Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Conflicting visions of the Lower Hill’s redeveloped future

The architectural sketches and models of the Lower Hill redevelopment plan used by the Conference to promote it indicate that Pittsburgh’s redevelopers envisioned redevelopment as way to replace blight with an architectural marvel and draw money to the city. Designed by the local architectural firm, Mitchell and Ritchey, the 1953 Lower Hill Redevelopment Plan included four architectural sketches that promised the Lower Hill redevelopment, particularly the Civic Arena, would exemplify technological and futuristic awe. For example, an aerial sketch of the arena used flattened tones to emphasize the plan’s clean lines and futurism (Figure 9). Drawn with its roof retracted, the Arena resembled a flying saucer or a giant robotic spider with steel legs. The project’s proposed commercial and residential buildings surrounded the Arena in tidy parallel lines. Barely shaded, the plan's buildings are gleaming white blocks, especially compared to the dark grey used to fill the spacious yards surrounding each building. Conversely, the artist drew downtown’s buildings, which crowded in on the scene’s top left corner, with lopsided lines and grey crosshatched surfaces. Beyond downtown a grey muddle hung over the Strip District like a fog. The graphic contrasted the grey mottled old city with the clean lines and sharp contrasts of the Lower Hill’s city of the future.

Futurism also characterized the model that redevelopment boosters used to promote the project. The model, however, added a third dimension that made the arena’s promise more tangible. Photographers documented the model from above, imitating an aerial photograph, and from the side, imitating an urban landscape (Figure 10). Both angles replicated common compositions in urban photography, making the model seem even more real to the viewer. The panoramic style of the landscape photograph brought the viewer close to ground level, emphasizing the plan’s open spaces and landscaped order. The Civic Arena sat on the left, its metallic dome shimmering amidst the model’s tiny trees and uniform white buildings. To advance its argument for redevelopment in 'The Allegheny Conference on Community Development presents ... Pittsburgh!', the Conference paired an aerial photograph of this model with its rear-yard image of 'blight, decay and worn out structures'. The caption below the model lauded the arena’s architecture as '[u]nique and spectacular in design' and boasted, '[T]his structure is destined to become a wonder of the modern world'. This phrasing reframed a miniaturized simulacrum of the arena, with its tiny fake trees and foamy grass, as a spectacular wonder for the reader to behold.

As noted above, the Conference distributed this brochure to the city's daily newspaper editors who had allied with the Conference and distributed its vision for the Lower Hill to the larger public. The Conference's executive director, Park Martin, forged an alliance with Pittsburgh's three daily newspapers in the mid-1940s when he invited the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph to a luncheon at the Pittsburgher Hotel. Here, Martin explained the Conference and its programmes, seeking the editors’ support. One editor initially resisted, but Martin won him over by pointing out 'that the city was on the decline, that the success of the papers depended upon the future of the city and that the papers had more at stake'. Shortly thereafter, all three editors joined the Conference's Sponsoring Committee. When the Lower Hill's redevelopment came under consideration in 1953, the local dailies published images promoting the plan. The Pittsburgh Press's coverage of Mitchell and Ritchey's 1953's Lower Hill  Plan, for example, featured the architect's aerial sketch of the Civic Arena discussed above (see Figure 9). This sketch also appeared in an instructional booklet that the Conference distributed through the city's schools, 'Pittsburgh: a good place to live,' and in the Chamber of Commerce’s promotional brochure, 'The new Pittsburgh: the most talked about city in America.' The Press’ visual coverage, then, directly paralleled redevelopment boosters’ visuals. The article’s text also took the Conference's grandiloquent tone. Written by Guy Wright, the article hailed the Lower Hill's redevelopment as the 'Most Ambitious Project of Pittsburgh’s entire program for the future' and described the Arena as 'a pleasure dome'. Aligned with the Conference since the mid-1940s, Pittsburgh's daily newspapers promoted the Lower Hill's redevelopment as a route to a technologically ambitious and economically competitive Pittsburgh of the future.

The Courier and Harris, conversely, envisioned redevelopment as a path to better housing and new jobs for Hill District residents. This vision came, in part, from the neighbourhood’s positive experiences with the Pittsburgh Housing Authority’s (PHA) Terrace Village and Bedford Dwellings housing projects. In spring 1939, the Courier celebrated Terrace Village’s promise with sketches of the project’s uniform and well-designed three-storey buildings and broad landscaped courtyards (Figure 11). An article in July added evidence to support this celebratory tone. Subtitled 'Huts of squalor to be changed to models of modernity by PHA', the article sought to raise community awareness about the needs of residents displaced for Terrace Village, but it concluded that the project overwhelmingly benefited the community. Slices of the Hill’s 'dilapidated frame buildings and age-weary brick structures' would be replaced by housing for 1,818 families in 'complete little villages, each one a model of modernity'.

The PHA had also taken steps to ensure that its public housing projects would employ African Americans, setting another positive precedent that encouraged the Courier and Hill residents to support redevelopment. The PHA added a non-discrimination clause into all of its labour contracts assuring that 29 percent of any PHA project’s unskilled jobs went to African Americans. The Courier exclaimed, 'So now they work for their bread and butter and at the same time prepare themselves a future place to live'. As Terrace Village’s construction continued, the Courier hailed the PHA’s continuing commitment to equal opportunity employment. In November 1939 the Courier examined the payrolls for Terrace Village I and II as well as for Bedford Dwellings and verified that the PHA’s non-discrimination clauses worked. African American workers at the three projects had earned a combined $67,000, one fifth of the entire payroll. In March 1941, the Courier applauded the PHA’s hiring policies again when it hired African American electrician, Walter M. Dawson, as the chief electrician for Terrace Village and Bedford Dwellings. The PHA’s example of providing skilled and unskilled jobs for African Americans in the Hill encouraged the Courier’s and its readers’ support for redevelopment.

The Courier also gave glowing photographic coverage to the PHA’s housing projects, including Harris photographs showing children enjoying their amenities. For example, this Harris action-shot of children playing volleyball on Bedford Dwellings’ playground accompanied a 1941 article saluting Bedford Dwellings’ facilities (Figure 12) Harris took the photo from the playground’s corner, looking down on the backs of four boys defending one side of the volleyball net. Across the net, a team of girls and boys in crisp clothes watched the ball. This perspective drew the viewer into the game. Immaculately clean and surrounded by newly constructed brick walls, the playground looked like a healthy and safe space for children to play. Another 1941 Harris photograph from Bedford Dwellings looked across a room filled with children in Halloween costumes. The image accompanied a Courier article praising Bedford Dwellings for hosting a community Halloween party and representing the project as a vital community institution. When rain threatened to ruin Halloween for the Hill’s children, Bedford Dwellings threw a Halloween party for the whole neighbourhood. The party saved Halloween for '450 costumed kiddies' from the Hill area. In Harris’ accompanying photograph, an interracial group of kids dressed as pirates, superheroes and princesses filled the frame from left to right (Figure 13). Bedford Dwellings’ facilities made this dry and safe Halloween scene possible. Not only did Bedford Dwellings’ amenities exceed the Courier’s expectations, but the project also functioned as a community space for the Hill District at large. When the Courier and its readers envisioned redevelopment in the 1950s, they envisioned an expanded public housing supply and, in turn, more scenes like these of safe community recreation and socializing.

When the Lower Hill’s demolition began, the Courier applauded redevelopment through visuals of Lower Hill families enjoying public housing. A 10 November 1956 Courier article summarized how families being relocated from lower Bedford Avenue were faringAmong lower Bedford’s black families, 90 percent had been relocated to 'low-rent projects in the Upper Hill' in accordance with their preference to stay in the Hill. The story featured a Harris photograph of a relocated family in their new public housing apartment. In the image, Mr and Mrs Walker and their six young children sat on and around their sofa watching television. One of the television’s antennae sliced through the composition, indicating that Harris photographed the family from behind the television (Figure 14). This choice foregrounded the television, a symbol of the family’s quality of life. The photograph’s caption elaborated on this theme. Redevelopment had relocated the Walkers from a 'six-room shack' on Gilmore Way in the Lower Hill to public housing in the Upper Hill’s Bedford Dwellings, 'where they are happy'. This image supported demolition and redevelopment, but articulated the Courier’s specific vision of what redevelopment should look like: improved living conditions for the Hill District’s people.

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