Putting Together the Puzzle Pieces of Oakland


words: Laura Pollino

photos: Lauren Zawatski

I could fill an entire page with what I didn’t know about the neighborhood of Oakland, and, well, here it is.

My home is about 35 minutes from Oakland, so growing up my parents always brought me to the city. We usually came down for breakfast at Pamela’s, Pitt basketball games or Sorrento’s.

However, I never paid attention to what Oakland actually had to offer. My assignments for Off the Bluff magazine helped me discover the puzzle of Oakland as much more than just Pitt’s campus: It’s a phenomenal place that’s full of diversity and culture.

In high school, our language classes always went on field trips to the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning and toured the Nationality Rooms. Back then, we went simply because it was a free day off classes; however, in college, when I went I took time to look at the history and value of it all.

I learned more deeply about one specific neighborhood staple due to a class assignment I had this semester, and it is one of Oakland’s largest puzzle pieces: Schenley Park.

Having been to Oakland so many times, I don’t even remember driving past or through the park, but now I’ve learned that the park is a central attraction for Oakland. It has bike trails, playgrounds, walking trails, golfing, swimming, disc golfing — just about everything.

While I was researching the history of the park, I gathered information from online sources and Bob Bauder, a writer for the Tribune-Review. He told me that Mary Schenley was “a rich heiress” who was given a rather large inheritance from her mother in the 1850s. With that inheritance she donated a great deal of land in 1889 to create the park.

I pieced the parts of this information together on Mary Schenley back to the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt. I learned that the Croghan-Schenley Ballroom and its parlor, both originally from the family’s mansion, were moved to the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning in the 1940s. Still to this day, it remains a major piece in Oakland. What I was learning about Oakland was becoming a grander image.

It was like a puzzle. Lots of things connected in one way or another, and it was starting to come together.

My next puzzle piece, once again in the form of an assignment, was a montage piece on a pizza shop I have been going to since I was roughly six or seven years old. Sorrento’s Pizza Roma has been my family’s favorite pizzeria for as long as I can remember. When we got the assignment to do this type of story, I immediately chose Sorrento’s.

I had the opportunity, for which I am beyond grateful, to meet the owner. It was awesome to meet and chat with the person running my favorite pizza shop. I also had the opportunity to speak with the manager for the past six years, recently hired employees and some that have worked there for more than twenty years. The history of the shop and how it has evolved over the years has been quite the journey.

The next puzzle piece I discovered in Oakland was the Original Hot Dog Shop. I had no clue about “The Dirty O.” I’ve been driving past that place for forever, and never thought of the history it had and the impact it had on Oakland.

The lights on the sign give you that old time feel — almost taking you back in time. It’s like one of those movie scenes you wish you could go to.  At first, the smell of this place was a smell I didn’t recognize. But it was the smell of old times, Oakland, French fries and a hotdogs — all in one puzzle piece.

But I have learned throughout this course that pieces appearing as just a park, a pizza joint or a hotdog shop can have a much larger impact on their surroundings and the people in the community than you might think.

I’ve learned more about Oakland in the past ten weeks than I have my whole life.

I learned everything from the best diners in the city to the history of the land. I appreciate this course a great deal because it has expanded my views and given me a further educational view on this phenomenal place.