Thursday, July 27, 2017

July 27, 1959: "End of the Road for Chinatown".

On July 27, 1959, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette used the demolition of two buildings on downtown's Third Avenue to proclaim the end of Pittsburgh's Chinatown, which had been sharply declining in size and population for decades.
John L. Dauer wrote in the Post-Gazette:
Pittsburgh's Chinatown--the once-crowded block bounded by Grant and Ross Streets and Second and Third Avenues--has bowed again to progress and assimilation.

Two buildings on Third Avenue have come down in the past week to make room for a parking lot.

The busy section of 30 years ago has diminished to a mere handful of buildings with about 30 residents. Only four shops and a restaurant have survived the constant moving away of the younger people and remain in operation.

Far Cry From the '20s
In the early '20s, Chinatown included both sides of the 500 block of Second and Third Avenues and at one time even stretched across Grant Street on Third Avenue. Now there are only seven buildings which are occupied by Chinese.

The present Chinatown is a far cry from the Chinatown of the 'Twenties, when it was so crowded and busy that a cab company stationed a dispatcher at the corner of Second Avenue and Grant Street.

In those days the Chinese were prosperous and the societies and tongs maintained a great deal of power. The people avoided contact with Pittsburghers and only one or two could speak English.

The 'Mayor' Spoke English
Willie Yot was given the title of "mayor" of Pittsburgh's Chinatown by an unidentified newspaperman because in the old days he was the only person in the district who could speak English. For years he acted as the go between for his people and officials of the city.

Today the Chinese people have become as typical American as other Pittsburgh families whose children are fans of the movie and rock-'n'-roll stars.

About 80 per cent of the young men and women have gone to college through the hard work of their parents in restaurants, shops and laundries.

Meanwhile, their families have moved to the suburbs.

At present, only three families are left from a population of about 500 of 25 years ago.

Mr. and Mrs. Yee Haim, Yee Tong and his family, and Mr. and Mrs. Lee Git and their family and about a dozen older men comprise the entire population of today's Chinatown.

50 Years in District
Yee Tong has lived in the district for over 50 years and his son, Yee Lim, has owned the Chinatown Inn for about 13 years. The Lee family, who also owns its business, operates a small shop on Third Avenue which sells a variety of Chinese food and delicacies.

Both families live above their places of business.

With only these few people remaining, Chinatown has become a memory and the On Leong Temple a house of tradition.

The younger generations have married and purchased homes away from their old district--but return each week to Chinatown to shop, converse and seek advice from their respected elders.
The two photographs above are better-quality scans of those appearing in the article, and come via the website of Robert Alex Ward.

According to research by Chien-Shiung Wu on Pittsburgh's Chinatown for his unpublished 1982 doctoral dissertation, the population figure of 500 is based on the U.S. Census Report for Allegheny, Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland counties combined. That combined population peaked at 534 in the 1920 census. Wu adds that the real population appears to have been much higher because local Chinese residents did not report to the census. Indeed a 1936 Post-Gazette article puts the number at over 1,000.

Second Avenue, 1921, via Historic Pittsburgh. The left side today holds the remnants of Pittsburgh's former Chinatown; the right was demolished and replaced by the Boulevard of the Allies.

That profile on "Mayor" Willie Yot, cited by Wu, points in many places to the irony of mourning the loss of an ethnic neighborhood borne of necessity and inhabited by people the city didn't like. Toward the end of the article---which commented on photographs of "intelligent faced Chinese" and on Yot's "ever-so-slanted eyes"---he recounts his challenges with finding a place to live.
Willie says it is hard for Chinese to find homes for themselves outside of Chinatown. He says when he got his first job in the city he tried for days to find "a nice room."

There'd be signs, 'Rooms to Rent' on doors. I'd ring the bell. When they'd see me the landladies would shut the doors," Willie relates sadly.

Finally he found a room on the Northside. It took persuasion before he got it. "Then, when I finally left, the couple who owned the house cried," Willie said proudly. "You see, people who know us like us."

But even just a little more than a half dozen years ago when Mrs. Yot went house-hunting, she, too, met prejudice. Finally she signed a lease for the Dormont house. A few days later the landlord offered to pay her if she'd move. Neighbors thought Chinese would spoil the neighborhood."