02 August 2012

The Lower Hill District and Civic Arena

Any good Pittsburgher knows how to give directions using long-gone buildings and businesses as current landmarks: "Yinz go down to that intersection where Kaufmann's used to be, across from where Border's was, and 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, and 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, later hell-with-the-lid-off industrial Pittsburgh. There wasn't time to contemplate preservation; we moved forward, tore down, built anew. 

Our losses differ from deliberate and mindless destruction that occurred in other places as a result of ideological zealotry. There's nothing hereabouts that's the equivalent of descruction during the French Revolution, the English Protestant Reformation, or parallels to modern-day destruction of statues of Buddha in Afghanistan and pillaging of Sufi tombs and mosques by Muslim extremists intent on destroying what they find offensive. No, lost Pittsburgh history isn't usually due to willful destruction for destruction's sake (although there are some arguable cases), nor as a result of ideological violence. 

We've lost our past in the name of Progress.

The list of lost architectural and social witnesses to Pittsburgh's history is a long one. We have too often been reactive when it comes to historical preservation, not thinking about preserving 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 iterations.

Picked Clean: Pittsburgh's Cultural Crossroads
What we think of as The Hill was once known as Farm Number Three, owned by a grandson of William Penn and 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. 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 developed 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. 
University of Pittsburgh, Kingsley Association Records

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. 

Lower Hill demolition, 1957. Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh

Why? Progress.

In 1946 department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann and Councilman Abe Wolk partnered to give the region a new amphitheater and cultural center. Their vision was for a "Center for the Arts" that would 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 $100,000 for 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 perceived as a better choice because it was a prime location, and ripe for renewal. It had nothing good going for it in the eyes of many, who characterized it as filled with architectural blight and vice. As described by one Pittsburgh Councilman, 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."

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 for it to happen. 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 25 April 1958.

31 May 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. Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

In January 1957, as the bulldozers rumbled up its brick streets, Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority expected that by year's end "....half of the 1800 families living in the Lower Hill will be relocated; that 90 percent of 970 parcels of property will be acquired; that land will be cleared for construction of both the new public auditorium and the Crosstown Boulevard...."

Too bad if you were one of those 1800+ families.

Too bad if you were a member of Bethel AME Church on Wylie Avenue and Elm Street. Bethel was founded in 1808. It was a vibrant center for the black community with connections to Wilberforce University, Payne Theological Seminary, and home to Pittsburgh’s first black elementary school. It had even been a stop on the Underground Railroad. 
Bethel was seized by eminent domain and the Romanesque-style building was demolished in 1957. Never mind that eminent domain laws excluded churches from such fates. Surely it was coincidental that Church of the Epiphany two blocks away was spared -- a Catholic church with a mostly Irish congregation at a time when Pittsburgh's mayor was Irish Catholic?
Bethel AME Church, 1957 destruction. Charles 'Teenie' Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art

According to Urban Redevelopment Authority documents examined by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018, Pittsburgh's "housing authority would relocate 1,551 families, 29 percent into public housing. A URA survey in 1953 showed that of 1,885 total families in the Lower Hill at that time, 67.1 percent were black, 32.9 percent white. Their average annual incomes were not too far apart. In today’s dollars, those averages would be $26,068 for white families and $25,360 for black families. The URA tracked the relocations. Most black families moved to the Middle and Upper Hill, a few to Homewood. Most white families moved to Uptown and the South Hills;Brookline, Beechview, Mt. Washington and Mount Lebanon."

These residents of The Lower Hill were on the front lines of the city's "attack on blight." It's doubtful that any of them would have described their neighborhood as a garden spot; new building, infrastructure and renovation were undeniably necessary in Pittsburgh's oldest; residential area. But making that happen required renewal of a different sort, and a different kind of vision for the city.

One newspaper photograph in early January 1957 of Bedford Avenue demolition explained that the area was being "Picked Clean" and excitedly noted "By next year, most of the lower Hil District will look like this."

So the Hill was a slum and its building owners -- most of whom didn't live there -- were being paid for their blighted properties beyond what measly incomes they'd get from rentals. Who could complain?

Lower Hill residents, that's who. But they had no voice in what happened, or at least none that would be heeded. There were few profiles of those displaced by Progress and the ones that did get published took on mocking, ironic tones: lowlifes were getting what they deserved. One example: over the preceding decades, local papers ran stories about Hill resident C. Cephus Ford many times, highlighting his reputation as Pittsburgh's "most arrested man." He was always described in the first sentences of these articles first as either "Negro" or "colored" as was typical of the times. That was followed by a reference to his gambling operations. This Post-Gazette lede from May 1936 was typical: "Cephus Ford, the colored gentleman who has done so much to promote the growth of straight flushes and naturals in the Hill District...."

After dozens of articles chronicling Ford's misadventures and arrests, it must have seemed like a no-brainer in the newsroom to profile his gambling kingdom being destroyed along with the rest of the neighborhood. Given his press notoriety, he was perhaps one of the few Hill residents that white Pittsburgh might recognize. The resulting article was hardly a sympathetic portrayal of the typical experiences of displaced Hill residents.

Click to see entire article: Pittsburgh Press 6 January 1957

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. 
Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, 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 just the residents of that neighborhood. The mass exodus of so many people increased urban crowding in other areas of the city, and accelerated the 'white flight' of city residents to the suburbs. Prices that home-owners received weren't enough to buy new homes elsewhere, contributing to the proliferation of opportunistic slum landlord domination of rented housing in impoverished, over-crowded neighborhoods and increased burden on the developing public housing system.

All of this contributed to the incubation of failed hopes and dreams, and gave birth to more high-crime communities.

So much for Progress.

New housing in the Hill was promised when the Lower Hill was torn down. But it wasn't until decades later, from 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. That's long after the displaced residents of the Hill who might have benefited from such development had died or moved on.

1958 Centre Avenue area. William V. Winans Jr. Photograph Collection, Detre Library & Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center

Progress Creates a Dome
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. 
 Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

A massive cantilever arm allowed the six movable parts of the roof to retract without any interior supports, and was 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 locally as "The Igloo". Oh, sure, it was formally named 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

But, hey, more Progress! The no-longer state-of-the-art Civic Arena was decommissioned almost fifty years later when its successor, the $321,000,000 CONSOL Energy Center facility (since renamed thanks to more ubiquitous corporate sponsorship rights), 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. But the latter argument was mocked as an ironic parody of the feelings of those who remembered the wholesale displacement of the Lower Hill community so that very same 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 root deep. Former Lower Hill residents and community advocates remembered their 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, which together 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:

It's been six years since I wrote the above. The Arena space is STILL 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. There were penalties if they failed to act, with the Sports Exhibition Authority or the Urban Redevelopment Authority be given the right to offer the land to another developer. An official site plan has yet to be decided upon, although there's still plenty of talk about combining commercial, residential, and retail components for a "mixed-use live-work-play community."

Careful new investments and sensitive development could mean economic revitalization for the area and attract new residents, businesses and even tourists. This bid for Progress is special; it's a chance to rebuild on the ashes of memory and opportunity.

We can still hope that pressure to hold onto this valuable real estate will not prevent a thoughtful and responsible process of discernment and reflection regarding its development from occurring. Foresight needs to be directed to deciding what will be best for the good of the present and future community -- and this time, the 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 -- would be the icng on the cake.

Ironically, today there is a concerted effort to draw more people to living space in the Downtown area. Imagine that...had the Lower Hill been developed as promised decades ago, it would have provided Downtown with housing stock that could be redeveloped and reused as part of 21st century urban Progress. After all, historic buildings in older neighborhoods attract people to urban living, and are an integral part of defining a city's personality.

What are the communal ramifications of living with things that aren't there anymore, but which remain present in cultural memory? We're living the results.

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.

PERIODIC UPDATE: It's now 2019, 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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