43½ Street
    Whenever I mention 43½ Street to anyone outside Lawrenceville, people ask, “What do you mean a half street—you’re kidding, right?” or  “Why do they have a half street?” One man quipped, “A half street? Are the people from Lawrenceville so poor that they can’t afford a whole street?”

    Although an alley and not an actual street, it may be the only 43½ Street in the world. Running between and parallel to 43rd and 44th streets from Willow Street one-and-a-half blocks to Eden Way, it was originally known as Snowden Alley and extended to Valley Street (now Railroad Street or AVRR). Named in honor of John Snowden, whose property bordered the alley, part of Snowden Alley was demolished to make room for the Heppenstal mill expansion during the Korean War. Several of Snowden’s children died at early ages and were buried in the old Lawrenceville Burying Ground (now Carnegie Library and Stephen Foster Community Center). The graves were moved to Allegheny Cemetery when construction for a public school began in 1882, but Henry’s tombstone was left behind and is now on display in the library.

    At the bottom of Snowden Alley was the property of Samuel Kier, the first entrepreneur to develop a cost-effective way to mass-produce kerosene from oil. He also had the world’s first large-scale oil refinery, with a storage tank holding 50 barrels of petroleum. Kier was also the first producer of petroleum jelly. His company eventually became Gulf Oil, then Chevron.

    Old Boys Club

    Old Boys Club

    The main connection between 43½ Street and history lies in boxing. A very popular sport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many boys and young men took up boxing in the hope of escaping extreme poverty.  Others saw the sport as a way to get in shape. In 1916, several young men asked local barber Frank Fox if they could use the back room of his shop on the corner of 43rd and Willow streets for a boxing club. He agreed on the condition they used the back door that faced 43½ Street. Known as the Willow Club, it soon outgrew the small room and moved to the recreation center in Lawrence (now Leslie) Park. The Willow Club produced so many amateur champions that it soon won national recognition as one of the best boxing centers in the nation.

    In the 1920 U.S. Amateur Boxing Championship, four out of eight title spots went to Pittsburghers. Three were trained at the Willow Club. One of those three was John Borkowski, who fought under the name Jack Burke.  Borkowski should not be confused with an early boxer also named Jack Burke. Borkowski lived on 43½ Street, turned professional boxer in 1920, and continued his career until 1931. He was a sparring partner for world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. He was the only sparring partner to knock Dempsey off his feet. He did so twice on the same day.

    Bill Bossio trading card (courtesy of Daniel Bossio).

    Bill Bossio trading card (courtesy of Daniel Bossio).

    Another boxing school in the neighborhood was the Lawrenceville Boys Club, once located on 45th and Butler streets. It was here that Chester Bossio, whose family also lived on 43½ Street, learned the art of pugilism.  A promising amateur, he became a professional in 1945 and continued his career until 1946. During this span he fought under the name of Chet Bossio, winning his first two bouts with TKOs and knocking out his next two opponents.

    Chester Bossio taking a break between fights (courtesy of Daniel Bossio)

    Chester Bossio taking a break between fights (courtesy of Daniel Bossio).

    His younger brother Billy also learned to box at the Boys Club. Billy proved to be more successful. Although very small, standing at a fraction of an inch over five feet tall and boxing as a Bantam (the weight range from 115 to 118 lbs.), he won the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves competition in 1946. Bossio then joined the U.S. Navy and won the All Navy Boxing Championship in 1947 and 1948.

    In 1948, Billy Bossio fought on the U.S. Olympics Boxing team, but did not win any medals. He became a professional boxer in 1949, boxing as a featherweight (range of 122 to 126 lbs). On April 7, he fought his first professional fight against Joe Scott, another new boxer. Scott was knocked out in the first round. Bossio also knocked out his next two opponents in the first round. He went on to beat some of the best featherweights, including Jimmy Rooney, Tito Valles, Pat Iacobucci, and Pat Moran.

    Although he had an impressive record of 43 wins (24 by knock out), 16 losses, and 4 ties, his loss to Sandy Sadler is the fight that is best known.  World champion Sadler was about eight inches taller and had a much longer reach. At the time of their match, Sadler had 130 wins compared to Bossio’s 41. In spite of Bossio’s terrific effort, he was obviously outmatched. Sadler used his height and longer reach to great advantage. In an effort to hit Sadler in the head, Bossio kept jumping up. This only wore out the smaller man.

    Bucky Palermo in his shoe repair shop (from the estate of Bucky Palermo)

    Bucky Palermo in his shoe repair shop (from the estate of Bucky Palermo).

    In 1950 another 43½ Street resident, Benjamin “Bucky” Palermo, won the Golden Gloves. He, too, learned boxing at the Boys Club. Billy Bossio’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, offered to train Bucky to become a professional boxer; but Palermo declined, opting instead to operate a shoe-repair shop on Butler Street.

    While still maintaining his shop, Palermo accepted an offer by the state Boxing and Wrestling Commission to become a referee. This opened many doors for Palermo, and throughout the years he received contracts from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, the Pirates, Steelers, and the Penguins. L.C. Greenwood, Mario Lemieux, and Roberto Clemente all become personal customers. As a referee for Studio Wrestling, he became a close friend of world champion Bruno Sammartino.

    Palermo’s death came as a shock to Lawrenceville. He tripped on a pair of shoes and hit his head on the corner of a coffee table. A resulting hemorrhage caused his death a week later. It was ironic that he made his living fixing shoes; yet, it was a pair of shoes that killed him.

    Only in Lawrenceville can someone find such a short and narrow alley with so long and wide a history.

    Jude Wudarczyk is coauthor of four books on Lawrenceville history. He has written articles for The Strip!, various local newsletters, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and international journals.