It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of steel, it was the age of annexation.
On any Pittsburgh city map, there is an unlabeled stretch of land between the neighborhoods of Mt. Oliver and Knoxville.
This is the borough of Mt. Oliver. It has a separate government, different colored street signs and despite being surrounded by city neighborhoods, residents have little desire to lose their independence.
In the late 1800s, most southern Pittsburgh neighborhoods were independent boroughs. There were the boroughs of Knoxville, Carrick, Beechview and, until 1892, St. Clair Borough.
Before that, Mt. Oliver was a neighborhood within St. Clair borough. That year, a group of residents became dissatisfied with the services they were receiving from St. Clair and 140 of them petitioned to become their own borough.
Rick Hopkinson, Mt. Oliver borough manager, said the community had no interest in becoming a part of the city.
“We held out because, I mean, the borough was at its peak,” Hopkinson said. “It just didn’t make sense to incorporate.”
At the time, Mt. Oliver borough was a blue-collar neighborhood with more than 7,000 residents. Most were employed by one of the major manufacturing companies in the region who moved to the hilltop neighborhood for its proximity to work.
When St. Clair was annexed by the city of Pittsburgh in 1927, the remaining part of the former unified Mt. Oliver also became a city neighborhood. City Council President Bruce Kraus, who has presided over south Pittsburgh neighborhoods for nine years, said that’s how there came to be two Mt. Olivers.
“I think it’s one of the better kept secrets of the city, is Mt. Oliver borough,” Kraus said. “I think there’s a very rich history and a very deep-seeded pride there and I think that leads them to continue their independence.”
Hopkinson said pride is part of the reason, but it mostly has to do with how easily residents can access local services.
“We’re your one-stop-shop for everything,” Hopkinson said. “A lot of residents request service for an issue or complaint and we usually solve it the same day for them.”
Mt. Oliver borough has a mayor and seven council members. It also has its own police and fire departments, although they work with the city as-needed.
Carol Conroy grew up in the city neighborhood and said the city and borough boundaries were arbitrary.
“You just didn’t think of it,” Conroy said. “You just considered yourself all from Mt. Oliver.”
Conroy remembered mingling with families from the borough and attending dances and sports with kids from across south Pittsburgh. In the '70s and '80s, she said, the borough had a thriving business district and strong sense of community.
Cathy Niederberger, who also grew up in the city neighborhood, along Ottila Street, said there were few tangible differences between the city and the borough.
“It was only more as an adult that I realized there was a technical name for where we lived, which was Mt. Oliver City,” Niederberger said.
The one distinction, Niderberger said, was the Mt. Oliver borough swimming pool, which required proof of residency to frequent.
The borough of Mt. Oliver contracts EMS services with the city of Pittsburgh. It also shares a school board and storage space for winter salt.
But as the town grows, will residents reconsider becoming a part of the city? It is, after all, completely surrounded by Pittsburgh.
Hopkinson said it’s not likely.
"We can really shape our own destiny as a borough,” Hopkinson said. “If we were part of the city, we’d just be another one of the 90 neighborhoods competing for resources.”
In the borough building, Hopkinson had a book from Mt. Oliver's centennial celebration in 1992. On the cover, the slogan reads, “Surrounded, but as independent as the day we were founded.”
This year, the borough turns 125 and it doesn’t seem like it'll be voting to annex anytime soon.