Decades before Lawrenceville became synonymous with microbreweries and artisanal coffee shops, Joseph Borkowski documented and researched the history of the neighborhood. Borkowski’s interest in the neighborhood was inspired by its many residents of Polish descent. An auditor-accountant for the City of Pittsburgh by day, Borkowski wrote prolifically on topics related to Lawrenceville and the Polish community in the region.
Like Borkowski, the History Center has long been interested in documenting the immigrant groups and ethnic communities that comprise Western Pennsylvania. The Detre Library & Archives preserves and provides access to materials from individuals and families, social service agencies, fraternal groups, and religious organizations that shed light on the lives of immigrants and their descendants. Much of the material in the collection focuses on the European immigrant groups that began arriving in the second half of the 19th century, motivated by jobs in the burgeoning industries of Pittsburgh.
Efforts by the History Center to collect documentation of these groups dates back to the early 1930s, when the organization (then known as the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania) embarked on the Western Pennsylvania Historical Survey. Headed by then-director Solon J. Buck (who would later be appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt as the second archivist of the U.S.), the Survey established committees consisting of members of the local Polish, Hungarian, and Czech communities to assist in collecting materials for the Library & Archives.
More recently, efforts to build the History Center’s ethnic collections expanded in the mid-1990s, when the Senator John Heinz History Center moved to its current location in the Strip District. It was around this time that History Center staff worked with Joseph Borkowski to acquire material that he had collected over the course of his life. The Joseph Borkowski Papers and Photographs contain photographs of street scenes in Lawrenceville and Polish Hill, programs from Polish Falcon events and Polish Day at Kennywood Park, and a scrapbook documenting Borkowski’s experience in World War II.
Pittsburgh continues to attract immigrants, though not at the same pace it once did. More recent arrivals are not only coming from Europe, but also countries in Asia, Latin America, and South America.
The History Center has an ongoing interest in documenting Pittsburgh’s immigrants and ethnic communities. If you or your family have material you’d like to share, please let us know!
Matthew Strauss is the chief archivist at the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.