Pittsburgh and its people have pioneered a lot of important stuff over the years.
Industrialism and post-industrialism are its major historical innovations.
The city’s fortunes — and population — rose and fell precipitously with the rise and fall of manufacturing and steel from the late 1800s until the 1960s, when the heavy industries that once provided one in four Pittsburghers with some of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in the world began turning to rust.
Unfortunately for its poor and black residents, the city of Pittsburgh also pioneered urban renewal.
After World War II the poor, blighted but bustling Hill District — a downtown residential and commercial urban neighborhood of about 40,000 blacks and 10,000 whites — was targeted by City Hall’s Democrat machine and their corporate big-wig friends for redevelopment.
Using “free” federal money and enabled by federal housing laws, and merrily abusing their powers of eminent domain, the city’s all-white public and private power brokers made the Lower Hill District — an integrated neighborhood nicknamed “Little Harlem” and renowned for its nationally famous jazz clubs and ballrooms — one of their first victims.
No one white with political power or moral clout questioned the “renewal” project, which would wipe out a thriving jazz scene and nearly 2,000 residences on the Hill and replace it with a cultural center for light opera called the Civic Arena. Nor did anyone of importance defend the Hill’s humans, churches and synagogues, black businesses or its property owners, many of whom were slimy absentee slumlords. The city’s three major white newspapers were racially and morally tone deaf. They cheered what they and everyone else who counted agreed was the march of civic “progress.”
The clear-cutting of the Hill was part of what was dubbed by City Hall and the Downtown chamber of commerce crowd as “Renaissance I.” But what was done to about a hundred acres of organic city life was both a tragedy and a government hate crime, an act of arrogance and stupidity planned and perpetrated by the white Democratic politicians who ran the city.
Not that I’m bitter, but I’ve always wished someone would hold an Urban War Crimes Tribunal in Pittsburgh and bring some of the government planners responsible for the destruction of the Hill, the North Side and East Liberty to trial. The guilty are long dead, but at a minimum their
reputations should be permanently stained with an honest historical marker on the Hill near ground zero of the redevelopment atom bomb they dropped on innocent and defenseless people.
The pre-bulldozed Hill District — its rich jazz culture and legal and illegal businesses like the mighty Pittsburgh Courier and the lucrative numbers racket — plays an important part in my book 30 Days a Black Man, which tells the story of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette super-journalist Ray Sprigle’s undercover mission into the Jim Crow South in 1948.
As part of my mission in life to bring shame to those who deserve it, I made sure to mention the destruction of the Lower Hill in my book.
Here’s part of what I wrote:
The white papers didn’t care about the Hill District’s present or its
future. In 1947 city hall was quietly making plans to raze and redevelop Pittsburgh’s worst slums, which meant bulldozers and wrecking balls were coming for the unsuspecting people living in the city’s poor and politically defenseless neighborhoods. The Hill was the planners’ first target and the white newspapers were enthusiastic propagandists and cheerleaders in the brutal crusade for civic progress and urban renewal. To the square white men who made the important decisions in town—the entrenched Democratic Party machine, zillionaire businessman Richard King Mellon, and a handful of lesser Republican corporate honchos, boosters, and newspapermen—the Hill was not hip or culturally exciting. It was not a self-reliant community of hustling people, black and white, who needed to be given a helping hand by government or have their lives improved with new jobs or better housing. It was a cancerous slum that threatened the future growth, health, and beauty of their cosmetically challenged city. Pittsburgh’s powerbrokers had plans for a new cultural center for rich white people like themselves and a dozen identical upscale apartment towers. Within a decade a hundred acres of the Lower Hill would be clear-cut to the sidewalks and thousands of people who called it home, most of them poor and black, would be gone without a trace.