheer volume of the archives crowds out other compelling material.

For example, Miles skips lightly over one of the most interesting chapters of Allegheny's history: a mid-19th century labor strike at local cotton mills. The disruption is notable both because it happened so early in the city's industrial history, and because it involved female employees. But Miles gives it less space than she devotes to, say, an account of the paving of Lafayette Avenue.

Miles doesn't claim to provide an exhaustive history; her introduction acknowledges that information about "significant historical figures [is] best obtained" elsewhere. But this absence is sometimes glaring, especially in her account of Allegheny's forced merger with Pittsburgh.

Unquestionably, the 1906 annexation campaign was unfair. While Allegheny voters opposed merging two to one, they were outvoted by Pittsburgh's much larger electorate. It was electoral bullying, plain and simple.

But to this straightforward injustice Miles adds a curious notion: that a campaign to relocate the University of Pittsburgh to Oakland was a Trojan horse for consolidation, with Pittsburgh unjustly linking the school's legitimate need for more land to annexation efforts.

The thesis is provocative, especially when today's leaders call for municipal consolidation, and modern nonprofits call the tune. But Miles offers only spotty evidence for such a campaign (or for its necessity, given Pittsburgh's political might). Exhibit A, for example, is a celebratory toast Miles says became popular amongst the local elite: "To the Greater City and Greater University!"

Allegheny's citizens, meanwhile, are depicted as going like lambs unto the slaughter -- "continu[ing] to better their dear city [while] nary a one would talk of these matters too much in public," as Miles puts it. Much like the Indians they displaced a century before, they are depicted by Miles as noble, but mute, victims of grasping neighbors.

One suspects there is more to the story, and that a community which boasted its own "Millionaire's Row" had some resources to draw on. Miles' book is a useful addition to the record, but a definitive account of Allegheny City has yet to be written.

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