Allentown catches your eyes on a map because of a feature normal in most cities, but unique in Pittsburgh: a street grid. The neat square blocks just beyond a bluff overlooking the Mon show no sign of the diagonals or triangles or serpentine drives common to the rest of the city. Only Arlington Avenue, slicing through the neighborhood in a sharp curve from Grandview Park to Brownsville Road, taints all those right angles.
This optimistic grid appears on plat maps as early as the 1870s, when the homesteads and farms overlooking the Point gradually became a German enclave removed from the smokiness of the South Side Flats down below. Then, as today, transportation defined Allentown. The intersection of Arlington and Warrington, marked today by a gas station and a police station, is one of the more notable in early Pittsburgh history. Warrington connected Pittsburgh to Washington, Pa., while Arlington went east to Philly and south to Wheeling. Allentown got its first trolley in 1888, and it continued to have one until the Port Authority eliminated the Brown Line in late March, as part of its cuts.
Today, Allentown is confusing. It’s lively, but half boarded up. Because of the hills, the street grid is overshadowed by odd views. Facing north, the top fifty feet of the Steel Tower and the BNY Mellon buildings rest behind the rooftops like quite office buildings a few blocks away. Steeples cut between the rooftops. We tracked one down only to find it wasn’t a church, but a school, and wasn’t in Allentown, but in Beltzhoover: the Beltzhoover Subdistrict School, built in 1909 and shuttered in 2004. As we studied it, two people asked if we were “from an organization.” It turns out people have been sniffing around the school recently, but we weren’t able to figure out anything more than that.
Walking through the grid, Allentown yielded surprises: the advertisement outside Laundry Tyme of a woman wearing a wooden barrel while she washes her red dress, the half-finished painting for Greedy Records (producers of “Sunshine” and “Do It Like A G”) of a man eating a bowl of money for breakfast, a vacant and overgrown lot from the Tom Murphy-era “Project Picket Fence,” the sleek line drawings on the police station.
Crossing Warrington, we climbed the hill to Grandview Park and saw its grand view: Downtown, the Hill District and Oakland on a wedge across the river. A man fixing an air conditioner in his yard didn’t even bother looking up as we crossed his lawn to get closer to the edge. We wondered why the view didn’t drive up property values. In any other city, wouldn’t the hillside be littered with gates and mansions? We marveled at the modest way Pittsburgh does magnificent things, how it back-flips and then shrugs.
Check out Allison’s photographs from Allentown.