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12 August 2009 @ 10:28 pm
I go on at length about housing and PGH history  
One of the things that has made me deeply passionate about Pittsburgh, no matter what anybody else seems to think of the place, is its peculiar housing stock - it has an astonishing number of structures and homes that predate the first World War. The city reached its zenith with World War 2 and its subsequent housing boom, but when steel began its legendary decline and collapsed, so too did the metropolitan population. There was no want or need to bulldoze houses for reconstruction (an exception being made for the monstrous high rises created to house the urban poor in East Liberty and the city's now major vehicle arteries), and in many cases, I suspect, no money. Though Pittsburgh has since gotten up off its knees (President Obama is holding the G20 conference here this year, can you believe it?), its economic outlook has remained relatively stable. It experienced very little of the large housing boom/bust that the nation is still feeling. It has gotten worse with the economy, but not that much worse - and certainly nothing worse than it has been through before. The need to demolish and rebuild structures seems to remain fairly low here, and most old houses are gotten rid of demolition-by-neglect style.

Pittsburgh's Uptown/Soho/Bluff and Hill District neighborhoods, which border the city on the east (the only direction not cut by a river), are a prime example. Though similar in style to Philadelphia's Center City rowhouses, they will have a hard time finding a matching revival. The rowhouses are showing the signs of decades of neglect. Much has been flat out leveled for the building of the Mellon Arena in 1961 (reportedly displacing approximately 1k + people, but probably more, since the neighborhood wealth moved out long ago), and now the new hockey stadium/center/monstrosity has taken out still additional sections, because we certainly can't ask the Champions and Oldest of the NHL to play elsewhere for a couple of years. There is a part of me that knows that the Penguins are a fantastic money-making franchise right about now, and the city needs the money and the tourists badly (why else did they put in a damn casino next to the Science Center?). Their popularity in Pittsburgh and elsewhere certainly helps the new stadium ride out the local resentment. There is another, darker part of me that thinks officials are, decade by decade, slowly demolishing the neighborhood just because they can't figure out why it never seems to get better. (Here's an entry I wrote in 2007 with images about a disappearing street, which looks worse now, by the way.)

In terms of land use and buildings, I think Pittsburgh is still dealing with the loss of over half its population and the sudden availability of riverfront property due to the collapse of steel and related works. The 1960s notions of suburban "growth" and "car accessibility" have only gotten it further confused, resulting in the county jail being located on prime property with a water view, and the striking highways lining downtown. (Some soar and obstruct the view, some are in the way on average level and some are placed deep into the ground, so they flood on occasion.) These prevent human access to the scenic bluffs or the river on much of the city's border, and also give downtown something of a "boxed in" feeling. At least one of these roadways passes uncomfortably close to residences ... a sidewalk, a barricade, then four lanes of automobile traffic. (Image from Google Streetview). Is it no wonder that no one really wants to live there and will pay good money to do it? Folks seem to be there simply because they've always been there, the family has a history there, there are social connections there, or they just can't afford to go elsewhere.

With all this, and with the fact that much of the city's past center rehabilitation policies have been "build office buildings downtown," it is no wonder that downtown Pittsburgh is dead after people leave work. There are few folks in what remains of the physically connected neighborhoods to walk there. Aside from the Cultural District and a handful of restaurants, there is not much to do but work. It probably does not help that many policies (see: Fifth Avenue corridor) are consistently of a one track mind, harping on one notion rather than embracing a multitude of uses. People seem to have realized that there is now a glut of office space, so that era is over. They now see that the popularity of "green living" and walkability is growing, so the new miracle cure is building condos and expensive apartments.

Believe it or not, there is public interest (especially in the Cultural District area) in living downtown. The idea of a center that is more than that in physical position is a deep desire in many people. I continue to feel, however, that the high starting income levels (I could not afford to live there with my Pittsburgh paycheck), the lack of a grocery store and other necessities, and a struggling, depopulated area on the one side of the city not bordered by water pose great barriers to this effort. (Re: high starting income levels, I realize that there are many causes that play into the total, including but not limited to the cost of construction/rehabilitation, taxes, so on and so forth ... ... yet the consistent advertisements depicting young, fantastically attractive, upper-crust twenty-somethings seem to indicate that the sellers are quite all right with the fact that not just anybody can live there. Given that it seems many other previously converted buildings downtown are Section 8 apartments, and ne'er the two shall meet, it seems that economic segregation is alive and well, and people who are neither just have to go elsewhere. Don't get me started on cheap, but amazingly decrepit, student housing.)

Housing, of course, is deeply influenced by the society which creates it. When much of immigration came from the nations of Europe, the type of buildings they chose reflected the way they were used to living. Before steel, when walls were limited by the practical width and limited height in buildings, "making the most" of the land did not mean up, it meant denser. Over the years, as the "culture" congealed into something more "American" and bound together by American English, becoming less grouped by nation of origin, the yards seem to grow bigger. The expansive, confident urban planning of the 1960s created a yard with a separation of "public" and "private" space and the suburban sprawl we are now so familiar with. We once competed to build the tallest skyscrapers around, and now that they are so prevalent in cities, is it surprising at all that "making the most" of the land is now done by building up? It is no wonder why many of D.C.'s residents are housed in high rise buildings while average Pittsburgh clocks in at 10 stories or less.

It's probably apparent by now that I am fascinated with the gradual change over time that cities experience, and am absorbed by the shift in cultural values that our homes depict. Pittsburgh is fantastic for this kind of observation. One reason (out of many) suburbs depress the bejeesus out of me is because their history has, relatively speaking, only just begun (very literally, in many cases), and thus I have less of a time span to take interest in. There is only the "built" and the "now," and I'm not so fond of the car-adapted "now."

p.s., I finally found out about the dinosaurs on the 10th Street Bridge. Apparently, the artist considers them to be geese.

p.p.s., I haven't fact-checked myself here, just wrote as it came along. There are probably affordable apartments downtown. Somewhere. Maybe. Do we have high rise apartment buildings and I just missed 'em?

p.p.s.s., if anyone actually reads all this jumble and responds, I will be amazed, I tell you.
 
 
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Silvermasksilvermask on August 13th, 2009 03:06 am (UTC)
I READ IT, BUT I'M AFRAID MY RESPONSE FALTERS AFTER, "NEAT!"
Ng-Master.  I prefer Dave, David, or DN.ngmaster on August 13th, 2009 11:47 am (UTC)
Well, I kinda skimmed this. Mostly cos I recall your presentation from April. Good times!

But I do understand your dissertation about Steel Town.
Emily: Sheldonetoileeyes on August 13th, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
I read the whole thing and agree with you about the lack of decent downtown housing. There's a reason why Josh and I couldn't live right by my school. There just wasn't much in the way of affordable housing plus the lack of a grocery store better than a CVS that was open later than like 6-7pm. It sucked to get out of class at 10pm and head right to the Train to go out to do something in a city the size of Pittsburgh. There was nothing to do unless you left downtown or there was a festival going on or a game, but even those are on the outskirts of downtown.

I did get to live in many of the areas you were talking about. I started out over by the stadiums in student housing on the North side of town. From there I moved up near mellon arena in one of those new townhouses near the arena and then I got to live in that neat row house over looking the Strip District and then after that Josh moved in. We moved a little closer to his home outside of town, but close enough for the public transportation to get to downtown in less than 30 mins. I still miss the T. I wish that the economic outlook there had been better and that Josh didn't want to get out of there as badly as he did. I really did enjoy that City.

I hope to someday get back to a city like Pittsburgh... you never know where we may end up. We may even Join K in Canada ;) Josh's job could take us to many different places and I look forward to the opportunity that could give us. I'm glad you got to experience PGH and I hope that you're experiences in DC are just as enlightening for you.