Depending on where you are living, the mention of 5th Avenue conjures-up different memories:
• To the world’s population, it most likely makes them think about New York City’s famous thoroughfare. The avenue, especially between 49th Street and 60th Streets, is lined with prestigious shops and is regularly ranked among the most expensive shopping streets in the world. 5th Avenue is home to notable NYC points of interest such as Greenwich Village, Washington Square, the Empire State Building, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman. Central Park, and the Guggenheim Museum.
• To chocolate lovers everywhere, 5th Avenue simply means the Milk Chocolate Crunchy Peanut Butter Bars were first introduced in 1936 and are currently made and marketed by the Hershey Company.
• To Pittsburghers it was “home”, and to many Duquesners, 5th Ave brings to mind adventures, big city excitement and Christmas displays that rivaled New York. Fifth Avenue is one of the longest streets in Pittsburgh. It begins downtown and moves eastward for over five miles. Fifth Avenue passes by the former Warner Theatre, Kaufmann’s Department Store, Carlow University, the very recognizable Litchfield Towers dormitories at the University of Pittsburgh, the Cathedral of Learning and other buildings of the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland, then forms the borders between Shadyside on the north and Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze to the south. Finally, after passing Chatham University, The Ellis School, and Mellon Park, it turns north and forms the border between Larimer on the west and North Point Breeze and Homewood (Pittsburgh) on the east.
And then there is OUR 5th Avenue – 5th Avenue in McKeesport, Pa. By big city standards, 5th Avenue in McKeesport would have been considered “small potatoes” but for all of us, it held treasures, experiences and adventures too numerous to count.
I’ve written about McKeesport many times before, but I was once again reminded of how special a place it was to me when Barry Long emailed me a large group of pictures of “Old McKeesport.” The album contained 248 photos and I hope to share many of them in coming posts. There were 3 photos in the group that immediately grabbed my attention however. The 3 photos were taken in different years, but all 3 instantly transported me to the downtown McKeesport we ALL grew to love, remember and think of as our home away from home.
As you can see from the first picture, downtown McKeesport looked very different than it does in recent years. I was struck with the VERY apparent cleanliness of the city. No litter, no debris; just a pristine environment that exuded pride in ownership and community.
As I scanned the storefronts, there were so many familiar names and building facades. In some cases, there were some surprises as well. For instance, although the logo for Jaison’s looks exactly as I recall, the location is not the same and the size of the store is different from the Jaison’s of my youth. By the time I was old enough to remember the store, it had moved and expanded to a large storefront that graced 5th Ave with their familiar logo on a white and yellow woven background.
Just beyond Jaison’s in this photo is a W.T.Grant Co. 5&10 Cent Store. It was located just a few stores west of the H.L.Green 5&10 Cent Store. I don’t recall the Grant’s store at all. By the time I went on shopping expeditions with my mom, there were only a Murphy’s and a Green’s on 5th Ave.
I think we shopped primarily on the north side of 5th Ave since I barely recall the stores opposite Jaison’s. I’m not sure what type of store Neuman’s was, but I immediately recognized the Isaly’s logo next to Neuman’s. There was always a place for selling chipped ham and ice cream cones!
This next photo was probably taken at the same time as the first photo. Since the stores around the tracks were those that were the most familiar to me, I was surprised to see some that I was unaware of. I don’t recall ever going into the Rexall or Thrift Drug Stores. There also appears to be a store named Michael’s that apparently is a clothing store. Again, I don’t recall this store and would love to learn more about it. Just west of the Rexall is the G.C. Murphy 5&10 Cent Store that I remember so well, along with the most distant store shown, H.L.Green.
After a very long career in retailing, I was amazed that there were three home furnishings stores located within the same block on 5th Ave. R.E.Kaplan’s, Hirshberg’s and Ruben’s all sold furniture from what I recall. I suppose they peacefully co-existed for years since they all had a long history on the streets of McKeesport. Of these three stores, I became most familiar with Hirshberg’s. My mom and dad shopped there for most of their major purchases, from lampshades to full rooms of furniture. I don’t remember much about the store’s interior except for the long bank of display windows that lined both sides of the entrance to the store.
The only store visible on the south side of 5th Ave is Samuel’s. I may be incorrect, but I think that Samuel’s was a shoe store. I remember that my mother loved to buy shoes, a recessive gene that must have been passed on to her granddaughters! If anyone has more insight into Samuel’s, please clue me in!
This final picture that shows the removal of the railroad tracks in downtown McKeesport. Although it shows the most chaos, there are so many memories. To the extreme right, the National Record Mart sign is partially visible. I purchased my very first 45 rpm record here. Telstar, by the Tornados, was recorded in 1962 and was one of my favorites. Of course, I was only 11 years old, but I remember playing the record over and over again on my Mom’s new pink hi-fi record player.
NRM became the source for the majority of my 45 rpm record collection, which I still own to this day. The store eventually relocated to a storefront that was near Cox’s on the south side of 5th Ave.
“Book Sale” was always one of my favorite stores during my teenage years. Back in the days of REAL books, and when people actually would READ as a form of entertainment, Book Sale provided a cheap source of reading material. Every wall was lined with rows and rows of wooden shelving, and contained countless paperback books that were separated by category. Since every cover had been ripped off of the paperback books, one would actually have to read a synopsis that was on the back cover in order to determine if the book interested you. Only the spines of the books were visible, whether they were shelved on the wall or housed on the many flat bin tables on the selling floor.
I believe that they only books that were available that still had a cover attached were the all too familiar “Cliff Notes.” As a high school student, Cliff Notes were often a constant companion for me. They saved me from the daunting task of not only having to read many of Shakespeare’s works, but having to actually understand what in the heck he was talking about. Somehow, Shakespeare and being a hunky was not a good mix.
As a student at Serra Catholic High School, I think it is now safe to admit that not only did I use Cliff Notes for my English classes, I was a firm believer in using the annotated Latin/English versions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Hopefully, my high school diploma will not be recalled or invalidated after letting loose with this 43 year old secret!
In closing, I know we would all enjoy hearing about other McKeesport stores of your youth. I’m sure there are stories about Cox’s and their fashion shows, Immel’s, Kadar’s, The Famous and many more. Please share!