South Oakland barbershop a time capsule of neighorhood history

By Lewis Lehe

There is nothing made of plastic in The Shop. As you enter, on the right there sit six steel… There is nothing made of plastic in The Shop. As you enter, on the right there sit six steel chairs with cream color leather seats waiting under wall mirrors. On the left are two barber chairs, a rusty fan, a steel space heater and the tools of the haircutting trade gleaming gently on a low shelf. The only sign of the world outside is a 9/11 memorial wall calendar taped to a filing cabinet. And to the world outside, the only sign of The Shop is a white piece of paper taped to the window facing South Oakland’s Frazier Street.. The paper says simply, “The Shop. T-Sat. 9-1,” written in black felt pen.

The Shop’s resident barber since 1948, Pete Maniglia, used to advertise with a proper sign that read “Pete’s Shop,” but quit when rioters smashed it with a brick.The date and cause of the riot escape the near 90-year-old’s memory today.

“The Super Bowl?” someone suggests.

“Nope. Before!”Pete says.

“Rodney King?”

“King! That was him! Martin Luther King.”

Some businesses might flounder without advertising since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The Shop stays open, however, drawing many of the same customers. They arrive with an air of inevitability that has, over time, transformed from Pete’s Shop to The Shop — the only barber shop that its customers will consider patronizing.

Pete and a silver-haired man — a patron of 60 years — discuss the G-20 protests, which are just beginning, over the sound of scissors swiping and the drone of conservative talk radio. To Pete and the customer, the Summit’s most crucial issue is what to do with the arrestees. They agree on a policy they gleaned while serving as Marines in the Pacific theater: If a prisoner escapes, the guard serves the sentence until the prisoner is recaptured.

This same conversation could have transpired during the eras of the Martin Luther King Jr., Rodney King and the Super Bowl riots. For decades, The Shop’s regulars have migrated dutifully, long after their own exodus transformed the neighborhood outside.

The Shop caps a line of three boarded-up storefronts at the corner of Frazier and Ward streets, three blocks south of the Boulevard of the Allies. Today, the four blocks of Frazier Street form a low-income, black hamlet at the southernmost edge of South Oakland. Here, men recline on porches, children play tag in the streets and teenagers shoot hoops in Dan Marino Park. It is a pleasant street, but some houses are abandoned or show signs of peeling paint and drooping porches.

Gangs sometimes operate in the area. But aside from the broken window, Pete hasn’t experienced any problems with crime.

“No trouble from Black or White,” he said. Nothing since 1959, when a man robbed him on Dawson Street.

Pete took over what was soon to be “Pete’s Shop” from another barber, who had already been cutting hair in the single 20-by-20-foot room, Pete estimates, for 40 years. It was then just one piece of a bustling business district that included “five and dimes, saloons, pharmacies [and] shoe repair places.” Pete’s smile broadens as he paints the scene: “It was a beautiful neighborhood … We used to have three barber shops down here at one time!”

The wellspring of South Oakland’s commerce was the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill, located down the hill, on the bank of the Monongahela. Jobs at the mill made South Oakland a melting pot of Jewish, Irish, Black, Eastern European and Italian families — without the tensions that sometimes plagued diverse neighborhoods. “They all seemed to get along,” Pete says, smiling.

Joe Bellisario, another Oakland barber, arrived in the neighborhood from Abruzzi, Italy in 1954. He agrees with Pete’s assessment. During the summer, he says, families left their doors open at night to invite the cool breeze — with no fear of inviting thieves.

“It was a good country!”Joe says, in a thick Italian accent.

Joe has owned a barbershop on Atwood Street since the 1960s. Joe and old acquaintances sometimes speak Italian there. Joe’s shop is both closer to campus and to the present than Pete’s. The inside hosts traces of modernity: a television, stacks of Newsweek and a clientele that includes professionals from nearby hospitals, as well as Pitt students.

There is even a sign painted in the window. It reads “Joe Bellisario’s Sanitary Barber Shop.”

By contrast, the encroaching present — embodied in the specter of endless student rental properties — is still two blocks away from Pete’s shop. But even when the students arrive en masse, it could be a while before anyone notices Pete’s sign, barely visible, like the corner of a time capsule protruding from the ground.

Pete’s customers, though, might enjoy the concealment. Two demands that never whither with age are the need to remember happy times and the need to get a haircut. The Shop sells both. Eight dollars, please.