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Sellin' of Troy

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Richard Liberto, member of Troy Hill Citizens, Inc., at the Fireman's Memorial. - MAHSA BORHANI
  • Mahsa Borhani
  • Richard Liberto, member of Troy Hill Citizens, Inc., at the Fireman's Memorial.

The residents of Troy Hill don't let go of things easily. The thin strip of Pittsburgh along the Allegheny is home to six official historic landmarks, and some residents live in houses their families have owned for generations.

Long-time resident Mildred "Pinky" McGlothlin says that in Troy Hill's glory days, people would go to almost any length to find a home there: "The funeral home, they'd have a list of names, people that wanted to buy the houses," McGlothlin says.

But now, 15 percent of the houses are vacant and 38 percent of the filled ones are occupied by renters, according to 2000 U.S. Census data. McGlothlin says the biggest problem on Troy Hill is absentee landlords. "They buy property, they don't care," she says.

Pinky's family has deep roots in Troy Hill. As if to testify to the speed with which things change there, her nickname was bestowed upon her 70 years ago, when she was a baby.

But nothing stays the same forever, even here. The community is set to undertake three separate revitalization plans, with hopes of attracting a fresh wave of homeowners.

McGlothlin says she's excited to see some new blood.

"The young people are taking an active interest in Troy Hill," she says. "They're working with the elderly, which I guess I'm part of now."

And if things go right, people might have to start sucking up to the pallbearers again. "You're not going to be able to buy a house in Troy Hill some day," McGlothlin says. "Mark my words."

For Richard Liberto, a landscape designer and member of Troy Hill Citizens, Inc., the challenge is getting people to take notice of Troy Hill while making sure to "preserve the old-European, German-village feel."

"We're kind of the forgotten stepchild" of Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Liberto says. "People think we end at Penn Brewery. That's kind of where we begin."

Troy Hill has earned a reputation for being insular. At the time of the 2000 Census, Troy Hill was still more than 97 percent white. But its topography sets it apart as well.

Though it's a stone's throw from the Strip District, and Heinz Field, it's an unlikely neighborhood to drive through, wherever you're going. The least inviting entrance is a steep climb north off Route 28, just before you exit the city.

Near the community's center, business has survived in the form of neighborhood bars, a pharmacy and some restaurants. But there are also a few boarded-up bigger buildings a short walk from the survivors.

In May 2008, the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh (CDCP) awarded Troy Hill Citizens a $10,000 grant for streetscape and business-district improvements. That plan, known as the "Heart of Troy Hill," is nearly complete.

On top of that, the city is providing a $15,000 grant to develop a comprehensive Neighborhood Plan. And the Troy Hill Citizens group is working on a redesign of Troy Hill Citizens Community Park, a small corner park at the intersection of Claim and Hatteras streets.

"We're trying to bring everything into the 21st century, but still respect the history," says Liberto, who moved to Troy Hill in 1994 and now chairs the community development committee of Troy Hill Citizens, Inc.

The neighborhood, whose core is built around the main drag, on Lowrie Street, doesn't lack for history to respect. There's talk of turning the old fire station on Lowrie into a firefighting museum. (It's the city's oldest station, and Troy Hill residents protested when it was closed in 2005.)

The city currently keeps its accident-investigation unit in the building. Public Safety Director Mike Huss says the city would need to find somewhere else to house that before it discussed transforming the firehouse.

The Fidelity Bank on Lowrie is also a designated landmark because it once was the upper station for the Troy Hill Incline, built in 1887 and closed in 1898.

Even the park that's getting a facelift is anchored in the past. The large stones that line its walkway were taken from an old reservoir, constructed before the North Side was even annexed by Pittsburgh.

"Can you imagine how those stones were hand-cut by men, lifted by winches that put the stones on wagon beds and the straining horses that pulled them up our 'Hill'?" wrote local historian Mary Wohleber in an online account of the reservoir.

Wohleber, who is in her 90s, declined to comment for this story. But according to her written history, "In 1847 the reservoir was in operation and those stones did their thing until they were disturbed on May 11, 1979." When the reservoir closed, the city planned to remove the stones.

Troy Hill had other ideas.

"[Mary] called the city and said, 'Un-uh, our forefathers cut those stones and brought them up the hill. ... You bring them back," recalls McGlothlin.

Liberto says the rocks might be shifted in the redesign, but won't leave the park. They are "symbolic of what was up here," he says.

But, "There's also a mentality tied to those rocks," he adds. "Until Pinky had a conversation with me, I didn't realize that they represented blood, sweat and tears."

With revitalization plans falling into place, Liberto and others see an opportunity to reintroduce Pittsburgh to Troy Hill.

"I feel like there are all of these assets in Troy Hill, and a lot of people, even Pittsburghers, don't know where we are on the map," says Jan Loney, a metalier who moved to Troy Hill in 2006 and is now raising a 3-year-old and a 4-month-old there.

Loney wrote the CDCP grant application for the Heart of Troy Hill, but even she admits that before she moved there, "I didn't really know where Troy Hill was."

Now, however, she's singing its praises. "It's so convenient to the city," she says, "to the Strip District, to get on 279."

"You can literally get anywhere in 10 minutes," agrees 35-year-old Jeff Bergman. "But it's quiet, too."

Bergman didn't grow up in Troy Hill, though his grandparents did. He bought a house in the neighborhood a year ago. On April 4, he and other Troy Hill residents will plant 11 trees in the neighborhood as part of the state's TreeVitalize program.

"One of the things I noticed missing from Troy Hill were trees," says Bergman, the program director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association. He points out that trees are good for the environment as well as for property values.

In the short time he's been there, he's already seen a young couple move in across the street. A couple other people have approached him about finding homes in the area.

"It definitely has its rough edges. It's not gentrified," Bergman adds. "But I would be surprised if it didn't become a hot commodity."

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