Friday, June 18, 2010

Where it began

Development efforts in the Hill District are likely to make ever more news in coming months.   A corresponding news thread of folks debating what will be the fate of the Civic Arena is also coming to a head at the same time. Between the two topics (which are the same topic of course) you can see the spate of recent stories is just the beginning.

My one observation is that the folks debating the two topics don't seem to talk to each other at all, don't seem to have much overlap in names and really are just talking past each other.  This all will be painful.

Will be....  is....  has been...  Will we ever get to will have been?
Here is the New York Times has on November 17, 1947.   Not a typo, the date is 1947. You could have a discussion over what just about each line says.  So we will just start with the transcript, but I would almost read it backwards.

Regional Plan Association Proposes a Civic Center. By C. Edmund Fisher. November 17, 1947, Page E7
PITTSBURGH, Nov. 8 - A multimillion-dollar civic center eliminating seventy acres of substandard housing from the Pittsburgh business district has come from the drawing boards of two Pittsburgh architects.
   Known as "The Pittsburgh Center," it was designed at the request of the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association and turned over to the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce for practical application.If ever carried out, it would provide this steel center of the world with much-needed improvements. The plan includes a huge arena, seating 18,000 for sports events and 15,000 for conventions. a hotel, apartments and a crosstown highway.
   Financing for the crosstown highway lias been assured by, Allegheny County authorities, while the city's share of property damages was included in a recently approved improvement bond issue. The. highway would bisect the outer edge of the business district and parallel the southern end of the Pittsburgh Center.
   The center's keystone would be the arena. This, according to ,the planning association's proposal, would include, in addition to the auditorium. and sports. arena, facilities for exhibits and business displays. Pittsburgh has long felt the need for a large auditorium that could house major conventions, such as Democratic and Republican national meetings
   The center would be constructed on a n,uge section of what is known as The Hill, now partly covered with slums. The civic center would rip out homes and apartments in which 1,995 families now reside, and would 'provide apartments for 2,000 families, plus wide streets, parks and modern schools.

I should add of course that 1947 was surely not the beginning of any of this.  One of the first posts here: Seeds of Our (self) Destruction, points out what may be the real genesis of what happened in the Lower Hill District and environs.  A film I would use when teaching urban economics is a documentary entitled The City (American Institute of Planners, 1939, available as an MPEG stream via the Prelinger Archives).  One of the more remarkable films ever made.  I believe as do others that 40 years of anti-urban policy all stem from... if not that film in and of itself, then from the mentality that inspired it.   For all intents and purposes, Pittsburgh was its case study.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does Pittsburgh have the equivalent of a City Club or some other forum for public discussion? Someone who can bring opposing voices together in a constructive debate?

After the war (and the depression before it), cities were focused on modernization and clearing slums,investing after a long drought. While there is considerable nostalgia now, the Hill was not a healthy place to live at the time, and there was considerable support for improvements in living conditions.

Suburbanization and poor execution, along with the very unequal status of many citizens, left many promises unkept, however. Over the past 60+ years, planners, architects, and business people have come to grips with how urban centers work in a more disperse urban environment. Urban design has received considerable investment in Pittsburgh, and businesses have figured out how to make money in at least some parts of urban areas.

Pittsburgh has not done a good job at integrating the poor into the mainstream community. As arguments fly over the relative merits of tearing down (or not) the arena, it would be interesting to cultivate a discussion that asks: Would it be just (or not) that a kid growing up in the Hill would have an equal chance of attending a particular university (and leaving debt free) that a kid growing up in Upper St Clair would have, and if so, how should the community raise the funds to make that happen?

Friday, June 18, 2010 9:20:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

how should the community raise the funds to make that happen?

If it were only a matter of money.

Friday, June 18, 2010 9:26:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

I believe as do others that 40 years of anti-urban policy all stem from... if not that film in and of itself, then from the mentality that inspired it.

I've never seen the film, just read your linked post. But, I don't think you can really blame an anti-urban mentality as if it were something created by a specific group of individuals as opposed to a natural, possibly inevitable, reaction to changing times.

The period you are discussing had a constant movement of people from farms and small towns to larger cities. Economic forces were pushing this, many of those moving did not want to go, and nearly all of them wanted some of what they had before (i.e. their own ground and walls and reasonable quiet after dark). I don't see how the movies would have affected this. You don't need anything to shift attitudes to "anti-urban," as most of the population was never urban in upbringing or attitude.

Not that rural living doesn't have its problems (animal noises, dogs barking, manure smells, etc.), but I sometimes think that people who grew-up in more or less urban setting don't appreciate how stressful city living is to those were first experienced it as adults. I like Squirrel Hill (once you get away from the business district traffic) just fine as I do not enjoy cutting grass or commuting, but I regard it as dense, urban living instead of the first-wave suburb development it really is.

Obviously, public policy made suburban more broadly affordable, but elections really are just a big popularity contest.

Friday, June 18, 2010 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

You know.. there is a big pyramid thing in Memphis… unused as it is.

Anyway, Pro-urbanist, anti-urbansist... or just urbanist... you gotta see the film. And all of it. Hard to make sense of what urban history that followed with taking it in. This wasn’t just some voice in the wilderness. It was the contemporary magnum opus of planners and policy at the time. So yes, the film isn’t causal, but it is a reflection of some very intentional policies that are.

Not quite sure your point, but I think you are saying some things are inevitable, or natural.. or endogenous to something else. Possibly, but plenty of policies have impacted how affordable or desirable city living is vs. suburb. Policies and projects that don’t need to have happened as they unfolded.

If that film is one bookend to the deadzone of US urban policy that followed.. the other bookend is what came out of the President’s Commission for a national agenda for the eighties which came out in 1980 I think. What it said pretty clearly was that cities were in some ways anachronistic.. that we should just accept they will decline and plan accordingly.

Friday, June 18, 2010 12:56:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Not quite sure your point, but I think you are saying some things are inevitable, or natural.. or endogenous to something else.

More explicitly and less biographically, my guess is that, excepting those people who were raised in cities, city living can only get so dense before people will start to pay very high costs to avoid it.

Possibly, but plenty of policies have impacted how affordable or desirable city living is vs. suburb.

Yes, but baring some kind of economic collapse, I'm guessing that pushing city living works much better if you try for something much less dense than the Hill District was back in the day. Moving people from 3 house per acre suburbs into 10 house per acre urban lots can probably done. Trying to put families in low rise multi-family structures is only going to work to the extent that people are poor.

Friday, June 18, 2010 2:01:00 PM  
Blogger joe said...

The City is a remarkable film, with music by Aaron Copeland no less. Can someone identify the various parts featuring this area (the whole middle-third of this Part 1, as near as I can tell).

For friends of the Hill District, there are 641 images that come up when one clicks on the Hill District using the neat map function on the Historic Images of Pittsburgh Collection site (hosted by the University of Pittsburgh's Digital Research Library). Seems like whenever the meeting of the minds occurs those images should be part of the conversation.

I still think recreating the old (rural) communal spirit of Grant's Hill (once or twice removed, and pushed northeastward some) in whatever green space emerges would give new meaning to this whole reimagining the Hill process. See George Lehman's use of a camera lucida in 1840 (appearing on page 26 in A Panorama of Pittsburgh by Christopher W. Lane for the Frick Art and Historical Center).

Friday, June 18, 2010 2:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking this. What a sad film. Really informs the bullshit "faux cottege" suburban mindset.

Pittsburgh in 1940 was the 10th largest city in the country, with a population of over 670,000.

Friday, June 18, 2010 4:55:00 PM  

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