Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Lower Hill conclusion

By geographically anchoring their demand that redevelopment cease 'beyond this point' to the Civic Arena, the CCHDR invoked the Arena’s symbolism as it had come to exist in the minds of people disenchanted with redevelopment. This late 1960s Civic Arena symbolism garnered definition, authority and emotional oomph from the critical reinterpretations that preceded it: the Courier’s 1961 drawing of Jim Crow hovering over the Arena, Harris’ photographs of protesters picketing the Civic Arena and its Jim Crow hiring policy and the Courier’s coverage of urban renewal’s 'displaced persons' symbolized by a caretaker with an excellent view of the Civic Arena but not enough to feed her children. The city’s redevelopment coalition, conversely, celebrated the Civic Arena as the Renaissance’s crowning achievement.

This article has shed light on how these divergent perspectives came to be by examining the Lower Hill’s redevelopment through its visual record. Close readings of visuals reveal how policy-makers and the mainstream media perceive the people and spaces impacted by urban policy. Comparing these top-down visual representations to visuals created by the people most affected by policies like redevelopment highlights how the latter perceive their built environment - including its problems and solutions. The discrepancies between top-down and bottom-up representations illuminate the biases, assumptions and blind spots that distort policy-makers’ perceptions of the people and spaces touched by policies such as demolition. Flawed perceptions encourage flawed policies. These policies go unchallenged if media coverage replicates policy-makers’ worldview. Skewed representations give the public a mental picture of the people and spaces most affected by urban policy that presupposes the aptness of policies such as demolition and redevelopment.

In Pittsburgh, redevelopers visually represented the Lower Hill as they perceived it and their visuals shaped the public’s mental picture of the Lower Hill. Redevelopers’ maps translating the Lower Hill’s mixed land uses into blocks labelled 'slum' and 'substandard' and photographs of desolate litter-strewn alleys reveal that they saw the Lower Hill only in terms of its built environment. By showing the worst examples of the Lower Hill’s built environment but not its people, redevelopers’ images argued demolition would have economic benefits and no social costs. Combining these unflattering images with captions naming them definitive evidence of blight reiterated the argument for demolition and lent redevelopers’ mental pictures of the neighbourhood greater authority. The architectural sketches, models and photographs redevelopers used to envision the Lower Hill’s future and, later, to celebrate its achievement, illustrate their ideal city - a landscape of ultra-modernist technological marvels. Paired with captions heralding the Arena as a 'wonder of the modern world', these images tickled the public’s imagination and strengthened support for redevelopment. When the city’s daily newspapers and national periodicals used these same images, redevelopers’ mental picture of the Lower Hill garnered even greater breadth and authority.

Teenie Harris and the Courier also represented the Lower Hill District as they perceived it, but as neighbourhood insiders, their depictions paid homage to its social vibrancy and envisioned a people-centred redevelopment. Photographs of the housing protests spurred by the Hill District People’s Forum demonstrate residents’ dismay with their living conditions as well as their activism to remedy their neighbourhood’s deficiencies on their own terms. Once the Hill’s black political leaders and the Courier embraced redevelopment, Harris’ photographs envisioned it as a route to better housing. The dissonance between redevelopers’ and the Courier’s vision for the Lower Hill’s redevelopment helps explain the disillusionment and protests that ensued after the Civic Arena’s completion. Building on the Courier’s, Harris’ and civil rights protesters’ visual repurposing of the Arena as a symbol of racial injustice, the CCHDR ultimately compelled the URA to retreat from the Hill District in 1968.

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