By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
In a city known for its blend of historic and modern buildings, the residential side of Pittsburgh architecture is often some of its most quaint and beautiful. Some of the most stately of these are large Victorian-era manors, and quite a number of them can be found nestled in a small Pittsburgh community.
Friendship is a primarily residential hamlet lying in the flats of the East End. One of the smallest pieces in the Pittsburgh puzzle, the neighborhood is a crossroads, wedged between Bloomfield to the west, Garfield to the north, East Liberty to the east, and Shadyside to the south.
“Friendship now is one of these very desirable neighborhoods where people want to live,” says Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who grew up in the neighborhood. “It’s got a lot of tree-lined streets, it’s a pleasant neighborhood with a lot of good housing stock.”
Local mythology has claimed the name “Friendship” to be referencing William Penn, a member of the Society of Friends, but that’s not actually the case, according to Martha Ann Terry, president of the Friendship Community Group.
“There were a couple of farmsteads on the corner of Friendship and Roup,” says Terry. “The families became very close, and they began to refer to the area as Friendship to refer to their family’s friendship.”
Farmsteads like these were the primary settlements in Friendship beginning in the 1820s. The names of many of these early family farms are reflected today in street names — Baum Boulevard, Winebiddle Avenue, and Gross Street, just to name a few.
The neighborhood, along with much of the East End, remained farmland throughout the 19th century. The development of the streetcar in 1890, however, would lead to dramatic changes.
“What had begun happening in 1890 was that the whole East End became a popular place for upper-level administrators and managers at the steel mills downtown to move out of the city and [avoid] the polluted air, the dust and grime that were characteristic of Pittsburgh at that time,” says Terry. “The managers at the steel mill could travel easily between downtown and these new big homes they were building in the East End.”
The influx of new upper-class residents strongly influenced the kind of homes that were built, homes that Friendship is most associated with today.
“These are your big foursquares and what people call Victorian homes,” says Terry. “These were large homes that were built by wealthy people, and meant to be run with the help of servants.”
The houses from this construction boom still comprise a plurality of homes in Friendship today, but changes in the way people wanted to live affected the area in several ways. In the 1930s, smaller houses that could be managed by families without servants became popular, and some of the larger estates were torn down to make room.
Furthermore, suburbanization post-World War II saw many families in Friendship move to the south and north hills, leaving behind their historic homes.
“Those nice three-story brick homes were cut up into apartments…and that did start to change the character of the neighborhoods,” says Fitzgerald.
Lack of proper oversight gave landlords free rein to configure the historic homes how they liked.
“Some guys, if they had 10 rooms in a house, they would make ten apartments. There were no rules,” says Redondo.
Many of these landlords were absentee, failing to keep proper tabs on the condition of their properties.
“Sometimes, those landlords didn’t take very good care of their property. They didn’t take care of repairs that needed to be made, keeping lawns nice, things like that,” Terry says.
Over time, this contributed to a considerable decline in Friendship; the rate of residents leaving the neighborhood increased. The 1970s into the 1980s is considered a period of general blight in the neighborhood.
Ironically, the effects of this blight would bring about the neighborhood’s salvation. The reputation of the neighborhood as dangerous and dilapidated dramatically decreased property values. This, in turn, brought new residents willing to put the work in to revitalize the area.
“What happened in the mid-1980s was young couples realized they could buy these large homes for very little money and rehab them,” Terry says. “There are a number of families I call ‘pioneer families’ who took a chance on Friendship and bought big homes.”
This newfound interest in Friendship led to conflicts with developers looking to capitalize on increasing property values. One of the most high-profile of these skirmishes occurred when a turn-of-the-century house was purchased by a local car dealer, according to Friendship Community Group board member Diana Ames.
“That property was purchased by Baum Boulevard Dodge in 1988, and they demolished the house, intending to use the property for an employee and customer parking lot,” Ames says. “That was when the Friendship community banded together to create both Friendship Development Associates and Friendship Preservation Group to stop the encroachment of that commercial enterprise into the residential part of the neighborhood.”
Incensed by the demolition, the community blocked plans to continue the development, and, unable to build, the car dealer ultimately sold the plot of land to the new neighborhood association for $1. It has since been transformed into Baum Grove, a community green space that also hosts the annual Folk and Flower Festival.
“That park is really the heart of our neighborhood,” Ames says.
Since the Baum Grove situation, the specter of development has continued to rear its head. The most glaring example of this is the recently announced Whole Foods Market, to be built on the former site of the Penn Plaza apartments. This 250,000 square foot development is going up right on Friendship’s doorstep, on the East Liberty side of their Negley Avenue border.
Like many major development projects, community sentiment has been mixed. Nick Redondo, a longtime Friendship resident and owner of the Friendship Perk and Brew coffee shop, sees both positives and negatives to the effects development can have, like rising property values.
“On one side, it’s great economically for the area. On the other side, I couldn’t afford to live here now. I couldn’t afford a half million dollars for my house today,” said Redondo.
Rich Fitzgerald also acknowledges problems for renters caused by new development but argues the benefits outweigh drawbacks.
“For the homeowners, they’re seeing an increase in their wealth,” Fitzgerald says. “For most people, their biggest investment is their home, so for folks…who’ve been paying that mortgage for many years, they’re seeing an increase in their biggest assets.”
Fitzgerald also makes a case that measures can be taken by local government to mitigate the negative impact of major development.
“On the rental side, providing affordable housing, which is something I know the mayor has been pushing for, is a positive thing,” says Fitzgerald.
While development might make some residents nervous, few worry that any developer can change the character of Friendship, nor break the tight-knit community that so many of its residents cherish.
“We have a tradition of block parties, porch parties, backyard happy hours,” Ames says. “It’s a neighborhood that really lives up to its name.”