Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bluff & Uptown Photo Tour

Historic Bluff & Uptown Photo Tour, PittsburghThe atmosphere of the Bluff, also known as Uptown, is eerie, gothic, and haunted. I thought it fitting to photograph the neighborhood on a suitably gloomy late fall day. One would assume that the Bluff's prime location on a main corridor between Downtown and Oakland would have ensured its gentrification long ago. This has not been the case, for reasons that are mystifying at best. The Bluff has seen it all -- failed urban renewal, mass bulldozing, blight, crime, suburban flight -- but it's still here (for the time being). The neighborhood hangs in a delicate balance. It is whispered that many of these historic buildings will not survive to see the neighborhood's next chapter. One needs only to examine the fragile and deteriorating condition of most of the (breathtaking) Victorian architecture to understand that it is not appreciated by the waves of modernism. To those who cite Pittsburgh as an example of urban progress in the rust belt, the Bluff is a step back down to earth. There is endless work to be done, especially for preservationists.

Click here to view these pictures larger

Monday, November 15, 2010

Character, Identity, History, and Soul

I needed to find an affordable place to live that possessed character, identity, history, and soul. That is why I chose McKees Rocks. That is why I chose Pittsburgh. People who fail to appreciate those qualities are generally the same people who do not appreciate the city, and may be the reason why those things are so few and far between in the world we live in today.

The people who left Pittsburgh over the last half century were not just running away from the city. They were running away from the blue collar roots it represented, the social stigma, the coal and the steel. They were tying to run away from themselves. And so the city was left to rot, and this is what is left -- ghostly industrial sites, abandoned Victorian buildings, decayed neighborhoods. The gracefully forsaken and neglected city represents more than a collection of ruins. It is everything that has ever been loved and left to die, adored then abandoned, cherished then forgotten. It is, more importantly, a reflection of the the fickle nature, and decline, of America. Perhaps that is why many see Pittsburgh as depressing, rather than as the beautiful symbol of a more glorious era.

What represents the America of today? Walmart, the McMansion, the SUV, Jersey Shore? Take your pick. I'll take what's left of Pittsburgh.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pittsburgh's "Renaissance" and the Price of Urban Renewal

Like almost all American cities, Pittsburgh has seen too many of its historic buildings demolished in the name of "urban renewal," which could be translated to mean "urban removal" since it generally involves mass demolition of dense urban spaces in favor of suburban-like parking lots and green space. Pittsburgh was home to the country's first large-scale "urban renewal" project. In the early 1950s, hundreds of historic structures, some over one hundred years-old even then, were demolished in order to make way for what is now Point Park. A whole stretch of Penn Avenue was demolished where the generic aluminum and glass of Gateway Center now stands. Wabash Terminal, one of the most grand examples of Beaux Arts "City Beautiful" architecture was razed. So was Exposition Hall, and countless historic street-level commercial buildings, hotels, and row-houses -- all for what? Point Park is generally empty today. There is a fountain, and there are impressive views, but the urban density and historic integrity of a city neighborhood are gone.

During the 1950s, Pittsburgh also lost its original City Hall on Smithfield Street, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The Old Post Office followed in 1966.

Downtown Pittsburgh retains much of its historic character due to the large number of existing structures dating from the early 20th century. However, very little remains of downtown Pittsburgh from its boom in the early to mid 19th century and the Victorian era. Larger, significant buildings, such as the Allegheny County Courthouse, may have been spared the wrecking ball, but countless smaller buildings from Pittsburgh's early days, such as brick rowhouses and small commercial buildings, are gone. These buildings contributed to the city's street-level business and activity, and gave the city a density and walkability not unlike some older European cities. Existing buildings from this era are largely vacant and unrestored. One may see the occasional row house or 1850s wrought iron facade on a commercial building standing on Wood Street, Liberty Avenue, Fifth Avenue, and Penn Avenue, as well as some in the wharf area and in back streets and alleys throughout the city. One might be surprised to learn that there were once houses, and whole residential communities, in downtown Pittsburgh, where only fragments remain today.

Historic preservation is essential to a city like Pittsburgh because beautiful things are meant to be created, not destroyed. The historic buildings of Pittsburgh are beautiful and irreplaceable. Thus, they cry out to be saved -- to people who have eyes which can recognize the romantic history of Pittsburgh, and the beauty in that. The Pittsburgh of today is both a testament to the glory of historic buildings, in a city of so many beautifully restored landmarks -- and a testament to what can be lost when greed, corruption, and oversight pave parking lots over history.

The following video documents some of Pittsburgh's lost buildings. They are the ghosts of Pittsburgh's romantic, historic past. We can't visit them now. We can only be haunted by the everlasting effects of "progress" that deemed these buildings disposable. The next time you walk down Smithfield Street, remember the Old Post Office and City Hall. All we have in their place is a parking garage and a small black building that looks like a shoebox.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Manchester & Allegheny West Historic Districts

Photo Tour: Manchester and Allegheny West Historic Districts, North Side, PittsburghManchester and Allegheny West are located on the North Side of Pittsburgh and are historic districts. The architecture is among the city's most impressive. Victorians and urban row-homes abound, many built prior to 1872, as indicated by old maps. The elegant homes of Manchester and Allegheny West once belonged to Pittsburgh's elite, but the neighborhoods fell on hard times after the turn of the century, when the automobile facilitated the move of the city's wealthy to further-out suburbs. Prior to the turn of the century, many of Pittsburgh's most affluent citizens and wealthy industrialists lived on the North Side (then Allegheny City). This wealth is demonstrated in the remarkable architecture that still exists in the neighborhoods today. In spite of a century's worth of failed urban renewal, a highway that decimated a large section of the neighborhood, white flight, changing fortunes that favored sprawl to suburban areas and the east end, blight, demolition, and crime, Manchester still exists, and much of its historic fabric remains both intact and beautifully restored. Allegheny West has been gentrified.