Why Does Pittsburgh Have 90 Neighborhoods?

Feb 28, 2018

Pasted to the wall of Department of City Planning is a large, colorful map of Pittsburgh. 

It’s divided into seven shades, denoting city planning sectors and parks, and a light red line squiggles throughout the jagged map.

Pittsburgh has always had neighborhoods, but Good Question! listener Jim Hathaway wondered why there were exactly 90 of them.

“I’d like to know how they came to be and how the boundaries were drawn,” he said.

A map of the city of Pittsburgh in the Department of City Planning downtown. The different colors represent the city's seven planning districts.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Originally, neighborhoods were defined by geographic features like rivers and hills. Later, residential clusters were separated by railroad tracks and ethnic groups. Pittsburgh Foundation Senior Programming Officer Jane Downing worked in the city's planning department for years. She said Pittsburghers always identified with their neighborhoods, but they didn’t have a lot of political strength. Back then, power was wielded by leaders of the city’s wards.

“The ward bosses would come in, negotiate with the mayor or with city council about where roads should be paved, where parks should be built, where development should occur—things like that,” Downing said.

Then, in 1969, Pete Flaherty was elected mayor. Running as an Independent, Downing said his slogan was “I’m nobody’s boy,” because he wanted to rid the city of political corruption. Part of eliminating that corruption, Downing said, was detaching influence from ward leaders and spreading it to individual neighborhoods.

“He wanted to create a system based on data and non-political affiliation to make recommendations on how city capital expenditures, primarily, should be allocated,” she said.

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

Under the Flaherty administration, the Neighborhood Planning Division was created within the Department of City Planning. Nine community planners were assigned to different regions of the city and focused on the needs of each neighborhoods, like building new fire stations or improving business districts. 

Around the same time, residents were asked to define the boundaries of their neighborhoods at community meetings across the city. Much of this work was done by the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Alliance, a collaboration of 30 neighborhood groups, who went on to create the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Atlas project.

The Atlas documented the history of a neighborhood, the demographics and any other notable information. It helped define the boundaries of the neighborhoods and allowed city planners to draw up a new map.

“That’s when they started to publish maps that had the neighborhood names according to census tracts,” Downing said.

Each census tract contains roughly 4,000 people. Larger neighborhoods like Shadyside include multiple census tracts, and smaller neighborhoods, such as Northview Heights, have just one. 

Officially, Homewood is divided into Homewood North, South and West. It was named for the estate of Judge William Wilkins. The Borough of Brushton was annexed in 1894 and named for Jared Brush, a mayor of Pittsburgh.

Marketing the 90

Consistency is a good thing when it comes to tracking regional analytics, like median household income and family size. It also makes it easier for neighborhoods to market themselves, according to Urban Redevelopment Authority neighborhood business district manager Josette Fitzgibbons. She once worked for an organization dedicated to helping communities improve their image called the Neighborhoods for Living Center.

Neighborhood boundaries are an inexact science. - Josette Fitzgibbons

“The goal was … to say, ‘we are a city, but we have 90 neighborhoods and each one has its own character and these are the things that are great about each of these neighborhoods,” Fitzgibbons said.

Her group would help teach neighborhood organizations how to plan festivals and create brochures advertising their communities. Their work came at a time when Pittsburgh had spent a lot of energy building the business district in the Golden Triangle.  

In the 1980 census, there were 88 city neighborhoods. A decade later, the final two were added—North Shore and South Shore. Fitzgibbons said unless the city annexes another municipality that number 90 will stand. The boundaries aren’t perfect, and sometimes the official line might be outside where a resident self-identifies, but she said the city tries its best.

“Neighborhood boundaries are an inexact science,” she said.

Think you can identify all of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods? Take this test.

What’s in a name?

"Names of Pittsburgh" by Bob Regan and "Pittsburgh: A New Portrait" by Franklin Toker provide histories of the city's varied neighborhoods.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

In 2015, Mentalfloss published a list of how 65 Pittsburgh neighborhoods got their names, based on Names of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh: A New Portrait, by historians Bob Regan and Franklin Toker.

The books describe the categories of origins for each neighborhood—the largest historic land owner, businesses, estates, natural features and public housing developments.

A 1923 book by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Early Land Marks and Names of Old Pittsburgh, noted the Point Breeze neighborhood was named for a homonymous tavern with a peculiar meal.

“The tavern was noted for its delicious suppers, the specialty being frogs.” The West End neighborhood was once called Temperanceville, until the city annexed the borough in 1873.

An excerpt from Early Land Marks and Old Names in Pittsburgh, a 1923 book with history of names in the city.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Brighton Heights used to be called Davisville and East Carnegie was once named Mansfield.

The South Side is filled with the histories of two men in particular, John Ormsby and Nathaniel Bedford. Ormsby, a soldier and businessman, owned most of what’s now the South Side Flats. The names of several of his children, Jane, Oliver, Mary and Sarah, are streets in the neighborhood.

Good Question! listener Wesley Lucas asked, “How did Fairywood get its name?” The neighborhood’s origins are somewhat of a mystery. Downing said it was probably the name of a public housing development in the area, although the more well-known Section 8 housing units were Broadhead Manor and Westgate Village.

In his book, Regan said the Pennsylvania Railroad had a hand in naming Fairywood, although it’s not clear why they went with a fantasy nature name.

About 40 volunteers pluck car batteries, hubcaps, small electronics, water bottles, beer cans and more from the sloping western hillside off Grandview Avenue on Saturday, April 8, 2017, as part of an annual cleanup effort on Mt. Washington's Emerald View Park.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

Mount Washington’s had a handful of different titles, including Coal Hill, Gray’s Garden and Cowanville. Eventually it was named for George Washington around 1880.

Sub-neighborhoods and signage

Sub-neighborhoods have always been a part of Pittsburgh, despite their absence from the city’s official 90 listing. Residents in these communities identify with whatever name they consider describes their area, but Fitzgibbons said it’s unlikely they’ll ever be added to the official map.

“It’s part of what makes us such a great city,” she said. “There’s these little pockets, incredible little pockets.”

A screenshot from the Brightwood Nextdoor group showing the boundaries of the sub-neighborhood, which technically include parts of Brighton Heights and Marshall-Shadeland.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA/Nextdoor

On the North Side, for example, is a small sub-neighborhood called Brightwood, which technically is part of Marshall-Shadeland. These areas often have their own community organizations that hold meetings and events.

Another example, Fitzgibbons said, is adjacent to Brightwood.

“The map calls that Marshall-Shadeland or Perry North or Perry South, but really everybody calls it Observatory Hill and Perry Hilltop,” she said.

Downing said when she technically lived within Point Breeze and Regent Square, she and her neighborhoods created a sub-community called Park Place. It’s now the home of the Environmental Charter School.

“We put up signs on Braddock Avenue and said we were Park Place,” Downing said. “I don’t remember City Council saying that was a designation…but I remember getting permission to put the signs up.”

Duck Hollow is a tiny community hugging Squirrel Hill South and Swisshelm Park with a bunch of birds and a quaint “Population: Just Enough” greeting sign.

The entrance to Pittsburgh's Duck Hollow neighborhood along the banks of the Monongahela River has a sign that reads, "Duck Hollow, Population: Just Enough."
Credit Will Simmons / Pittsburgh Orbit

Some sub-neighborhoods, including Panther Hollow in Oakland, have their own dialect, as reported by 90.5 WESA’s Margaret J. Krauss in 2014.

Named for people and places from the Mexican-American War, the Mexican War Streets on the North Side are technically within the boundaries of the Central Northside neighborhood. It’s now a designated historic district, along with 13 other areas in the city.

Fitzgibbons said these sub-neighborhoods--and there are many more--will likely continue to evolve, as the city changes. And, she said, that’s a healthy thing.

“That’s part of Pittsburgh,” she said. “It’s just part of the fabric of the city."

Other people documenting Pittsburgh's 90 neighborhoods:

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