A Short Counter-History of Pittsburgh Urban Renewal

Until a small group of local activists raised a fuss over East Liberty’s development rampage, the media and city government applauded the reshaping of the East End as a model of progress. They were helped with this cheerleading by Federal officials, academics, and, of course, the developers who stood to gain the most.

But neighborhood busting and development frenzies are nothing new to Pittsburgh. The city’s elders—corporate leaders, political dynasties, foundation bosses, etc.—have persistently felt the urge to make Pittsburgh something that it’s not. The old industrial image of smoke-belching factories, of Manchester on the Ohio, proved embarrassing to the area’s insecure nouveau riche. They, instead, wholeheartedly wished for Pittsburgh to become the Paris of Appalachia.

The post-War Renaissance I was such an effort. While it created a larger, more impressive downtown area, it did so by driving low income residents out of the city and destroying a once functional lower Hill area, with consequences reverberating through other city neighborhoods for years to come.

The Caliguiri-era Renaissance II coincided with the steel industry, unceremoniously and with no remorse and little local resistance, walking away from the area’s river valleys. The local economy  and employment were devastated as a consequence. Mayor Caliguiri famously invoked a succinct solution for unemployment: leave!

But his administration pioneered a now long-standing tradition of throwing money, tax breaks, and other resources at the feet of corporations to motivate development. The corporation heads were gladly shedding risk by gleefully taking public money (“Public Private Partnerships”) to remain or build in the city. At the same time, they were enjoying a drink at their private club with real estate moguls just as determined to drive whites living in Pittsburgh to the suburbs and exurbs by stoking race fears.

The tax avoiding mega-nonprofit, The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, came into being on his watch, grinding up “undesirable” small businesses and swallowing up downtown real estate.

The public-private love fest continued, reaching an apogee in the Murphy administration. Seduced by the neo-liberal lyrics of the Urban Land Institute (he later became their senior fellow), Murphy never met a development project that he didn’t like. Estimates range as high as $4 billion invested during his tenure, with far too much coming from public funds. Stadia, a convention center redo, and downtown retail stores were all part of the Murphy legacy. While he was determined to lure the suburbanites downtown, his spending ran well ahead of his resources and he left the city on the verge of bankruptcy—and most of his downtown retail projects are closed now. Murphy’s rather sleazy answer to white flight was to sneak to Harrisburg and ask the legislators to allow the re-segregation of Pittsburgh’s public schools. A fight with the neighborhood-school Nazis ensued.

The Peduto administration thus follows a long line of local elites who promise to create a new Pittsburgh, a Pittsburgh attractive to the right kind of people, free of urban fear, and filled with hip amenities. Unspoken in this scheme is the truth that “the right kind of people” are overwhelmingly white, upper-middle and upper income, and scared senseless of poor and colored peoples.

The amoeba-like spread of Googletown through East Liberty, the rush by developers, property owners, and realty companies to push out undesirables and build luxury, high-end residentials and fashionable services are one element of the new Pittsburgh.

As with nearly every administration, the neighborhoods, the elderly, the challenged, the poor, the minorities are either neglected or ground up by these grand schemes.

Even public parks are for sale in the latest chapter of appeasing the developers! The mayor is offering the 2.5 acre park near Gumberg’s proposed re-use of moderate income residential property so that the developer can satisfy the city’s open space requirements in his new luxury venture. Push out the low-income, acquire a park at “market rate”—market rate of public parks?—and wait for the profits to roll in.

Of course some might say that there must be collateral damage in order to guarantee growth.

But urban neglect and stagnation contest urban renewal:

  •  Population growth in the region and city is stagnant. Some come, some leave, some die.
  • In March, WalletHub released a study that placed Pittsburgh 227th out of 230 cities in terms of diversity. The categories employed in the survey were household income, education, race, ethnicity, language, and original birthplace.
  • Also, in March, local think tanks published a study of regional workforce diversity. The results were equally bleak with Pittsburgh finishing last out of 15 based on workplace participation.
  • The Pittsburgh Regional Alliance announced in April that business development deals were down 10% in the region. Job creation was down 22%. And capital investment in the region was down by $100 million over the prior year. And this with the fracking mania!
  • In May, the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force announced that the city needed 21,000 affordable homes to meet the needs of residents making less than $24,000 with a family of four, a fact that the Mayor apparently forgot until activists brought it again to his attention in September.
  • In June, the Kaufman index ranked Pittsburgh (for the second year in a row) dead last in start up activity out of 40 cities. Pittsburgh ranked 39th in producing new entrepreneurs. The “opportunity share of new entrepreneurs” and start up density were also ranked 39th.
  • Also in June, the Brookings Institute reported that 27.9% of Pittsburgh’s households had incomes ($21,434 or less) that put them in the bottom 20% of all households in the US.
  • Drastically limiting the city’s ability to fund schools and other services is the extraordinary abuse of non-profit status resulting in nearly 40% of property going untaxed.
  • Equally unfair is the marked under taxing of city properties in wealthy, upscale neighborhoods (and the concomitant over taxing of the city’s poorer neighborhoods). A 2012 study by the Post-Gazette showed that residents in Knoxville (where the average home sold for $16,538) were assessed for taxes at a rate 177% over the average sale value. At the same time, residents of Shadyside (where the average house sold at $304,632) were assessed at a rate 21% below the average sale value.
  • The non-residents who enjoy employment and the city’s many amenities bear far less of the burden associated with providing those jobs and services.

Whose Pittsburgh?

Greg Godels


2 thoughts on “A Short Counter-History of Pittsburgh Urban Renewal

  1. Thanks for excellent overview of the consistent inequitable development strategy led by Pittsburghs elite.
    It’s time for the rest of us to fight back.


  2. Greg- There is currently a Land Grab that the City of Pgh is attempting that’s occurring in my neighborhood- The Run. Namely the proposed “Oakland connector” road from The Hollow into The Run to “Sweeten the Deal” for as-yet-to-be-named Almono site developers. I’d like to converse with you about it if possible ASAP. This is a time sensitive issue and the more info we have, (and you seem to possess a great deal of info), the more we’ll be able to successfully stop it from happening. Thanks in advance… Ray Gerard- gerardproductions@gmail.com
    Some background:



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