Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Conflicting representations of redevelopment’s legacy

The differences between redevelopers’ and the Courier’s representations of redevelopment grew starker after the Civic Arena opened in 1961. Redevelopers’ promotional brochures used photographs to showcase the Civic Arena as a symbol of their progress. Pittsburgh’s daily newspapers and national periodicals distributed redevelopers’ photographs heralding the Civic Arena’s wonder to larger audiences. The Courier, meanwhile, withdrew its support for redevelopment after new jobs and better housing failed to follow in the Civic Arena’s wake. Demolition pushed 1,885 families out of the Lower Hill. Only 594 new apartments were built alongside the Civic Arena. They all were high-rent and, therefore, largely unaffordable for most of the Lower Hill’s displaced residents. Worse yet, 21 per cent of the Lower Hill’s African American residents relocated to substandard rental housing while only 1 per cent of white residents didIn response, the Courier joined visuals of the Arena to scenes of racial injustice. Later in the 1960s anti-redevelopment activists, notably the Citizens Committee for Hill District Renewal (CCHDR), built on this symbolism to protest further redevelopment in the Hill.

Redevelopers celebrated the Civic Arena’s grand opening in September 1961 with a souvenir pamphlet entitled 'A public auditorium for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County'. The pamphlet included 6 images of the Civic Arena that testified to its technical distinction and linked it to the city’s larger rebirthFor example, two aerial images told a 'before and after' narrative starring the Arena. The 'before' photograph showed the Lower Hill as it existed before demolition but with the redevelopers’ street plan and a large circle representing the Civic Arena superimposed on top (Figure 15). The on-the-ground lived details of the neighbourhood were indecipherable from this height, and the superimposed street plan merged the neighbourhood’s past to its redevelopment as a beneficial inevitability. A photograph of the Civic Arena with its roof open came next. Taken from an elevated angle on the Arena’s north-west side, this image underscored the Arena’s - and therefore Pittsburgh’s - greatest technical feat, the Arena’s retractable roof (Figure 16). Much of the brochure’s text re-emphasized both the Arena’s technological excellence and its centrality to the city’s progress. The Arena gave 'the world its largest dome', and marked 'a milestone in a series of accomplishments that have lifted the city to new heights of modern living'.

Pittsburgh’s three daily newspapers, meanwhile, celebrated the Arena’s grand opening with special sections lavishly illustrated with images of the Civic Arena. The Pittsburgh Press dedicated a special 12-page section of its Sunday 17 September issue to the Arena with separate articles hailing the Arena’s history, retractable roof, variable seating plans, colourful décor, beautiful landscaping, ample parking, state-of-the-art scoreboard and movable floors. The Press’ language resembled the redevelopers’ souvenir pamphlet. For example, one article labelled the Arena’s retractable roof an 'engineering miracle'. The Press' front page began with images from redevelopers’ dedication souvenir, including the photograph of the Arena’s opened roof that redevelopers used as an 'after' picture (see Figure 16)The Press’ direct use of redevelopers’ visuals evinces the daily papers’ tight alliance with the city’s redevelopment coalition. Redevelopers’ dedication souvenir and the Press’ coverage of the dedication proudly proclaimed the Arena a symbol of Pittsburgh’s progress and future.

National periodicals like National Geographic aided redevelopers’ promotional project by bringing Pittsburgh’s progress narrative, symbolized by the Civic Arena, to a national audience. Starting with its title, William Gill’s March 1965 National Geographic article, 'Pittsburgh, pattern for progress' corroborated multiple elements of redevelopers’ Renaissance narrative. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, national periodicals like Time and Life named the Allegheny Conference and its leaders, particularly Richard King Mellon, the catalysts for the city’s rebirthGill’s National Geographic article followed this narrative by labelling the city’s Renaissance 'Mellon’s Miracle'. Gill also echoed redevelopers’ emphasis on the Civic Arena. Although Gill called the redevelopment of downtown’s Golden Triangle a 'Symbol of Renewal', he clarified 'perhaps the outstanding symbol of Pittsburgh’s renewal is the Civic Arena'. Gill exclaimed that the Arena’s 'massive dome dominates the city' and 'stands like a colossus amid blocks of cleared land'. A large photograph of the Arena with its roof opened to accommodate 'a concert under the summer stars' illustrated the article. The composition of National Geographic’s image strongly resembled the photograph of the Arena’s opened roof that appeared in redevelopers’ dedication souvenir and in the Press’ coverage (see Figure 16). Both photographs shared the same aerial north-west vantage point and captured the Arena’s open roof from the same interior angle. National Geographic’s text and photographs followed redevelopers’ narrative, down to their descriptions and photographic compositions.

The Courier’s coverage of the Arena’s grand opening dramatically departed from the local dailies’ coverage and from its past support for redevelopment by berating the Arena’s segregated workforce in text and image. The article began with a tone similar to the daily papers’ praise for the Arena’s technical splendours: 'the massive steel dome covering Pittsburgh’s magnificent 22-million dollar Civic Auditorium parted noiselessly to admit the late-summer sunshine emerging from a sky of blue'. The Courier, however, elaborated on the scene from the perspective of the 'hundreds of Negroes among the crowd' who saw something beyond the Arena’s technical marvel. When the Arena’s dome spread open, they 'saw the grim spectre of ole Jim Crow hovering over the stainless steel monument'. The article then noted that 'all of the ushers and guides' at the Arena 'are white! So are the concession employees! In fact, all of the employees seen are white!' An editorial cartoon of 'Jim Crow' hovering over the Civic Arena aptly symbolized the Courier’s charges (Figure 17). Shown from the same aerial angle used in the redevelopers’ souvenir brochure, the Press and National Geographic (see Figure 16), the cartoon showed the Arena with its roof open to a hovering Jim Crow. The Courier took a pervasive symbol of redevelopment-as-progress, replicated it down to the angle favored by redevelopers and their supporters in the media, and reframed it to show the dedication ceremony from the perspective of African Americans dismayed by one of the early racial injustices of redevelopment.

Two months later, the Courier, yet again, invoked and inverted the Civic Arena’s symbolic power in its series, '"Help us!" Urban renewal "DPs" plead'. Whereas the 'Jim Crow hovers' article directly addressed the Civic Arena and its hiring practices, the 'Help us!' articles utilized the Civic Arena as a broader symbol for the city’s redevelopment, much like redevelopers had. The Courier’s image, however, juxtaposed the Civic Arena with the suffering of the Lower Hill’s 'displaced persons' to visually challenge redevelopers’ claims of progress (Figure 18)In the drawing’s foreground, two young African American children held empty bowls up to their elderly caretaker while a third child waited behind them. The caretaker, in turn, held a small serving bowl and frowned at the children. The image implied hunger for the family and despair on the part of the caretaker, one of the Lower Hill’s 'displaced persons'. Beyond the caretaker and hungry children, a broken window looked out on the Civic Arena’s retractable roof. The message was clear. The Civic Arena displaced the Lower Hill’s people and the city’s indifference to the neighbourhood’s 'displaced persons' mocked redevelopers’ claims that the whole city basked in progress.

The Courier and Hill District residents engaged in a cyclical dialogue of protest after the Arena’s 1961 dedication ceremony. The Courier’s and residents’ protests against the Civic Arena’s discriminatory hiring practices illustrate the development of this dialogue. The 'Jim Crow hovers' story appeared on the Courier’s 23 September front page. The article demanded, 'All jobs ranging from the supervisory level on down to maintenance ... should be open to ALL qualified applicants.' By 7 October, the Courier ran a front-page headline relaying the NAACP’s demand that the city 'Hire more negroes at Arena!' The NAACP concurred with the Courier’s observation that Jim Crow hovered over the Civic Arena, and threatened 'stern measures' if the Arena did not change its hiring policiesTwo weeks later, the Courier announced that the NAACP along with the Negro-American Labor Council (NALC) planned to protest the Civic Arena’s job discrimination with a 21 October demonstration outside the Civic Arena. The Courier spread the news of the Arena’s discriminatory hiring practices with the evocative 'Jim Crow hovers' graphic, which borrowed but transposed the Civic Arena’s symbolic power. Local civil rights and labour groups pursued the issue by picketing the symbol itself.

The Harris archive contains five photographs from the 21 October protest. Four of these five utilized the Civic Arena as a backdrop, reiterating the Courier’s appropriation of the Civic Arena’s symbolism for protest. In one Harris photograph from the October protest women, men and children held signs calling for 'Equal rights for ALL!' and proclaiming, 'We want to work' (Figure 19). Behind the picketers, half of the Civic Arena’s dome took up the right side of the frame and a cloudy sky filled the rest.

Throughout the 1960s, civil rights and black power protesters utilized the Civic Arena as a backdrop for protest and Harris included the Arena’s dome in many more photographs. In the late 1960s, the Black Construction Coalition organized protests all over the city, particularly at unionized construction sites that refused to hire black labourers. The Coalition’s protests climaxed in 1969 with a citywide 'Black Monday' demonstration that coalesced around the Civic Arena. Harris photographed the protesters as they gathered (Figure 20). Most of the photograph’s action occurred in the bottom half of the frame. Here, a line of protesters stretched across the image’s horizontal axis; on the photograph’s left edge, the Civic Arena’s dome emerged, almost organically, from the line of protesters.

In 1968, the Hill’s anti-redevelopment activists followed this visual tradition by geographically anchoring their protest against urban renewal to the Arena. In the mid-1960s URA proposals to extend the Lower Hill’s demolition into the Middle Hill vexed Hill District residents into forming the Citizens Committee for Hill District Renewal (CCHDR). The CCHDR allied with the NAACP, the Model Cities Program and the Poor People’s Campaign to erect a billboard on the corner of Centre Avenue and Crawford Street. The billboard, which Harris photographed (Figure 21), addressed City Hall and the URA, insisted on 'NO REDEVELOPMENT BEYOND THIS POINT' and demanded 'LOW INCOME HOUSING FOR THE LOWER HILL'. Heading away from downtown along Centre Avenue, the billboard stood on the right side of the avenue, diagonal from the Civic Arena. A passerby, then, would have taken in the Arena to their left and immediately come upon the billboard to their right. This positioning anchored the CCHDR’s demand that the URA cease redevelopment in the Hill District to all of the racial injustices and protests the Arena had come to symbolize.

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