The Rip-Roaring Backstory Of A Corner And The Bloomfield Bridge

Jan 17, 2019

Change is coming to the corner of Liberty Avenue and Main Street, the gateway to Pittsburgh's Bloomfield neighborhood.

By the turn of the 20th century Bloomfield was booming. Thousands of German and Italian immigrants settled there and built homes cheek-by-jowl along closely-set streets. They built a bustling business district on Liberty Avenue. But Skunk Hollow – the valley between Bloomfield and Polish Hill which is now home to the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway – separated the neighborhood from a new commuter road tacked to the side of Herron Hill: Grant Boulevard, now known as Bigelow Boulevard.

Bloomfield didn’t particularly need a connection to the road: most residents worked at the steel mills along the Allegheny River or took one of the Liberty or Penn Avenue trolley lines to town, Perry Bush wrote in the Winter 1991 issue of Western Pennsylvania History Magazine.

“... the Bloomfield Bridge was not built due to specific economic or commuter inducements, but rather due to the citizenry’s more general interest in modernization.”

For Pittsburgh, like many American cities, the 1900s were an age of expansion. City leaders invested millions in infrastructure. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dubbed it “the great bridge-building era,” and Bloomfield residents help vote the neighborhood’s iconic feature into existence.

When the Bloomfield Bridge opened in 1914 the Pittsburgh Post described its debut as a “Monster Celebration.” The bridge was a point of pride. One young couple even defied the police and had a preacher marry them in a stopped car on the span. But by 1978 the bridge rusted beyond repair and a new one didn’t appear for nearly a decade.

Dave Meyers, co-president of Paul Lumber and Supply Company on Liberty Avenue, said the bridge's return was moving. Literally.

“The thing I remember the most is when they pounded the steel I-beams in the ground for all the columns … ba-boom, ba-boom for, like, four months,” he said. “You could feel the vibration.”

The confluence of Liberty Avenue, Main Street and Bigelow Boulevard created by the bridge is crucial to the neighborhood’s identity, said Christina Howell, executive director of the Bloomfield Development Corporation.

“I think just the sheer number of people coming through that intersection means that it is a gateway,” she said. “Sometimes [that] is the only perception people have of Bloomfield.”

A grocery store has stood at that gateway for more than 40 years, but ShurSave owner Mark Davis said it’s time for him to sell and move on.

“I’d like to fish, paint landscapes,” he said. “And my wife told me she’d like me to spend some time with her.”

A plan to build high-end apartments on the site sparked community dissent. Residents called for affordable housing and the continued presence of a grocery store. The development, proposed by Indiana-based Milhaus, fell through last year. But discussion about the changing nature of Bloomfield as a whole, and that site in particular, continues.

On Saturday, the Bloomfield Development Corporation will kick off a series of community meetings, with support from ACTION-Housing and the Studio for Spatial Practice. The site and adjoining properties are the core of the neighborhood, said ACTION-Housing’s vice president Linda Metropulos. But she said she acknowledges Davis’ property rights on the ShurSave site.

“I understand you don’t want someone just to dictate what you can and cannot do on the site,” she said. “This is not an exercise that’s hoping to do that.”

Instead, it’s an opportunity for the community to express what its values and hopes are for the site and for the neighborhood.

Saturday’s meeting begins at 10 a.m. at the West Penn Hospital School of Nursing. An RSVP is required.