A Wilkinsburg Historical Perspective


The WGSC has included excerpts from the researched, vetted and penned work of Renee Haynes-Johnson in this historical perspective of our Great Borough of Wilkinsburg. We are grateful for Ms. Haynes-Johnson’s generosity in allowing us to use excerpts of her work to illuminate our Borough’s history. Ms. Haynes-Johnson is a long-term, involved, borough resident, activist and “local griot”.

The excerpts we’ve presented below reflect how Wilkinsburg’s history is deeply intertwined with the history of our region.

I. Who are we?

We are a multi-cultural community of overcomers who are creative, friendly, determined and resilient.

II. Where have we been?

In 1769 Andrew Levi Levy, Sr. bought a 266-acre land tract known as Africa. The tracts were sold to Col. Dunning McNair in 1789.

In 1790 and many acres later, McNair began laying out the plots of his village, known by many names: McNairsville, McNairstown, Wilkinsburgh (with an H, and named after the prominent Wilkins family who lived there).

He encountered financial difficulties and in 1833, James Kelly bought McNair’s 856 acres and purchased thousands more, donating land for most – if not all – of the churches of all denominations in the village and the schools, including the Western PA School for the Deaf (on Swissvale Ave).

Kelly’s vision for Wilkinsburgh (the H was dropped in 1893) was for it to be a unique town, a dry town, a religious town that valued education.

After Pittsburgh annexed the village in May 1873, Kelly single handedly and with his own money, fought to regain Wilkinsburgh’s independence which the PA Supreme Court granted on Jan 31, 1876.

On Oct 5, 1887, Wilkinsburgh was incorporated as a borough and soon began meteoric growth and development.

In 1927, it was the largest borough in PA. Many of the homes built in its heyday were of the Queen Anne, Romanesque, Colonial and other styles. Many of these homes remain today and provide Wilkinsburg with a rich architectural heritage.

The economic boom continued when the largest employers were the Westinghouse plant, the steel mills and the medical community.

III. What happened?

Social and economic shifts and downturns.

    1. The Klan entered in 1922 and went underground in the mid 60’s
    2. White flight – mid 60’s
      1. They headed for the hills i. Penn Hills, Forest Hills, Churchill
      2. As Blacks were displaced throughout Pittsburgh, they moved eastward, through Homewood & Wilkinsburg due to URA developments
        1. Civic Arena – 1961
        2. Allegheny Center Mall – 1965
        3. Ground broken for 3 Rivers Stadium – 1968
      3. Blacks, looking for a better community for their families, away from the riot ravaged, overcrowded city communities, moved to Wilkinsburg in the 60’s
      4. The homes whites couldn’t sell were abandoned or became rental properties
    3. Closing of the mills – 80’s
    4. Closing of the Westinghouse plant – 80’s
    5. Influx of drugs and gangs – 90’s
    6. Increased blight and abandoned properties
    7. Chronic economic instability
      1. a. Decreased tax base
      2. b. Borough enters state receivership under Act 47

These issues are not particular to Wilkinsburg and occurred nationwide.

IV. Where are we now?

We are in recovery.

V. Where are we headed?

The outlook is good. As evidenced below:

    • Wilkinsburg Code Department – Codes have changed. Our properties in the Borough are old and aging. Renewal is underway.
    • Wilkinsburg Borough Council –Are stewards of the Borough’s finances, staffing, infrastructure, parks, planning and more. The leadership’s resourcefulness, knowledge and motivation assists Wilkinsburg in becoming a more livable, prosperous, sustainable, successful, viable, thriving community – with its own independent governance.
    • Wilkinsburg Land Bank – Has a positive and proactive vision to impact home ownership in Wilkinsburg.
    • Government Study Commissioners – Have committed to voluntarily serve our community with their time, energy, laser-like focus and intellect as we seek and explore the BEST form of government for US – a government that is more efficient, effective, responsive, transparent and accountable.

Also remember and consider that Wilkinsburg is designated as a Historical District. This distinction should be maintained, recognized and leveraged as part of Study process.

The historic character of our Borough is foundational to the transformation of our Business District/Main Street from a blighted eyesore to a state [including the optics] of economic vitality similar to other communities such as Lawrenceville and Hazelwood. The historic district designation opens doors to grants and historic tax dollars. WE must be the guardians and enforcers of the historic guidelines and protect our cultural assets.