Wilkinsburg is a borough in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, United States adjacent to five neighborhoods of the city of Pittsburgh, as well as bordering four other boroughs and one township. The population of Wilkinsburg was 15,930, according to the 2010 census, having declined by 13,923 official residents in the 70 years since the 1940 census, when 29,853 people were enumerated. The borough of Wilkinsburg was named for John Wilkins, Jr., a United States Army officer who served as Quartermaster General of the United States Army from 1796 to 1802.
Wilkinsburg was founded and developed by highly religious European immigrants. The borough has a remarkably high concentration of churches, mostly Protestant, which is unusual in a predominantly Catholic region of the country. Wilkinsburg separated from the city of Pittsburgh in 1871. According to borough leader James Kelly, this was in order to maintain the religious integrity of the community. Wilkinsburg was known during this time by many as “The Holy City”.
In 1899 the Wilkinsburg library was founded as a branch of the Braddock library (which was the first of the Carnegie libraries in the nation). The Wilkinsburg library also serves as a meeting place for council members as well as being the home of the local police department.
In 1916, the world’s first commercially licensed radio station, KDKA, began broadcasting here as experimental station 8XK from a small garage owned by Frank Conrad before it was launched with its current call letters on November 2, 1920. In 1923, Wilkinsburg-based Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin designed and patented the iconoscope, the photocell “eye” of early television cameras. Today, ABC affiliate WTAE-TV is located in the borough on Ardmore Boulevard.
Although the borough has been economically depressed in recent years, many efforts are being made to change this. In 2004, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation launched initiatives in partnership with its for-profit development affiliate, Landmark Development Corporation, to begin restoration work on historic structures in Wilkinsburg’s Hamnett Place neighborhood. Within a decade, more than 70 structures were improved, a new neighborhood center was opened, and the community’s supply of affordable housing was increased. The collaborators were subsequently honored with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award in recognition of their accomplishments. During this time, the Hamnett Historic District was also established; that historic district was then approved on June 28, 2010 for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Center (WCDC, open since 2008) on Wood Street has become a huge part in bringing positive change to the neighborhood through helping local businesses move in, spreading the word about events going on, and bringing the people of Wilkinsburg together.
In 2015, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and its for-profit affiliate, Landmark Development Corporation, entered into a collaboration with Falconhurst Development to begin an $11.5 million multi-site restoration within and near the Hamnett Historic District. In addition to restoring four vacant buildings which had been built sometime around the beginning of the 20th century, the developer had plans to open a series of new townhouses in the same area by 2016 with the collaborators again indicating that the housing would be affordable, based on United States Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) guidelines. Ground was broken on the project in late September 2015.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the borough has a total area of 2.3 square miles (6.0 km2), all of it land.
Wilkinsburg has ten borders, including Penn Hills Township to the northeast, Churchill to the east, Forest Hills to the southeast, Edgewood to the south, Swissvale to the southwest, and the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Regent Square, Point Breeze, and North Point Breeze to the west, Homewood South to the northwest, and East Hills to the north.
As of the census of 2000, there were 19,196 people, 9,138 households, and 4,477 families residing in the borough. The population density was 8,335.1 people per square mile (3,222.4/km²). There were 10,696 housing units at an average density of 4,644.3 per square mile (1,795.5/km²). The racial makeup of the borough was 29.25% White, 66.51% African American, 0.38% Native American, 0.81% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 0.55% from other races, and 2.44% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.13% of the population.
There were 9,138 households, out of which 22.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 24.3% were married couples living together, 20.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 51.0% were non-families. 44.5% of all households were made up of individuals, and 12.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.06 and the average family size was 2.91.
In the borough the population was spread out, with 23.4% under the age of 18, 7.7% from 18 to 24, 30.0% from 25 to 44, 23.1% from 45 to 64, and 15.8% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 38 years. For every 100 females there were 78.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 72.0 males.
The median income for a household in the borough was $26,621, and the median income for a family was $33,412. Males had a median income of $26,813 versus $26,196 for females. The per capita income for the borough was $16,890. About 15.9% of families and 18.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 30.8% of those under age 18 and 14.2% of those age 65 or over.
Originally, education within the borough was completely private. Many schools were started by different teachers and held in their homes. The Wilkinsburg Academy, founded in 1852, was the beginning of large-scale schooling. The Free Common School Act of 1834 was adopted by the borough in 1840; James Kelly loaned money for the first common school which served until 1850. From this time, the number of students rose exponentially. By 1910, there were 4,253 students in six public schools.
Today, Wilkinsburg School District consists of Kelly Elementary and Turner Elementary schools. Due to lack of funding, Wilkinsburg’s Junior and Senior High schools recently closed. The district now outsources Junior and Senior High School education to Westinghouse High School in the Pittsburgh Public School district. (See Wilkinsburg High School). The graduating class of 2016 was the last to graduate from Wilkinsburg High School.
Wilkinsburg is also home to the Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy. This is a Catholic elementary school which was formed as a merger of St. James School in Wilkinsburg and Holy Rosary in Homewood (Pittsburgh). The new school is housed in the former St. James School building and educates children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
The most notable agent of revitalization and development in Wilkinsburg is the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC), a non-profit incorporated in 2007 with a mission “to promote the revitalization of Wilkinsburg through business & residential development; organizational & individual civic leadership; and ethnic & cultural diversity.” Their notable community programs include classes for local entrepreneurs, classes on home buying, community events and the Vacant Home Tour. The WCDC focuses primarily on the Wilkinsburg Business District, the area around the intersection of Penn Avenue and Wood Street.
The WCDC’s Business District Revitalization Plan aims to promote a “flourishing commercial and retail environment in Wilkinsburg” and consists of planning and policy recommendations. In May 2015, the WCDC’s advocacy resulted in an approved liquor license referendum, legalizing the sale of up to five restaurant liquor licenses in the borough, which had been a dry community since 1935.
On March 1, 2000, Wilkinsburg received national attention when Ronald Taylor, a man suffering from schizophrenia, killed three people and wounded two others in a spree that occurred in part at the local Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants.
Wilkinsburg was home to the infamous Larimer Avenue-Wilkinsburg (LAW) Gang, which was indicted by the federal government under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The indictment started in 1995, when the federal government began to investigate and arrest many people with criminal ties or activities. Overall crime in Wilkinsburg is higher than outlying neighborhoods on average, but crime has seen a slight decline in recent years.
On March 9, 2016, five people were killed including a pregnant woman in a shooting at a cook-out in Wilkinsburg. In light of this, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh is planning to take steps in helping those living in the neighborhood move past the event by revitalizing the area around where the shooting took place. The City Council has many plans to beautify the neighborhood and repair many of the vacant homes such as the apartment building on 855 Rebecca Avenue. Furthermore, Vice President of the City Council recently started Wilkinsburg Community Conversations, whereby community members have the opportunity to discuss current issues the borough is facing.
Until September 14, 1975, Wilkinsburg had inter-city passenger rail service. On that day Amtrak discontinued service, citing a total of 128 passengers boarding or alighting in the first six months of 1975, the lowest system-wide. The last train serving Wilkinsburg was the National Limited, which operated daily between New York City and Kansas City, Missouri. The PennDOT-operated Parkway Limited provided commuter service to Pittsburgh for nine months in 1981 but was also canceled because of low ridership.
Wilkinsburg has multiple stations on the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway: