Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Conflicting visions of the Lower Hill

In the years leading up to the Lower Hill’s demolition in 1956, redevelopers represented the Lower Hill with a singular emphasis on its blight and with no attention to its social vibrancy. This selectively bleak view of the Lower Hill made demolishing and redeveloping the neighbourhood a foregone conclusion regardless of its long-term social costs. In the summer of 1950, Pittsburgh’s City Planning Commission (CPC) analysed the Lower Hill’s blight to certify it as a redevelopment area in line with Pennsylvania’s 1945 Redevelopment Law. The CPC used a survey method developed by the American Public Health Association (APHA) that quantified a neighbourhood’s blight based on criteria like dilapidation, overcrowding, mixed land use and building density. Following the APHA’s instructions, Pittsburgh’s CPC created easy-to-read maps summarizing its quantitative analysis of blight. In its May 1950 report on the Lower Hill, the CPC summarized its entire analysis on one sheet of paper (Figure 3). Three statistical maps stretched down the sheet in a vertical line. All three maps had the same base street pattern and parameters, but blocks within the maps carried different shading designating their housing, dwelling or environment quality grades. According to the page’s legend, black-fill marked 'slum' blocks and a crosshatched-fill marked 'substandard' blocks.

The CPC’s summarizing maps clearly labelled blocks 'slum' or 'substandard' but did not elaborate on the sometimes-debatable criteria used to make these designations. For example, the APHA’s method counted mixed land use against a block’s environmental quality grade in multiple ways. The method penalized blocks based on the percentage of their net area and frontages with mixed land use and added penalties for particular types of commercial land uses like automobile repair shops, butcher shops, bakeries and bars. Mixed land use alone could qualify a block as substandard. Many residents, however, valued mixed land uses. Bars, bakeries, and automobile repair shops provided goods and services to residents, economic opportunities for small business owners and skill development for employees. According to urban critic Jane Jacobs, mixed land use - most notably neighbourhood bars - also spurred an active sidewalk life, which maintained a safe environment. The maps used by Pittsburgh’s CPC to summarize its Lower Hill analysis marked most of the neighbourhood’s blocks black for 'slum' or crosshatched for 'substandard'. Yet, the Lower Hill’s intermixture of homes, bakeries, automobile shops and bars - all aspects of the neighbourhood valued by many residents - lowered the neighbourhood’s quality grades. The CPC’s maps cloaked redevelopers’ debatable criteria for blight and discounted the neighbourhood’s strengths.

As part of its 1950 analysis of the Lower Hill, the CPC photographed rear yards and alleyways to provide on-the-ground testimony of the neighbourhood’s blight. To document the neighbourhood’s building density, the CPC photographed rear yards shared by housing along Bedford Avenue, Fullerton Street and Gilmore Way (Figure 4). Brick buildings dominated the image, dwarfing and encroaching on the rear yards, the scene’s only open space. Worse yet, no greenery graced the scene and laundry lines, barrels and scraps of wood further cluttered the view. Showing rear yards ignored the front of neighbourhood buildings, the view residents consciously groomed for public scrutiny. Much of the scene’s clutter - the laundry lines, oil drums and woodpiles - would not have appeared on main streets. The photograph's concrete, brick and clutter testified to the Lower Hill's building density and suggested overcrowding, but no actual residents appeared in the scene. This absence deemphasized the neighbourhood's thriving social life and obscured who would be affected by demolition. Indeed, residents rarely appeared in the 27 photographs of the Lower Hill before demolition that the Conference collected to document the neighbourhood's transformation.

In a 1956 brochure entitled 'The Allegheny Conference on Community Development Presents . . . Pittsburgh!', the Conference paired the Bedford, Fullerton, and Gilmore rear-yards photograph (see Figure 4) with a caption labelling the scene a definitive example of blight, deftly arguing for the Lower Hill’s redevelopment. The photograph’s caption explained, 'The new Hill will wipe away blight, decay, worn out structures and overcrowding'. Instead of saying these conditions existed in the photograph, the caption described a future without them. This implied that the rear-yard scene and, by extension, the entire Lower Hill exemplified blight, decay and dilapidation. However, the photograph showed the rear yards of a block that the CPC actually categorized as one of the Lower Hill’s 'intermediate' rather than 'slum' or 'substandard' blocksTherefore, the rear-yard scene that the brochure’s caption defined as 'blight, decay, worn out structures, and overcrowding' was officially classified as none of the above. The Conference distributed this brochure broadly through the city's public and parochial schools and personally to the city’s politicians, business leaders and newspaper editors. By linking signifiers like 'blight' and 'decay' to the rear-yard photograph, the Conference's brochure disseminated a mental picture of the 'old' Hill beseeching demolition to the city's decision and opinion makers.

The city’s redevelopers had very little social contact with the Hill District; conversely the Courier’s photojournalist, Teenie Harris, grew up embedded in the neighbourhood’s social and commercial lifeHarris’ mother ran the Masio boarding house, billiard parlour, barbershop and miniature golf course on Wylie Avenue in the Lower Hill. Harris’ brother, meanwhile, helped run the city’s illicit numbers lottery. Teenie Harris not only photographed the Hill’s social galas, crime scenes, protests and political events for the Pittsburgh Courier, but also ran a portrait studio in the Middle Hill. According to photography historian, Cheryl Finley, Harris’ lifelong intimacy with the area gave him 'unrivaled access' to the Hill and its residents. Indeed, between 1930 and 1980, Harris took nearly 80,000 photographs mostly of the Hill District. As a lifelong resident of the Hill, Harris valued the neighbourhood’s institutions and centered his photographs on specific businesses, nightclubs, churches and social activities; in doing so, he transformed the 'blighted' buildings and streets in redevelopers’ visual rhetoric into spaces where people shopped, played and prayed. This intimacy and influence went both ways. With a peak circulation of 357,000 in 1948, the Courier and Harris' photographs helped shape how the city's African Americans viewed the Hill

For example, Harris photographed the quotidian street scenes and socializing that animated the Lower Hill but remained invisible to redevelopers’ narrative. In the 1940s, Harris photographed children playing stickball in a vacant Lower Hill lot (Figure 5). Harris positioned his camera at a distance behind the kids’ makeshift home plate. This distance and angle allowed Harris to fit the whole game into the frame. He took the photograph as the batter awaited his next pitch with his bat hoisted over his shoulder. Signs of physical deterioration like cracked cement marred the lot, but, unlike the CPC, Harris made the Hill's children and their day-to-day recreation the main subject of his image. Harris also photographed adults using the neighbourhood’s sidewalks for leisure. In June 1949, Harris photographed 14 men gathered around two sidewalk checkers games (Figure 6). Again, Harris stepped back from the action to take in the whole scene. The players sat on crates and rested the checkerboards on their laps. No one officially designated the sidewalk a checkers arena or the vacant lot a stickball pitch. Yet residents transformed both into recreational spaces by descending on them with bats, crates and checkerboards. According to Harris’ photographs, residents saw the Lower Hill’s vacant lots and sidewalks as much more than examples of blight.

Although Harris conscientiously photographed the Lower Hill’s vivacious social life, he also documented residents’ protests against the neighbourhood’s unsanitary housing. In 1946, the Conference claimed Pittsburgh’s residents had become so inured to the city’s bad conditions that they had to rely on the Conference to identify the city’s problems and set an agenda for change. Harris’ photographs contradict this claim by showing residents bringing evidence of the Hill District’s bad housing to the attention of the mayor and city council and articulating housing as a citizenship right. In 1946, Harris photographed a protest in city council chambers that was part of a months-long drive by the Hill District People’s Forum Social Action Committee (SAC) to force Pittsburgh’s mayor and city council to enforce housing codes in the Hill District (Figures 7 and 8). Harris took these photographs from the room’s front-right corner. This angle captured the protest’s organization, size and arguments. Well-dressed protesters filled the chambers and held signs declaring they had gone 'From G. I. Latrines to Hill District out houses' and 'From G. I. foxholes to Hill District rat holes'. By linking their service to the country during World War II to their demands for humane living conditions, the protesters built on the Double-V campaign, a wartime movement spearheaded by the Courier that connected America’s fight against fascism to African Americans’ struggle against racial injustice. Harris’ photographs illustrate that Hill residents were far from inured to their neighbourhood’s conditions and that they strategically linked humane housing conditions to their wartime demands for equal citizenship.

The Courier’s extensive and supportive coverage of the SAC’s housing campaign further spotlighted residents’ agency and emphasized decent housing as a citizenship right. The Courier sent photographer Oceana Sockwell out with SAC leaders to document residents’ housing complaints and rouse public support for the campaignThree Sockwell photographs appeared in an article entitled 'Shocking housing conditions exposed in drive'. The first showed the Youngblood family talking over desperately needed home repairs with SAC leader James Owens. In the next photograph, a veteran drew water from a hand pump to demonstrate 'how sixteen families in Humber Way are supplied with water'. The third image pictured a mother, Mrs Morgan, pointing to her kitchen’s dilapidated walls. These photographs showed residents, including a World War II veteran, discussing the specific conditions they wanted the city to remedy. The article also noted that they had signed a petition demanding better housing-code enforcement. The Courier’s visual coverage highlighted the Lower Hill’s bad living conditions, but - unlike the Conference’s vacant rear-yard photograph - the Courier spotlighted residents as the experts on neighbourhood conditions and the initial agents for change. Notably, residents also advocated code enforcement as a way to rehabilitate and preserve - not redevelop - the Hill District. City officials, however, deemed housing code enforcement too difficult and opted instead for demolition and redevelopment

This page has paths:

This page references: