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Pittsburgh often overlooks its own river towns

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Deep down, many of us who love Pittsburgh for its "authenticity" harbor a secret fear. The more of Pittsburgh's unique character gets "discovered," we suspect, the less of it we'll have to go around. The Starbucks moves into your grittily authentic neighborhood, and suddenly you're no longer living in a place that Starbucks forgot -- which was something you kind of liked, even if you do sneak over there for espresso.

The good news, and the bad, is that there are plenty of communities whose authenticity remains. It's just that a lot of them aren't in Pittsburgh.

Consider Tarentum, the Allegheny River town which is to Pittsburgh what Pittsburgh is to the rest of the world: a place easily but unjustly overlooked, regarded as something of a backwater by people who think they're sophisticated.

Perched on the edge of Allegheny County's border with Westmoreland, Tarentum is part of that strange ecological zone known as the 724 area code, located -- numerically, geographically, and psychologically -- right between the urban 412 and the more rural 814. To be honest, I've never been able to figure that zone out: Construction is just close enough to clutter up the landscape, but just far enough apart to make getting from one place to the next as inconvenient as possible.

After taking a June 21 tour of the Allegheny River town of Tarentum conducted by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, however, I've come to a conclusion: If Pittsburgh is really a "big city with a small town feel," as everyone always says, small towns like Tarentum are more like Pittsburgh than Pittsburgh is. There are precious few Starbucks in evidence and rent is even cheaper. And walking through a place like downtown Millvale, with its hobby shop and multiple soda fountains, is like seeing 1954 perfectly encased in Lucite.

Just how overlooked are the things Tarentum has to offer? Let's put it this way: By 10 o'clock on the Saturday morning of our tour, neither of the town library's copies of the new Harry Potter book had been checked out. As a longtime resident -- who recollected stories about collapsing disused mineshafts for fun as a kid -- told our tour group, "There's stories galore about this town, some of which you can't tell in public."

You can discover clues, however. There's the Oppenheimer Building, an 1886 opera house distinguished in part by the fact that it housed both Indian medicine shows and what may be their Old World cousins, Presbyterian church services. Elsewhere, the attentive visitor may discover the birthplace of Evelyn Nesbitt, the showgirl whose husband, Pittsburgh scion Harry Thaw, killed architect Stanford White in the middle of Madison Square Garden and pioneered the use of the insanity defense.

Tarentum has tried using its history to its advantage. It has turned an old railroad station into its premiere eatery, Tarentum Station. A few blocks away, the local historical society has housed its collection in the American Legion hall, whose walls are of cobalt-blue glass, etched with maps of the European and Pacific theaters of the Second World War. Beneath them is a collection of locally produced glass, old military uniforms draped over unsettling mannequins, somewhat cryptic explanations about how aluminum was manufactured in New Kensington just across the river, and other traces of the valley's past.

But if Tarentum has recognized the importance of its history, few others have. It's telling that, despite hopes the PH&LF tour would fill two buses, it drew less than a dozen people. And unlike, say, Pittsburgh's Fifth and Forbes avenues, downtown Tarentum isn't run-down; it hasn't gotten enough use to qualify. Walking along some blocks of Tarentum is like walking through the blast zone left by a neutron bomb: The buildings are still standing, but the people are gone.

In Pittsburgh, the sight of a 7-Eleven in Downtown's Roberts Jewelers building is enough to drive architects and urban planners to distraction. But such unhappy conjunctions are the rule, not the exception, in places like Tarentum. The solid, stately Tarentum Savings and Trust Company -- once a financial center for the entire Allegheny Valley -- now houses a dog-grooming business. The handsome old Palace Theater, originally a combination movie house and duckpin-bowling alley, now serves as an office for Family Services of Western Pennsylvania.

While towns like Tarentum, or Homestead, or Coraopolis, have suffered the same downturns as Pittsburgh, they've gotten little of the attention. Foundations pony up to spend seven-figure sums to create small-town communities and shopping districts in Pittsburgh neighborhoods & while just a few miles upstream, the small towns themselves are withering from neglect. Too few of us see the potential strengths of these towns because we hardly see the towns themselves.

As a result, the best many of these towns can hope for is that they'll get some spillover benefits from the nearest mall, or from the construction of dubious projects like the Mon-Fayette Expressway. (The day before the PH&LF tour, in fact, ground was broken for a new shopping mall just a few miles down Route 28 from Tarentum. As if to confirm suspicions that such projects are an outmoded economic development, the project is called "Pittsburgh Mills" -- a phrase which hasn't exactly been associated with cutting-edge growth in recent decades.)

And sadly, those projects often divide many residents against the architects and urban planners who ought to be championing the towns they live in. The Mon-Fayette has proven especially contentious in this regard: Pittsburgh-dwelling urban designers object that such projects contribute to sprawl and reduce a place's "livability"; neglected small-town dwellers think their towns need such projects to live at all.

In the long run, that kind of division is harmful to both sides. It's easy to see everything outside Pittsburgh city limits as "the suburbs" -- the sprawling communities where our residents and retailers have fled. But communities like Tarentum have lost population just as Pittsburgh has -- for the same reasons, and to the same places. We'll continue to do so unless Pittsburgh and its poorer relations up- and down-river can make common cause. We ought to speak out against plans to extend the T beneath the Allegheny River to the new stadiums on the North Side, for example, which merely serves as a conveyance for sports fans at the expense of other transit-riders. We ought to advocate saner development, like building a commuter rail line on the Allegheny River Railroad tracks to serve Tarentum and the places like it. (Even if no one rides the thing, it can't be any bigger a boondoggle than a T extension will be.)

Unless we find a way to preserve it, the authenticity in these towns will disappear even more quickly than we authenticity junkies fear will happen in Pittsburgh proper. And no one will even have had a chance to share it.

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