Graduating Senior Profiles: Documenting the Nooks and Crannies

Issue Date: 
April 27, 2008

Gabriel Henschel photographs North Side neighborhoods before slots parlor opens


Graduating Pitt senior Gabriel Henschel knows the layout of a couple of neighborhoods on the city’s North Side almost better than his own . . . down to the back alleys, fire hydrants, graffiti-covered walls, and manhole covers.

To complete his Brackenridge Fellowship—an undergraduate research project through Pitt’s University Honors College—Henschel, 21, set out to capture a photographic portrait of Allegheny West and Manchester, the two North Side neighborhoods that will be a stone’s throw away from Pittsburgh’s controversial Majestic Star slots parlor, scheduled to open in May 2009.

Henschel’s 75-page study, “Gambling and Pittsburgh’s North Side: A Baseline Study of Neighborhoods Surrounding the Majestic Star,” comprises an extensive photographic catalogue, an interview catalogue, and a neighborhood statistical analysis, all of which will assist future researchers as they study the impact of the casino on its environs.

“There’s no substitute for a photograph,” said Henschel, a native of Cabot, Pa., who graduates today after earning a Bachelor of Philosophy with a double major in urban studies and politics and philosophy. He spent last summer walking through Manchester and Allegheny West with a Canon S3IS camera, snapping photos of buildings, alleys, churches, and row houses. Frequently, he stood in the middle of an intersection and slowly rotated 360 degrees while snapping 24 shots. The result is a huge archive of accurate streetscapes—many of them panoramic—that capture “moments in time.”

Henschel amassed close to 4,000 photos that show a variety of detail.

“Notice the construction under way on this building,” he said, pointing to one image. “Or the bars on these windows. It makes you wonder if these neighbors trust one another.”

Henschel said the photo-taking presented its own set of challenges. One construction worker asked Henschel whether he was with a workers’ compensation committee. Someone else wanted to know whether he was with the IRS. A truck nearly ran him down at an intersection, and still another person indignantly demanded to know why he was taking pictures in the park where children were playing.

Once the photography was complete, Henschel taped one-on-one interviews with eight key players in the slots parlor story—among them local and state politicians, community representatives, and the head of No Dice, an antigambling initiative. Each was asked the same series of four questions on their opinion of the casino and speculation about its impact. The comments ran the gamut from those who criticize the slots business as “a tax on poor people” to those who envisioned tourists streaming to the region. The third archive is census data on the residents’ age, race, employment, education, and income.

“The thing about this data is that you can easily shift it to whatever you want to do in the community,” said Henschel excitedly. “It could aid historic preservationists, or people who study street or pedestrian conditions, or those who evaluate housing stock. Or the Majestic Star could use this data years from now to point out what could be community improvements. The great part is that the study itself is neither progambling or antigambling.”

“It’s one of the best baselines on both the physical nature and the demographics of the area surrounding the casino,” said Morton Coleman, director emeritus of Pitt’s Institute of Politics, professor emeritus of social work, and Henschel’s thesis advisor. “It’s a baseline not tampered with by speculation of the authors. Gabe has taken a balanced look at things; he’s very thoughtful and careful.”

Henschel admits that what once was a casual interest in the North Side casino has now become a passion. Henschel plans to pursue a Master of Science degree in public policy administration at Carnegie Mellon University, and he envisions himself one day working with this same topic, perhaps from the perspective of the Pennsylvania Gaming Board and regulation. “The interesting part is how we’re going to interact—as a government and a people—to make things like this work. And coordinating that is something I’d like to do in the future,” he said.

Henschel’s involvement in the Brackenridge Fellowship stands out as his favorite Pitt experience. “Every Thursday, all these undergraduate researchers from different disciplines got together and we heard what everyone else was doing. We shared our triumphs and tragedies . . . It was like being in on 50 different research projects,” he said enthusiastically.

Another high point was his three-year role as lead advisor for the Youth and Government Program at Pittsburgh’s Taylor Allderdice and Schenley high schools. The teenagers convened in mock sessions to run campaigns, elect a governor and lawmakers, and appoint lobbyists. They also meet each year in the State Capitol to learn how laws are passed.

“They exercised a lot of talent,” Henschel said.

While at Pitt, Henschel was the recipient of the Wilma Binder Zeder Scholarship, which is awarded through the School of Arts and Sciences and recognizes outstanding academic achievement. He consistently made the Dean’s List and earned a Pitt Emerging Leaders Certificate. He completed internships with representatives of Pittsburgh City Council, the state legislature, and a Butler County child support office. Overall, Henschel’s Pitt education has prepared him for a career in urban government and planning. His courses took him on walks through blighted neighborhoods, where he and his classmates discussed housing, transportation, and economic development.

“Pittsburgh is the perfect urban studies classroom,” he noted.

For now, he’s busy mounting his extensive photo archive on the University server so it can be available for researchers. But even urban studies scholars need a break. Henschel is looking forward to an annual canoe trip with his father along Buffalo Creek in northern Butler County.

But thanks to his Pitt education, his heart is in the region’s urban core.

“This is a pivotal moment for Pittsburgh,” he said. “The city has its problems, but it also has the potential of being one of the greatest small urban centers of America. And I would definitely like to be a part of making that happen.”


A photo of two homes on Page Street in Manchester, just one of 3,800 original photos in Gabriel Henschel’s archive. The pictures are part of a baseline “portrait” that Henschel made of the Manchester and Allegheny West neighborhoods prior to the scheduled May 2009 opening of the North Shore’s Majestic Star casino.