ONE CAN STILL FEEL a sense of neighborhood in Pittsburgh, of its ethnic pockets and groupings. Pierogies and kielbasas lend their fragrance to the Southside, and Italian remains the native tongue for many in Bloomfield and East Liberty. The Northside retains a faint Germanic ambience, and on Polish Hill a plaque marks the 1969 visit of Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II. Pittsburgh's rivers, ravines, bluffs, and hollows divide the city into dozens of smaller communities, just as they have for almost two centuries.
These formidable natural barriers were reinforced by the historic clustering of the different ethnic and racial groups that migrated to Pittsburgh in the course of the city's rise as the nation's iron and steel workshop. By the turn of the century they made Pittsburgh and its satellite mill towns into a multiethnic metropolis of over half a million people, many of whom labored to produce 40 percent of the country's steel.
Each ethnic group that came to Pittsburgh tended to settle in a particular neighborhood where nationality dictated which church one attended and where one drank. But ethnicity was not an absolute factor: one did not need an ethnic passport to move to the Hill, which loomed over the city's downtown, or to reside in Braddock, Homestead, or any of the other mill towns along the banks of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. These neighborhoods may have become ghettos, but they were multiethnic ones. Polish, Italian, Yiddish, and Croatian were spoken on the street and in the stores, intermingled with English and the dialect of migrants from the Black Belt.
It was in this multiethnic, industrial city that a black community began to form in the nineteenth century. Unlike the city's white immigrant neighborhoods, where the residential and occupational gains of the first generation were bequeathed to the second, black Pittsburghers found it hard to lay the foundation for community growth. White ethnic neighborhoods became increasingly stable and cohesive during the twentieth century as a result of a strong infrastructure of churches and neighborhood associations, residential persistence, and greater workplace security. Moreover, by the 1930s the steady stream of European immigrants had slowed to a trickle. The sons and daughters of the earlier migrants built on the efforts of their parents, especially at work and in becoming homeowners in tightly knit ethnic enclaves. Blacks were not so fortunate. 1