Living or working in an inner city Pittsburgh neighborhood like Troy Hill, one comes to find that its people are as rich and rooted in history as the buildings around them. It is not uncommon to pass the same faces on a daily basis. Emerging from the THC office, I often find a familiar face to smile and wave to. We may or may not know each other’s names yet, but we recognize a friendly face, and wave or nod in neighborly acknowledgement. There’s something comforting about that. Warm interactions like these remind me of the community I grew up in—Morningside—where family homes are passed down from generation to generation, and close relatives buy homes a few blocks away. My sisters, neighbors, and many friends remain residents of their family homes.
As the community organizer and consultant for THC over the past year, I have come to know and love Troy Hill because of its people and places. I admire the bond they share. When I proudly mention that I work in Troy Hill, I always find someone who grew up here with fond memories of the neighborhood, or another who attended North Catholic, as my son did.
At moments like these, I take the opportunity to proudly re-introduce them to Troy Hill. Some haven’t returned to to visit the area in a long while, so I let them know that it is still the great place it always was. What is it about a hometown that can make time stand still and transform scenery into a living memory? It is a place where the past and present come face-to-face.
With the closing and re-opening of the only restaurant in Troy Hill, the past and present are doing just that—meeting each other face-to-face. Yet I am confident that they won’t butt heads. In order to gain some perspective on the merging of these two eras, I sat down with soon-to-be-former owner of Billy’s Bistro, Jim Bougher, and soon-to-be-new owner Don Mahaney last week. I was humbled by Bougher’s life-long work and exhilarated by Mahaney’s enthusiasm.
Jim Bougher is vested in the fabric of Troy Hill. His life is rooted in Billy’s Bistro. At the age of 18 Jim began working with his uncle, Bill Armstrong, doing what Bougher calls a “lot of heavy lifting”, more or less carrying heavy construction materials up and down the stairs. Armstrong, a “burly” man, as his nephew describes him, renovated the upper levels into apartment units, then combined the lower level into one contiguous property. A Troy Hill resident himself, Armstrong owned several other restaurants in the Pittsburgh area before establishing Billy’s in the late 1970’s. There was A & B Pizza, a small pizza shop in Troy Hill at the corner of Hatteras & Froman, as well as Frank’n Stein’s in Shaler township, which is still in business today.
When he purchased the property at 1720 Lowrie Street in 1998, Bougher also took legal ownership of the establishment from his uncle, who continued to help around the restaurant until his passing a few years ago. Like the other faithful members of Billy’s staff, Bougher’s mother Doris has also worked by his side for many years. When it came to his uncle’s work ethic, Bougher highlighted Armstrong’s commitment to craft—the wood paneling that spans most of the restaurant’s walls was done by Armstrong himself. Bougher took the time to point out to me one minor mistake where his uncle forgot to router a trim piece. Only one small mistake, unlike all the others, but so special.
During my visit to Brooklyn last week, I encountered something that reminded me of this piece of Billy’s history. While taking myself on a walking tour, photographing small retail stores and gathering ideas to bring home to Troy Hill, I stopped into “Icy Signs”, the artist-owned sign shop of designer Steve Powers. One particular sign stuck with me, reading, “Mistakes cost extra”. It is hard to keep in mind how the serendipity of mistakes makes them all the more endearing. Now, each time I go back to visit Billy’s Bistro, I will remember that error in the wooden trim piece. I will remember the day I interviewed Jim Bougher, and I will remember how I witnessed Jim feel his uncle’s presence as he described that ‘mistake’ to me. That day I made a memory to relive again and again throughout time.
Today, May 29th, 2015, Jim Bougher will have worked his last day at Billy’s Bistro. Bougher says he is “just ready for a change”. For many years, he has worked 7 days a week with few vacations. But this is certainly not a retirement. Jim will now have time to paint his mother Doris’s home. Maybe Jim will paint his own home, or take a vacation with his wife. After-all, he’s just taking a long deserved break. I took Jim’s photo at the end of our meeting, and I swear I saw his uncle and the bistro’s piano player in the background, or maybe it was just the atmosphere of pride bouncing off Jim’s chest. Congratulations Jim, and thank you for serving Pittsburgh with a family style restaurant and that Black Diamond Steak Dinner.
To pay homage to this staple of Troy Hill’s business community, visit Billy’s Bistro at 1720 Lowrie Street, Troy Hill
Written by Nancy Noszka, whom is also the consultant for Troy Hill Citizens, Inc.