A visit to Squirrel Hill, 1963
HistoryA rare look at Squirrel Hill by outsiders.

A visit to Squirrel Hill, 1963

Graduate students for the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work visited Squirrel Hill in the early 1960s to study its Jewish community.

The 2000 block of Murray Avenue, showing Pinsker’s, M. Fogel Meats, Murray News Stand, Stern’s Café, Kablin’s Market, and other shops — Nov. 3, 1965. (Photo courtesy of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives)
The 2000 block of Murray Avenue, showing Pinsker’s, M. Fogel Meats, Murray News Stand, Stern’s Café, Kablin’s Market, and other shops — Nov. 3, 1965. (Photo courtesy of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives)

A few Decembers ago, I overheard a customer at the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle ask a clerk why the selection of Christmas decorations was so sparse. The clerk got an awkward look on his face as he searched for the most judicious way to explain the obvious. He finally told the customer, “The clientele at this branch is more… Judaic.”

A similar scene happened at the same Giant Eagle, some 60 years earlier. A group of social workers visited the store to understand how it compared “to a similar market in a non-Jewish area.” They asked one of the non-Jewish clerks, who had also worked at Giant Eagle branches in other parts of the city. Here, she said, “They want catered to.”

Both moments have elements of ridiculousness — one arising from the ignorance of the customer, the other from the ignorance of the clerk. Of course, all customers “want catered.” It’s only noticeable if the thing they want is different from the thing you want.

Why were social workers wandering through a grocery store? In large part, to better understand these biases. They were first-year graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh, part of an innovative new course called the Community Laboratory.

Professors Eleanor Cockerill and Claire Lustman developed the course to help emerging caseworkers confront their preconceptions of a new community. Students were assigned to neighborhoods all over the city. “In many ways they were like a group of travelers abroad who become increasingly absorbed with the characteristics of the country they are visiting, its people, its customs, its values,” Lustman later wrote.

Lustman was part of the local Jewish community, and Cockerill was personally familiar with it. She had offered lectures at the YM&WHA for returning veterans in the 1940s and sat on the board of the Council House in the early 1960s. In preparing the Squirrel Hill project, they convened 45 people who could help students navigate the local Jewish community. Students spent the fall of 1963 speaking to these experts and observing daily life in Squirrel Hill. The result was a 78-page report in December 1963.

The report is a rare look at Squirrel Hill by outsiders. It is always uncanny to see your normal life regarded as remarkable by someone else. The report abounds in the type of backhanded compliments that come when one group is actively wriggling free from the prejudices it holds toward another. After touring the business district — Weinstein’s, Arthur Moser, the Tweed Shop, Lintons, Maxine’s, and of course a beauty salon — the students “concluded that the informants were cordial, helpful and available but in no way ‘pushy.’” I find it easy to feel superior when I read something like that, but it’s more helpful to use it as an opportunity to consider my own cluelessness toward other cultures.

The report makes clear that by late 1963, Squirrel Hill had a widely held reputation throughout the city as being an enclave belonging exclusively to rich Jews — a stereotype I’ve known existed but never seen so explicitly in the historic record. A social worker cannot provide adequate care if they are blinded by preconceptions, and so the Community Laboratory was designed to complicate stereotypes among the students.

And as the students gained trust, the Jewish community opened up, revealing facets of its identity. Explaining yourself to an outsider requires a fairly wide lens.

For example, when the students asked various respondents to describe the boundaries of Squirrel Hill, they got precise technical answers from politicians, postal workers and demographers. Jewish community leaders provided a much looser definition of the neighborhood. It included Greenfield, Point Breeze and even Monroeville.

Monroeville might seem like a stretch until you consider that 42% of the Jewish population of the eastern suburbs in 1963 had moved there directly from Squirrel Hill — twice as high as Jewish outmigration to the South Hills. These new residents of Churchill, Eastmont, Monroeville and Wilkins Township were young couples with parents in Squirrel Hill. They still regularly shopped on Murray Avenue. In many ways, the eastern suburbs were an extension of Squirrel Hill, rather than a replacement of it.

The report defines a crucial characteristic of Squirrel Hill, described as individual independence within a “loosely bound” power structure. Squirrel Hill was widely considered to be the most politically independent section of Pittsburgh in those years. It famously split tickets in many local elections and regularly flip-flopped between parties from election to election. Politicians understood that Squirrel Hill voted on issues, and even Jewish candidates were never guaranteed political support in the neighborhood.

The report describes a political structure where community groups emerged quickly in response to issues, worked hard to achieve their goals, and disbanded. Women were a leading force behind this community advocacy, especially homemakers who had the time and the smarts required to investigate issues and organize communal responses.

Brought to bear on community issues, the Jewish population of Squirrel Hill often appeared to be fragmented across many initiatives and yet still managed to come together to address problems through large community undertakings. Anyone willing to take responsibility for one of these undertakings could be called “a leader” within the community. As Jewish Chronicle Editor Al Bloom explained, “Organizations are stronger than the individual because, to the Jew, the community is more important, per se.”

Whether any of this is true is beside the point. This is the story the community chose to tell about itself. The following year, the United Jewish Federation issued its first population study since the late 1930s. It’s invaluable, but it’s all numbers, no spirit. The community didn’t sing this song to itself, only to trustworthy and inquisitive outsiders. PJC

Eric Lidji is director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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