Oakland Bridges: The Hollows

Oakland is a cluster of Pittsburgh neighborhoods east of downtown. It has the highest concentration of institutions and cultural amenities in the city. It is home to Carlow College, the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), multiple UPMC hospitals, the Phipps Conservatory (Phipps), Schenley Park (the second largest city park), and the Carnegie Institute complex (housing the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the main Carnegie Library, and the Carnegie Music Hall). Most of these as well as much of the commercial and residential parts of Oakland were built on a shelf. The hospitals, part of Pitt, and some houses climb the slope toward the Hill District. Some houses also spill over the edge of the shelf, down into the hollows.

Several bridges span the Junction and Panther hollows in Oakland. The Forbes Avenue bridge connects CMU to the Carnegie Institute complex and one of the commercial districts. The Schenley Bridge connects Pitt and the Carnegie Institute complex to the Phipps and Schenley Park. The Panther Hollow Bridge spans a second hollow to connect the Phipps with the rest of Schenley Park. The Charles Anderson Memorial Bridge carries the Blvd of the Allies over Junction Hollow. A fifth bridge without pedestrian access carries 376 over the hollow. This bridge can be partially glimpsed from the Anderson Bridge, but its presence can be clearly marked by the traffic’s rushing whoosh that carries up the hollow.

By the Forbes Ave and Schenley bridges, Junction Hollow has an industrial feel. The railroad is mostly exposed at these points (further down it is surrounded by trees, shrubs, and other overgrowth). There are also several parking lots and CMU houses some of its facilities functions along the hollow. By the Schenley Bridge, a massive electrical substation was recently constructed across from the historic (and active) steam factory.

The Panther Hollow Bridge provides a completely different feel as its hollow is 100% park. It is the only one of these bridges that does not cross over the railroad and is therefore the only one without a cage. A small lake with walking trail is visible on one side (with the railroad beyond a row of weeds). The other side overlooks a forested hillside and valley floor. Hawks and/or falcons can often be seen gliding over this hollow.

The Anderson Bridge overlooks Junction Hollow at its most parklike point, but it has a less peaceful feel than the Panther Bridge. A combination of the almost-highway Blvd of the Allies, the bridge’s height above the hollow, and its pedestrian fence make the bridge feel isolated from nature when walking across.

Street Trees: Alive or Dead

Street trees have a tough life. Between extensive pruning away from power, cable, and internet lines, baking in the radiant heat from the surrounding pavement, and (in winter climates) runoff from salt or sand, it is amazing any survive. Yet in some neighborhoods street trees are thriving while in others they are non-existent or barely hanging on.

Street trees first appeared in US cities in the 1840s and 1850s as part of a growing interest in landscape architecture. However, they soon encountered challenges. Fire insurance companies banned street trees in towns that relied on bucket brigades as the trees helped spread fires that decimated swaths of towns. Then, the street trees worst nemesis arrived – the overhead lines. First telephone companies then power companies pruned trees away from their lines. John R. Stilgoe in Outside Lies Magic notes that the resultant loss of street trees created a “nationwide uproar” by 1920. One hundred years later, this conflict between wires and trees is still unresolved.

As I traveled around Pittsburgh this spring and summer, I noticed that some neighborhoods seem to have found a way to maintain both old, large canopy street trees and overhead lines. Other neighborhoods appear to struggle to establish and maintain even understory or decorative trees. The pattern of where street trees are thriving versus where they aren’t appears to match the wealth of the neighborhood.

I first noticed this pattern as a child, though I couldn’t articulate it as such at the time. The Pennsylvania town where I partially grew up had a Green Street. The name made a strong impression on me at the time because half of Green Street was very aptly named. It had the oldest and thickest street tree canopy in town. The other half of the street, as I remember it, did not have a single street tree (or yard tree). This dichotomy fascinated me as a child.

Now, looking back on this memory with my urbanist eyes, it seems the perfect example of the correlation between wealth and street trees. The half of Green Street with the street trees was predominantly detached, single-family dwellings with large front, side, and rear yards. The half of Green Street without street trees was predominantly attached homes, possibly with some duplexes, and shallower front yards.

In Pittsburgh, the division is by neighborhood, not block. Neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, and Shadyside, which used to contain most of the city’s millionaires rows and continue to have housing values 3-4 times the city’s average, have old, well-established street trees that are somehow able to grow around the overhead lines. Neighborhoods like Homewood and the Hill District, which were victimized by Urban Renewal policies in the ‘50s and ‘60s and now have housing values two-thirds the city’s average, have few street trees, most of which were planted within the last ten years.