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Culture War Roundup for the week of May 27, 2024

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Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait

I initially teased this by saying that I was going to tackle Downtown and its environs, but my efforts since the introduction have shown that such a post would greatly exceed any sense of reasonableness as I kept using various things as jumping off points for broader discussion. This wouldn't be a problem except I had intended to weave a narrative that depended on presenting everything at once, so I spent several weeks waffling over whether I wanted to continue writing or retool, and only when the whole business was at 6000 words with a good deal left to cover did I decide to retool, which itself took longer than I expected. So I apologize for the delay, as I would have had this out several weeks ago if I had just stuck to Downtown. The upside is that the next several installments are practically finished, so I'll be posting them more frequently, probably as filler for whenever things are slow. I've occasionally linked to Google streetview images. I tried to pick representative locations, but you're encouraged to move around a bit to get a feel for the places I'm describing.

Part I. Downtown

For the purposes of this discussion, Downtown includes everything west of I-579 to the Point, except for on the northern part where it extends to 11th St. Map. The city’s official boundary of downtown also includes the area where the Civic Arena used to be, but for historical reasons that will become apparent in a later installment, that area will be discussed along with the Hill District. The city also officially calls this area the more boring Central Business District, while some old maps use the more whimsical Golden Triangle, but nobody uses the former term and only whimsical writers use the latter. It’s Downtown.

The first thing to be said about Pittsburgh’s downtown area is relatively tiny, about 2/3 of a square mile. Despite this, it manages to seem bigger than downtowns in similar rust belt cities that are geographically much larger. Topographical constraints prevent the urban core from expanding much beyond the boundaries outlined above — rivers hem in two sides of the triangle while a hill rises from the third — so everything is much denser than in a place like Cleveland or St. Louis, where the downtown has large lots and wide roads that sprawl out as much as urban planners thought they needed to. Compare this view of a typical street in Downtown Pittsburgh with this one from Cleveland. Traditionally there were several quasi-neighborhoods within downtown; Fourth Street was the financial district, Smithfield St. was the shopping district, Liberty Ave. was the red light district, Forbes Ave. was the seedy bum district, and there was even a small Chinatown. Most of these have changed in character (e.g. there are a few local banks still headquartered on Fourth St. but the big ones have all moved to modern skyscrapers) but a couple still survive. Penn Ave. is officially the Cultural District, containing the homes of The Pittsburgh Symphony, Pittsburgh Opera, Civic Light Opera, and several other similar cultural amenities, and Grant St. was and always will be the home of local government. Every little corner feels unique.

I suspect this is due to a few factors in addition to the aforementioned geographical limitations; the city always had a large number of corporate headquarters, and they never charged a high commuter tax. This kept these headquarters in the city rather than seeing them decamp to the suburbs like in so many other places. There also aren’t many surface lots downtown, and the ones that do exist are small. Finally, city property taxes were based on Georgist principles from 1913 to 2001, when a reassessment effectively forced them back to a single-rate system. I’m not going to go too much into this because city taxes were a relatively small component of total property taxes (county and school taxes used a traditional system), and it’s arguable whether other forces played into the relatively high development rates (it hasn’t abated since the system was abandoned), but it’s worth at least mentioning.

IA: A Past Not So Rosy

If there’s one theme I want to focus on when discussing Downtown, it’s urban renewal. It’s trendy to criticize urban renewal plans as being misguided boondoggles that effected all manner of misfortunes on cities, but to my knowledge no one has ever done a comprehensive examination of these efforts to do a serious evaluation of their success or failure. I say this because the Downtown we know today pretty much exists as a function of urban renewal dating back to the 1940s. Pop urbanists never seem to take a genuinely historical approach when discussing why cities are the way they are today, and they have a tendency to look at the prewar era as some sort of halcyon wonderland of walkability. They blame racism, or the auto industry, or any number of other lazy targets for what they see as a blight upon the landscape. But none of them seem to consider what city life was actually like before the era of highways and strip malls. In 1951, at Pittsburgh’s population zenith, Karl Schriftgiesser of the Atlantic wrote of Pittsburgh:

The decrepitude showed in its worn-out office buildings, its degraded housing, its traffic-choked streets, its sordid alleys, its polluted and uncontrolled rivers, and, above all, in the dense-choking smoke that covered the city and the river valleys…

Renaissance I was a bipartisan effort to change all that. Spearheading it were the Mayor, Democrat David L. Lawrence, and the Governor, Republican Richard King Mellon. The Point at that time was nothing more than unused rail yards and abandoned warehouses. The upper reaches soon became Gateway Center, a contemporary collection of modern high rises in a city that hadn’t seen any new Downtown construction in 20 years. The best was yet to come, though, as the 36 acres closest to the Point became Point State Park, one of the finest spots in the city. It’s so well-integrated into the urban fabric that no one really even thinks of it so much of a park as they do something that just exists. There isn’t much in the way of traditional amenities other than a museum dedicated to Fort Pitt and a lot of green space, but there’s an ineffable joy in taking a stroll around the fountain on a summer night. The most remarkable thing about it is that there’s an interstate highway running right through the middle of it that somehow manages to enhance the park rather than degrade it. There’s enough lawn on the city side to make it usable for events and a quick lunch, but going through the underpass to the river side is like entering an urban oasis, with the towers of Gateway Center looming behind you like a great wall of a city. It’s one of my favorite views, and one that few photographers have captured. Robert Moses was involved.

The whole Point project is an anomaly in American urban planning, the one urban renewal project that never shows up in the various lists of disasters that circulate around the internet. Having been started in the 1940s, it was one of the earliest such projects, and was viewed as an unparalleled success nationally, reinvigorating a downtown that was in imminent danger of collapsing in the face of inevitable suburbanization. While some projects were poorly thought-out from the beginning, I think that urban renewal would be viewed better today if subsequent planners using Gateway Center as a model would have focused on the right things. The reason it works, and is still attractive today, is that, from the shine of the chrome steel facades to the impeccable landscaping, no expense was spared, no detail too minor to be relevant. This is quite literally the ideal of Corbusier’s towers in a park. But that’s not the lesson that was learned; planners instead thought that demolishing old buildings and building towers in a park was enough. For what it’s worth, Jane Jacobs didn’t like it, and the destruction of the old point is now bemoaned by a few armchair urbanists who feel the need to crap on anything that was done between 1945 and 1980. But I don’t think Downtown would be better now if it terminated in an indeterminate mishmash of old industrial buildings.

And then the steel industry crashed. But somehow, in the 1980s, Renaissance II took off. In what should have been the city’s darkest days, there was a commercial building boom that saw construction of 4 of Pittsburgh’s 5 tallest skyscrapers, including icons like the PPG Building. Enter Tom Murphy. Pittsburgh seems to have a tradition of alternating between bold, visionary mayors and caretaker mayors, much like Russia alternates between hairy and bald leaders. Dick Caligiuiri had been Pittsburgh’s mayor from 1977 until his untimely death in 1988 and was definitely the bold visionary sort. He was replaced by Sophie Masloff, a kindly elderly woman referred to as “everyone’s Jewish grandmother”. She’s remembered as a good mayor, but was more focused on maintaining fiscal solvency amid a declining industrial base than on achieving grand proposals. She practically inherited the position (though she later won a full term) and was in her 70s; she wasn’t exactly the kind of person who becomes mayor with an ambitious vision.

IB: Urban Renewal's Last Gasp

Enter Tom Murphy. Murphy became mayor in 1994, at a time when the city was at a crossroads. The air was clean and the new offices were shiny, but the city was hemorrhaging population and in a state of fiscal crisis. Downtown had once been the region’s premiere shopping district, but suburban shopping malls, combined with a transit project in the ‘80s in which the construction of the world’s smallest subway kept some streets closed for years had turned it into a shadow of itself. One area that wasn’t doing bad, though, was the Fifth-Forbes corridor. At the time, 90% of storefronts were occupied, and they did brisk business. The problem was that, in the eyes of the city, they were the wrong kind of businesses. Wig stores, newsstands, liquor stores, pager stores, dive bars, and other places of ill repute lined the district. And they attracted the wrong kinds of people. The Hill District was Pittsburgh’s Harlem. With its own business district decimated in the wake of urban renewal, riots, crack, and gangs, its residents needed to shop somewhere, and merchants on Fifth and Forbes filled the void. This picture is from 2008, which is a decade after the proposal, but it gives you a general idea. Murphy, desperate to revive Downtown, proposed a sweetheart deal to acquire the whole area by eminent domain, raze the buildings, and sell to a Chicago developer who promised to attract high-end tenants like J Crew, build a movie theater and bowling alley, and add other chain shit like a House of Blues. Murphy was a visionary and a policy wonk, but his ideas were straight out of the 1970s. Council was unanimously in favor. The Post-Gazette loved it, and described the area as “downtrodden” and “blighted”. But there were problems brewing. The business owners were unanimously opposed. This was an area with 120 businesses and a 90% occupancy rate. The Institute for Justice got involved, erecting a dozen billboards throughout the city with canny opposition slogans like “Murphy’s Law: Tke from Pittsburgh Families, Give to an Out-of-Town Developer”. Normal people thought that it was some white elephant plan that wasn’t going to do shit. People debated it on talk radio endlessly.

There was also a lot of money involved; the total cost estimates were over half a billion dollars, over 100 million of that public. Part of the cost was a $28 million inducement to bring a Nordstrom’s to town; a spokesman for the mayor described this as a bargain since Cincinnati paid $47 million to get a Nordstrom’s. The business owners proposed an alternative plan in which the city would give them $28 million to renovate upstairs space above the shops into apartments that were currently vacant due to fire code nonconformities, but the city didn’t seem interested. In the face of the mayor’s intransigence, he was inevitably forced to yield, not because of their opposition but because Nordstrom decided to mothball a planned expansion for reasons unrelated to Fifth and Forbes specifically and the developer backed out. Murphy took eminent domain off the table and tried two more out of town developers, but neither was able to accomplish much. When his term ended in 2006, new mayor Bob O’Connor officially killed the plan. That’s not to say that the story has a happy ending, necessarily. The Urban Redevelopment Authority destroyed the opulent marble interior of the original Mellon Bank to make room for a Lord & Taylor that lasted like three years. In 2011, PNC announced that it was building a new 33 story tower to house its corporate headquarters; it had spent the past few years quietly buying out the block that it sits on. Slowly, the dinginess of the area melted away, and now it’s just nondescript urban bleh. The storefronts are mostly vacant. The problem with these kinds of proposals is that they try to do too much. Murphy was constantly questioned about why he wasn’t using local developers, and while he never gave a clear answer, I suspect it was because none of them were willing to take the kind of risk involved with something as big as he proposed. He wasn’t willing to wait for the area to turn around a building at a time, and he was skeptical that it was even possible that anything he found acceptable would move in with all the real-world businesses surrounding it. But we all know how this would have gone — there would have been an initial inrush of new businesses, but it would have taken a long time to fill out. The anchors would have accordingly cut and run after the initial leases were up, and the city would have been left holding the bag. It seems odd that this all happened in 2000 as well, because, a decade later, such an idea would have been unthinkable.

1C: The State of the Triangle

For the next few decades, Downtown remained stable, if not great. The commercial activity was there during the daytime, but at night the whole place emptied out, save for the Cultural District. There was very little residential. If you were in the vicinity of 6th Ave. everything seemed fine, with the theaters and restaurants abuzz and lots of foot traffic, but anywhere else was a ghost town save for the occasional bum asking for change. It wasn’t exactly dangerous, but a bit sketchy. In more recent years, there’s been a movement to build more residential space Downtown, and things are slowly changing. Stymieing this, though, is the increasing vacancy rate of Downtown office space post-pandemic. This isn’t unique to Pittsburgh, but combined with a couple high-profile incidents of violence, it’s created the impression among suburbanites that Downtown is increasingly unsafe. Part of the problem is that the homeless population is more visible than they were before. Contrary to popular belief, the actual homeless population has about halved since they first started counting in 2010, but reduced foot traffic and the proliferation of tents along the bike trails (with the associated drug activity) make the problem look worse than it actually is. I don’t intend to make this an in-depth discussion about the homeless problem in America, as that’s beyond the scope of this post, but it’s something the city has to contend with. Luckily, the actual unsheltered homeless population is under a thousand people, almost all concentrated Downtown or in nearby areas, so the problem isn’t as intractable as it is on the West Coast.

As for the future of downtown, it’s hard to predict. Office space was at a premium before the pandemic, but the new hybrid office environment has led more and more companies to downsize. Commercial real estate companies are acting like it’s the apocalypse, but they do that every time there’s a market downturn. My prediction is that the trend towards more residential continues, but that the office situation stabilizes as natural demand increase fills up the existing vacancies, combined with more companies demanding employees come back to the office. That said, it's never going to be a trendy area. Downtown is ubiquitous in the public psyche, so it will never have the cachet of an undiscovered territory. Pittsburgh isn't New York, and no one will want to raise a family in a Downtown high rise. The inevitable demographic is single professionals and childless couples who presumably make enough to live Downtown because they're workaholics who want to be close to their high-paying jobs. A girl I went to law school with lived Downtown for a while and said that she liked it but that it wears on you after a while and you want to just live in a normal neighborhood.

Neighborhood Grade: Upper Middle Class as far as residential is concerned, with the caveat that, despite having over 4,000 residents, this isn’t really a residential area. Accordingly, it’s a lot different than most of the other Upper Middle Class areas in the city.

The most remarkable thing about it is that there’s an interstate highway running right through the middle of it that somehow manages to enhance the park rather than degrade it. There’s enough lawn on the city side to make it usable for events and a quick lunch, but going through the underpass to the river side is like entering an urban oasis, with the towers of Gateway Center looming behind you like a great wall of a city. It’s one of my favorite views, and one that few photographers have captured. Robert Moses was involved.

I've never been to Pittsburgh, but this sounds like cope. San Francisco also used to have a freeway "adorning" its waterfront public area which was mercifully seriously damaged by the hand of God itself. The city took the hint and demolished the whole thing and now it's an absolute pleasure to walk along the waterfront there (and these days you don't even encounter homeless in that area). No constant freeway noise, no pollution, no unsightly overpass.

Robert Moses is perhaps the greatest freeway enjoyer who ever lived, and I'm not surprised he put a freeway in the middle of a park. However, it would absolutely be way better if they buried that thing and put some kind of decorative arch for effect instead of a utilitarian concrete span.

The Pacific Ocean is much nicer than the Ohio river. The one has barking seals while the other has slugs. Pittsburgh’s rivers are its historical interstates and still feel that way today.

The sea lions on fisherman's wharf are actually recent immigrants - they only came in the 90s.

The port of Oakland was actually the first container ship port on the west coast and today is the third busiest American pacific port.

Moses consulted on the highway plan over a decade before ground broke, and his original design had the interchange at the Point itself, because that's where the existing bridges were. City officials implemented most of the plan but decided to construct new bridges and moved the highway alignment to its current location. While the pedestrian walkway under the interchange isn't exactly beloved, the Fort Pitt Bridge is, and you can't have one without the other. The way the highway divides the space is testament to the attention to detail I mentioned in the post. Using something functional for that purpose seems more natural than constructing a wall or an arch, which would make things seem a little too intentional. The effect is creating without your noticing. Whether or not it's actually better than any other conceivable possibility of your choice is a matter for debate. Would the Golden Gate be more beautiful without the bridge obstructing the view? Would Downtown Pittsburgh be more beautiful if it were left as old growth bottomland forest? Would Black Canyon be better without Hoover Dam backing up the river? Finally, as the series progresses I'm going to criticize a number of ill-conceived projects; if I praise something it's because I like it, not because I'm trying to advance an argument. The point isn't that urban renewal was always good, just that it wasn't necessarily always bad.

While the pedestrian walkway under the interchange isn't exactly beloved, the Fort Pitt Bridge is, and you can't have one without the other

Sure you can, they could have had the bridge lead into a tunnel.

Using something functional for that purpose seems more natural than constructing a wall or an arch, which would make things seem a little too intentional.

Ironically, there's nothing natural about the situation here since we're talking about a freeway overpass!

There's a tremendously long history of using arches and other architectural devices to divide spaces. It seems unlikely to me that, had the freeway been buried instead and the park was divided with something like an arch, that anyone would advocate exhuming the freeway to make it look more natural. So I am inclined to think that defenses of the status quo are just due to path dependence.

The effect is creating without your noticing

Like I said, I haven't been there, but I have had the misfortune of being near freeways, and in my experience, you always notice and rarely for the better.