Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Inspired by my post from this summer, I decided to start a photographic series of Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood. This neighborhood is a hodgepodge of abandoned and renovated townhomes, parking lots, car-oriented businesses, corner stores, industrial uses, and new construction residential buildings. It is predicted to be on a tipping point from being mostly ignored to experiencing intense growth fueled by activities in and around the neighborhood. These activities include:

  • UPMC Mercy hospital is currently building a 410,000 sq ft vision and rehabilitation center in the middle of Uptown.
  • The Penguins hockey team is supposed to be finally getting off the ground with their redevelopment of the Lower Hill neighborhood, which is adjacent to Uptown.
  • June 2019 saw the groundbreaking for the CAP project to reconnect the Lower Hill to Downtown over the freeway that bisected the two in the 1960s.
  • The Bus Rapid Transit system currently in the planning stage will one day connect Downtown and Oakland through Uptown.

As these projects move forward, there will likely be more investment and changes to Uptown. This photographic series is intended to capture these changes by revisiting the same sites at regular intervals over the next several years.

In the coming months, I intend to release two related series to record the progress of the CAP and the Lower Hill redevelopment.

Inclusionary Wealth

Amid writing my posts about how the wealth gap manifests itself in the built environment and the morality of unequal economic investment in cities, I took another trip to Chicago. I spent most of my stay in the downtown areas within a mile of Grant Park. I love the old stone buildings, established green parks, ornate fountains, and modern glass skyscrapers with interesting architectural embellishments. Yet this trip, I felt hypocritical as I walked around soaking it all in. All these elements that I enjoy are the result of significant financial outlay that I know is not evenly distributed throughout the city. So where was my moral indignation at this display of deeply entrenched wealth unequally spread?

Chicago’s display of wealth isn’t gaudy like Tijuana or Las Vegas. The message I absorb in places like those with their flashing lights is “come on in, so we can suck all the money out of your pockets.” Chicago businesses identified their presence on the street with regular signs leaving it up to the passers to decide whether to engage.

One bar did add a layer of enticement to their sidewalk advertising. I was searching for a place for dinner, with this bar in mind as the one that looked most appealing from Google maps. I was looking around to see if there were any other better options. The smell of the burgers from this first bar convinced me that it was the best option in that vicinity. It was only after I had sat down and ordered that I realized the smell wasn’t coming from the open window, but rather it came from pipes pumping the kitchen smells to the sidewalk. Still it was a subtle inducement and unlike flashing lights it did not have a nefarious undertone.

By pumping out the smell to the sidewalk, it also felt indiscriminate. Anyone passing was invited to enjoy. This was unlike my experience in Cardiff where if I couldn’t afford the items in the business, I felt I shouldn’t be walking past in the public space. I never felt like I didn’t belong in Chicago. There were economic barriers to certain experiences, but those places that I encountered still did not feel exclusionary. One example is the lounge on the 96th floor of Chicago’s Hancock Building. The stunning views are only accessible to those who can afford a $17 cocktail, but those who can afford one only once in a blue moon were just as welcome as those who can afford one or more every night.

In Chicago, I never saw that strong line, as in Tijuana and Cardiff, that divided those with and those without financial resources.  Everywhere I went, there was a mix of people with different economic statuses, skin colors, and first languages. This diversity gave me the feeling that anyone is welcome to enjoy the well-maintained investment in public spaces with or without hitting a minimum financial threshold.

Moral Economics

The strongest impression from my last trip to Cardiff was the feeling that it is morally wrong to invest heavily in touristy neighborhoods while skipping the neighborhoods of the residents. Tourists may provide a bigger return per touch point, but residents have many more touch points (including voting). Perhaps I have become jaded since that trip, but I now accept that economics and morals rarely work together.

Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood is trying a different approach to see if economic investment can be leveraged for the greater good. Uptown experienced disinvestment and decay for decades, despite being located between and within walking distance of Oakland and downtown, two of the largest economic engines in the state. Not to mention the main roads connecting these prosperous and growing areas run directly through Uptown. Zipping down Fifth Avenue from Oakland to downtown, it is easy to overlook or ignore the ruined home foundations turning back to forest, the wide-spread vacant lots and parking lots, and the intricate architectural details on the remaining old structures.

Former Rialto Theatre

The bland brick and glass facade on Fifth Avenue identifies this building as another mid-century warehouse. Turning the corner, the decorative parapet wall and bricked over arched opening tell the story of an older, more interesting building.

One such structure was one of the many movie theaters dotting the city in the 1920s. In the 1950s, the adjacent buildings were demolished, and an addition was added to the theater to turn it into a storeroom. After a time as a plasma center in the 1980s and 1990s, the building sat vacant and dusty for many years. Now, it is undergoing renovations for its next life. This is just one of the many signs that investment is coming to Uptown.

The community of Uptown that held on through the economically rough times prepared for this moment. In collaboration with many partners, including local institutions such as Duquesne University and UPMC Mercy as well as the City of Pittsburgh, the community created a new neighborhood plan. This designated Uptown and West Oakland as an EcoInnovation District. One of the first actions from this plan developed a new zoning district, the first progressive zoning district in Pittsburgh. The goal of the plan and the zoning district is to leverage the coming economic investment to create an inclusive and environmentally sustainable neighborhood.

It will be interesting to watch this neighborhood over the next few years to see if the plans are successful at introducing some moral components to the economic investment.

Border Crossing

With summer full upon us, I have pulled out all my summer straw hats. One I picked up as an emergency hat. I’ve squished it into a suitcase, sat on it, and abused it in other fashions for years, but it’s still a great plain soft straw hat. Another one is a broad brim straw hat with a plain black band I acquired in Old Town Sacramento to complete my 1860s costume. It’s a great hat, but without the hat pin, it blows off at the slightest provocation. The cream of the crop is a fine two-toned, straw hat with green and grey cords, peach-colored flowers, and an extra wide brim. This one came from Tijuana, Mexico.

I was fifteen or sixteen when my parents took me across the border for a day trip in Tijuana. My memory of this trip is fuzzy, but punctuated with sharp images of intense emotion. I vaguely remember booths and lots of lanes of cars, even by California standards, for crossing south, but lots of lines of people for crossing north. While we drove down, we had to leave our car somewhere along the border. All the tourists were funneled on foot onto the main drag, which was glitzy enough to rival Las Vegas. Shop owners stood on the sidewalk outside their stores to entice the US currency from our pocket to theirs.

I squinted at the glare and cringed at the solicitous fawning. After we visited several shops, my Dad asked a proprietor where he could find a CD of a particular kind of music. The proprietor gave us directions to a shop several blocks away from the main road. As soon as we stepped into the first side street, all the glitz and glamour vanished. Instead, we found blocks of small, plain adobe or stucco houses. The contrast turned my stomach.

The honest plainness of these blocks soothed my eyes, while throwing into sharp relief the fashionable begging of the tourist trap we temporarily left. I was surprised we were given directions that went outside the trap. I wondered how many tourists crossed that invisible line.

Though most of these buildings looked the same, we were able to locate the music shop without incident. My Dad found what he wanted and we went back the way we came. Not long after we returned to the border to cross back to the US.

We had to stay in a waiting area either for our car or for our turn to go through the border crossing. While there, my Mom had me try on hats for sale at a small kiosk. I suspect this was in part to distract me from the physical reaction I was having to the contrasts we saw and in part to encourage me to get a souvenir from this excursion. Having a weakness for hats, I ended up with a beautifully-crafted straw hat that I still wear for special summer occasions.