hill district

Pittsburgh: Progress and Potholes

NOTE: While the city of Pittsburgh will be a frequent topic for this blog, this is the final post in this initial four-part series on Pittsburgh.

My initial posts about Pittsburgh may strike a casual reader as needlessly critical. (In my defense, it’s kind of the old, traditional Pittsburgh way to offer unsolicited advice, to friend or stranger, about their problems and potential solutions!)

So let me be clear: I love Pittsburgh. And I don’t want it to be the “new” anywhere.

For most of the time I lived in the proper “city” as an adult, I lived in Lawrenceville. In the early 2000s, Lawrenceville was on the precipice of something. Many of us could see it and feel it.

At the time, I was paying $300 rent in a building that likely wouldn’t pass fire code today, and our sidewalk was filled with broken glass and prostitutes, sometimes simultaneously. The same streets today are filled with vibrant shops, nice living spaces and a lot of people.

The transformation of Lawrenceville astonishes me, and makes me so happy. And more importantly, I don’t think L’ville lost any of its essential Pittsburgh qualities in its transformation. Hell, it launched Sharon Needles and a spooky, Terminal Stare-style drag queen is about as Pittsburgh as you can get!

On my recent visit home I saw a lot of encouraging signs, and I’ve read a lot of great stories about the continued evolution. Years ago, when I worked in retail downtown, I remember sections of streets near Forbes and Wood being so desolate during the day that it was not unusual (well, odd but not uncommon) to see a homeless person defecating on the street.

But there’s a definite renaissance happening with many buildings and spaces downtown, and it’s not just the tall skyscrapers owned by PNC. It’s smaller spaces, like the ones outlined in this article. (The comment section in that article? Interesting discussion.)

Another Post-Gazette article profiled an interesting mixture of “old” and “new” Pittsburgh – food carts and pierogies! (Again, interesting comment section.)

The things that are working, the positive parts of Pittsburgh’s evolution, are led by people who understand that the city doesn’t need a “reinvention” as much as it needs ideas for repurposing, or re-using, the resources it already has in its wheelhouse.

I know Pittsburgh is a collection of neighborhoods, but for a suburban boy like me, downtown Pittsburgh is the crown jewel, and I worry about its future and the plans for its use.

Mistakes have been made, and not all of them have been as far back in the rearview mirror as, say, the Penn Circle urban renewal debacle or the plans for the (now demolished) Civic Arena that tore apart the Hill District

The space developed in downtown Pittsburgh is greater than what a smaller, more streamlined 21st century ‘Burgh needs.

Yet there’s still suggestions that we need to fill the empty space with more office space, or more retail, despite the high profile failures of the downtown Lazarus project  (subsidized, in part, by the city of Pittsburgh) and the Lord & Taylor debacle – where a historical building was torn asunder for a department store that (a) was a carbon copy of the store next door and (b) closed soon after it opened its doors.

I’m hoping that more progress is made in re-imagining what can be for the city, but it will take a continued commitment to new ideas and new sized solutions. Pittsburgh can’t continue to party like it’s 1949. We need more progressive ideas, and less cheap fixes that just turn into potholes. There are enough of those in Pittsburgh.

END NOTE: Full disclosure – I’ve mentioned PNC in this blog a few times. I worked for them for several years. I have nothing but positive things to say about them as an employer and a company.

However, it concerns me a little that so much of in the city is being built on their shoulders. Depending on one company, or one industry, to turn the wheels in the city is a mistake Pittsburgh made in the past – and one it should avoid in the future.