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The shiny future, through the eyes of the past

In the 1950s, many center cities were in decline, crime-ridden, smelly, and crowded. Meanwhile, suburbs were new, shiny, and full of promise. Civic leaders very seriously believed that ripping out most of the old downtowns and replacing them with tall towers surrounding by parking would actually improve the quality of life in the city. This 1955 video from Pittsburgh extols leaders' wisdom in knocking down most of an older warehouse district, putting up giant freeway interchanges and some office towers in its place.

Tom Vanderbilt writes,

The irony of this video (and, I must say, the supposed congestion horror depicted here looks pretty tame) is that just about everything that's proposed here is the sort of thing that, half a century later, would be seen as a nightmare from which cities were trying to awake. ...

It's hard not to see Le Corb and Broadacre City all over that image of the tall tower, surrounded by acres of parking my initial thought was, where would you go for lunch? It's the sort of mundane question the motopians never paused much to consider as they drafted their gleaming tomorrows.

This article summarizes the successes and failures of Pittsburgh's far-reaching mid-century urban renewal program. At the Point, the subject of the video, the clearing did bring some immediate benefits, drawing more jobs into the area than were there before. However, we can't know how much more vibrant that district might be today had the warehouses been preserved. Nearby, planners demolished the Lower Hill residential area largely because the immigrant families populating it had less political power to stop it.
The population of the Lower Hill dropped from 17,334 in 1950 to 2,459 in 1990. People forced to leave the integrated area moved mainly to neighborhoods that reflected their own race, thus worsening the city's segregation problem. By 1960, Pittsburgh was one of the most segregated big cities in America. ...

A 1968 editorial in The Pittsburgh Press read, "The men of the Renaissance have been unable to produce anything but a crop of weeds on 9.2 acres of prime public land next to the Civic Arena." The land remains a parking lot today.

Ironically, while today we talk about "human scale" in terms of smaller plazas that work for people, detail on buildings, ground-floor articulation, and other elements of a more walkable urban place, the advocates of urban renewal also used the same phrase. According to the Post-Gazette, Fortune Magazine said in the 1950s, "Pittsburgh is the test of industrialism everywhere to renew itself, to rebuild upon the gritty ruins of the past a society more equitable, more spacious, more in human scale."

At that time, planners thought that auto-dependent freeway cloverleafs were more "human" than historic downtowns.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Having lived in Pittsburgh for many years, it is interesting to see what the ACCD (Allegheny Conference on Community Development) did in the past. The sites that were cleared at the point definitely benefited Pittsburgh and continue to today. The park that is there and the massive open space in teh heart of downtown is worth it. The building of the highways through it are horrible - the other side of the coin unfortunately.

Regarding the link to the 2000 article in the Post-Gazette, i wish they would do an updated series on how things are changing now.

by Allan on Aug 26, 2009 2:15 pm • linkreport

Glad to finally read that someone recognizes F L Wrong's vision for Broadacres City for what it really was-
a huge mistake from a very sinister "architect" who hated cities as much as his cousin Robert Moses did.
FL Wrong is the most over-rated scoundrel in American art history.

by w on Aug 26, 2009 2:15 pm • linkreport

Great post. It's interesting that the bad shots of downtown are teeming with life while the new Modernist tower in the park has no one walking around. Couple that with what Jane Jacobs teaches and you preaty much got it.
I do have to come to the defence of Frank Lloyd Wright though. He did hate cities and it seems most people too, but that aside he was a great artist. Before he went into his Mayan phase he did some of the most beautiful buildings we have IMHO. I think it's possible to admire his some of his work and understand he knew nothing about urbanism. Even if his thoeries where as simplstic as most modernist manifestos, he knew composition.

by Thayer-D on Aug 26, 2009 2:40 pm • linkreport

This is a great video for the "what were we thinking" archive, but in Pittsburgh's case you're leaving out some important context.

I like the quote about bringing a human scale to Pittsburgh. It's still applicable today, though our interpretation of "human-scale" has evolved a bit beyond putting everyone behind the wheel of a car. But at the time, the mood in Pittsburgh was very optimistic. Mills were open 24-7; the city was a thriving place with a ton of good-paying jobs, nevermind the smoky haze that covered the city most of the time. Critics of sprawl rightly point to Pittsburgh as a case study—the city population, which once had about the same density as Brooklyn, has been more than cut in half since the 50’s--but a lot of this density was not well planned. The Point was a frequently flooded slum, and many of the hill neighborhoods (e.g. Mt. Washington, Polish Hill, Hill District) had substandard buildings and open sewers running directly into the rivers as late as the 50’s. Not exactly a model for new urbanism. When FL Wright famously remarked that the city should be demolished and left to rust in the rivers he made a valid point.

Pittsburgh has changed a lot, from industrial hellhole to “America’s Most Livable City.” However, I don’t agree with your suggestion that the city would have turned out better had they left downtown as-is. It would probably look more like the actual warehouse districts across the Allegheny, where you’ll find they city’s most neglected and dangerous neighborhoods today. Pittsburgh is a stable but low-market city—not every town can support the kind of development that turns every warehouse into chic apartments and offices.

Auto-centric development aside, redevelopment of downtown pgh served the purpose of saving the city’s urban core by bringing people into the central city. Keep in mind that this was about the time sprawl really hit American towns—some in Pittsburgh wanted to build a beltway around the city (it never was built; instead they built a second tunnel and a parkway going straight into town). It’s unfortunate that there’s a freeway interchange downtown, but it’s a testament to the redevelopment’s effectiveness that downtown remains a draw for people even as jobs and residences have spread out into the countryside.

Even today, most revitalization efforts in downtown are aimed at creating an arts and entertainment district that keeps people downtown after work and on weekends. The Golden TriangleÂ’s revamped skyline is one of the most iconic urban views in the country, and a symbol of the city. The city/regional planners clearly made mistakes (don't get me started) in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, but itÂ’s worth understanding their motivations before criticizing one of the better developments that took place.

by ex-yinzer on Aug 26, 2009 3:04 pm • linkreport

I think you make excellent points, but fall into a typical trap of urbanists who decry density when it's poor people. All the sociological reasons why density is favorable in Dupont circle are just as valuble if not more in poor neighborhoods. I know it's easy to run away from people and society with all of today's electronic toys etc. and some should run, but all the benefits of having social interactions where lost when they cleared these slums. All the stories from these neighborhoods where not bad. The neglected follow up reports from these slum clearances should be manditory reading for architects and urban planners in school assuming we are being trained to build for lay people.

Urban renewal (besides repairing their property values) might have been alltruistic, but at some point we have to own up to the outcome of their efforts, and if one has the opportunity to read some of these interviews, the picture isn't pretty.

One man's slum is another's vibrant and close knit home.

by Thayer-D on Aug 26, 2009 3:34 pm • linkreport

Hey, they're still at it. You hear all the time folks talking about "completing I-XX through DC" or somesuch idiocy as a way to reduce congestion in the 'burbs.

Talk about living in the past.

by ibc on Aug 26, 2009 3:53 pm • linkreport

I highly repspect your comments but I have to say a few things about FLWrong.
To me his spaces come off as very depressing and gloomy.
As for being an important artist or designer,
he took total credit when his apprentices- who were actually far better trained as professional architects and engineers- like Jack Howe- did most of the designing and drawing for Wrong.
What particularly bothers me is that when one goes into an art museum or a bookstore and hits the art book/ architecture section
it is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to find any books on another architect from America in the 20th century.
I find it very frustrating that perhaps our greatest and most ignored architect- William Van Allen- doesn't have a single good book written about his works other than the Chrystler Building in NYC.
The shelves are full of books on FLW. It does get a little redundant.
Kind of like saying that Picasso and Mattisse were the only painters in the 20th century- or that Rodin was the only sculptor in Europe at the time who was any good.

Also- I think that if FLW's personal books ever were to be reprinted they would show the world what a maniac and dictatorial fascist he really was.

Every builder who has been as prolific as FLW has done some good things- and his earliest structures to me are his best. But he does not hold a candle - IMO - to Post, Burnham, Van Allen, or the lady the desinged Hearst castle-Julia Morgan.

All of them deserve more attention .

by w on Aug 26, 2009 3:58 pm • linkreport

W, that's a nice, coherent explanation of your opinion.

Perhaps if you toned down your vitriol and stopped using phrases like "F L Wrong," you'd get better responses.

For me, I love FLW's architecture and sense of design, even if I hate his view of urbanism. I've been to a number of his buildings, and all are lovely. He pushed concepts of using local materials and emphasizing smaller spaces before it was trendy to do so.

So what if he was an arrogant ass - I think that description probably applies to many great artists/athletes/performers.

by Alex B. on Aug 26, 2009 4:02 pm • linkreport

All the stories from these neighborhoods where not bad.

Segregation-induced ghettos of unremitting poverty and social dysfunction: perfectly awful living environment, or just awful?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

by ibc on Aug 26, 2009 4:05 pm • linkreport

On density--Your comment about decrying density when it's poor people is right on--making the mistake of linking density with crime, poverty, quality of life, etc. when there's no connection. Dupont is much more dense than SE Washington but noone would argue that Southeast is a preferable place to live.

At some point, though, density is a factor in real estate demand. Not that less is always better, but if not well-developed, people will move out when they get the chance. In the Pgh area, the problem with 'slums' is not that they're too dense but not dense enough. These neighborhoods were built with the intention of locating as many people as possible within walking distance of a mill in cheaply-constructed workers' housing. the neighborhoods are losing density as homes are abandoned, burned or torn down to the degree that formerly dense areas are downright bucolic. These aren't vibrant and close-knit areas, but urban ghost towns often without basics like grocers and pharmacies.

I think that poorer, denser center cities often find themselves in competition with richer outlying jurisdictions with regards to density and drivability, and respond by making the city more "suburban". I live a mile from the capitol of the US, the veritable center of the metro area, and next to me is a Domino's with a surface parking lot for Chrissake. The Washington region is not much different from Pittsburgh in this aspect--the capital is the highlight of the region but everyone prefers to live elsewhere, citing the typical reasons (afford a bigger house, lower crime, better schools, lower taxes) for moving to outside jurisdictions--communities whose boundaries were drawn often with the purpose of excluding those with lower incomes (e.g. Fox Chapel, PA - a few square miles with its own schools, police force and one of the nation's highest per-capita incomes) while still claiming all the benefits of city life and demanding faster access to it by car.

...well, that's the definition of a suburb I guess. Now I'm just ranting.
Here in DC, I've noticed that here people seem to differentiate themselves (N. Virginians, Marylanders) from the District more than in other places. In Pittsburgh even suburbanites tend to identify with the least, until it comes to paying taxes.

by ex-yinzer on Aug 26, 2009 4:41 pm • linkreport

ex-yinzer: "Here in DC, I've noticed that here people seem to differentiate themselves (N. Virginians, Marylanders) from the District more than in other places."
Not enough for my DC-native daughters in college, who are immensely annoyed by all the people who claim to be from "Washington, DC" but are actually from Maryland or Virginia.

by davidj on Aug 26, 2009 4:57 pm • linkreport

Your comment about decrying density when it's poor people is right on...

Seriously, is there actually an "urbanist" out there decrying *density* when it's poor people? I haven't actually heard one.

When folks talk about concentration of poverty, they're not suggesting we should continue to have a homogenous ghetto of the very poor...only slightly less dense.

They're arguing that--regardless of density--a homogenous ghetto of the very poor is a bad thing. In other words, for economic diversity as well as density.

The fact that Dominoes has a surface parking lot is not a conscious attempt to make the city less dense, but the legacy of desperate last-ditch efforts during the 80's and early '90's to attract any kind of tax base. (See also "H Street Connection").

The fact that tastes have changed--in conjunction with suburban traffic congestion--driving gentrification in city's neighborhoods is what's allowed the District to become picky about zoning.

by ibc on Aug 26, 2009 4:58 pm • linkreport

I remember a passage in one of Jim Kunstler's books where he pointed out that some of the demolition wrought by urban renewal in American downtowns was no less complete, but in many cases more permanent, than what our B-17s did to Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg. It's incredible to me that, just a few years after flattening all these cities with our bombs, the viewer is invited to enjoy scenes of wrecking balls and bulldozers demolishing the heart of a great American city.

And at least Dresden and Berlin were rebuilt. Allan in the first comment praises the "open space" left after the demolitions, but to me all it shows is a failure of confidence and a lack of imagination. Calling what's basically a huge vacant lot a "park" doesn't magically turn it into a civic asset. Wikipedia says that much of the place became a trash-filled wasteland used as a shelter space by the homeless.

The other thing that strikes me about this video is the number of times the narrator emphasizes how "new" everything is. "New" towers, a "new" landscape, a "new" expressway. As though "newness" were an inherent quality that doesn't, by definition, fade with time. Nobody was thinking long-term. It looks like Wright, regardless of his ideas on urbanism, actually grasped this at the time with his plans for a civic center on the site, which were rejected:

"You're building a $100,000,000 highway [the Penn-Lincoln Parkway] here... Is it impractical to spend several hundred million to further your culture which will survive good or bad long after the Parkway has collapsed?"

by Charlie on Aug 26, 2009 5:23 pm • linkreport

ibc - (btw my post was in response to an earlier comment) It depends on which urbanist...The interaction between population density, poverty, crime, etc. has been a subject of debate for decades. Though it's not necessarily correct, poverty and density are intertwined in most peoples' conception of a city.

Some of the recent redevelopment projects in Pittsburgh have given a "suburban" aspects to housing targeted at low/med income buyers in neighborhoods where the homes were once packed in. Section 8 and other "poverty redistribution" programs, designed to get people out of urban ghettos and into safe neighborhoods, effectively push the urban poor into the suburbs. And where else would they go? The next step up, rent and mortgage-wise, from a low-income urban area is the burbs...I don't think you see much migration from Ward 8 to 3. The fact that middle-income families have traditionally moved to lower-density areas reinforces the link between density, poverty and crime. An increasing number of people are eschewing the suburbs for city life, but for the time being they're still a minority.

by ex-yinzer on Aug 26, 2009 6:14 pm • linkreport

FWIW, the urban renewal project in the Golden Triangle was one of the first urban renewal projects post the 1949 Federal Housing Act. Unlike the first federal demonstration projects in DC and New Haven, it was all done with private money.

While I decry urban renewal as much as anybody, somehow we do have to figure out how to balance improvement vs. nostalgia in urban revitalization.

And you have to think about when that project was done. Except for rare instances including war-related construction, especially of factories, beginning with the Depression (1929-1930) most cities experienced very little in the way of substantive new investment from 1930 in to the 1950s). So this project in PGH was a big deal in that respect also. And cities did need to try to figure out how to remain relevant in the face of suburban outmigration of residents, retail and manufacturing.

Granted, Downtowns/central business districts needed different strategies from neighborhoods. And rampant highway building (the 10 cent dollar) and mortgage underwriting policies that didn't allow for mixed race neighborhoods made urban revitalization very difficult.

I wonder what course I would have recommended had I been alive back then. In any case, Jane Jacobs was unusual in how she forecasted the impact of urban renewal, in the face of a profession and conventional wisdom that was lockstep behind urban renewal. (Note that some of her suggestions differed significantly in _Death and Life_ compared to her first article, "Downtowns are for people," in the 4/1958 issue of Fortune Magazine.)

Remember that the idea of outmigration to suburbs (The Garden City) and urban renewal as a center city strategy had been developed over a period of roughly 30 years (from Howard's _Cities of To-Morrow in the 1890s to all the work of the U of Chicago sociologists in the 1920s, not to mention the developing automobile and highway lobby which developed in the 1920s and 1930s particularly). These forces came together in the 1949 Housing Act and later federal legislation, including for the Interstate Highway system.

by Richard Layman on Aug 26, 2009 9:45 pm • linkreport

Mr. Kunstler wrote that? He actually likened urban renewal to the area bombing campaigns of WWII? Then he was off base, far off base. The imagery may appeal because of its power, but there is something monstrously twisted about a writer who can liken planning/development policy to air raids that killed 50,000 people at once.

And no, urban renewal projects looked nothing like the results of area bombing campaigns, even setting aside the dead bodies.

by David R. on Aug 26, 2009 11:19 pm • linkreport

The imagery may appeal because of its power, but there is something monstrously twisted about a writer who can liken planning/development policy to air raids that killed 50,000 people at once.

Well, as I recall he wasn't making a direct comparison so much as making the point that an uninformed observer walking through the Lower Hill neighborhood today, or through a place like central Detroit, where arson and decay were responsible for the devastation, wouldn't be blamed for thinking that we, not Germany, had taken the brunt of the bombing.

In any event, my point was not to directly compare aerial bombardment with urban renewal either, but to note that, at that particular time, one would have thought Americans would be especially sensitive to plans that called for mass demolitions of neighborhoods and the evictions of their inhabitants. Or at least, that a promotional video would not highlight these aspects.

As to Richard Layman's post, I'd humbly suggest that what ought to have been done in the Golden Triangle was a rebuilding of the area as a true neighborhood, this time with the riverbank used as a proper civic space, and perhaps 5-10 acres of parks besides. As it was, it seemed the city knew it wanted to tear the area down, but didn't have a vision for what to replace it with other than the I-279 interchange. The towers look like an afterthought, and the rest of the space, 36 acres, was simply written off as "parkland," the default low-cost option and a cop-out. The city was considering something like this with Wright's proposal for a civic center, but nixed it due to cost, even at a time when industry was still flourishing in the city.

by Charlie on Aug 27, 2009 2:25 am • linkreport

Another point: people only want to be in downtown Pittsburgh today because the steel industry died. In the 1950s, you really wanted to get as far as you could from the steel plants and the massive particulate pollution they produced.

Throw in a few sanitation issues and those garden city ideas start to look appealing.

by charlie on Aug 27, 2009 7:27 am • linkreport

I don't think you could ever point to one main reason the centers of American cities where ravaged by urban renewal. Crime, lack of maintenance, racial problems, de-industrialization where all factors to be sure. However the conversation might have started though, the "civic leaders" needed professional architects and planners to execute these designs and would have deffered to their recommendations. This is where the story becomes a tragedy. The timing coincided with modernism's ascent with-in our proffesional ranks brought in through architecture schools. Not only did the modernists want to flatten the old cities in favor of their insane visions, their "reading" of architectural history viewed the majority of our built heritage at that time (eclecticism) as almost criminal. So rather than the early housing projects of the 1890's (see Brooklyn) up to the 1920's where the buildings where designed to fit into the urban fabric, they chose to kill the forest for the trees.

As for Frank Lloyd Wright, your point is well taken. While I admire FLW's early buildings, I used to get annoyed that he seemed to be one of the only American architects prior to WWII they would teach about in school. Again he who rules the past, rules the future, and FLW was squeezed into the modernist architectural history maybe because he was as bobmastic and arrogant as the Bauhaus fools who were given the keys to our best architecture schools. When I discovered Greene & Greene, John Wellborn Root, and Bernard Maybeck just to name a few of my personal favorites, I realized not just in my gut, but in my brain that the modernism they where shoving down students throats was bullshit.

by Thayer-D on Aug 27, 2009 7:51 am • linkreport

Section 8 and other "poverty redistribution" programs, designed to get people out of urban ghettos and into safe neighborhoods, effectively push the urban poor into the suburbs. And where else would they go? The next step up, rent and mortgage-wise, from a low-income urban area is the burbs...

Right, but you're confusing two phenomena when you said earlier that "urbanists" think urbanism is good for the rich (or at least middle to upper-classes), but bad for the poor. That implies that the push to "disperse" the poor around the region is first and foremost an effort to help them.

So it's not the density that's bad for the poor, but the homogeneity of poverty. Beyond that, the poor are being exported to the 'burbs because it makes the cities more functional. Massive concentrations of entrenched poverty tend to overwhelm all social services: from schools to police to fire, etc... It's not for the benefit of the poor, but for the benefit of everyone else left behind.

Being banished to the 'burbs is--as you say--absolutely not the best possible outcome for the urban poor. But that's rarely the only factor in the equation. It's a trade-off between the needs of the poor, and having a completely dysfuncational urban system.

by ibc on Aug 27, 2009 10:01 am • linkreport

W, that's a nice, coherent explanation of your opinion.

Perhaps if you toned down your vitriol and stopped using phrases like "F L Wrong," you'd get better responses.

I agree. It's exactly the same tone that led me to defend (of all people) Le Corbusier. I don't like having to do that, but I'm going to do that whenever you start trashing a foundational architect in a fashion that even Leon Krier (you know, the guy who says all non-vernacular architecture is "rape") would say was a bit much.

Incidentally, despite the beautiful uselessness of buildings such as Fallingwater, he did design a number of surprisingly good buildings in urban areas that fit in well with their surroundings, or at least didn't detract from them. I'm surprised no one's mentioned his early Chicagoland prairie-homes, or the Guggenheim.

by J.D. Hammond on Aug 30, 2009 3:25 pm • linkreport

Mr. Kunstler wrote that? He actually likened urban renewal to the area bombing campaigns of WWII?

Of course he did. JHK writes a lot of things, most notably that everyone needs to stock up on food and water because no one is going to survive the apocalypse but him.

I like a lot of his aesthetic criticism, however bombastic it may be, but I can do without the rapture-riding.

by J.D. Hammond on Aug 30, 2009 3:31 pm • linkreport

There are two ways to destroy an inner city neighborhood: Bombings and rent control.

by MPC on Aug 31, 2009 12:53 am • linkreport

Wow, dude, you couldn't even last a week in retirement. Are you trying to outgun Brett Favre or Radiohead...?

by J.D. Hammond on Aug 31, 2009 1:10 am • linkreport

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