If you want to see how to revive a city—and how not to—go to Pittsburgh. No other modern American city has worked so hard for so long in so many ways to reinvent itself. It transformed itself from the Smoky City to the Renaissance City in the 1940s, and that was just the beginning. Pittsburghers today refer to that era as Renaissance I because they’re now up to Renaissance III—or maybe IV, depending on how you count.
The past rebirths enthralled urban planners and put Pittsburgh high in the rankings of “most livable” cities, but a problem recurred: fewer and fewer people actually wanted to live there. As the master builders obliterated streets and erected towers, young people left town. I was one of them, having experienced, a few blocks from my parents’ home, a would-be renaissance hailed in the 1960s as the largest urban-renewal project in America.
It was an attempt to revitalize a part of the city called East Liberty, once the third-busiest retail district in Pennsylvania, surpassed only by the downtowns of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. As a teenager working there in a drug store, I initially admired the planners’ bold makeover, assuming that these experts knew far more than the rest of us. The drugstore owners, who regularly cursed the project’s new pedestrian malls and boulevards and high-rises, struck me as sadly retrograde—until I saw the eventual results. Hundreds of businesses shut down and thousands of residents fled, turning the neighborhood into a crime-ridden wasteland. When I worked at the Pittsburgh Press in 1974, the only story I covered in East Liberty was the shooting of a police officer.
Pittsburghers resolved on yet another renaissance. “Never-Say-Die East Liberty Fights Back,” the Press proclaimed in 1983, but things just got worse as the shutdown of steel mills devastated the city’s economy. My visits back to East Liberty became nostalgic tours of the ruins. There was the deserted Nabisco plant, whose Ritz-cracker aromas had once wafted over our baseball field. There was my dentist’s former office, the Highland Building, erected by Henry Clay Frick and designed by Daniel Burnham (the architect of the Flatiron Building), its stately terra-cotta façade now crumbling and its doors boarded up. There was the YMCA, where we’d played basketball, now abandoned except for the men from the nearby homeless shelter passed out on the sidewalk. There was the corner where my old drugstore stood until a fire of mysterious origin (well, maybe not so mysterious) destroyed it.
The renaissancers kept trying—“Hope in East Liberty,” ran a 1996 headline—but the people kept leaving. By 2010, Pittsburgh’s population was barely 300,000, less than half its size in 1950. Pittsburgh had all the comparative disadvantages of other Rust Belt cities: high taxes, powerful unions, burgeoning pension obligations, inferior public schools, and a decaying infrastructure. East Liberty and the rest of the city seemed a lost cause.
But then, over the past decade, I was stunned to see the ruins come to life. Google’s flag flies over the old Nabisco plant, now an office employing more than 600 of its techies. The renovated Highland Building rents two-bedroom apartments for more than $3,000 a month—a staggering sum to anyone familiar with Pittsburgh real estate, though not quite as shocking to me as what’s happened to the YMCA. The old gym, its peeling paint lovingly preserved, has become the ballroom of a cooler-than-thou Ace Hotel, the homeless men on the sidewalk replaced by a valet-parking attendant.
How did this happen? Outside economic forces were partly to thank: the new money flowing into Pittsburgh from fracking, robotics, health care, and other industries. But some credit goes to the same kind of coalition that led the earlier renaissances: business leaders, philanthropists, nonprofit groups, politicians, and developers. They learned from their predecessors’ mistakes, and the lessons are valuable for any city.
The spirit of Pittsburgh’s first renaissance was captured by a painting on the cover of Time in 1949. Captioned “For the Golden Triangle, a new sidewalk superintendent,” it showed Richard King Mellon heroically towering above Pittsburgh’s smoke-filled skyline as a construction crane lowered a golden architect’s triangle on its downtown. Master planners and progressive politicians had long dreamed of transforming their towns into versions of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” or Fiorello La Guardia’s “City of Tomorrow,” but they’d never had Mellon’s clout.
His family’s bank had financed Pittsburgh’s industrial growth, leaving him, as well as three other Mellons, among the ten richest people in America. Through stock holdings, board seats, and loans, the Mellons held sway over Gulf Oil, Alcoa, Westinghouse, steel and coal companies, and much of the rest of the Pittsburgh economy. When Richard Mellon summoned the corporate establishment to a downtown hotel in 1943 to plan the city’s future, it was an invitation they couldn’t refuse. And when he proposed spending their money to clean the air and rebuild the city, they ponied up.
“It was an extraordinary moment, these CEOs getting together in a room to ask the government to impose costly environmental regulations on themselves,” says Bill Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference, the civic group of business leaders that grew out of that meeting. “They knew they couldn’t recruit people for their businesses unless they cleaned up the place up. They were also concerned that Pittsburgh someday might not have a steel industry, so they needed to prepare for a different kind of economy.” Time’s cover story called the Allegheny Conference “an experiment in a new and wiser capitalism,” and some of it worked. The pollution controls took soot out of the air and cleaned the rivers. The Mellon family and other philanthropists gave lavishly to local universities and medical facilities, pioneering the urban economic strategy now known as “eds and meds.” Carnegie Tech transformed into an elite university, renamed Carnegie Mellon. The University of Pittsburgh became famed for Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine and Thomas Starzl’s organ transplants. Downtown Pittsburgh got a lively new public square named after the Mellons, whose foundations financed the conversion of a parking lot into an underground garage with a garden plaza atop it.
But Mellon and his colleagues had grander plans, and so did their chief ally, David Lawrence, the Pittsburgh mayor who would later become the state’s governor. They wanted a new downtown, and they embraced the reigning urban ideal: Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, with its “towers in the park” linked by highways. After lobbying for state legislation giving a new public authority (headed by the mayor) the power to seize private property and redevelop it, they went to work on the Point, the triangular tip of downtown where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join to form the Ohio. One plan was solicited from Robert Moses by Howard Heinz, the head of his family’s food company. Frank Lloyd Wright drew up another at the behest of department-store owner Edgar Kaufmann.
Both Moses and Wright proposed removing the Point’s existing streets and businesses to make room for a park with a fountain at the tip. Moses’s park gave much of the best land near the rivers to his beloved expressways. Wright’s park also featured highways, which fed into a “Grand Auto Ramp” spiraling around the outside of a circular building a quarter-mile wide that held a sports arena, opera house, theater, aquarium, and, of course, a parking garage. Neither plan was adopted, but their spirits prevailed. Pittsburgh’s redevelopers cleared 59 acres at the Point, tearing down more than 100 buildings, to put in a fountain in a large park along with a collection of high-rise office and apartment buildings called Gateway Center.
It made for great aerial photographs of Pittsburgh’s new Golden Triangle, and it brought more workers downtown, so it was declared a success and copied by other cities. But something was missing, as Jane Jacobs was first to notice. In her seminal 1958 Fortune essay, “Downtown is for People,” she noted that Pittsburghers were thronging in Mellon Square because it was in the heart of downtown and part of the street grid, but they were avoiding Gateway Center because its lawns, promenades, and underground mall were an “ersatz suburb.” Jacobs forecast a similar fate for the planners’ next project, which involved clearing an even bigger swath of land on a slope at the other end of downtown.
The urban renewalists were razing more than 1,300 buildings, forcing out 8,000 residents of the Hill District, the black neighborhood celebrated in August Wilson’s plays. Replacing them: a highway, proposed by Moses to “take out a slum district which is no credit to Pittsburgh,” and a scaled-down version of Wright’s circular civic center. The new Civic Arena would supposedly be part of a “cultural acropolis,” surrounded by theaters, apartments, and restaurants, reviving nightlife downtown, but Jacobs foresaw the fatal flaw. “Every conceivable device—arterial highways, a wide belt of park, parking lots—separates the new project from downtown,” she wrote. “The only thing missing is an unscalable wall.” Sure enough, the rest of the acropolis was never built, leaving the Civic Arena stranded in a sea of parking lots. When Jacobs returned in 1962 for a look, she said, “Pittsburgh is being rebuilt by city haters.”
Meantime, the rebuilders were busier than ever, thanks partly to the problems they’d created by forcing so many low-income residents out of the Hill District. There was public pressure (and lots of new federal money) to build subsidized housing, and Pittsburgh’s planners had just the place for it. The 95 acres cleared in the Hill District had been the largest urban-renewal project in the country, but now a still-bigger one got underway: 254 acres in East Liberty.
Known as Pittsburgh’s “second downtown,” East Liberty had a rich history and what looked to be a poor future. The first road through it was built in 1758 by George Washington, then serving with the British army on its way to seize the French fort at the Point, five miles away. As one of the few large-flat areas among Pittsburgh’s hills, the valley became a common grazing ground called a “liberty” (hence its name), then a village, then a commercial hub.
Washington’s old road, Penn Avenue, evolved into the main street of a neighborhood that was Jacobs’s ideal of urbanity, a street grid with a diversity of businesses and people: small shops and department stores, offices and apartments and houses, a half-dozen theaters, an assortment of restaurants and jazz clubs, a roller-skating rink, and a Presbyterian church with a beautiful Gothic spire dubbed “Mellon’s Fire Escape” (on the theory that the family built it to avoid hell). The businesses catered to the mansion-dwellers on nearby Millionaire’s Row, as well as to the professionals and blue-collar workers in the area. Hundreds of stores prospered into the early twentieth century, but after World War II, their customers headed for the suburbs. As sales dropped and stores closed, a group of merchants asked the city’s redevelopment authority for help in competing against suburban malls.
The planners’ solution: turn East Liberty into an outdoor mall. The two major arteries, Penn and Highland avenues, were converted into pedestrian malls. Cars were diverted to a new four-lane, one-way road that encircled the shopping district. Inside this mini-beltway, the old streets wound up either obliterated or turned into a maze of one-way streets leading to large new parking lots. Three federally subsidized housing projects arose at both ends. One was built directly over Penn Avenue, straddling the street, forming what the planners apparently felt would be an enticing gateway.
To make room for all this, the city’s redevelopment authority cleared the buildings from dozens of blocks—about half the neighborhood. They razed 1,200 homes, forcing out nearly 4,000 residents, and displaced nearly 600 businesses. Many had no place to go because the shopping district was shrunk by more than 1 million square feet.
Some of the smaller merchants, like the owners of the drugstore where I worked, opposed the project, but most people saw it as East Liberty’s best hope. When the mall opened in the late 1960s, we envisioned shoppers congregating in the new plaza at the intersection of the pedestrian malls. Its centerpiece was a fountain with a steel sculpture by a Pittsburgh artist, Virgil Cantini, who drew his inspiration from Italian piazzas. It featured a ring of people arm-in-arm, dancing ecstatically, and was titled Joy of Life.
As time went on, those dancers looked lonelier and lonelier. There was no joy on the pedestrian mall, and not much of anything else, either. People who wanted to shop at a mall continued going to the suburbs, and the ring road just made it easier for them to whiz past the neighborhood. They hated navigating its new street maze, only to end up in a parking lot far from their destination—if the store was even still there.
The wide new promenades made the place look emptier than ever, which kept more people away, especially at night, when it felt scary. Restaurants, theaters, and stores shut down. We were bored to death at the drug store because there was so little foot traffic. The population shrank and shrank, and it wasn’t just white flight to the suburbs. Black homeowners were fleeing, too. As the middle class cleared out, East Liberty became notorious for drug-dealing and other crime, especially at the high-rise housing projects. The police started calling them the Crack Stacks.
By 2000, East Liberty was “The Land That Retail Forgot,” as a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline put it. But another renaissance was underway, though this time the city didn’t lead it. The local chamber of commerce had started a nonprofit group, East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), which came up with its own plan to revive the core of the neighborhood by eliminating the pedestrian mall and renovating the buildings along it. It succeeded in bringing back cars, but it faltered in its early attempts to lure back tenants and merchants. The few private developers willing to chance East Liberty found that it didn’t pay.
A domed marketplace that the Mellons built in 1900 was turned into an upscale mall, but it soon closed for lack of customers.. The old YMCA became a “technology incubator,” but it couldn’t keep itself alive. Various developers considered the elegant Highland Building (which now had four feet of water in the basement) but couldn’t figure out how to recoup the cost of renovating it. In frustration—and needing cash to pay off its real-estate loans—ELDI turned in 2002 to Streetworks, a consulting firm specializing in urban retail. The consultants looked over the latest ELDI and city plans to revive East Liberty and declared them unachievable. “They told us unless we changed our strategy, we may put away our pencils and go home,” recalls Maelene Myers, ELDI’s executive director. They’d been too busy imagining what East Liberty should look like instead of observing what was going on in the street—how developers and customers and tenants behaved in the current market. “Test to the market” became ELDI’s new mantra, and it led to some new strategies.
The first was to stop trying to revive the historic core. Yes, it would be wonderful to restore the old YMCA and the Highland Building at the heart of East Liberty, but that’s not where the market was. The only thriving new businesses were at the periphery, where a Whole Foods supermarket and a Home Depot had recently opened. They’d been leery of coming to East Liberty, even with subsidies and other help from the city, but they’d been willing to locate at the edges, where it was bordered by the relatively affluent neighborhoods of Shadyside and Highland Park. Those spots felt safer and were nearer to the customers with the most money. The message from the market was to start at the strong edges and work gradually toward the weak core.
The other strategy emerged out of a tour of East Liberty with the retail consultants and a local developer. One of the consultants pointed at the 17-story housing project straddling Penn Avenue, the most notorious of the Crack Stacks. “What are you going to do about that?” he asked. He didn’t mean just the building, already slated for demolition. He meant crime.
“We realized that crime is a non-negotiable,” says ELDI’s deputy director, Skip Schwab. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re high-income or low-income, black or white, homeowner or renter, people don’t want to move into a neighborhood that is unsafe. So we focused on crime and did what most community groups do. We made 911 calls and met with the police zone commanders. We worked with the mayor to have increased patrols. We organized neighborhood block watches. None of it worked long-term.”
Finally, in 2008, they tried another approach. They’d noticed that crimes were occurring in and around the same places, typically a badly dilapidated house or apartment building. Using grants and loans, ELDI bought up the problem properties, installed new building managers, and hired off-duty police officers to patrol them.
It was a real-estate version of “hot-spot policing,” though the redevelopers at ELDI hadn’t yet heard of that concept, or the research behind it. Criminologists had found that most neighborhood crime is concentrated in a few locations, and that it isn’t easy for criminals to move elsewhere if police focus on those areas. Studies showed that this strategy could reduce crime not just at the hot spots but also in the surrounding area, and that’s just what happened in East Liberty. In the next four years, crime dropped nearly 50 percent.
The results provided grist for a new study demonstrating an additional benefit of hot-spot policing: higher property values. After falling or stagnating for decades, home prices in the neighborhood more than doubled during those four years that crime fell. The middle class was moving back, and so were businesses—starting at the edges, just as expected. A new Target opened, joining Trader Joe’s and a string of other stores and restaurants along the perimeter. The old Nabisco plant became Google’s new office in a development called Bakery Square, which expanded in 2012 to include a new office building and an apartment complex..
“By then, people weren’t afraid to come to East Liberty anymore,” says Todd Reidborg, who developed Bakery Square. It was finally safe enough to venture into the core, where he renovated the Highland Building; another developer turned the YMCA into the Ace Hotel. For once, the headlines about East Liberty’s comeback were right.
What can other cities learn from Pittsburgh’s renaissances? The first lesson is the one that Jane Jacobs saw early on: beware of master planners, especially when they’re spending other people’s money. The impulse to create a better city is admirable, but it works best when people are conducting small-scale voluntary experiments and when they’re using their own money, whether they’re profit-seeking developers or civic-minded philanthropists. The revival in East Liberty wouldn’t have happened without the private benefactors who paid to mitigate the damage done by public planners with the power of eminent domain. Their donations funded the nonprofit groups that renovated properties, made the streets safer, tore down the housing projects, and moved the tenants into smaller, new mixed-income developments that improved the neighborhood instead of scaring people away.
And the revival wouldn’t have been possible without the Mellons and other philanthropists and civic leaders who’d started the renaissance in the 1940s. Their master plan for downtown didn’t work out, but they learned from their failures, and their efforts yielded long-term dividends. Once it became clear that the cultural acropolis wasn’t going to arise, H. J. Heinz II created a home for the Pittsburgh Symphony by restoring a downtown movie palace. His family foundation bought and renovated properties nearby, turning a moribund section of downtown—with the street grid intact—into a bustling cultural district with restaurants, apartments, and a half-dozen theaters.
The city’s political leaders weren’t such quick learners. They supported and funded some of the neighborhood experiments, including Jacobs’s suggestion to revive the historic Market Square, a blighted area that the downtown business-improvement district has turned into a genuine version of an Italian piazza. But the politicians have retained a fondness for monumental plans. As Pittsburgh coped during the 1980s and 1990s with the collapse of the steel industry, its mayors led Renaissances II and III, making room for new downtown towers, a light-rail system, stadiums, a department store, and an expensive new convention center.
The towers kept corporate headquarters in town and made a new skyline, but the city was racking up debts on dubious projects. The new department store didn’t last. The light-rail system loses $10 per ride. The convention center was supposed to attract so many out-of-towners that a new hotel would be built next door, but the site has remained empty, and the deficit-ridden center is so desperate for business that groups are subsidized to use it rent-free.
Pittsburgh’s economic revival has come not from a master plan but from a combination of serendipity and philanthropy. The fracking revolution has generated jobs and revenue from western Pennsylvania’s natural gas field, the Marcellus Shale, and the eds-and-meds strategy of the Mellons and other civic leaders has paid off in ways that no one could have imagined. The University of Pittsburgh’s medical center has grown into the corporate health-care giant, UPMC, whose initials now adorn the skyscraper built for U.S. Steel during the first renaissance, and Pitt’s medical school has fostered a burgeoning industry in life-science research and technology.
As Carnegie Mellon’s computer-science department became a world leader in artificial intelligence and robotics, the West Coast’s tech companies—Google, Amazon, Apple, Intel, Disney, among others—sent researchers to its campus and then set up their own local offices to tap its talent. CMU’s early work on autonomous vehicles turned Pittsburgh into a hub for that research and made the university almost too popular for its own good. When Uber opened its center to develop a driverless car, it poached 40 of CMU’s scientists and engineers (at double their faculty salaries).
Uber set up shop on “Robo Row,” a string of robotics and other tech companies in what once was a down-and-out commercial area and blue-collar neighborhood near East Liberty. The area now boasts so many hipsters that it feels like Brooklyn. It’s home to firms started by CMU graduates like Sarjoun Skaff, a Lebanon native who came to study computer science and felt no need to head for Silicon Valley when he got his diploma. Instead, he started Bossa Nova, now a 200-employee company that builds and manages robots that roam Wal-Mart’s aisles, keeping track of inventory. “Pittsburgh is a great place to start a company, especially if you have an umbilical cord attached to CMU,” he says. “It’s got a critical mass of tech talent, and it’s still cheap enough that a graduate student can afford to buy a house. Plus you can drive anywhere in 15 minutes. Try that in the Bay Area.”
That’s Pittsburgh’s comparative advantage in the competition for tech talent: affordable city living. Kamal Nigam, head of Google’s Pittsburgh office, says it’s not hard to recruit talented workers from Silicon Valley and the rest of the world, especially if they have young children. “We get a steady stream of people from California who would like an easy commute and a house that’s bigger than a garage,” he says. “Pittsburgh is basically the best small city in the country. You’ve got the cultural institutions of a much larger city and great neighborhoods where you can walk to work or to the movies or a bookstore.”
Tech workers now make up a quarter of the workforce and collect a third of the wages in the region, and they’re providing a much-needed demographic shift. The previous exodus of young adults left the city with an exceptionally old population that shrank rapidly for decades. It still has more deaths than births, but the population has stabilized in the past decade because of the influx of young workers. Besides lowering the median age, they’ve brought intellectual capital. Pittsburgh's millennials are about as well-educated as Seattle’s or Austin’s, and the foreign-born population, while small, is the most highly educated of any metro area in the country.
Pittsburgh is attracting professionals of all ages who crave an urban experience, the kind flocking to New York and San Francisco for Jacobs-style neighborhoods. The good news is that they can now find that in East Liberty.
The bad news is that they’ve brought their progressive politics with them, which means they still don’t understand Jane Jacobs’s message. And that brings us to the second lesson from Pittsburgh’s renaissances: the master planners never go away—they just change tactics.
I saw this one recent afternoon at the Whole Foods in East Liberty, now so successful that it needs a bigger store to handle the crowds. It was planning to move to an empty block nearer the core of the shopping district, just the sort of development welcomed by ELDI’s planners. But because the block’s owner had torn down his old apartment buildings to make room for the store, the move had become a cause célèbre for anti-gentrification activists. They’d lost their court fight, but they were still trying to stop the relocation by embarrassing Whole Foods and threatening to boycott the new store.
Two dozen of them had shown up this afternoon at a weekly rally for “housing justice” and a protest march through the organic-produce section. Only one of the protesters had lived at the former apartment complex, and he was the only one with a coherent agenda: a payoff. Though he had already collected a relocation fee from the block’s owner and long since found another apartment nearby, he wanted to extract more money from the owner or from Whole Foods.
As the token former tenant, he gave the other protesters a pretext to vent at capitalism and gentrification. They were obviously too young to have any idea what the pre-gentrified East Liberty had been like—they looked as if they’d just graduated from Oberlin and were desperate for a new cause. One speaker at the rally, the head of the Pittsburgh chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, told me that she’d grown up in Connecticut and moved to Pittsburgh only a year earlier—and, no, she didn’t live in East Liberty herself, and she didn’t know about the decades its residents were desperate for any kind of store to move in anywhere, but she was sure that this one particular empty block needed “affordable housing,” rather than a supermarket.
Dedicated progressives always know what’s best for a city. In the 1950s, they were sure that poor neighborhoods could be saved only by demolishing them and erecting towers; today, they fight to prevent neighborhoods from any kind of change that doesn’t satisfy their idea of social justice. They revere Jane Jacobs for fighting Robert Moses, but they don’t realize that she would be appalled at their anti-gentrification efforts. Jacobs didn’t want neighborhoods to be static. She loved the way they evolved to meet people’s ever-changing needs, guided by market forces rather than planners’ visions.
In East Liberty’s heyday a century ago, market forces provided a wide range of housing options without the guidance of activists. It still has a high percentage of affordable housing, and there’s plenty more in nearby neighborhoods. The anti-gentrification movement is misguided everywhere, but it’s especially absurd in a city that has lost half its population. Pittsburgh has such a glut of cheap housing that the city owns 17,000 vacant homes and lots.
But the city’s voters—especially those new arrivals—have elected a mayor and city council committed to the full progressive agenda. Mayor Bill Peduto is a friend and admirer of Bill de Blasio, and he’s importing the same policies that have made New York so expensive. Pittsburgh is planning to introduce “inclusionary zoning” around Robo Row, forcing apartment developers to set aside 10 percent of their units for low-income tenants paying below-market rents, and Peduto hopes to extend it to East Liberty and other popular neighborhoods. Peduto has also proposed a progressive checklist of requirements for future real-estate projects. It’s called P4, which stands for People, Place, Planet, Performance. “It’s not the Adam Smith supply-and-demand model,” he explained to me. “It is a quadruple- bottom-line model.”
Developers in New York are accustomed to this sort of red tape, and they can charge high enough rents in Manhattan to afford it. But Pittsburgh doesn’t have New York’s money, and it will lose its comparative advantage if it drives up the costs of doing business. Developers in East Liberty already have a hard-enough time financing projects, contending with the vagaries not only of the market but also of the existing zoning-approval process, which can drag on for years.
The last thing they need is the new set of hurdles called “P4 performance measures.” To get a project approved, they’ll need to demonstrate that it “generates wealth and ownership positions for disadvantaged populations,” while reducing “climate impacts by improving building performance and providing renewable resources.” And those aren’t even the vaguest of the dozen metrics. The project must also “advance and foster new ideas to drive market leadership and stimulate creative solutions to complex challenges,” which seems an awful lot to ask of an apartment building.
Will this new master plan be enough to choke the city’s revival? The Pittsburgher in me hopes for the best. Perhaps developers will find ways to deal with it (like increasing campaign contributions). Perhaps the plan will be discarded before it’s too late. But if people start fleeing East Liberty once again, we can all rest assured of one thing: Pittsburgh will get to work on another renaissance.
Photo: Once deserted, the old Nabisco building on the edge of East Liberty now flies a Google flag over an office employing more than 600 techies, part of a development called Bakery Square. (RUSSELL KORD/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)