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For this ‘living treasure of East Liberty,’ it’s been a lifetime of change and fixing teeth

Steve Mellon, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Senior Living Features

PITTSBURGH — On this day, one patient said no to the city’s slippery, snow-covered streets and asked to postpone his appointment, so now John Boccella, DDS, had time on his hands. He’s 89 years old and has been fixing teeth in East Liberty for six decades, which means he’s something of an expert on dentistry — as well as the passage of time and its effects on the community surrounding his office.

Some of this dentist’s patients are the children and grandchildren of earlier patients. One began coming to Boccella’s office at age 15. The man is now in his 60s. “I hope I die before you retire,” he said one day. Boccella performs his work in an office a block from where his father once labored long hours polishing and repairing shoes.

John Boccella's life story is a nearly century-long journey through history as it played out in a neighborhood that experienced tremendous and, at times, jarring change. And in the hour or so made free by a canceled appointment, he can retrace that journey and offer a glimpse into a past that fewer and fewer people remember.

The story begins in Naples, Italy, in late June 1906, when his father, Luigi Boccella, boarded the SS Indiana, an aging steamship that once ferried President Ulysses S. Grant across the Atlantic. Ten days after departure, the ship arrived in New York. Luigi, then 17, made his way to Pittsburgh. He changed his name to Louis and eventually partnered with his older brother Guisseppe, who had settled in the city earlier and changed his name to Joseph, in operating a shoe repair business on Highland Avenue in East Liberty. They called the business “Boccella and Brother.”

John’s mother, Celestina Orlando, emigrated from Italy a few years after Louis. “She always used to say that she came here the year the Titanic sank,” John said. Louis and Celestina struck up a relationship, and as it was blossoming, Louis expressed a desire to return to Italy to visit his mother.

Celestina’s mother replied bluntly, “You can go to see your mother, and when you come back, Celestina might still be here. Maybe she might not be here.”

Louis changed his mind about traveling and married Celestina in 1920. The couple moved first to Emerson Street in Shadyside, then settled into a two-story house on Alder Street, near the East Liberty border. Many of Louis and Celestina’s friends lived in what was then an Italian enclave in Larimer, a mile or so away, but Louis chose Alder Street as his family’s home because it was closer to the shoe shop.

The couple soon started a family. First to arrive were three daughters — Angela, then twins Louise and Irene. John entered the world on Feb. 12, 1933, at Belvedere Hospital on Paulson Avenue. He was the first of Louis and Celestina’s four children to have a hospital birth. The girls were all born at home.

John grew up in what he calls an “innocent time.” He walked the few blocks to Sacred Heart School, played basketball after classes and went to the movies on weekends. Sometimes he accompanied his father on grocery runs to a market called St. Clair, where the butcher spoke with a heavy German accent. He remembers sitting in his family’s living room and listening to a console radio as an announcer detailed local boxer Billy Conn’s epic but unsuccessful battle with Joe Louis on a warm June night in 1941. On other evenings he could listen to radio dramas such as “The Shadow.”

His childhood changed on a Sunday in December 1941 when Japanese planes devastated much of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. The world was aflame. Four days later, the United States declared war on Germany and Italy. Some of John’s clearest memories date from this era. He remembers the tensions of living in a nation at war with the country of his parents’ birth.

“Maybe I just took it to heart too much,” he said. “But I remember being very disturbed by that whole thing. I didn't grow up on Larimer Avenue, in the Italian district. We were living in an area that had mixed nationalities, but primarily it was non-Italian. And I went to a school that was primarily Irish. So yeah, there was a lot of back and forth.”

Ten of Boccella’s cousins served in the armed forces. It seemed all the young people, especially the men, were gone. “There was food rationing. Gasoline rationing. Blackouts,” he said. “We had what they call blackout curtains that you would pull down at night if you wanted to turn the lights on. It was a scary time.”

Joy returned on an August evening in 1945. John and his family walked 10 minutes from their Alder Street home to the intersection of Penn and Highland to join thousands who had converged to celebrate V-J Day. People in shirtsleeves tossed crepe paper ribbons into the air, waved flags and sang.

After the war, change continued. Louis and John’s shoe repair shop on Highland Avenue moved to a new location on Whitfield Street at its intersection with Kirkwood Street. A sign with a neon-lighted shoe beckoned customers. The Boccella Brothers’ illuminated shoe competed for attention with the neon-lighted key above Oliver’s Lock and Key next door. Across the street, Ember’s restaurant sign offered “fine Italian food.”

As a boy, John worked at his father’s shop, waiting on customers who always paid in cash. Sales were rung up on a brass cash register. Near the shop’s entrance, a mostly African American crew manned shoe shine stands. A counter ran along the left wall and in the back sat machines for cutting, stitching and buffing. Louis Boccella kept leather in large sheets, which he’d cut to size when replacing soles or making orthopedic shoes.

“I can still remember the smell of the leather,” John said.

Men sometimes sat in booths while Louis repaired their shoes on the spot. And because everyone wore a hat in those days, John said, one man in his father’s shop cleaned hats. In the winter, Louis sharpened the blades on ice skates.

John’s sisters each attended college, and John always assumed that’s what he would do, too. So after graduating from high school he enrolled at St. Vincent College. He earned a degree there and moved on to Pitt’s dental school — He was inspired by a cousin who’d become a dentist. John graduated from Pitt in 1959 and joined the U.S. Army, hoping to serve overseas, perhaps in Italy or Germany or France. He wound up in the desert at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

Two years later he moved back to Pittsburgh and set up a practice in the East End Savings and Trust Building, an elegant 14-story structure that towered over Penn and Highland. At the time, he recalled, 50 dentists and physicians practiced there and the adjacent Highland Building.

“At that point, 95% of dentists were solo practitioners,” he said. “They were lucky if they had an assistant. They may not have even had a hygienist. Some of them just worked alone. And it was almost 100% male. There were 98 people in my class. There were three women. And that was a big number. The class before had no women.”

 

Women today make up 35% of dentists, according to the American Dental Association.

By the time John returned to Pittsburgh, his parents had moved to Highland Park. John lived with them until 1964 when he married Geraldine Rosella and moved to an apartment in a two-story building at the intersection of Penn Avenue and North St. Clair Street.

The apartment provided the couple with a front-row view of the cataclysmic change urban renewal brought to East Liberty. John and Geraldine watched the demolition of their neighborhood. Years of construction and disruption resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 homes and hundreds of small businesses. In the end, the conversion of Penn Avenue into a pedestrian mall failed to attract shoppers. East Liberty would lose more than 4,500 residents in the following four decades.

“It devastated East Liberty,” John said. “It just died. Everybody moved away. I was stuck in the middle of that.”

Racial tensions ran high during this time as the neighborhood became more integrated. Boccella’s daughter, Mia Boccella, recalls a time when one person approached her father and asked, “‘Do you see Black patients?”

“At the time, many dentists weren’t,” she said. “And of course he did see Black patients. He was there to serve the community. He never questioned that.”

One casualty of the neighbor’s redevelopment was the elegant East End Savings and Trust Company, home of John’s practice. He joined an unsuccessful effort to stop the demolition, then moved to a more modern, eight-story building now known as 211 Tower on North Whitfield Street, a block from where his father once repaired shoes. He remains there in a clean and well-ordered office designed by Geraldine, a speech therapist by profession.

East Liberty is once again changing. John Boccella can see it when he drives from his Highland Park home to 211 Tower. The neighborhood is now home to a Target store, a Home Depot, a Whole Foods grocery. Google offices occupy an old Nabisco factory. It looks like progress to some, while others see it as the gentrification of a neighborhood that became home to a predominantly African American population in the years following the 1960s urban renewal debacle.

Through it all, John gazed into open mouths and fixed problematic teeth. The job has suited him well.

“I’m a perfectionist by nature,” he said. “Dentists are fanatics about that. They want everything to be just right. And you still get to work with your hands. “

Earlier in the day, he had treated patient Debbie Johnson, whose dentures needed an adjustment. “I trust him,” she said. “He has a great way of calming you.”

This is the result, John said, of the lesson impressed upon him by a professor at Pitt: “Make sure you keep in mind every day that there’s a person attached to that tooth you’re working on.”

In part, John helps people deal with changes that he knows can sometimes be painful. He described one longtime patient whose husband’s teeth were in poor shape. The husband feared dental work but eventually made an appointment. “He showed up and he barely spoke,” John said. “He rarely even looked at me. When he opened up his mouth, I saw he had very bad gum disease.”

The dentist gave the man the bad news: The teeth could not be saved. Every one had to be pulled.

“He was a young man at the time,” John said. “It was a very difficult transition for him. And it was a transformation. I took the teeth out and fit him with dentures, and he actually started smiling. It just changed his personality completely. It changed his life. Now, he’s mister personality.”

Stories like this don’t surprise family members.

“He genuinely cares about other people,” said son J.G. Boccella. ”It’s not just a transactional thing. I can’t tell you how many times he’s gotten a call from someone in distress and in physical pain on his day off, and he goes into the office and helps them out.”

Daughter Amata Boccella says her father is a “living treasure of East Liberty.” His life and work are threads connecting the neighborhood’s past with its present. How long will he continue? A year and a half ago, he signed a new five-year lease on his office. “I did it kind of reluctantly because of my age,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to stop.”

 

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