Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The seeds of our (self)destruction.

So the Trib picked up a bit (story, or front page with pictures) that June is the 50th anniversary of the Lower Hill District's demolition. While I am as harsh as anyone on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the Shermanesque effort to 'save' the Hill District, there deserves to be some thought on the mindset that allowed this to happen. Following WWII the idea that collective engineering could overcome almost any problem was probably etched into the nation's psyche. Consider that the generation who thought this up had overcome the depression, mobilized for war, moved millions to win that war and were then rebuilding Europe all through massive plans that really made these Pittsburgh's projects seem miniscule by comparison. It was probably inconceivable to these people that the same type of plan could not solve problems in their own backyard. If they only understood that the problem was not brick and mortar.

But WWII more delayed than caused the neighborhood's demolition, the roots of which go back to well before the war began. Here is an archived documentary entitled The City (American Institute of Planners, 1939, available as an MPEG stream via the Prelinger Archives), which may be the single best explanation of the logic at work here. It is complete with an original score by Aaron Copeland if you can believe that... After first watching it I had to go rewatch the opening credits to make sure Frank Capra didnt direct it as well. He didn't but it sure seems like he did. Basically it idealizes the suburbs as utopian places to live and proselytizes massive city re-engineering with a lot of images of pre-war Pittsburgh as the ultimate scourge to be either prevented or beaten back. If this film could even be made at all, it is not a big leap to understand what happened in the Lower Hill District and elsewhere. But if you don't take time to watch, the title text pretty much says it all:
"Year by year our cities grow ever more complex and less fit for living. The age of rebuilding is here. The time to remould our old cities and build communities better suited to our needs."
All that is missing is the slow fading text scroll into a background of stars. For those who do get through the first part. Here is the link for Part 2.

and for the musicologists out there. Listen to this and realize it was written 5 years before Appalachian Spring debuted.


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