Suburban in a Good Way
by Eric Miller
It's hard to think of suburbs in a good way, associated as they are with sprawl, and derided as contributors to the fall of America's cities. But places like Ben Avon, a strolling community with grand homes and tree-lined sidewalks, cannot be denied their livability and orderly attraction.
Like other early suburbs, including Germantown outside Philadelphia and Shaker Heights east of Cleveland, at the onset Ben Avon was connected to the city primarily by train. Even today the pedestrian-friendly design remaining sets it worlds apart from the sprawling subdivisions of the last few decades. Still, with time some of the charm has faded. By the early 1990s Ben Avon had lost much of what had made it a social space, a characteristic associated with more urban areas and completely lost in later suburbs.
One resident, long time community pillar Gladys Phillips, seemed disappointed about the state of civic interest in the once vocal and active borough. Having been around when the first and last issues of the Ben Avon Forum were published in the 1920s and 30s, Phillips had much experience to use by the 1990s to judge the contemporary state of affairs. Clearly things had changed, both physically and socially...after all, only one of the eight tall buildings making up the Pittsburgh skyline would have been visible in 1930, assuming the smoke from the roaring mills cleared long enough to see it.
The SettlementEven back then, the history of the hamlet stretched back a half-century or more. One of the first homes in what would grow to become Ben Avon towered over a bend in the Ohio River above the Pittsburgh and Fort Wayne Railroad, a line that stretched along a route known even to George Washington. In the 1870s, a merchant from Pittsburgh's cross-river neighbor, Allegheny City, built what would later be known as the Arthur-Johnson House as a summer retreat far from the smoke and soot of industry.
Back then a trip by buggy along dirt roads was anything but an easy commute. In fact it was difficult enough to make the journey only practical several times a year. The route wound down hillsides, through ravines, across make-shift bridges and back up hillsides again. It wouldn't be long before a commuter railroad made the trip much more practical. In the teens and Twenties, Laurel Run station stood at the foot of a hill below the Arthur-Johnson House. Twin stairways connected the riverside passenger station with the Borough of Ben Avon on the left, and Avalon on the right. Living a distance from the city became much easier for both the working merchants and company men in Avalon, and the wealthier executives and merchants in Ben Avon.
In July of 1930, at what might be considered the turning point in the life of the town, the Ben Avon Forum printed a front-page article praising the quality-of-life in the community. "Ben Avon is the most desirable community to live in the entire Allegheny County-and if pressed, we might take an even larger territory." The author continued… "Its natural beauties and the character of its development, the temper and quality of its citizenry, incite to deep and sincere community loyalty; not too many citizens leave Ben Avon without profound regret."
A "happenings" section in the back of the "who's who" newsletter provided a glimpse into a close community of residents who liked to know what their neighbors were up to. Mentioned specifically are the residents who had left to or returned from vacations in Europe. Mr. and Mrs. T.G. Evans of Woodland Avenue had as her guests for the weekend Mr. and Mrs. John H. Walkmeyer and their children of Evanston, Illinois. Miss Luella A. Smith was operated on for appendicitis, and on Friday afternoon Mrs. George Kahl entertained at tea for some of her friends and their daughters. And while many Americans did not have cars in 1930, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carothers left Ben Avon and motored to Chicago to spend two weeks.
Perhaps the most important note was one that would begin to permanently change the nature, social life and character of the community. The newsletter lists Ben Avon property holders who had been awarded damages for property taken in order to build a grand and unmatched boulevard.
The InvasionTwo years earlier, in 1928, an issue of the Forum noted that The Pittsburgh and Ohio River Boulevard would be a vehicle of utility and beauty. But by September 1929, the changes to come were on view and subject to more scrutiny. One writer noted "a gigantic steam shovel with vicious teeth and a voracious appetite had taken gargantuan bites out of the hills." Long before urban renewal and the Interstate highway, teh American obsession with hurry was setting the stage for dramatic changes to town and country alike.
In the December 1929 issue, the boulevard's promoters persisted and aimed at calming fears. "In another year there will be passing through Ben Avon a wide high-speed highway, the stretch of what will undoubtedly be a great river boulevard. From hundreds of cars there will be thousands." No matter how great the boulevard, the number and speed of the cars would change the suburb from one of an inward looking serene and isolated community to one of inward looking individual families which now had the opportunity to access the city quickly.
The article notes the nature of the topography that had protected Ben Avon up to the construction of the great boulevard. "The Ben Avon people love their homes and their community. They would keep everything as it is, if that were possible, but Ben Avon is being changed from without."
When the Laurel Run train station closed in the 1950s, an effort was underway to change it into a marina for Ben Avon residents. The move would have preserved to some degree the station area as a focal point of the community. The failure of the efforts were symbolic of a the greater civic loss felt by Mrs. Phillips. But the grand boulevard did not replace the train station as the central connecting figure in Ben Avon. It, and the auto age, disenfranchised the community and turned the focus of each life from the public street to the interior of the private home.
Among the BarbariansBen Avon is still a refined neighborhood with tree-lined streets and well-kept homes. The residents still take special pride in decorating lawn edges with colorful flowers and keeping trim well painted. While it's still accessible by mass transit, the Ohio River Boulevard Flyer bus stops on a busy street and forces pedestrians to cross dangerously fast traffic. Besides, the appeal of the diesel bus crawling through traffic can't match that of the commuter train snaking along the river. The highway also divided the Arthur-Johnson house and others on the river side of town from the rest of the community.
The grand and aesthetic boulevard promised slowly gave way to an ugly commercial strip of gas stations, thrift shops and auto-repair stores. The decorative railings and pedestrian bridges have been removed, and the sidewalks lining the edges are too narrow and close to traffic to make a Sunday stroll pleasurable.
On the surface, Ben Avon residents can be assured the homes of the borough look the same. The tracks are still there, and the stairways, but the trains don't run. That may not seem like a big change, considering the long history of the borough, but a trip through the pages of the Ben Avon forum will show quite a different sort of life that existed in Ben Avon not so long ago.
Eric Miller is co-editor of The New Colonist.