Tiny towns: Glenfield, Haysville among county’s smallest communities

Monday, October 30, 2017 | 11:00 PM


There is no Starbucks and no shopping plaza in Glenfield.

“You don't need a coffee shop when you live here,” said Toni Autry, 80, who's retiring after serving as judge of elections in Glenfield for about 40 years — a role previously filled by her mother. “Why, you just go to the neighbor's.”

With just 200 people in 90 households, Glenfield is the among the smallest municipalities in Allegheny County. Most people know each other, Autry said. She lives in the same home her grandparents bought when they emigrated from Ireland.

Neighboring Haysville is the smallest in the county: Just 70 people live there.

At a time when politicians often press municipalities to grow larger — ostensibly a sign the community is in demand, growing a tax base and accumulating political clout — some residents of the least populous places say they are proud to stay small. Forty of the 130 municipalities in Allegheny County have less than 2,000 residents.

And these communities aren't the exception — Pennsylvania ranks second among all states for the number of local governments.

A panel of local experts studied how towns might be more efficient by merging, which led to a report by the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics earlier this year that showed most states have measures which allow communities to disincorporate.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has said he supports an effort to broaden a municipality's ability to disincorporate and permit the county to provide services, such as road paving and police protection. Fitzgerald said such a move would create more options for residents, especially in places where the tax base is dwindling but the demand for services is not.

The reasoning is, by dissolving smaller communities, families there could have broader access to services through county government.

In communities such as Glenfield and Haysville, there are few economies of scale but residents also don't wrestle with multimillion dollar budgets and hundreds of miles of road to pave. In Haysville tax revenue for this year is projected at about $28,000. Last year they spent about $32,000, according to the budget.

But overhead is lower, too. Larger communities may have a taxpayer-funded, centrally located borough building. There's no such thing in Haysville.

“Our house was the borough building,” said Peggy Benner, who retired a decade ago after 26 years as Haysville Borough secretary. “People would just walk right in, anytime of day.”

Public meetings took place in homes — sometimes a living room — until 2011.

In nearby Glenfield, the budget is about $102,000 this year. Taxpayers carry no debt on behalf of their community and the biggest concern, acting Mayor David Orbison said, is to get Dawson Avenue and West Beaver Street paved. Council members are discussing the matter and aim to save money to fund the project, estimated at $200,000 for a one-mile stretch.

The smallest towns, though, often remain that way for a reason: Residents know not just one another, but their mothers knew each other and grandparents knew each other.

“There's a fierce pride in small-town America,” said Joe Wilkins, an associate professor of English and environmental studies at Linfield College in Oregon, who also writes about small communities. He is the author “The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry,” about his childhood in small-town Montana.

But, he added, that very often, younger people tend to move away.

While there are a number of families with deep roots in both communities, Orbison, said he's noticed more families moving in. The average age in Glenfield is 46, according to the U.S. Census.

“You can really count on your neighbors to help you,” said Orbison, who bought a home in Glenfield in 2009 after living in Lawrenceville.

“(This) for me is getting the best Pittsburgh has to offer: The constantly changing views, the activity on the river, the wildlife, the boating; it just feels like you're not in the city anymore but close enough to work in the city,” he said.

He said very often people pitch in to help provide services for the town at little or no cost.

“That's not something I would expect in every neighborhood,” he added.

After Orbison moved to Glenfield, he began to attend public meetings, offering ideas. Then someone asked him to fill a vacancy on council. About six years ago he ran for council and won, later ascending to council president. When the current mayor moved, he assumed mayoral duties and hopes to continue serving after the Nov. 7 general election.

“We read all the bills out loud. It's the smallest level of government and it's heartening to see how that can work,” he said. “That's democracy in action.”

In Haysville, meetings took place at the then-mayor's house, Benner said.

Today council meets at Osborne Elementary School in neighboring Glen Osborne, and there are a few businesses — technology company IAM Robotics and Sewickley Speakeasy. This 1840s building was the home of the community's namesake, Capt. John Hay, who served in the Mexican War.

Nearby Glenfield doesn't have a business district but everyone seems to know the barber — or “Tony the barber” as many call Tony Calabrese. Since 1969 he's cut hair in a shop started by his father. The one-chair shop is a fixture on Kilbuck Street.

“I can't retire — who would cut people's hair?” he said.

If he leaves early, he hears about it. On a recent Monday, he left at noon to go to an appointment.

“Where were ya — I missed you,” Janette Gics calls out as she walks into the shop with her son, Johnny Gics, 40.

Gics, of Sewickley Heights, moved to the area with her husband in 1984. She stumbled on the barber shop and has been taking her son there ever since, she said.

Calabrese said he didn't consider moving away — he grew up there, and remembers the town before construction of Interstate 79 changed the layout of the community.

But even those who move away often maintain ties, Autry said. She organized a Glenfield reunion in 2009 by hanging fliers on telephone poles.

About 100 people attended, reminiscing in the town's only park.

She observes that, although the community isn't perfect, for the most part, residents pitch in and work together for common goals.

“You can't please everybody. Even God can't please everybody,” Autry said. “How's a small-town council going to?”