Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pittsburgh's Chinatown.

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The back of the "venerable, Pagoda-trimmed Chinatown Inn".

A little while ago the "Abandoned, Old & Interesting Places - Western PA" Facebook group shared a couple pictures of what's left of Pittsburgh's Chinatown, which jogged my memory of the tiny ethnic community that used to be downtown. I went down there this morning to take a few pictures and to compare them to those taken in 1921, available from the Historic Pittsburgh Images Collections database compiled by the University of Pittsburgh.

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The Chinatown Inn from Third Avenue.

Pittsburgh once had a diminuitive Chinatown, as was profiled in a 2006 City Paper column on Asian influence in Pittsburgh:
There were enough Chinese to create their own Chinatown, however, located just off Grant Street near the present-day Boulevard of the Allies. (The Chinatown Inn, once the headquarters of a local fraternal organization, is the last survivor of this district, which was wiped out by the Boulevard's construction.) As Faire points out, however, discrimination "severely restricted these immigrants' choice of employment. … [T]he region housed only 435 Chinese residents in 1930 but boasted 185 Chinese laundries and restaurants."
That's the facade of the restaurant, taken from Court Place. A a 2003 Post-Gazette restaurant review by Woodene Merriman continues:
It was one of the smallest Chinatowns in the United States, but it was a busy one. In the early 1900s, Second and Third avenues, Downtown, between Ross and Grant streets, had Chinese gift and grocery shops, restaurants, even a little park where the Chinese families who lived above their stores gathered on warm evenings.

It was the home of two rival Chinese fraternal societies -- the On Leong Labor and Merchants Association and the Hip Sing Association. It had a so-called "mayor" and "tong" wars.

Chinese from surrounding towns would come by bus, train or trolley on Sunday afternoons to socialize, play mah jong and drink tea.

Today, all that remains of Pittsburgh's Chinatown are the two buildings on Third Avenue that house the venerable, pagoda-trimmed Chinatown Inn.
If you're downtown you can find the area on Court Place (map), which abuts the entrance to the Boulevard of the Allies on the north. It's rather isolated, cut off by that highway to the south and lightrail tracks and the Crosstown Boulevard to the east. Looking down the alley from Grant Street you'll see the Chinatown Inn near the end:

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The tall building on the corner of Ross Street and Court Place is the Robin Civic Building, and can be seen in this 1921 picture from Grant Street:



And here's a 1921 picture looking the other direction toward Grant Street:



The large building on the corner of Grant Street and Court Place (which was Second Avenue until the Boulevard of the Allies rerouted traffic) once housed a pharmacy but is no longer there. Two buildings down from the Chinatown Inn is Hong Kong Express, a Chinese restaurant at 529 Court Place and a couple buildings out of the shot of the last picture:

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The building was home to the local Hip Sing Association branch, which Wikipedia describes as
a Chinese-American criminal organization based in New York's Chinatown during the early 20th century.
As that 2003 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette restaurant review writes:
In the 1920s, Chinatown was divided by two fraternal societies --Hip Sing (Help-Success) and On Leong (Peace-Fraternity) -- that wanted to control Chinatown. Yuen Yee, the last unofficial mayor of Chinatown, now retired and inactive, explained them in an interview with Barry Paris of the Post-Gazette in 1985:

"During the tong wars, they were rivals -- each trying to get new members -- and there was that idea of 'I'm muscling in on your territory, and you're muscling in on mine.' But for the most part, it wasn't really that dangerous."
The Hip-Sing Association is still listed as the owner of the building. Besides the facade of the Chinatown Inn, the characters on 529 Court Place, 協勝公會 (Hip-Sing Association), are about the only evidence of the Chinatown that was once there.


Corner of Ross Street and Second Ave., 1921. The tall building in the background is still there, while the others have been chopped up and reconfigured, as you can tell by comparing the number of windows in the old and new facades.

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