Thursday, August 2, 2012

Things that aren't there any more: Lower Hill District and Civic Arena

Any good Pittsburgher knows how to give directions using long-gone buildings and businesses as current landmarks: "You go down to that intersection where Kaufmann's used to be, across from where Border's was, and yinz turn right up past where the old school uniform store was."  If you're from around here you know exactly what's being described and you'll get to where you're going, no problem. This remembrance of things past dominates our lives so much that local filmmaker Rick Sebak produced “Things That Aren’t There Anymore,” a popular cinematic homage to former Pittsburgh attractions that exist only in collective memories.

Pity the poor non-Pittsburgher who has no historical context to follow such directions and who becomes even more lost after receiving our 'help!' It's inevitable as time passes that our 'where it used to be' method of giving directions will change as infrastructure and landscape changes. Old descriptors eventually become meaningless. That's how we define progress, after all: out with the old, in with the new.

Except those are pretty much fightin' words for historical preservationists, who work to assure that historic properties are kept intact and/or that modifications reflect a respect for the past. As a society, we must weigh the value of preservation against the limitations it places on urban growth, and sort through the layers of history to decide what to preserve and what to let pass into the realm of memory. What do we save? What gets consigned to dust boundless and bare? How will these decisions affect us? What is best for the community? It's an enormous task, keeping our past present for the future.

Here in Western Pennsylvania we have always quite literally built upon our past. There are layers of regional history forever inaccessible, sacrificed to the necessities of surviving in what was once the edge of the colonial western frontier and later hell-with-the-lid-off industrial Pittsburgh. There wasn't time to think; we simply moved forward, tore down, built anew. 

Our losses differ from deliberate and mindless destruction that's occurred in other places as a result of ideological zealotry  (e.g. the French Revolution, Protestant Reformation, with parallels to modern-day destruction of statues of Buddha in Afghanistan and current pillaging of Sufi tombs and mosques in Timbuktu by Muslim extremists intent on destroying what they find offensive in that ancient center of Islamic learning and faith). No, the loss of pieces of Pittsburgh's history wasn't usually due to willful destruction for destruction's sake (although there are some arguable cases). But we must nonetheless live with the results of decisions whose consequences were not well-contemplated at the time. 

There are plenty of lost architectural and social witnesses to Pittsburgh's history. What are the communal ramifications of living with things that aren't there anymore? One of the most  well-known examples of something that isn't there any more but remains present in cultural memory is the Lower Hill District and the Civic Arena.  We often don't think about preserving history until progress reduces what we know to rubble. Such was the case with Pittsburgh's Lower Hill District, an area that would be completely unidentifiable to its former residents many times over due to multiple evolutions. 

What we think of as The Hill was once known as Farm Number Three and owned by a grandson of William Penn, then sold to a Revolutionary War veteran. That farmland on the slopes nearest the city was purchased in the late 1840s by Thomas Mellon. He subdivided it into individual plots and flipped them for a profit, thereby beginning the Lower Hill's development as a settled community. The area was filled with large homes and gracious estates in the early to mid 19th century, but at the same time, the region boasted of one of Pittsburgh's antebellum communities of free people of color known as Arthursville. As the wealthier white families died off or moved further from the urban center, population expansion after the Civil War brought freed slaves from Virginia, then Jews, Italians, Syrians, Greeks, and Poles to the Lower Hill. Beginning in the late 19th century, a renowned Little Harlem would develop there, which became a vibrant center of African American cultural life in the city. 

Lower Hill District, with Downtown Pittsburgh in distance, circa 1906-10. Photo by William H. Matthews. Gelatin silver print. Source: Archives Service Center (ASC) at the University of Pittsburgh, Kingsley Association Records, 1894-1980, 705.23A05.KA,

But by 1960 the City of Pittsburgh had razed 95 acres of the Lower Hill, forcibly relocating over 400 businesses and 8000 mostly black residents. 

Why such a drastic move? 

Because back in 1946 department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann and Councilman Abe Wolk partnered to give the region a new amphitheater and cultural center. It was described a "Center for the Arts" and was meant to include a combination of opera house and symphony hall, multiple arenas, theaters, an art museum, luxury apartments, hotels and offices.They garnered private pledges of nearly $100000 for its construction, and went looking for a building site. Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence briefly pitched a plan to build this complex at the city’s Point. That plan had some merit in that it would renew what had become an area of industrial blight, but was not practical in terms of handling the anticipated traffic.

The Hill was desirable land due to its location, and seemed ideal for this new undertaking. To many, the area was characterized by architectural blight and lowlife residents. As described by one Pittsburgh Councilman at the time, the buildings in the Lower Hill were sub-standard and "....have long outlived their usefulness....there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed." 

And so they were destroyed. 

Preservation of the Lower Hill neighborhood was not a viable issue in the face of the perceived need for a municipal auditorium to benefit the entire tri-state area. A Pittsburgh Press article from the time notes that "The Hill...was completely worn out, like an old pair of shoes that has gone the last mile."  Of course, residents of The Lower Hill didn't believe their community was on its last mile. It wasn't posh, to be sure, and new building and renovation were undeniably necessary. But instead, the entire neighborhood was eradicated, displacing thousands who had no voice in the matter.

By September 1955 the federal government had approved an ambitious redevelopment plan in the Lower Hill and made more than $17 million in loans and grants available. Demolition began in May 1956. Once the mass demolition of 80 blocks under the principle of eminent domain had been completed, construction of what became the Civic Arena began on April 25, 1958.

May 31, 1956. "A ceremony to mark the beginning of demolition for the redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District neighborhood includes Mayor David L. Lawrence symbolically commencing the project."  Note bemused on-lookers, presumably Lower Hill Residents, in the background. Source: Archives Service Center, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center.

A contemporary headline from the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper for Pittsburgh's black community, read "Urban Renewal Means Negro Removal". But few paid heed.
Colwell Street looking west toward the intersection with Stevenson Street, October 1956. Photo by John R. Shrader. Source: Historic Pittsburgh image Collection, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Senator John Heinz History Center

Much has been written about the ramifications of urban renewal attempts in general, and specifically about the impact of the demolition of the Lower Hill neighborhood. Today it's well nigh impossible to defend such heavy-handed actions for the greater good, not when the mass relocation of so many families--mostly black and mostly without a voice in the pre-Civil Rights Era--affected this entire region.  The impact of leveling the Lower Hill wasn't limited to only the residents of that neighborhood. The mass exodus of so many people increased urban crowding in other areas, and accelerated the 'white flight' of city residents to the suburbs. The prices folks got for their homes were not enough to buy somewhere else, leading to opportunistic slum landlord domination of housing in impoverished, over-crowded neighborhoods and an increased burden on the developing public housing system.

All of this contributed to the incubation of failed hopes and dreams and gave birth to high-crime communities. New housing in the Hill was promised when the Lower Hill was torn down, but it wasn't until 1993-2000 that Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) acquired the abandoned and derelict land above the Arena and built the Crawford Square development there -- long after the displaced residents of the Hill who might have benefited from such development had died or moved on.

1958 Centre Avenue area, Historic Pittsburgh image Collection, William V. Winans Jr. Photograph Collection, Senator John Heinz History Center

And what replaced the Lower Hill neighborhood? Originally budgeted at $19 million, the Civic Arena took forty months and cost $21.7 million to construct.

Cleared Lower Hill with footprint of Civic Arena under construction, c February 1958. The architectural firm of Mitchell & Ritchey and the engineering firm of Ammann & Whitney and Robert Zern designed the structure. Source: Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Senator John Heinz History Center.

A massive cantilever arm allowed the six movable parts of the roof to retract without any interior supports, considered to be an architectural marvel. Anyone who ever witnessed the dome opening during a concert or event remembers the awe-inspiring sight of 'raising the roof.' Considered the world’s first and at one time largest indoor sports arena, the building was most fondly known as "The Igloo". Oh, sure, it was called the Mellon Arena from 2008-2010 due to ubiquitous corporate sponsorship naming rights, but that name didn't resonate with real Pittsburghers. Circuses, rock stars, the Harlem Globetrotters, monster truck shows, and political campaigns regularly flocked to the Igloo. The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team was its anchor tenant.

Pittsburgh Business Times file photo

The Civic Arena was decommissioned almost fifty years later when its successor the $321,000,000 CONSOL Energy Center facility opened near-by in October 2010. There was much impassioned and polarizing debate about the merits of preserving the doomed dome and designating it as a historic landmark. Efforts were spear-headed by concerned individuals. Groups like Preservation Pittsburgh and Reuse the Igloo cited the need to preserve the building due to its innovative retracting roof, its symbolism of mid-20th century urban renewal, and its status as a cultural center for the community. The latter argument was countered as an ironic parody of the feelings of those who remembered the wholesale displacement of the Lower Hill community so that the Arena could be built fifty years earlier.

The merits of saving the Civic Arena were publicly contested for months, amidst accusations that the official discussion process was corrupted (or, more benignly, affected) by competing special interests. The elephant in the room was the history of demolition of the Lower Hill fifty years earlier. The Civic Arena had its ardent fanbase, but cultural memories are long in this city. Former Lower Hill residents and community advocates remembered that neighborhood with aching fondness, anger and regret. One organization dedicated to preserving modern architecture stated:  
Civic Arena was surely worthy of being included on any one of these (preservation) listings but 20th century architecture has one big disadvantage: people remember it being built, they remember what was torn down to build it, and that sentiment or stigma is often harbored regardless of the objectivity of building advocates. 
Such sentiments were eloquently summarized by Councilman Sala Udin at one of the City Council hearings about Arena preservation: 
The demolition of my home along with 8,000 others in the 1950s and 1960s began a multi-generational wound. The redevelopment can begin a healing process to preserve the people, and I hope that once this arena is demolished we can depend on this entire preservation community to support the development of the people with the same vigor that you now support of the preservation of a building.

Practical concerns were also voiced. The National Trust for Historic Preservation could cite multiple examples illustrating how building reuse nearly always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction, including buildings of equivalent size and function to the old Igloo. But building rehabilitation and renovation is expensive. There had to be a compelling purpose for refitting a building the size of the Civic Arena, plus deep pockets to make it happen.

Neither existed. 

Historical sentiment and cultural interests lost to financial and business agendas that sealed the Arena's fate. Preservation attempts failed and demolition began in the fall of 2011. This time lapse video by YouTube user "DayGraphics2012" shows how it was deconstructed over a nine month period:

At this writing, essentially five weeks after its demolition, the Arena is an empty lot awaiting future development. It remains alive in community memory and even has a Facebook page devoted to chronicling personal reminiscences of events attended there.

Nothing can bring back the Arena; it was doomed by its own historical baggage and there was no room on the development agendas for such a colossus.

Likewise, nothing will return the pre-Civic Arena Lower Hill to its former vibrancy.

But out of this dust and rubble, Pittsburgh's power-brokers have a unique opportunity to build something fabulous and to right past wrongs.

A 2007 option agreement gave the Pittsburgh Penguins exclusive rights to develop a 28 acre site over a ten year period. If the Penguins fail to develop 2.8 acres in any given year the team will have to forfeit rights to a parcel of equal size, and the Sports Exhibition Authority or the Urban Redevelopment Authority will have the right to offer the land to another developer. While an official site plan has yet to be released, there are commercial, residential, and retail components being considered as a "mixed-use live-work-play community." In June 2012, although quick to reassure that the area is not envisioned solely as an entertainment complex, Penguins officials acknowledged that they have looked to Philadelphia's development of a sports-themed entertainment complex for inspiration (never mind the age-old antipathy between these two great Pennsylvania cities).

Careful new investments and sensitive development could mean economic revitalization for the area and attract new residents, businesses and even tourists. This is a unique opportunity, and it is hoped that pressure to hold onto this valuable real estate will not prevent a thoughtful and responsible process of discernment and reflection from occurring regarding its development. Foresight needs to be directed to deciding what will be best for the good of the community, and that process needs to pay heed to the voice of the public. A dedicated physical homage marking what once was on the site -- both the Lower Hill community that was sacrificed and the beloved Igloo it made room for -- is hoped for.

Ironically, today there is a concerted effort to draw more people to living space in the Downtown area. Had the Lower Hill been developed as promised, it would have provided Downtown with housing stock that could have redeveloped or gentrified. Historic buildings in older neighborhoods attract people to urban living and are an integral part of defining a city's personality.

But done is done. We owe it ourselves to channel the energy spent regretting what was done to assure that we don't foster even more regrets over future development plans. We have layers upon layers of history in Pittsburgh. We can't bring back what is gone, but we can and should honor our own legacies when we rebuild, so a phoenix may rise out of the Lower Hill/Arena ashes.

ADDENDUM:  It's now 2017, and the former Civic Arena space remains one big empty lot for the foreseeable future. 


Selected Bibliography and Further Reading

Arena History
Council votes down Civic Arena preservation
Many ask council to preserve Civic Arena

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