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90.5 WESA's Good Question! series is an experiment where you bring us questions—and we go out to investigate and find answers.

How did Pittsburgh's Fairywood neighborhood get its name?

In Pittsburgh, neighborhoods are often named for historic people or geographic features. Take Stanton Heights, named for former Secretary of War Edward Stanton, or the Bluff for being, well, a bluff. But tucked away in Pittsburgh’s West End, on the edge of the city limits, is a community with a unique name. The neighborhood was the focus of Good Question! asker Damian Butler-Buccilli.

“I’ve always been curious about the neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Fairywood,” Butler Buccilli said. “Why is it named Fairywood? It’s such a peculiar and interesting name.”

A sepia image of a historic school.
Pittsburgh Public Schools Photographs, 1880-1982
MSP 117, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center
Fairywood School, located on Broadhead Road, was erected in 1922. The school was named for its location in the woods because people in the area referred to the grove where it sat as the “woods full of fairies.” A small one-story building with only four rooms, the school closed in 1939. It re-opened in 1943 and additions were constructed in 1946, 1947, and 1951. Fairywood School closed in 1984.

Pittsburgh City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith represents Fairywood and other West End neighborhoods. She said she heard its name comes from residents in the early 20th century.

“What I heard was when this school was built, that the school was surrounded by woods and it was like a magical place, Fairywood, and that’s how they started calling it Fairywood,” she said.

Despite the near-constant hum of 18-wheelers, the neighborhood is scenic, and only seven miles from Downtown.

“One of my favorite places is where the school used to be. And you look up and you can see the view is just beautiful,” Kail-Smith said.

But there’s likely more to the story — because the neighborhood received its name beforeFairywood School was built in 1922.

In the early 1900s, land developer Otis B. Lane took an interest in the area that had previously been the G.W. Daly farm. According to city archives and a 1907 article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the company constructed 75 “new and modern houses.”

"Situated at the intersection of the Ridge and Broadhead Fording roads, is Fairywood, just over the boundary line of Ingram, in Chartiers Township,” wrote the Post-Gazette. “Fairywood is the name chosen by the Otis B. Lane Building Company for its hamlet of attractive and picturesque houses now being completed, and which will soon be placed upon the market.”

Perhaps the people already living in the area gave Otis Lane the inspiration — or perhaps the enchanted name was just a marketing tactic to sell houses.

The City of Pittsburgh annexed what’s now Fairywood in the 1920s. Through the years, it grew until a peak population of around 5,000 in 1950, according to the U.S. Census.

Fairywood Elementary School students read at their desks.
Pittsburgh Public Schools Photographs, 1880-1982
MSP 117, Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center
Fairywood Elementary School. The one-story, four-room brick building, located on Broadhead Road in Pittsburgh’s Fairywood neighborhood, was built in 1922. In that same year the school, along with other Oakwood schools, was admitted into the Pittsburgh public school system. The school closed in 1939 and was later reopened in 1943. Fairywood Elementary School closed in 1984.

Barry Arlet, whose parents grew up on farmland in the area, lived most of his young life on the nearby Steuben Street. He said he remembers driving through Fairywood as a child and having his father talk about cattle being driven through the neighborhood, picking from apple trees and working the land (his parents met on a farm). Later, he became a roofer.

“They did many of the houses in Fairywood,” Arlet said. “We’d be driving down the road [and he’d say] ‘We put a roof on that one, put a roof on that one.’”

He also recalls the construction of Westgate Village and Broadhead Manor, both housing developments for low-income families. Broadhead was a former military housing complex that included more than 400 apartments, while Westgate offered potential residents one-to-three-bedroom townhomes.

Kids play on a playground in Broadhead Manor in 1945.
Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981
MSP 285, Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center
Broadhead Manor, built in 1944 by the United States federal government, was owned and managed by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. The complex was comprised of 448 housing units to serve as homes for war workers. In 1953 the development was converted into low-rent public housing. Broadhead Manor is located west of the City of Pittsburgh.

Harry Carr, his parents and four brothers moved into Broadhead in the early 1960s. He said he has great memories of living in the complex.

“There were kids, people to play with everywhere,” Carr said. “Each family had four to five to six kids, so there was always somebody doing something, [like] pick-up baseball games, basketball.”

Newspaper articles from the time reflect Carr’s experience — big families, both Black and white, Boy Scout meetings, a regular clinic on-site and generally good relationships in the complex.

 A woman smiles and raises her hand while sitting on a couch.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Vivien Smith first moved to Fairywood more than 50 years ago with her family. She lived in the former housing project Broadhead Manor, and now lives in her own home in Fairywood next door to her daughter and grandchildren.

“We would swim in the creek, [the neighborhood] had great apple trees and strawberries that would grow wild that we would bring home,” Carr said. “You had kind of a dichotomy of living in the city, but also in the suburbs.”

In the next few decades, however, the neighborhood would change. Through the years, Broadhead and other buildings fell into disrepair. Fairywood’s population plummeted. Crime also dominated headlines about the neighborhood.

Vivien Smith moved to Fairywood more than 50 years ago. And then she and her toddler daughter moved to Broadhead in 1973. When she first got there, she worked on-site.

“I did community work,” Smith said. “I was a litter-picker.”

But the community was shifting, and like many metropolitan areas in the ’70s and ’80s, drugs were making their way into neighborhoods.

“At the time when crack came in, it was a mess,” she said. Fairywood School closed in 1984 . Broadhead was closed slowly beginning in the 1990s, as were most of the amenities like the pool and gathering spaces that once served the many residents.

Today in Fairywood, only 1,000 residents remain in the neighborhood. Most of the homes are off of its main stretch, Broadhead Fording Road. The peninsular neighborhood is mostly filled with warehouses, including some for Amazon and Giant Eagle. There’s a Salvation Army, some railroad tracks and a lot of trees.

A street with trees in the background.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Fairywood can feel almost suburban at times, due to the vast woods that encompass the community.

Councilor Kail-Smith said when she was first elected in 2009, the area was struggling.

“I felt like the residents weren’t valued as much as they should have been just because they were a smaller area,” she said.”

Currently, Kail-Smith said there are plans for new housing for seniors in Fairywood. And the city and developers plan to build two 150,000 square foot warehouses on the former Broadhead Manor site. She says she hopes these types of projects bring opportunities to the neighborhood, and bring the community together.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.