Bloomfield's Little Italy

There are at least 88 distinctly different neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh area. So it?s a safe bet to say that most Carnegie Mellon students have been to but a few of these neighborhoods ? and most likely the newer you are to the Pittsburgh area, the fewer neighborhoods you?ve seen.

Since you?ve only seen a little bit of Pittsburgh, it can be hard to choose where to go next. Friendship and Lawrenceville are both experiencing changes that could perhaps be called cultural or artistic renaissances. And both neighborhoods have also experienced an influx of life
through the younger generations moving in, renovating, and bringing in business. Following in the footsteps of Friendship?s and Lawrence-ville?s small-scale cultural revitalizations is another Pittsburgh neighborhood, Bloomfield, also known as Pittsburgh?s Little Italy.

A ?Little [insert country name here]? generally refers to an area, or neighborhood of a city, that has a strong concentration of people of one cultural background. There are a few Little Italys throughout the country, the most famous one probably being the slowly diminishing Little Italy in Manhattan. Anyone who has been to New York City?s Little Italy might be better off not comparing Pittsburgh?s Little Italy ? while there?s a significant cultural history of Italians in Bloomfield, the locals don?t wear the green, white and orange on their sleeves.

Although NYC boasts a few blocks of Italian restaurants, bakeries, and caf?s all teeming with ?first- or second-generation Italian-Americans, Pittsburgh?s Little Italy has a few Italian-named restaurants and bakeries sporadically lining the blocks of Liberty Avenue. But Bloomfield was once the place to be if you were an Italian in Pittsburgh.

Founded in the early 1800s by a German immigrant named John Conrad Winebiddle, the neighborhood gained popularity among Italian immigrants after World War I. The increasing amount of industry in the greater Pittsburgh area ? mainly steel, but also glass and railroads ? was promising to those looking for a steady income. A mild cultural and less mild monetary divide was created within Bloomfield between the Italians and the German and Polish immigrants.

Those from outside Bloomfield took note of the influx of immigrants, and displayed a marked dislike for Italian immigrants and their social status. On January 21, 1906, an article in the Pittsburgh Leader read, ?Of late years hordes of Italians have made their home in the Sixteenth [Ward; that is, Bloomfield]. They are mostly of the poorer and less desirable class and live in a section of the ward that is celebrated for its streets, knee-deep with mud.?

Despite the poor laborer status of the largely Italian town, there was a close-knit, extended-family feeling to the area. The Immaculate Conception Church of Saint Joseph Parish acted as a central hub for Bloomfielders of all backgrounds to gather and celebrate religion and holidays.

Today the church, which still stands, brings together a smaller grouping of older citizens of mostly Italian heritage. These parishioners live off the main road of Bloomfield, and many have seen drastic changes in the area even since the 1980s.

Kelly Harrington, the Irish owner for six years of Tessaro?s, an American bar and grill on Liberty Street in Little Italy, shared his perception of Bloomfield?s recent history. ?It?s changed,? Harrington said. ?The Italians have moved out, and their children came in. You can just see [it] changing. But it?s still a nice area.?

Bloomfield is similar to many other areas of Pennsylvania, which are being crippled as the young are moving out in hordes, and the elderly are staying.
At relatively quick paces, neighborhoods are emptying out. Right now, however, Bloomfield seems to be regaining its footing as an area of interest. A cancer center, a children?s hospital, and a new hotel all bring new job opportunities and with that, hopefully, an economic boost. The influx of such huge businesses to the area brings a new dynamic to Bloomfield. ?You?re starting to see real estate values increase,? noted Ken Zeff, owner of the local coffehouse chain Crazy Mocha. Harrington added, ?The attractions are bringing in new people ... who aren?t Italian.?

In its heyday, Bloomfield offered plenty for the people it had to cater to. There was the popular Plaza Theatre and the church. Bloomfield was always a fairly tiny neighborhood, never quite comparable to the busier parts of any cities. But that was the charm of the area.

An innocently entertaining article appeared September 5, 1999, in the Tribune-Review about ?Bloomfield legends,? including everyone from ?Harry Greg, a middleweight world-championship boxer,? to Tom Savini, the filmmaker behind Night of the Living
Dead. Also included in the list of legends is David L. Lawrence, once governor of Pennsylvania, and ?one local woman, Anna Demarco, a 101-year-old tarantella dancer, [who] was only supposed to be an extra ... in a Cesar Romero film,? but wound up being paid after she kissed Romero in a scene at Mass.

Bloomfield was once a fairly exciting, culturally charged neighborhood in Pittsburgh, but what about now? It has
the potential to become a great college hangout. Zeff said in an interview at his shop that both Duquesne University and University of Pittsburgh students already frequent the area. He told how his experience running a shop in Lawrenceville was indicative of the promise Bloomfield held for the near future.

?This area really hasn?t changed dramatically, but you can really start to see it changing gradually with the children?s hospital,? he said. ?The land values have increased.? The reason that most Carnegie Mellon students haven?t discovered Bloomfield yet ? aside from its lack of amazing places to visit ? is the distance from campus. While Little Italy isn?t extremely far away, it is only accessible to students without a car by the Pittsburgh Transit Authority?s 54C bus.

And if you?re looking for food in Pittsburgh, Bloomfield will be on your agenda: for Italian food alone, both Del?s Bar and Ristorante DelPizzo receive great reviews on their authenticity.

Although not entirely Italian, Tessaro?s unique history stems from its origins as a rock-and-roll club, cooking burgers in garbage cans outside on the street. It?s become a little more classy since then, and has moved indoors. Tessaro?s has great burgers (good enough that this writer heard about them from two complete strangers on an airplane), and a very ?chill? atmosphere.

Crazy Mocha is almost completely detached from anything culturally ?Italian.? It has a good coffeeshop locale, and it has sister sites in Shadyside (on Ellsworth) and Oakland (across from Uncle Sam?s Subs), as well as in the newly-constructed SouthSide Works. If you are in Bloomfield already, you?ll be joining the scores of other local college students already there for an afternoon caffeine hit.

Speaking of not-so-Italian shops, Bloomfield is also home to a bakery, a Starbucks, a W.G. Grinders, a tattoo parlor, a women?s (old women?s) clothing store, a barber shop, and a few other small restaurants. Although these shops are not worth the trip by themselves, they are good places to stop while in Little Italy.

The strong Italian culture is leaving Little Italy, but in its place a new culture of young students and potential businesses is slowly leaking into the area. With local homegrown organizations like the Bloomfield Business Association running alongside UPMC?s future hospital, land value is looking to start spiking in just a few years. With Pittsburgh?s neighborhoods, the rule has always been ?revival of the fittest? ? and Bloomfield is looking to climb out into the light.

Kristen Lukiewski