Bluff is a neighborhood directly east of Pittsburgh’s downtown. The story of Bluff starts with our man James Tustin who bought the land in the early 18th century, calling it Soho after his old neighborhood in London. Tustin’s estate, replete with flora imported from England, was at one point considered to have been ‘the most beautiful place in Pittsburgh’ according to a 1915 Pittsburgh Gazzette-Times article. (Thank the Citypaper for that nugget).

The most beautiful place in Pittsburgh got decimated in the fire of 1845 and the area was rebuilt. Factories moved in, along with rowhomes to house mill workers. As the industry and bustle of downtown expanded, the wealthy folks who had once lived in Bluff left for greener and more distant pastures.

Adversely affected by misguided urban renewal projects in the 1960s, Bluff seems to be scraping off the rust and dust of decades of neglect and establishing itself as a beautiful and livable neighborhood once again.

asylum coffee

On one side, an abandoned building. On the other, a new coffee shop.  Asylum Coffee seems like a step in the right direction for Bluff, adding a neighborhood-centered commercial element to a largely blighted block. Check out their kind of creepy website.

the bluff

Bluff is perhaps the most aptly named neighborhood in Pittsburgh, because it’s a bluff. That is, ‘a high steep bank, usually formed by river erosion.’ Here’s a shot from the top of the bluff of the Monongahela, the river that did the eroding.

Looking towards the east along Blvd of the Allies, you can see the Birmingham Bridge in the background. In the foreground is the home of the Duquesne Tamburitzans, America’s, ‘longest-running multicultural song and dance company.’ They tour all over the country; if you happen to be one of my Billings, Montana readers, they’ll be in your town on Tuesday.

bluff house-scorn and garden tour

Bluff features some beautiful late 19th century rowhomes. Many have been fixed up, but many are still abandoned.

great use of boarded up windows

This is cool. All those pieces of plywood covering the windows and doors of abandoned buildings are perfect canvasses.

paramount pictures film exchange

I saw this wild doorway on Blvd. of the Allies.

Here’s the story. Starting in the 1920s, production companies had film exchanges. These were places that local theater owners could go to preview movies. Pittsburgh’s film exchanges were all located near one another, creating a ‘film row’ where the city’s theater owners gathered to select their movies. The Paramount building is the last remaining film exchange building and has recently attained Historic Landmark status by the city.

public art in bluff

Central to many urban revitalization projects is an abundance of public art. Bluff is full of examples.

This mural may be the best I’ve seen in the city:

A painting and sculpture outside James Simon’s studio. Simon is one of Pittsburgh’s most prolific and acclaimed artists. Besides creating beautiful concrete sculptures, Simon also hosts the monthly Gist Street Reading Series at his studio, showcasing emerging writers. The painting, by Kate Bechak, is bananas, and is titled “Bananas.”

The above sculpture and drawing, both on Gist Street, are part of a project called the Art on Gist Street Project, which essentially decorates and livens an entire block. Another piece from the Art on Gist Street Project is Jean Foss’s beautifully framed ‘Oaxacan Dinner,’ below.

Another piece from the project is this sculpture titled ‘The Bridge’ from Heather Powell under a mural by Laura Jean McLaughlin.

come on pittsburgh: fifth avenue high school

The Fifth Avenue High School was built in 1894 and was open for schooling until 1976. The building housed the Alpha Chapter of the National Honor Society and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. So why is this amazing building boarded up and fenced off?

duquesne university

A discussion of Bluff wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Duquesne University which occupies around 50 acres towards the western part of the neighborhood. The steeple you see in the picture is on the Old Main administration building and was the highest point in the Pittsburgh skyline when it was erected in 1885.

fifth avenue

Fifth Avenue is the northern border of Bluff. In this shot, an entirely blighted block is in the foreground with downtown Pittsburgh in the background.

As you drive eastward from Duquesne’s campus, the number of vacant storefronts increases as does the number of abandoned homes.

Click here to see what this stretch of Fifth Avenue looked like in 1908.

further improvements

After biking around for a bit, I struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be heavily involved in Bluff’s renovation. He was planting flowers in what used to be an empty lot. He told me that the white wall you see in the picture, the side of Merante Plumbing, would soon be a mural.

parting shot: bluff

Extended, hopefully not too ridiculous, metaphor: Bluff is like an older Mercedes, once a luxury item now mostly ignored, partially covered, showing some signs of rust but still shining pretty brightly, sitting in a neglected lot near the river, with bridges to cleaner places running over it and around it, and partially swallowed by the shadows of larger things.


One Response to Bluff

  1. Sandy says:

    This is a wonder throwback of the Bluff & Uptown.. I will say we started out to revitalize the area, but now it seems that the only thing we get moneys for is 1/2 housing and low & moderate income renters.. The parts you have shown it the good parts of the neighborhood. But now they (government/city whomever) is taking everything that other community’s don’t want and bringing it to us… This is not what we truly want… We want family’s.. Family’s that can buy houses and make good homes & neighbors.. Not kids that fall out of the system and they come here (right in front of drug row). I have lived here 40 + years , was born & raised here and we knew our next door neighbors.. Not now… So I hope our Mayor takes a good look at are area and the senators and the Council man that is helping to push this through…. All the renters never come to the community meeting, they (most) could care less… WE STILL NEED HELP IN GETTING THE RIGHT PEOPLE IN HERE… thank you listening..and great job on your story.

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