Historic Preservation and Erasing Women’s History in Pittsburgh

By David S. Rotenstein

There is a historic house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Anna Tito Mecca Zizza lived for almost 30 years. She cooked family dinners there and helped raise the children of her large extended family inside its walls and in its yard. Anna grew old inside the house, and she died there after resisting pleas from family members to move as the neighborhood changed and disinvestment and decay settled in all around her.

I have studied and written about erasure for the past decade. Some of my work has appeared in history and geography blogs and some of it has been published in book chapters and in academic journals. One thread running through all of my earlier work is that the erasures began before I had a chance to begin observing them: Black and LGBTQ history in Decatur, Georgia; a rural Black enclave in Maryland; and Black history and white supremacy in Silver Spring, Maryland. My recent work on nominating Anna Tito Mecca Zizza’s house as a City of Pittsburgh historic landmark nomination gave me a front row seat to observe multiple erasures playing out in real time. This post focuses on one erasure that I could not have anticipated when I began the project: the erasure of women’s history and Anna Tito Mecca Zizza.

Erasure

Erasure is an intentional act rendering invisible people and their contributions to history.[1] It happens by omitting peoples’ stories from histories and historic preservation documents. Historic preservation is frequently implicated in erasure by the stories preservationists choose to tell about the built environment and the buildings, sites, and objects preservationists intentionally select for designation as local historic sites or national recognition (i.e., listing in the National Register of Historic Places). The stories and sites omitted tend to be those associated with people of African and Asian descent, Native Americans, Latinos, women, and other marginalized people.

Resistance to erasure itself has a history in historic preservation. Early calls for more inclusion and diversity in the stories told, places preserved, and people doing preservation date to the 1980s.[2] As historically marginalized groups began exerting more agency in historic preservation, professional practices began shifting away from fetishizing pretty old buildings associated with wealthy white people (mostly men) to more values- and people-centered approaches to preservation.[3] Since about 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nation’s flagship historic preservation advocacy organization, has been imploring people to “tell the full American story.”[4]

Joe Tito and Pittsburgh’s Vice Business

Joe Tito was a bootlegger and numbers gambling banker who accumulated substantial wealth within the first two years under Prohibition. In 1922 Tito bought a fashionable brick Victorian home in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood at the foot of the city’s storied Hill District. The Hill was Pittsburgh’s dense early twentieth-century neighborhood where Eastern and Southern European immigrants lived and worked alongside Black migrants from the Deep South. By midcentury, one intersection and the Hill itself had been dubbed the “Crossroads of the World” for its rich cultural diversity.

Like similar neighborhoods in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, vibrant informal economies flourished in this emerging ghetto space created by anti-Black racism, antisemitism, and general xenophobia. These economies enabled savvy entrepreneurs to establish successful bootlegging and gambling rackets. Some of them became wealthy and legendary figures in Pittsburgh history. The rackets, notably numbers gambling, offered economically disadvantaged and stigmatized people opportunities to make money through a big numbers “hit.” The racketeers themselves were part of an essential social safety net in these neighborhoods by providing jobs for thousands of men and women, loans to build businesses and buy homes, and philanthropy.[5]

Most of the existing histories of gambling and bootlegging in Pittsburgh center men in their narratives. These include Rob Ruck’s landmark work on Black sport in Pittsburgh, which includes one of the most robust treatments of numbers gambling in the city, and Ben Hayllar’s sweeping work on twentieth century organized crime and political corruption. Women, whether as agents (bootleggers, numbers figures, etc.) or as domestic partners providing key support roles to fathers, brothers, and husbands, are notably invisible in these works.[6]

Life in the Hill

Joe Tito and his five brothers and three sisters grew up as first-generation Italian-Americans in Soho, a neighborhood abutting the Hill District. Their parents had come to Pittsburgh from Italy in the 1880s. Joe, born in 1890, was the oldest and the chief executive in the family business of racketeering. The house at 1817 Fifth Avenue became his home and office. He and his brothers stored their bootlegging truck fleet in a large brick warehouse Joe built behind the home. After Prohibition ended, the family entered the legitimate alcohol business by buying a brewery. The home continued to be their business headquarters, and the warehouse stored the beer for distribution.

Joe Tito. Undated photo courtesy of Rona Peckich.

The “Tito Boys,” as they were known in the Hill, forged close business and personal relationships with Black and Jewish bootleggers and numbers racketeers. William “Gus” Greenlee was a North Carolina native whose family arrived in Pittsburgh during the earliest wave of the Great Migration. After serving in World War I, Greenlee returned to the Hill and became a bootlegger during Prohibition. He is one of four men who introduced numbers gambling to Pittsburgh in the mid-1920s. A consummate entertainment entrepreneur, Greenlee opened nightclubs and restaurants, including the famous Crawford Grill. He also dabbled in boxing promotion and management. In 1931 Greenlee bought the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro Leagues baseball team and the following year he began building Greenlee Field—the nation’s first Black-owned professional sports stadium.

Not long after Greenlee bought the team, he filed incorporation papers in Delaware. Greenlee became the team’s president and Joe Tito its vice-president. To build and operate the field, Greenlee and his partners created another corporation, the Bedford Land Corporation. Initially created with white strawmen, the company reorganized in 1933 with Joe Tito as its secretary and Greenlee as a major shareholder.

At the same time that Tito and Greenlee were entering baseball, the Tito family was making plans for a post-Prohibition economy. In 1932 they bought the Latrobe Brewing Company, a dormant brewery about 90 miles east of Pittsburgh. Three years later, they introduced the company’s flagship brand, Rolling Rock beer, and they first sold it in the beer distributorship behind the Tito home.[7] In the late 1930s and into the 1940s, the Tito boys shed their racketeer identities and became respected beer industry executives.

Preserving the Tito Home and Erasing the Tito Women

The former Tito home is one of the stops in my “Fifth Avenue by the Numbers” walking tour. Created in 2021, the tour is one of two I developed to connect Pittsburgh’s rich organized crime history to the built environment. In August 2021 a community development corporation hired me to complete a City of Pittsburgh historic landmark nomination for the house and former beer distributorship. My research determined that the property met multiple criteria for designation for the property’s architecture and associations with immigrant history, Black history, Prohibition history, and the history of brewing and beer. Under Pittsburgh law, a property only needs to meet one of the ten criteria to be considered eligible for designation. Top scholars in Black history, Italian-American history and culture, sports history, and Pittsburgh history read the nomination report and wrote letters to the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission supporting the nomination.

As the nomination worked its way through the review process and hearing cycle, the property’s Black history followed a familiar trajectory: it was ignored and distorted by Pittsburgh’s historic preservation planner and the appointed Historic Review Commission members.[8] I was unprepared, however, for the property’s significant women’s history to be erased. My research to prepare the nomination included extensive documentary and archival research that I supplemented by conducting recorded interviews with members of the extended Tito family. Early on in these interviews a theme emerged among the women I interviewed: their stories and those of their grandmothers, great-aunts, et al., had been erased by the many histories of organized crime in Pittsburgh and of Rolling Rock beer.

“Women were not supposed to be in business so that is why the sisters are not part of Rolling Rock beer,” Rona Peckich told me in a June 2021 interview. Peckich is Anna Tito Mecca Zizza’s granddaughter, and Anna was one of Joe Tito’s sisters. Anna bought the Fifth Avenue house from Joe after heart disease spurred him and his wife to move out of it. Anna lived there from 1947 until her death in 1972. Her time in the house, including during the 1968 uprising after Martin Luther King’s assassination, is inextricably woven into the property’s history.

In preparing the landmark nomination, I intentionally named the property the Tito-Mecca-Zizza House to decenter the white male narrative that dominates the histories that discuss Joe Tito and his brothers.[9] It’s the name that appears in the nomination filed in October 2021, and it’s the name used throughout the report and in all communications about the house.

Tito family women. Undated photo courtesy of Rona Peckich.

Two weeks before the February 2022 Historic Review Commission hearing on the property, Pittsburgh historic preservation planner Sarah Quinn emailed me. “BTW, based on our naming conventions, the property is called the Tito House. Just an FYI,” she wrote. After I attempted to explain my reasoning for using the name I selected in consultation with Tito family members, Quinn doubled down and demanded that the name “Tito-Mecca-Zizza House” be struck from all of the PowerPoint slides that I created for the hearing: “You’re going to need to change the name to the Tito House on all of the slides before I can accept them.”[10] 

After the hearing, I conducted a follow-up interview with Peckich and asked her about the planner’s decision to unilaterally change the historic property’s name. “It’s the Tito-Mecca-Zizza House because that’s the family, same exact family, that lived there those 50 years,” Peckich said. “It means a great deal that she’s represented properly and that Zizza as her next husband and a genuinely lovely man that’s from that part of Pittsburgh and knew the Titos and the Meccas very well be represented that way.”

After the hearing, I emailed Quinn and the Pittsburgh Department of Planning director and deputy director asking for the legislative, regulatory, or published policy basis for Quinn’s decision to change the name and to cite departmental “naming conventions.” I received no replies to my emails. Research into prior City of Pittsburgh historic landmark nominations approved by the Historic Review Commission turned up two with hyphenated names: the Gallagher-Kieffer House and the Hanauer-Rosenberg House, both designated in 2020.[11]

Tying It All Up

Heritage preservation is inherently geographical and political. It involves a constellation of disciplines and activities focused on identifying, evaluating, and managing old buildings, landscapes, and objects. Preservation is a fraught, power-laden process that reinforces racial, class, and gender biases. As old places become “historic,” they frequently get new names that are then inscribed upon space. The old thing becomes a new place. Bias infuses the naming process as much as it implicates the path to identifying an old place as historic and evaluating the reasons why it may be significant and preservation worthy.

Contrary to prevailing trends in historic preservation practice and theory, Pittsburgh’s historic preservation planner and Historic Review Commission erased multiple strands of the Tito-Mecca-Zizza house’s history. The Pittsburgh City Council makes the final decision regarding historic landmark designations and a hearing date has not been set as of this writing. If approved, the name “Tito House” will permanently be inscribed upon the landscape and the history. The Tito women and their legacy will have been erased.


David Rotenstein is a public historian and folklorist living in Pittsburgh. He frequently writes on historic preservation and gentrification and is working on a social history of numbers gambling in Pittsburgh.

Featured image (at top): Tito-Mecca-Zizza House, January 2022. Photo by author.


[1] David Lowenthal, “Past Time, Present Place: Landscape and Memory,” Geographical Review 65, no. 1 (1975): 1–36, https://doi.org/10.2307/213831; Richard L. Schur, “From Invisibility to Erasure?: The Consequences of Hip-Hop Aesthetics,” in Parodies of Ownership, Hip-Hop Aesthetics and Intellectual Property Law (University of Michigan Press, 2009), 166–88, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv65sx2s.11; Parul Sehgal, “Fighting ‘Erasure,’” The New York Times, February 2, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/the-painful-consequences-of-erasure.html; “The Epic of Collier Heights,” 99% Invisible (blog), accessed December 16, 2021, https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-epic-of-collier-heights/.

[2] Antoinette J. Lee, “Discovering Old Cultures in the New World: The Role of Ethnicity,” in The American Mosaic: Preserving a Nation’s Heritage, ed. Robert E. Stipe and Antoinette J. Lee (Washington, DC: U.S. Committee, International Council on Monuments and Sites, 1988), 180–205; Antoinette J. Lee, “From Historic Architecture to Cultural Heritage: A Journey Through Diversity, Identity, and Community,” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 1, no. 2 (2004): 14–23; Antoinette J. Lee, “Multicultural Dimensions to the Nation’s Cultural Heritage,” History News 59, no. 3 (2004): 16–19.

[3] Erica Avrami, Randall Mason, and Marta De La Torre, eds., Values and Heritage Conservation (Los Angeles, Calif: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2000), http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/valuesrpt.pdf; Erica Avrami, ed., Preservation and Social Inclusion, Issues in Preservation Policy 2 (New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2020), https://www.arch.columbia.edu/books/reader/503-preservation-and-social-inclusion; Priya Chhaya, “Historic Preservation – The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook,” The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook (blog), June 4, 2019, https://inclusivehistorian.com/historic-preservation/; Holly A. Taylor, “Preservation’s Cultural Turn: Recognizing Contemporary Significance of Historic Places,” in Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century, ed. Richard D. Wagner and de Teel Patterson Tiller (Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018), 142–61; Randall Mason, “Assessing Values in Conservation Planning: Methodological Issues and Choices,” in Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage: Research Report, ed. Maria de la Torre (Los Angeles, California: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2002), 5–29, http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/assessing.pdf; Randall Mason, “Theoretical and Practical Arguments for Values-Centered Preservation,” CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 3, no. 2 (2006): 21–48; Jeremy C. Wells and Barry L. Stiefel, eds., Human-Centered Built Environment Heritage Preservation (London: Routledge, 2018).

[4] Priya Chhaya to David S. Rotenstein, “RE: Following up on FB Exchange, #TellTheFullStory,” July 7, 2021; “Telling the Full American Story,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, accessed March 7, 2022, https://savingplaces.org/telling-the-full-american-story?fbclid=IwAR2B4YPvXH_iiImEkUYKcW1ZV07FC_eCFdV0cG-9yC-zxurwkdyisvf9hgo.

[5] For social histories of numbers gambling, see Matthew Vaz, Running the Numbers: Race, Police, and the History of Urban Gambling, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020); Bridgett M. Davis, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, First United States edition (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019); LaShawn Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, Kindle edition, The New Black Studies Series (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016); Shane White et al., Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[6] Benjamin Lancaster Hayllar, “The Accommodation: The History and Rhetoric of the Rackets-Political Alliance in Pittsburgh” (Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1977); Robert Ruck, Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh, Illini Books ed, Sport and Society (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

[7] “Beer distributorship” is a legal term used in Pennsylvania to distinguish the businesses where beer is sold for offsite consumption versus the individuals, or “distributors,” who are engaged in that business. It derives from Pennsylvania’s peculiar approach to licensing the manufacture, transportation, sale, and consumption of alcohol after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933.

[8] The revised landmark nomination includes a transcript from the first Historic Review Commission meeting where the board discussed the property. The substantive Black history included in the first draft was not included in the preservation planner’s presentation about the property to the HRC members at the November 3, 2021, meeting. The words “Black history” and “African American” were absent. Due to COVID, the City of Pittsburgh’s virtual meetings were recorded and are archived in YouTube. The November 3, 2021, meeting is available at this link: https://youtu.be/Azo-6mT3Ju4?t=15535.

[9] Richard Gazarik, Prohibition Pittsburgh (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2017); Thomas Hunt and Michael A. Tona, “A Test of Resolve,” Informer, February 2011; Ruck, Sandlot Seasons.

[10] Sarah Quinn, emails to David S. Rotenstein, January 14, 2022, and January 24, 2022.

[11] “Historic Nominations,” City of Pittsburgh Department of Planning website, https://pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/historic-nominations, accessed March 7, 2022.

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