The three-story, brick structure stands alone on a block surrounded by vacant lots. It’s got the obvious profile of many turn-of-the-century urban downtown buildings: a big storefront on the ground floor, apartments upstairs, ornamental brickwork at the crown, and the date of construction, 1910, etched into a stone header.
Most recently, the little building on 10th Street was the home of Penn Washer & Appliance Service. But between the age of the hand-painted sign and the amount of viney overgrowth consuming the façade, it’s probably safe to say no one’s had their Kenmore serviced here for some time.
Every time we visit New Kensington, there’s a little less of it there. It’s not that the hillsides are eroding or the river is rising or municipal properties are being sold off to neighboring boroughs. No, the land is holding tight, but the city is losing its downtown buildings at an alarming rate.
In other places, you might see official Condemned paperwork stapled to the front of a “dead building standing” or maybe there’s no warning at all–one day it’s there; the next there’s a pile of rubble. But in New Kensington, derelict buildings are literally marked as living on borrowed time with a big red X crudely painted across a white square of plywood nailed to the front door.
Officially, the red Xs don’t necessarily mean the site will be torn down, but rather it’s a warning for emergency crews and first-responders that the building is unoccupied and structurally unsound. X marks the spot where the roof–or the floor–could cave in at any moment.
Unofficially, it’s really hard to imagine anyone investing in the massive undertaking of saving–or at least stabilizing–any of these buildings in New Kensington. There’s just not that kind of money for such a limited demand. So while the X is telling us be careful, it’s really saying goodbye.The last time The Orbit was in town (some time in 2019) we noticed the red X’s across a pair of side-by-side commercial buildings on 9th Street, the main crossway through downtown if you’re coming straight off the Schmitt Bridge. Stupidly, no one took a picture then [note to self: always record!], but The Internet had our back. (See photo from 2018, above.)
That last Google drive-by shows a pre-X-marked era when the once-charming pair of c. 1900 brick retail buildings are clearly not in a good place. All the windows have been removed, the big glass storefronts replaced by temporary plywood, and from the amount of daylight we’re seeing, it’s obvious one of the roofs is completely gone.
Returning to the scene just last month, 404-412 9th Street has been erased from the earth. Two buildings still stand on the block like bookends on an otherwise empty shelf. In between are 40 or 50 feet of vacant lot, reseeded with new fescue that is coming in nicely with all the recent rain. In the distance–across yet another vacant downtown lot–lies the suddenly-exposed side of a two-story brick building facing 4th Avenue.
Throughout downtown New Kensington, you’ll see the tell-tale red Xs on buildings big and small, houses and commercial structures, on obvious death traps and others that look perfectly fine from the sidewalk right outside.
Take, for example, this yellow brick storefront on the 900 block of 5th Ave. (see photo, above) Aside from the obvious lack of a street-facing entrance door–which is a little weird, for sure–all the windows are intact, the redone masonry work on the first-floor façade looks perfect, and it’s even on a stable block with (literally) upstanding neighbors.
Just a block away, still on 5th Ave., is half-block-long row of five single-story brick storefronts. A leftover hand-stenciled sign informs us that space #4 was most recently home to Bobby’s New York Fashion (see photo, above). Perhaps Bobby left New Ken for the five boroughs and that’s what started the whole exodus–either that, or Alcoa shutting down their massive riverfront plant.
Regardless, another etched stone inlay names and dates the structure as McDonough Bldg. 1916. While it’s tough for anyone to make a go of retail today, it’s easy to imagine this sweet set of five pocket-sized, pedestrian-friendly storefronts populated with quirky small retailers, a little art gallery, business or professional offices. Instead, ex-Bobby’s and the one next door are flagged with the scarlet letter.
Now, none of these downtown New Kensington buildings are the Sistine Chapel and when they reach the point where they could kill someone, something obviously has to happen.
But these kinds of stout brick-and-mortar urban spaces have an intrinsic value–historical, architectural, and aesthetic–that represent a period of expansive American opportunity. New Kensington built these places when our cities were growing like crazy, immigrants from all over the world were pouring into the country, America still made stuff, and things were built to last … and look good doing it. It was also before both the Depression and the automobile would come along and shut everything down and then move everyone out of town, respectively.
We’ll also throw in that shoe leather beats car tires; sidewalks and street trees beat parking lots. Downtown New Ken has its share of problems, but it’s still got a great, walkable core with the potential for just about anything.
I don’t know what the answer is. It is a cruel irony that while much of metro Pittsburgh is–for the first time in generations–rapidly escalating its cost-of-living, there’s a fully intact little city just 20 miles up Rt. 28 that can’t find anyone to populate its nice little downtown. The fantasy urban planner in me imagines all kinds of possibilities, but the realist knows I wouldn’t want to take any of them on.
If you get a chance, though, get yourself up to New Kensington, check out Voodoo Brewery’s rehab of a gorgeous old art deco theater into its newest tap room and beer garden [note: not quite open just yet!], get a weird pizza from P&M [yes, that’s technically in next-door Arnold], an Ethiopian coffee from Kafa Buna, or a Reuben from Eazer’s. While you’re there, say goodbye to some new old friends–they’re already marked for you.
 An earlier, undated, photo on New Ken’s wiki page shows the 404 9th painted white and there still appears to be an open business in 412 9th (at least). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Kensington,_Pennsylvania#/media/File:New_Kensington,_Pennsylvania_(8482190929).jpg
6 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter: Saying Goodbye in New Kensington”
Thanks for the story, Wills. You KNOW how I feel about Eazer’s… AND New Ken!
There is a growing effort to revive New Ken. Being a rust belt town, it’s taken a long time to organize a rebirth. I feel we should continue on our path to revival whilst crime of one sort or another persists and not throw our hands up in defeat. These are 100 year old buildings and likely should be torn down, but this shouldn’t be the focal point.
Arthur, I completely agree. I would love to see great things happen in downtown New Kensington and all its sister cities. This was just one story about saying goodbye to these neat old buildings that I wish could be preserved–even though there’s likely no realistic way for that happen. If you have suggestions for other stories about interesting things happening in New Ken, we’d love to hear them.
It’s been some time since you wrote this piece, and New Kensington had gotten the great fortune of being targeted by a developer who actually cares about the history of structures and being able to encourage new businesses from local owners.
Maybe it’s time for you to do a follow up?
Mark, You are absolutely correct. It’s been great to see all the good things happening on Fifth Ave. Hold me to it.
Excellent, very readable piece on New Kensington. Hope you aware of the Knead Cafe, recently opened downtown to serve as something of a parachurch mission outreach. Excellent food, friendly folks, provision for folks unable to make payment.