Wednesday, August 14, 2013

When will we start calling it catsup?

So what to talk about?  Heinz layoffs?  USAirways merger being challenged?  Yarn-bombing? To me it is all just part of the same big story. 

Let's look at the news out of USAirways where the feds are challenging the proposed merger with American Airlines.  Anyone remember when USAir's merger with United was blocked?  All USAirways stories for us really go back to the great hub hope and all the effort spent on making air transportation the future economic engine of Pittsburgh.  It was once routine to talk about USAir, or an air transportation hub more generally, as the replacement for the steel industry in Pittsburgh. The numbers really never made sense to me even under the best of circumstances. Of course it didn't work out, but from the late 1980s through the early 1990s more economic development effort went into financing the new midfield terminal than most anything else in the region.

Why did we do that? There were not a lot of other great ideas for building jobs up in the region. For a while it seemed to work. Briefly USAir was the biggest private employer in the region. Then the bankruptcies of USAir ended it all. Like a lot of us, I used to blame USAir for abandoning their contract with the region. In retrospect I've come to realize USAir actually didn't want the midfield terminal, but was pushed into backing the concept more than anything else. We were desperate for ideas to bring growth to the region.

Heinz was not a part of the transformation story back then, because nobody really expected Heinz itself to ever leave Pittsburgh. When it was announced earlier in the year that Heinz was being sold, I was still getting into conversations with folks who did not realize that Heinz had long since moved its Ketchup production out of Pittsburgh.  In fact all Heinz manufacuting left the region years ago.  There is a reason why the big Heinz Ketchup sign is now mounted at the HISTORY center. This is not a new development. Some find this inconceivable, but Del Monte acquired the Northside plant we associate with Heinz back in 2002... so long ago that folks now call the area the North Shore... You have to go back further in time to find when Ketchup was last made there. That big Heinz office building?  People actually live there now. I'm serious. If you don't believe me, look it up.

Where Heinz, or the corporate Headquarters of Heinz, is currently located is nominally called the Heinz 57 center for the moment. Part of the announcement yesterday is they are moving to PPG place.  The Heinz 57 Center in itself has a big piece in local redevelopment history.  The building  is what many of us still call the Gimbels building. Heinz consolidated their corporate headquarters there only in 2000.  The redevelopment of the building was a big effort that took much of a decade. The region was traumatized by the closure of Gimbels and the empty building was a challenge to redevelop.  Enter one Richard Penzer, a young developer of condos in NYC who was able to buy the property for a song. With public support he was then able to redevelop the building into a mix of retail (remember Barnes and Noble downtown) and office space.  Penzer wound up parlaying that success into buying Warner Center, the Oliver Building and seemed to be on a path to own all of Downtown.

Penzer himself ran into some bizarre (civil to be clear) legal problems later on that are too complicated to get into here, but for a time he was the biggest thing in urban development here, long before any modern buzz over the state of downtown Pittsburgh.  Maybe someone else remembers the Pittsburgh Magazine cover with a full page photo of Penzer with currency raining down around around him.  So desperate we are for anyone to come and invest in Pittsburgh.  The hyperbole of it all was similar to the singular efforts on the midfield terminal; a sign of the post-collapse phase the region struggled through.

So, Yarn-bombing?  Connected to any of that? Not really, but just think about how few things like the Yarn-bombing of the Warhol Bridge were making news here back then.  If there was public art making news at the time it does relate to Penzer, or actually his sister.  The late Judith Penzer was the artist behind a mega mural of Pittsburgh sports heros that was on the side of 500 Wood Street, also owned by her brother at that point. That mural came down when the building was demolished to make way for an enterprise known as Lazarus that was supposed to yet again revitalize Downtown. Closer to home for me, Penzer also was the artist behind the "Bride Mural" on Penn Avenue in Garfield.  Long before any funk came to Garfield mind you.  Literally feet from Salt or the Glass Lofts, the Penzer mural still dramatically welcomes visitors to theneighborhood. Next to it a series of run down property remains undeveloped, even experiencing a catastrophic fire just last month.  J. Penzer, some recall, tragically lost her life in the crash of TWA Flight 800 in Long Island Sound in 1996.  But a few years earlier she proposed a 30 mural 'maze' of murals through Downtown Pittsburgh. There was some public opposition to such a funky idea.  How would the powers that be have reacted to Yarn-bombing back in the day I wonder?