Bordering on the Bizarre – The Geometry of Regent Square

Regent Square

The Regent Square neighborhood, with all involved municipal boundaries. Credit – Google Maps / John Linko

As a Pittsburgh-area native, I’ve learned to appreciate the small communities that make up the big city that we live and/or work around.

As a one-time expatriate returned home, I sometimes scratch my head about the manner in which our citizens choose to allow themselves to be governed, and the boundary lines drawn to effect this sort of thing.

As part of a continuing series about these crazy lines and how they impact our lives, I discovered another example of curious borders along the course of my daily commute – through one of the area’s most venerable neighborhoods.

There is no square in Regent Square, which reportedly owes its name to one of those old local businesses that perhaps people of my generation will remember – the Regent Bottling Company. My favorite flavor of Regent pop was the “4%” grapefruit mixer.

The latest combination of construction interference from PennDOT (they never seem to be able work on just one major road at a time) has me driving through this area just about every day I’m working, along South Braddock Avenue, which also serves to bisect “The Square” at its heart – its business district.

As the attached illustrations show, South Braddock is but one of several boundary lines that divide Regent Square among 4 separate municipalities – The City of Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Swissvale, and Wilkinsburg. These boundary lines owe their existence to some of the earliest surveys of the area after being settled in the early to mid-19th Century.

There are examples where this arrangement would create more craziness and conflict than anything else, but Regent Square isn’t one of them. The neighborhood has a more cohesive feel to it, despite the significant differences of the 4 towns that make it up.

S Braddock NB from Sanders

South Braddock Ave. seen northbound from Sanders Ave. The Swissvale side of the street allows bars and liquor licenses, while the Edgewood side is “dry”.                                                                   Credit: Google Maps / John Linko

Perhaps most significant or noticeable of these is the absence of liquor and beer sales on the Edgewood and Wilkinsburg sides. This creates an interesting dynamic on South Braddock, where several bars on the Swissvale side are fronted by several BYOB establishments across the street in Edgewood. Exploring the area in the evening, as Leslie and I did a couple of weeks ago, showed us how popular the area is for nightlife, even during the week.

As I work in the general area, I’ve tried exploring this and other parts of Pittsburgh’s East End to gain more familiarity. There is the Regent Square Theater, which could be a prototype for a new movie house in Sewickley, if all goes well. D’s Six Packs and Dogs serves up some great food along with the beer selection, and Park Pizza and Cream does an excellent job with both dinner and dessert.

One potential negative is a seeming lack of crosswalks except at certain intersections – jaywalking seems to be a spectator sport a good portion of the time. I wonder if the split between municipalities complicates the process of developing additional pedestrian walkways or crosswalks where they might be needed most.

Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill recognized the inherent cohesiveness of the area in a 2008 column, where he noted that “no community is more democratic than a neighborhood. Its boundaries are whatever the residents think they are, and they shift with time.

Regent Sq 45

A closer aerial look at the Regent Square business district, with surrounding residential areas and their respective municipal boundaries.  Credit: Google Maps / John Linko

What is the glue, then, that holds such a place together, especially when seemingly critical elements such as self-governance are divided among so many different entities?

Let’s venture to say that among other things, communication and a keen sense of history go a long way toward keeping a community on the same page – knowing where they’ve been has a lot to do with where they are going. Sometimes it takes groups that function outside of the traditional roles of government to make that happen.

Count the Regent Square Civic Association as such an organization. Their mission statement says, in part:

It is our goal to maintain a sense of community and continuously improve the quality of life in our neighborhood. The RSCA acts as a liaison to government agencies, organizes community events, initiates neighborhood improvements, collaborates with other community organizations, disseminates information to the community, and operates as an advocate on community-wide issues. 

Not too different from many similar organizations around our area, with the possible exception of the extraordinary amount of information available on the RSCA website. There is extensive historical information, documentation of meeting minutes and newsletters dating back several years, and links to numerous community, business, and government web resources.

Some of these sites revealed some interesting historical information. For example:

The 1937 “History of Swissvale” contains the following information appropriate to this history: “Owing to the geographical plan of Swissvale, we have one section which seems at times isolated from the rest of the Borough. This section, known as Regent Square, has for some time been dissatisfied and anxious to be taken out of Swissvale and annexed either to Edgewood or the City of Pittsburgh. They made their first attempt to be annexed to the Borough of Edgewood to the Quarter Session Court of Allegheny County on May 11, 1914 and the proceedings were dismissed by the Court on September 25, 1914. A second attempt was made to be annexed to the Borough of Edgewood and the proceedings were dismissed by the Court.”

“At this time the Borough had a personal tax which seemed to the people of Regent Square very high, and another petition was filed to be annexed to the City of Pittsburgh. At a special election held on March 30, 1918, the annexation was defeated; 266 voting for annexation, and 843 voting against.”

I recently inquired of the RSCA if they knew of any more recent attempts at securing annexation, or any movement toward creating an independent municipality. They replied:

The RSCA is a volunteer organization that works in concert with the 4 municipalities toward common goals. Their responsiveness is generally tempered by their own concerns and those of their constituents…We have never been involved in trying to carve out a “new” Regent Square municipality. I think at one time there may have been some sentiment to allow the Wilkinsburg portion of the Square to be annexed by Pittsburgh, but the RSCA had no involvement in that.

So even with the drawing of archaic lines during the formative periods of the 18th and 19th centuries, citizens maintained this jigsaw puzzle through electoral challenges and changes in representation, economic priorities, and development over the decades that followed. The Swissvale portion of Regent Square is even more isolated from the remainder of that borough than it was in the early 20th Century, thanks to the Parkway East.

It’s a challenging environment for those involved in governance, but perhaps not as much for those engaged in living there. A big part of that can be credited to that segment of the community that works hard to document their history and their desires for the future, keeps lines of communication open, and brings problems to the attention of their respective governments.

There are other examples in our area where it doesn’t work quite as well – and the solutions have been quite different. I’ll explore that more in the next thrilling episode.

Enjoy the fall.

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