Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Urban Prairie in Pittsburgh: A Photo Case Study

Discovering Historic Pittsburgh: Urban Prairie

This is not a traditional photo tour. The theme here is "urban prairie" in the city, and the negative effects of demolition. How "urban prairie" comes about in city neighborhoods is extremely well-illustrated by this page on the BuiltStLouis site, one of the best historic urban architecture websites. This page is inspired by that.

The focus here, then, is the gradual erosion of a neighborhood, until the point that it no longer exists.

California-Kirkbride is a neighborhood located in the North Side of Pittsburgh. It was built primarily in the 1870s-1890s. The neighborhood is a National Register Historic District known as the "Old Allegheny Rows Historic District."

The neighborhood was nominated for historic status in 1984. The following paragraph comes from the description of the neighborhood that year:

"The neighborhood has endured a half century of decline and stagnation. The failure of the railroad industry combined with the neglect of Pittsburgh's Northside and the region's general loss of population have left the area largely intact, but depopulated. The location of a large new postal facility on the site of the old railyard, and reinvestment in some of the residences in the neighborhood, promise better things for the future of the district."

It will be hard to fathom, after you see the following pictures, that California-Kirkbride was "largely intact" merely 25 years ago. The neighborhood stood for 130 years, but it only took two decades to destroy it. California-Kirkbride is not the only neighborhood to go this way (see also Esplen, East Deutschtown, and the Bluff), but it dramatically illustrates the problem that insensitive demolition poses to the integrity of neighborhoods. California-Kirkbride exists as a case study of urban destruction.

When buildings are abandoned in the city, the most common train of thought seems to be, "tear them down." This is what happens to historic neighborhoods when demolition occurs. It may only seem like one building here or there, but one building becomes two buildings, and two becomes three, and so on, until it becomes hundreds.

When California-Kirkbride was listed as a National Register Historic District in 1984, there were 348 contributing historic structures. How many are standing now?









































Above: The definition of urban prairie. A city block with no houses on it. The alleys and cobblestone streets are what's left as a reminder of the once intact and bustling neighborhood.

11 comments:

  1. I once counted the number of remaining stuctures in the district -- there were half as many as when it was listed.

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  2. I'd almost still rather look at a large empty green space or lot that's ready for re-use, than an old, crumbling, neglected hulk of ruin. Ya know?

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  3. Great stuff. Your pics tell a story.It reminds me of my hometown Donora.

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  4. I absolutely love your site! If I could up and move, I would be there. Start a preservation society and try to save those histroic buildings.

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    1. That's what I'm actually trying to do!

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  5. Your pictures are truly inspirational. My grandfather once owned quite a few properties in this area on Kirkbride St. Only one of his homes still remains and the rest have been demolished. It's very sad to see this and to visit this neighborhood. I grew up here in the 80s. Thank you so much for these inspirational photos and your site. I started a company last year, in his honor, to rehab these abandoned homes in California-Kirkbride and throughout the central northside.

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    1. How is that going for you Taisha? What problems have you run into? What is the company called?

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  6. This is nothing compared to the end of North Charles Street. It looks like a deluge went through "Pleasant Valley" and took all of the derelict properties with it. I grew up very close to these two neighborhoods and I'm torn on the subject. I love the history and architecture but the properties in many cases were too far gone (structurally) and nobody has any interest in development of these hoods. This is a great site, thanks for all of the work. Ever look into the neighborhood that was the East Street Valley? Talk about a missing neighborhood.

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  7. AnonymousMay 22, 2012

    I agree that tearing down many of these old houses does remove the closeness and cohesiveness that are strong components of a healthy urban neighborhood. Living in the East End, I see daily the gradual erosion of places like Larimer, Homewood, and Wilkinsburg as more and more properties are demolished. One caveat, however, that you as a post-steel mill resident of the city may not be aware of. When I was a boy (I am now 64)the population of Pittsburgh (city limits) was over 600,000 people. It is currently around 350,000. Although the population of Allegheny County has remained relatively stable in that time period, losing a quarter million residents is bound to result in a surplus of empty houses, many of which will not be properly cared for. Sadly, attracting that many new city residents interested in preserving and/or rehabbing existing housing is not something likely to happen soon enough to save many of these serviceable buildings.

    Go into the Lincoln-Larimer neighborhood some time. I think all that could save it now would be to convert it into a National Park for Urban Decay and charge admission to tour it and study how neighborhoods disintegrate.

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  8. This is a long shot but have you ever heard of Hoke's Row and can you tell me where it is located? Online Historic Pittsburgh pg 445 describing Fort Pitt. "This ditch extended from the salient angle of the north bastian, that is, the point of the fort which approached nearest to Marbury* street, back of the south end of Hoke's row, down to to Allegheny, where Marbury street strikes it." "*Now Second street, all the streets running at right angles to the Allegheny river being now numbered from one upward. The old numbered streets are now called avenues, "First avenune, Second avenue, etc., instead of First street, Second Street, etc." [I wonder if Hoke's row is named after Thomas Hoke and his many sons. I believe they were business oriented men. If I am understanding the location right for Hoke's row, then it would be in the original North Ward, which is the same ward as Thomas Hoke in the 1830 Census. North ward was later changed to 2nd Ward & then 4th Ward, I think.] Does Hoke's Row mean a row of houses?

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  9. My Dad grw up on Sedgewick St. They recently tore down his childhood home. When the fire consumed that large newer church near the post office, my Dads house was right across from it and sustained some damage but not enough to warrant it's demo. It was occupied as close as about 5-6 yrs ago i think. I drove him down there to see it and to get out and walk around. I'm so glad i did that a few years ago. He is 83 and in poor health now. He told me it was all very nice houses in the 30's and 40's, 50's. My whole family is from the Northside and we still live on Northside, but way farther up towards Ross. The Northside i knew growing up (im 35) is even 20x worse and decayed now. Plus is not really safe at all so not many people are just going to ignore that fact and brave it just to live there. It's terribly sad, like Detroit.

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