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Pittsburgh’s Latest Comeback

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Pittsburgh’s Latest Comeback

10 Blocks podcast September 25, 2019
Cities
Economy, finance, and budgets

John Tierney joins City Journal assistant editor Charles McElwee to discuss Pittsburgh’s recent resurgence.

“If you want to see how to revive a city—and how not to,” John Tierney writes, “go to Pittsburgh.” Pittsburgh has transformed itself from the Steel City to western Pennsylvania’s hub of “eds” and “meds.” But before that could happen, the city nearly destroyed itself under various misguided urban plans dating back to the 1950s.

Tierney’s essay, “A Renaissance Runs Through It,” appears in City Journal’s Summer 2019 issue; an adapted version was published in the Wall Street Journal.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal.

Coming up on the show today, City Journal’s assistant editor, Charles McElwee, will interview contributing editor John Tierney about John’s latest essay for the magazine called “A Renaissance Runs Through It: What Pittsburgh’s latest comeback tells us about urban revitalization.”

Both Charles and John are natives of Pennsylvania, and they’re excited to talk about their beloved home state and one of its big cities on the podcast.

John’s essay was recently adapted in The Wall Street Journal, and we’ll link to both the long piece and the adaptation in the description.

One announcement before we get started: City Journal readers will be happy to know that we are in the middle of production of the Autumn 2019 Issue. We have a super strong line-up for the issue, including a powerful essay by Heather Mac Donald on homelessness and crime in San Francisco, Kay Hymowitz on a remarkable trade school just outside Philadelphia, Eric Kober on Long Island City after Amazon, among much else.

That’s it for me. The conversation between Charles McElwee and John Tierney begins after this.

Charles McElwee: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is your host for this episode, Charles McElwee, assistant editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is John Tierney. John is a contributing editor at City Journal, and the contributing science columnist for the New York Times, where he was a reporter for many years. You can also follow him on Twitter @JohnTierneyNYC. John is here to discuss his latest piece, which appears in the summer 2019 issue of City Journal, "A Renaissance Runs Through It." It's an essay about Pittsburgh's history of rebirths and urban planning. The essay explores Pittsburgh's latest comeback and what it means for other cities. John, welcome back to the podcast.

John Tierney: Thanks, Charles.

Charles McElwee: John, in addition to us both being affiliated with City Journal, we're both native Pennsylvanians. You grew up in Pittsburgh; I grew up over three hours east in Hershey. But your childhood was in the East Liberty neighborhood and, remarkably— you point this out in the essay— East Liberty once had the largest business district in Pennsylvania behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. What led to the neighborhood's decline and what were the historical forces behind it?

John Tierney: Well, it had been the third-busiest retail district after the downtowns, but after World War II, people started shopping in the suburbs. In fact, some of the first malls were outside Pittsburgh, the Miracle Mile there. So, they were losing business, and of course people were moving to the suburbs for new homes too; Pittsburgh was losing population in the '50s, and the merchants thought 'what can we do about this? We're losing people, we're losing customers.' So, this was the era for master planning, for great urban renewal, and they went to the city and said, 'we'd like to compete with the suburbs.' So, the brilliant idea that they had was, 'well, if they're going to the suburbs, we'll turn East Liberty into an outdoor mall.' It seemed like a good idea at the time— and I have to say, I was there and I worked in a drug store in East Liberty, and the master plans are kind of gleaming things, so up-to-date and modern, and it seemed to me like a good idea. The owners of the drug store hated it. They said, 'what are they doing? They're closing the streets, turning it in into a pedestrian mall. They're rerouting traffic; they did this little mini beltway around the whole thing. And it was the largest urban renewal— it was more than 250 acres.

Charles McElwee: Your statistics are remarkable. 1,200 homes forced out, 4,000 residents displaced, nearly 600 businesses. And really, what resulted was drug dealers and crime replaced the middle class families and retail. Correct?

John Tierney: Exactly. Now, it was amazing to see what happened, because they had these pedestrian malls and we had these visions that, 'oh, it would be this wonderful urban thing, like an Italian piazza.' They actually had a sculpture called "Joy of Life." The sculptor had the idea that this would have that street life, which is a wonderful vision. But, as I say in the City Journal article, those dancers they had in this "Joy of Life" would look lonelier and lonelier as it went on, because the place was just so empty. People couldn't figure out how to get where they were going; they changed the streets. The pedestrian mall, once the cars were gone, the place felt so empty. It looked emptier than ever. And it started feeling scary at night, because you were just out in this big space. And as part of this redevelopment, they cleared dozens of blocks of buildings. They got rid of some historic things; they rerouted the streets and put in big parking lots. And because there was a lot of federal money for housing, they put in three high-rise housing projects, 16, 17 stories.

Charles McElwee: So, before all this happened, it appeared that redevelopment was fashionable in this city long before other cities. You talk about in 1943 the corporate establishment met at the William Penn Hotel downtown. Members of the Mellon family were there, and they were talking about the city's future. So, the the initial renaissance: did that work? Was it ahead of its time? What happened in between that initial renaissance, when Time Magazine had Richard Mellon on the cover, and when Jane Jacobs arrived in the early '60s and said that Pittsburgh was a city being rebuilt by city haters?

John Tierney: Well, Pittsburgh was a great pioneer in renaissances. It was called The Smoky City. And what was, Richard King Mellon, one of the 10 richest people in the country— three other Mellons were also on that list, and they controlled much of the Pittsburgh economy through loans and stock holdings. There are various legends as to what happened. One is that his wife just said to him, 'I can't live in Pittsburgh.' But they also realized, these corporate leaders, that they couldn't get people to come to Pittsburgh to work because either the guys— it was mostly guys at that time— didn't want to come or their wives refused to come, so they thought 'we have to clean up the air,' because it was famous then that you had to change your shirts once or twice a day because it got so filthy from the air and the rivers were polluted. So, it was partly out of self interest— 'do we want to be able to recruit people?'— and a lot of civic pride too. I think the people wanted to make it a better city. So, Time Magazine called it an experiment in a new and wiser capitalism, and the idea was that these industrial titans all got together at the William Penn Hotel, and they couldn't say no to Mellon, and they basically said, 'we're going to lobby for regulations that are going to cost our businesses a lot of money. We're going to put all these new soot and smoke controls, we're going to clean up the water.' The Pennsylvania Railroad didn't like it because they had coal-burning locomotives and they also hauled a lot of coal, and the story is that Mellon called up the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and said, 'the Mellon Enterprises can ship our stuff on other railroads.

Charles McElwee: And you paint a contrast between two urban renewal examples, one that worked and the other did not: The Golden Triangle, then Mellon Square. So, what worked in Mellon Square that didn't work at the point?

John Tierney: Well, Mellon Square was this block that was mostly a parking lot, and the Mellon Foundation put up their own money and paid to buy up those buildings, and then to build this. It was one of the first city plazas with a parking garage underground. They moved it there, and they put a plaza there. It was right in the middle of downtown; it was an appealing plaza, and you had to walk up some steps to get to it. And Jane Jacobs, when she first was writing about cities in the 1950s— her seminal essay, really, was in 1957— she had been covering Pittsburgh. It was a big leader; it started in the '40s, and then other cities started going along too. And she had been writing about them, thinking 'oh, this is great. It all sounds like a great plan to clean up cities.' But she started noticing how dead some of these places were. And she noticed in Pittsburgh that people were going to Mellon Square. It was right in the street grid; they would go out there for lunch. But meanwhile, down at the point— that's the place where the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers meet to form the Ohio— they cleared, about 59 acres down there. And there were some run-down buildings— there was an old train terminal, and they put in a park with the fountain— the one you see when you see the Steeler games on TV, you see the Golden Triangle. And it did make for great photographs from the air, from Mount Washington right across the river. So, some of the stuff really worked in the first renaissance: cleaning the air, cleaning the water, getting a park. But even the park— I have to say, I worked at the Pittsburgh Press, which is one of the few buildings that remained anywhere near that. They tore everything else down. The press was just sitting there, right across the street from the park. I think I went into it maybe twice; nobody ever went into it. It was this big, beautiful, empty park.

Charles McElwee: Lonely space.

John Tierney: Yeah. There was a fountain there, and—

Charles McElwee: —the Hilton Hotel.

John Tierney: Yeah, but it was very dead around there. You would turn the other direction when you left the building. So, even then I had the feeling 'it looks nice, but it's not very lively.' And as part of that whole development, they built this Gateway Center, which were these towers in the park— that the reigning architectural ideal, that you had high-rises surrounded by greenery— and there was the Hilton hotel, there were corporate towers and apartments, and they had an underground mall. And it looked great, but Jane Jacobs realized nobody wants to go there. She was saying Pittsburghers will walk up these steps to go to Mellon Square, but they won't cross the street to go into Gateway Center. And that's where she started getting some of her ideas for this essay she wrote called "Downtown is for People." But I think because Pittsburgh was one of the first, it was seen that this master planning and the towers in the park, it's not really how people liked their cities to be.

Charles McElwee: Right. Well intentioned but ill advise. So, fast forward, by the 1980s, the steel industry had collapsed, Pittsburgh was really falling apart, shedding population. It's remarkable to think that the city once had over 670,000 people. But we look to the East Liberty neighborhood, and it's now ridden with crime blight, all the signs of economic decline. So, by the early 2000s, we were looking at another renaissance with the formation of the East Liberty Development Incorporation. What decisions were made about 20 years ago that were different from earlier eras? What was unfolding?

John Tierney: Well, people had learned by this time, thanks to Jane Jacobs and others, and just by being there that simply raising cities and putting up these master plans with towers didn't make for a neighborhood people wanted to be in. Besides East Liberty, they had also torn down a big section of the Hill District, the famous black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and displaced people there. They had this idea there would be a cultural acropolis up on the hill where the civic arena was. And it just became mired in parking lots. And Jane Jacobs knew that wasn't going to work either. So, by 2000— and they had seen what happened to East Liberty; the Pittsburgh Post Gazette had a headline in 2000. They did a great series of articles in 2000 looking at these renewals, and the headline was "The Land That Retail Forgot." At the drugstore where I worked, there was a fire of mysterious origin in the building, although as I say, maybe not so mysterious because everybody was just clearing out. So, this neighborhood group, the Chamber of Commerce, started. It was a nonprofit group, and their mission was they started trying to redevelop some of the historic buildings there. And they bought some up; they tried to get developers and tenants to come in. They succeeded in getting cars back on the street— forget those dread pedestrian malls. It made it easier for shoppers to get there, it gave some life to the streets. But they were having a hard time because they still had that idea that we should work on these beautiful buildings at the center. There's a beautiful Gothic church there that the Mellons built; there was the Highland Building, which was just a beautiful old high-rise, and that had been empty for 10 or 15 years— the architect Daniel Burnham had built that. And they wanted to revive these things— the old YMCA was kind of a nice old classic building, and it all was empty— but it was just hard to get anyone to go in. People were afraid of crime, and nobody wanted to be in the middle of this dead area. So what they realized, with the help of some consultants, was, don't try to remake the whole area. Let's just try to start at the edges, because there are some neighborhoods next to it: Highland Park— that's where I lived— and Shadyside, which were relatively affluent neighborhoods. So, they got Home Depot and Whole Foods to locate right there, and it started to feel like they were inching into East Liberty, and you could get people to do that. And that was working somewhat. But they also realized 'we've got to do something about crime.' So, ELDI worked with other nonprofit groups, and they, and they managed to tear down these subsidized high rises, which, by the '90s, there was so much drug dealing and crime going on that the police refer to these high rises as the "Crack Stacks." As a kid, when I walked home from grade school, we'd all walk through East Liberty on our way home and it was fine, but by the time I'd grown up, parents wouldn't let their kids go through— especially at night, people were afraid. So they wanted to fight crime, and tearing down the housing projects and moving people into mixed income developments, there's some really nice new ones there that look great; they're well maintained. And that worked some, but they noticed on their own— they had never heard of a theory called hot spot policing— but they had noticed that crimes kept happening in the same places. They had no idea about criminologist research into this, but criminologists had found that something like 50% of crimes happen in 3% of the area in a neighborhood. So, they had noticed this and thought 'well, why don't we just buy up these places?' Because it was usually a dilapidated apartment building or house that had fallen apart so much that the owner had ceased caring about it, and the only people who would rent it basically were people who wanted an owner who wasn't around so they could be conducting their drug business, or whatever. So, they bought these up and they hired new property managers, and the most important thing was that they hired off-duty police officers to start patrolling them. And, as I said, before this, they had tried all the usual things. They had neighborhood watches, they called 911, they met with the precinct.

Charles McElwee: It didn't work?

John Tierney: It would work for a little bit. The precinct would send up more people. But the only thing that worked was when they actually did this version of what criminologists call hot spot policing. This was like real estate hot spot policing; we'll buy up the problem areas and start patrolling them. And it had a dramatic impact. Within four years, crime dropped by about 50%.

Charles McElwee: That's remarkable. And to think that this neighborhood was improving while Pittsburgh was also on the rebound. So, Pittsburgh undergoes this economic revival, as you know, and you point out two things. It was really a result, a combination of serendipity and philanthropy. I guess the serendipity was the emergence of the Marcellus shale industry, relatef to fracking, in the early 2010s, and then the University of Pittsburgh medical system really took off. Just last year I remember reading the CEO of UPMC controversially said he wants UPMC to be the Amazon of healthcare, and it has expanded statewide, even into my hometown. And UPMC now adorns the top of the former U.S. Steel Tower, once the tallest skyscraper in Pennsylvania.

John Tierney: Right. It's a great symbol, because it used to be U.S. Steel and now it's UPMC.

Charles McElwee: But what's very interesting about Pittsburgh is, it has benefited from this philanthropy for decades now. Even when the urban renewal efforts fizzled, the philanthropists remained invested in their hometown. Too often you see these cities where the philanthropists made their money off of the industries that created that wealth, and more often than not, they left town. I just think of my family's hometown of Hazelton, a bunch of founding families making money off the anthracite coal industry and ???D?D?D?D? University started foundations in New York and elsewhere and have left the region.

John Tierney: They took the money out of town.

Charles McElwee: They took the money out of town. But the Heinz family, the Mellons, people stay in Pittsburgh even more so than Philadelphia. What is behind that?

John Tierney: Well, some of them did flee. Andrew Carnegie moved to New York and Frick did too, although his daughter went back and her house is now a museum in Pittsburgh. But they did endow a lot of philanthropy in Pittsburgh; they had foundations. The Mellons and others gave very lavishly to the University of Pittsburgh, to its medical school, and they had their own institute that merged with what used to be Carnegie Tech; they renamed it Carnegie Mellon. This is now called the eds and meds: you give to schools and medicine, and they pioneered it. Part of the reason was that in the '40s, they realized that Pittsburgh might not have a steel industry someday. In fact, there were already signs that Pittsburgh's steel industry was not that competitive because there were changes in the way steel was being made. So they did have the foresight to think 'we've got to do something else.' And they also wanted to have good schools and things to attract people to the city, so they helped turn those schools and those medical facilities there. The Heinz family had originally done this master planning, 'we're going to raze this whole neighborhood and build a sort of Lincoln Center up on top of the hill and turn it into this Acropolis,' and that was a fiasco. So, what the Heinz Foundation started doing was, they bought this old theater, the Benedum Theater— in fact I worked there as an usher when I was in college. And it was funny because I remember that everybody would walk in after it was renovated and the reaction was always the same. They would say 'oh, it's so beautiful!' And the Pittsburgh symphony was playing there. So, that worked very well, and then they started buying up all these properties around that. And this had really been the red light district, or this really bad part of downtown, and it became this big cultural district with a half dozen theaters, with restaurants, apartments. And that was just done after the foundation bought up that property and fixed it up. So, the great thing about the philanthropy was that so much of it was unexpected. When the Mellons gave this money to CMU, they didn't realize that this computer science department would be this enormous economic driver, because that became one of the world leaders, if not the world leader in computer science.

Charles McElwee: So, it was really market forces rather than urban planning that that worked?

John Tierney: Right. Well, it happened in two ways. One is outside economic forces, and that Pittsburgh was ready to take advantage of this boom in the computer industry, because it was the place to go for robotics, for self-driving cars. They were doing the research for it. And also by this time, the good news was that they had stopped tearing down neighborhoods and putting up these ersatz suburbs, as Jane Jacobs called them. So, what happened was Google and Amazon, Intel, Disney, sent people and set up offices on the CMU campus, because they wanted to tap that computer science talent, and then they started outgrowing those offices. And Google was looking around for a place to go. And just about that time was when, in East Liberty, the crime had started coming down. Growing up, I played baseball right across the field from this Nabisco bakery. We used to smell the Ritz crackers and the vanilla wafers in the field. And it just sat empty for decades, well, at least 10 or 15 years, and these two brave developers at a company called Walnut Capital went in there and decided to turn it into an office building and a hotel. There had been no hotels in East Liberty in forever. And they did it, and Google moved into the building, and then they started building apartment buildings across the street. I still remember my mother calling me and saying, 'would you believe it? In those apartments across from Google, they're charging $3,000 for a two-bedroom apartment!' And if you know Pittsburgh real estate, you can't believe—

Charles McElwee: That's absurd.

John Tierney: It's absurd. Who would ever pay that?

Charles McElwee: Maybe in Sewickley, but not in Pittsburgh.

John Tierney: So really, East Liberty is a gentrified neighborhood now.

Charles McElwee: It's still gentrifying, actually. These stores started at the outside and they've been moving more and more in. And finally these historic buildings at the center, the Highland Building, where I used to go to the dentist, not long ago had four feet of water in the basement, it had been abandoned. Now they're running apartments for $3,000 a month too. And the old YMCA, which was closed— there used to just be homeless guys passed out on the sidewalk— there's now a valet parking attendant there; it's the Ace hotel, this very cool hotel. So that's happening. It still needs to come back some; it's not like Soho right now. But it's really coming back. Business is so good at the Whole Foods that they want a bigger place to move now, there's so many shoppers. So it's coming back.

Charles McElwee: But it is attracting the young and affluent, the young professionals. They're working at Google, they're shopping at Trader Joe's, they're running errands at Target. But, as you point out in the article, even though they're living there and embracing this gentrifying neighborhood, they're progressive and angry and resent that very gentrification. And the amusing part is, as we both know, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve recently released a paper that more or less concluded that gentrification is, in fact, a good thing. So what has been your takeaway from your encounters with some of those younger progressives in East Liberty?

John Tierney: Well, I was astounded, when I was back there, that Whole Foods wants to move to a bigger place near the heart of East Liberty. This was the kind of thing everybody in East Liberty was praying for, for decades. 'Could we please get a good store in here instead of everybody leaving?' And I was there, and there was a protest of about two dozen people against Whole Foods, saying 'we can't let them move into this place.' And I just thought it was insane. And none of the people there, or virtually none of them, were old enough to remember what East Liberty was like. They were just against gentrification, 'we want there to be affordable housing there instead.' And the two lessons from the articles that I drew were, one, that you should beware of master planners, especially ones who are spending tax dollars, because that's not how cities develop. They need to develop market forces organically. Not some guy draws a plan and makes a model of these towers in the park. But then the other lesson, I thought it's great that they've restored East Liberty to what it used to be. They got the cars back, the street grid, and it feels like an old fashioned neighborhood. But no sooner do they do that than there are people trying to stop it, and the lesson I took was that the master planners never really go away; they just change tactics. Because, in the 1950s progressives were sure the way to save cities was to bulldoze poor neighborhoods and put up housing projects. Slum clearance— that was the thing of the day. Well, that turned out to be horribly mistaken. Now they're against that and they revere Jane Jacobs because she fought against that. So, their idea is 'we're going to not let this neighborhood improve. We're going to just keep it the way it is. We're not going to allow any changes that don't comport with our idea of social justice.' And they don't realize that Jane Jacobs would be appalled at that. What she loved was the way neighborhoods changed. They have to evolve to people's changing needs, and they should be guided by market forces, not by master planners.

Charles McElwee: And that's an important and instructive lesson for other cities. So, Pittsburgh's mayor, Bill Peduto, seems to be following in the path of Bill de Blasio. Rather progressive, correct? Could he imperil the city's success, its continued renaissance, with the progressive policies that he supports?

John Tierney: Yes. When I sat down with him— he's a nice guy— he told me that Pittsburgh knows, from seeing what's happened in New York and in San Francisco, that the way to deal with housing is not to restrict the supply of it and that you want to encourage development. Believe me, housing is no problem in Pittsburgh. It's lost half its population. The city owns 17,000 properties, so there's no housing shortage in Pittsburgh. There's plenty of it. He said that he wants to encourage it, but he is a progressive. The city council is very progressive, so they're adopting all these progressive wish lists. They're about to start doing inclusionary zoning, which forces developers that 10% of your units have to be set aside, and it just drives up the cost of developing and makes it harder to build new stuff and to renovate things if you have to do that. And then, they've also drawn up this progressive checklist called "p4: People, Place, Planet & Performance." It's 12 things that a project has to do: it has to improve the climate, it has to minimize climate impacts, and has to give ownership positions to underprivileged populations. It's all these new things, all this new paperwork you have to do to do a project. And, as I say in the article, Manhattan developers— Bill de Blasio imposes this kind of stuff here and, and you can afford to do that because there's so much money in Manhattan that you can charge enough. Of course, we also have a terrible housing shortage.

Charles McElwee: Right.

John Tierney: But Pittsburgh just doesn't have that kind of money. And even though East Liberty has made this great comeback, it's still very hard to build new stuff there, because there isn't that much money in Pittsburgh and it's hard to make the numbers work, and you're suddenly adding new obstacles.

Charles McElwee: Well, John, thank you very much for being here today. I enjoyed this conversation and I hope that the young who live in East Liberty— as you write in the piece, they look like they just graduated from Oberlin and are desperate for a new cause.

John Tierney: I hope they find something.

Charles McElwee: I hope they read your essay.

John Tierney: Thank you.

Charles McElwee: Thank you, John. Don't forget to check out John Tierney's essay, "A Renaissance Runs Through It." It's on our website, www.city-journal.org. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnTierneyNYC. We'd also love to hear your comments about the interview today on Twitter @CityJournal, and if you liked the show and would like to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks again for listening and thank you, John.

John Tierney: Thank you, Charles.

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