Squirrel Hill gets parking meters
Shoppers on Murray Avenue facing north toward Bartlett Street, near the current Giant Eagle, July 10, 1947. The city metered the street in 1940. (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh Archives & Special Collections)
Shoppers on Murray Avenue facing north toward Bartlett Street, near the current Giant Eagle, July 10, 1947. The city metered the street in 1940. (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh Archives & Special Collections)
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Squirrel Hill gets parking meters

In the first of a three-part series, Squirrel Hill business owners ask for meters to bring order to the commercial district. Fights ensue.

Pittsburgh is one of the nicest cities in the world, except when it comes to parking.

If I mentally tick through the meanest encounters I’ve had with strangers, most involve parking: ugly notes left on the windshield, cutting remarks yelled from porches. One time someone buried my entire car in snow as punishment for a perceived parking offense.

It was “perceived” because no laws were violated — no written laws anyway. There are two sets of parking regulations in Pittsburgh. One is set by the city. The other is set by the People. Violating the first gets you a ticket. Violating the second gets you an enemy.

In an old, cramped city like Pittsburgh, where space is a premium, parking marks the exact point where the rights of individuals bump against the needs of a community.

Parking is a three-way competition. Residents want parking in front of their homes, ideally without any charge. Employees want parking close to work for long stretches during the day. Shoppers want parking close to businesses for short periods of time.

Pity the poor city officials who must appease all three!

Complaints about the new purple “smart loading zones” in Squirrel Hill got me thinking about the ways small changes in parking policy can ripple through a neighborhood.

To sharpen the point: Perhaps parking could help explain why Squirrel Hill maintained its Jewish community while similar neighborhoods in many other cities were upended by emerging suburbs. Not that parking is the answer, just that it provides some useful data.

Squirrel Hill today has five city-owned parking lots and several hundred parking meters throughout the Murray-Forbes-Forward business district and creeping onto a few side streets. Thanks to new digital resources from the City of Pittsburgh Archives and the Squirrel Hill Historical Society, it was possible to discover how this situation came to be.

The 14th Ward had the highest rate of car ownership in Pittsburgh in the late 1930s. The neighborhood accounted 6.5% of the city’s people and about 17% of its cars.

With the growth of the Squirrel Hill commercial district throughout the 1930s, the demands of residents, shoppers and employees came increasingly into conflict.

Squirrel Hill parking was a bit lawless back then. People parked anywhere they wanted, for as long as they wanted. There was all-day parking, all-night parking, and double-parking. Cars and big trucks often blocked hydrants, driveways and loading zones.

Toward the end of the decade, the business community made a push for metering Murray and Forbes. The Squirrel Hill News strongly favored it. So did business owners, four to one, according to a persuasive but unscientific survey by the newspaper in January 1940.

At issue were shoppers. Supporters said meters would improve business. Paid parking would push employees out of the business district, making it easier for shoppers to park near shops. Detractors thought meters would push shoppers to other parts of the city.

In September 1940, the city installed about 150 meters along both sides of Forbes between Murray and Shady and along both sides of Murray between Forbes and Phillips.

“Parking Meters Seem to Solve Problems,” read a Squirrel Hill News headline in October 1940. Shoppers could suddenly find parking spaces. The only frustration came from shoppers who every so often had to rush outside mid-sandwich to feed the meter.

Simple enough.

By the following spring, the Squirrel Hill News was campaigning for meters on Forward Avenue, conducting a survey of that business community with similar results as before.

And yet, revolt was brewing.

The city was considering removing the meters on Murray. Opposition among residents was growing. And this was not mere complaining but open and aggressive conflict.

“Three officers who have been on patrol duty along the metered zone on Murray avenue have been removed to other locations as a result of ‘brush-offs’ with residents who were tagged,” the Squirrel Hill News reported in July 1941. “These selfsame residents used ‘political pull’ to have the officers ousted from the Squirrel Hill district.” Locals were jamming meters with slugs. Business owners were trying to bribe officers into allowing parking in loading zones. One woman tried to rip an officer’s badge from his chest.

City officials said Murray Avenue was causing more trouble than any other section of Pittsburgh. And to be clear, this was just on Murray. Everything seemed calm on Forbes.

What was the difference? If I had to guess, I would say Forbes attracted more business from outside the neighborhood, while Murray attracted more business from inside the neighborhood. Perhaps locals resented having to pay to park in their own neighborhood.

Even before these meters were active, homeowners on Bartlett and Darlington were protesting. Metering the business district, they said, would push drivers onto side streets.

The Bartlett Street Property Owners Association was formed in summer 1941 to demand better enforcement of parking on side streets. They complained about all-day parking, blocked driveways, and “constant hornblowing.” There had once been one-hour parking signs on the street. When those disappeared, they filed a petition, leading the city to prohibit all parking, even for residents, along 650 feet of Bartlett Street for a 60-day test.

Berthold Floersheim and his sister Bertha Rauh led this petition drive. The Rauhs had been living on Bartlett Street for almost 40 years. “The new restrictions make it livable again here,” she said. “At one time we wanted to put our home on the market and sell it because the noise and clutter of the traffic on Bartlett street made it unbearable here.”

The Squirrel Hill News was incensed. What if homeowners on every block of Bartlett and Darlington protested? “Where do merchants, clerks, doctors, dentists, and shoppers unable to secure parking on Murray and Forbes, place their cars?” the paper asked.

The business community appealed the 60-day test through official channels. One local company took a different approach. The Perl-Reichbaum grocery chain said it would demolish the house at 5807 Bartlett St. and construct a small parking lot for customers.

The move was technically illegal, but the city was actively considering an ordinance that would have fast tracked such parking lots in residential areas to ease parking problems.

Amid this rancor, the gentlest of scandals emerged. A Squirrel Hill News investigation in August 1941 revealed that six property owners on Bartlett Street had never actually signed the petition for the 60-day test. They had merely expressed a desire to see some improvement to the situation and had been added to the petition without their knowledge.

So the 60-day test ended, the lot wasn’t built, and tensions between shoppers, employees, and residents persisted until the city pursued an obvious solution: off-street parking lots. PJC

Eric Lidji is the 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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