Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture


The two photographs on the right illustrate how visual images can represent the same neighbourhood in contradictory ways. Commissioned by Pittsburgh's leading redevelopment boosters, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the first image foregrounded an intersection in the Lower Hill District, the nucleus of Pittsburgh’s African American community (Figure 1). To the right, an old truck and lumber littered a vacant lot overgrown with weeds. The photograph made the Lower Hill’s streets, instead of its people, its main subject and highlighted clutter that emphasized the neighbourhood's blight. Conversely, a photograph taken by Charles 'Teenie' Harris, a photojournalist for the city's African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, captures the Hill's lively and diverse nightlife (Figure 2). A conga line led by an exotic dancer promenaded in front of a jazz band. Gilda, a female impersonator, clutched onto the dancers' hips followed by a woman in an elegant satin dress and a comedian in a housedress. In the audience’s front row a white woman watched. This image documents the neighbourhood's rollicking entertainment culture and the everyday diversity it facilitated. In the 1950s redevelopers used images of blight to justify tearing down the Lower Hill while Harris depicted the neighbourhood as vibrant and historically significant.

Retrospectively, historians consider the redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District a mistake. The project’s Crosstown Expressway successfully eased downtown’s traffic flow and the jewel of the Lower Hill’s redevelopment, a Civic Arena with a retractable dome for open-air summer musicals, initially awed residents and visitors alike. However, the project uprooted 1,885 families - a majority of them African American - and its proposed high-rise garden apartments, commercial buildings and symphony hall were never completed in the Lower Hill. Only one apartment building, Washington Plaza, rose in the Hill. The rest of the space became parking lots. Many Lower Hill residents also found themselves struggling to find adequate housing even though federal law required cities to assist residents displaced by redevelopment projects. Many African Americans in Pittsburgh consider the Lower Hill’s demolition the 'most devastating thing that ever happened to the black community'.

Much has been written about Pittsburgh’s urban redevelopment, particularly the strength and efficacy of its public-private partnership After World War II, the city’s business leadership - following the lead of Mellon-Bank mogul and leading Republican, Richard K. Mellon - formed the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (the Conference) to save Pittsburgh from its smoky skies, dilapidated infrastructure and flagging economy. The Conference teamed with Democratic Mayor David Lawrence, and this cross-partisan alliance of private and public leadership brought about the city’s famed 'Renaissance'. Pittsburghers credit many programmes from this Renaissance, such as smoke control and the redevelopment of downtown’s Point District, for modernizing the city and easing the region’s transition from an industrial powerhouse to a service economy.

The Lower Hill’s redevelopment, however, complicates the Renaissance’s legacy. In the years leading up to the Lower Hill’s demolition in 1956, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Hill’s leading politicians supported redevelopment. The Courier, like its prolific photographer, Teenie Harris, celebrated the Lower Hill’s diverse and vital culture, but also agreed with redevelopers that dilapidation marred the Lower Hill’s built environment. By the 1960s, however, the Courier and redevelopers divided over the Lower Hill’s legacy. Redevelopers celebrated the Civic Arena as an architectural marvel that put Pittsburgh on the map. The Courier, meanwhile, began citing the Lower Hill experience as evidence that 'urban renewal' was nothing more than 'negro removal'.

This pattern of residents and redevelopers approaching redevelopment with optimism but falling out over its implementation and legacy occurred in cities across the United States. In the late 1940s, a broad coalition of labour unions, civil rights organizations, planning institutes, urban politicians and central-city real estate and business interests agreed that disrepair imperilled cities and redevelopment offered a promising solution. Each group of supporters, however, envisioned starkly different goals for redevelopment. Unions and civil rights organizations saw redevelopment as a way to eradicate injurious slum housing and secure new housing for workers and African Americans. Planners also sought improved housing conditions, but they saw housing as only one part of their larger mission to remake cities in line with comprehensively planned, modernist ideals. Politicians, realtors and business leaders understood redevelopment as a tool for bolstering tax revenues, property values and downtown commerce, all of which seemed jeopardized by competition from burgeoning suburbs. In the 1950s, the vision of politicians, realtors and business leaders prevailed in most redevelopment projects, leading to disillusionment and protest among civil rights groups, unions and some planners. By the 1960s, the original coalition supporting urban redevelopment had fractured.

Interrogating visual representations of the Lower Hill and its redevelopment sheds light on the contrasting goals advanced by the project’s supporters and explains why and how the Lower Hill’s redevelopment became so divisive. Urban renewal historian, Christopher Klemek, argues that an urban renewal order with a shared 'guiding image' took shape in the United States and western Europe in the early and mid-twentieth century. This guiding image moulded public policy at the federal, state and local level and influenced urban redevelopment projects like the Lower Hill. Although many aspects of this guiding image can be gleaned from redevelopers’ written texts, historians of urban policy such as Klemek, Dana Cuff, Margaret Farrar and Samuel Zipp have shown that redevelopers' visuals provide new insights into their guiding image. Cuff, Farrar and Zipp show how selectively bleak photographs of older neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York City discursively defined urban blight and sold this definition and redevelopers' favoured intervention - demolition and redevelopment - to the public. Klemek and Zipp argue that the architectural sketches and models that planners used to envision and promote redevelopment projects illuminate the urban renewal order's modernist urban vision, including its assumptions and blind spots.

My research builds on their work by foregrounding and systematically interrogating the visual record of one urban redevelopment case-study - Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District - from start to finish. Redevelopers’ visuals of the Lower Hill, particularly their statistical maps measuring its blight and their archival photographs of the Hill's streets and alleys, reveal their singular concern with the Lower Hill’s built environment and underestimation of what would be lost through demolition. Promotional brochures created by redevelopment boosters like the Allegheny Conference featured some of these photographs. Framed with captions that led readers to interpret the photographs in line with the Conference's vision, these brochures promoted the Lower Hill's redevelopment to local politicians, business leaders and newspaper editors. Teenie Harris’ photographs and the Courier, conversely, identified the Hill’s physical dilapidation, but celebrated its vibrant social life and supported residents’ activism for neighbourhood rehabilitation in the years before redevelopment.

The visual record also shows that redevelopers and the Courier envisioned the neighbourhood’s redeveloped future very differently. Redevelopers used architectural sketches of the Civic Arena emphasizing the plan's futuristic design, especially the Civic Arena's retractable roof, to promote the Lower Hill's redevelopment as essential to Pittsburgh's rebirth into an economically competitive, first-class city. These sketches reflect the Conference’s emphasis on the city’s built environment and economic vigour. Pittsburgh's daily newspapers disseminated the Conference's vision of the Civic Arena and redevelopment. The Courier, on the other hand, envisioned redevelopment as a route to new jobs and better housing for Hill residents and represented these hopes with architectural sketches hailing new public housing designs and Harris photographs of families, particularly children, enjoying public housing amenities.

The visuals created by redevelopers and the Courier after the Civic Arena opened in 1961 highlight residents’ and redevelopers’ divergent expectations for redevelopment and show how residents visually translated their disillusionment into protest. Redevelopers used the Civic Arena’s image as a symbol to celebrate their success. Pittsburgh's daily newspapers and national periodicals echoed redevelopers' narrative and used the Arena to symbolize the city's Renaissance. The Courier, conversely, expressed its dismay that greater employment opportunities and better housing proved illusory by fusing symbols of racial injustice to images of the Civic Arena in editorial cartoons and photographs. By the mid-1960s, Pittsburgh’s redevelopers were considering extending redevelopment through the Middle Hill, but the Courier threw its visual support behind anti-redevelopment activists. Using the Lower Hill as a symbol of redevelopment’s injustice, the Hill’s activists and the Courier compelled redevelopers to retreat from the Middle Hill in 1968.

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