Gone, not forgotten: The Allegheny Market House (Photo courtesy of Heinz History Center)
The fate of Allegheny City may be one of the saddest chapters in the history of American cities. Take a well-planned and thriving town, forcibly annex it, politically enfeeble its wards, encroach on its public land, chop up its neighborhoods with railroads and highways, cut it off from its river, tear down more than 500 buildings and obliterate its downtown, streets and landmarks, and you have an urban narrative of tragic dimensions.
As a newcomer to Pittsburgh, I was initially confused by the strange urban shapes and relics on the "North Side." Our team, one of four engaged by the Children's Museum to think about the district's "charms" and how to connect them, began as we often do: by scraping back encrusted layers of history through the study of old maps and photos.
What emerged was an almost heartbreaking tale of an idealistic urban vision that was nurtured and enhanced for over 175 years -- only to be nearly wiped out in the course of a decade.
John Redick's original 1784 plan for Allegheny City was stunning in its simplicity and clarity: a new town north of the Allegheny River in the shape of a square doughnut comprised of 36 square blocks. The town would be surrounded on all four sides by a 100-acre Commons, with the town's four central blocks removed to create a capacious public square, later dubbed "The Diamond." The pre-eminent urban historian John Reps, writing in the '70s, praised the original plan for its careful design and "extremely generous" allocation of public space.
From that founding blueprint the citizens of Allegheny City, generation after generation, reinvested in the public space and infrastructure of their town. As documented by Lisa Miles in her forthcoming book on Allegheny City, town leaders over the next hundred years were repeatedly obliged to fend off a series of attempted encroachments on public land, with varying degrees of success. The Presbyterian seminary ultimately lopped off a whole corner of the commons; the railway along the old streambed grabbed another chunk.
But none of these encroachments compared with what was to follow: the wholesale swallowing of the city in 1907 by Pittsburgh, in a forcible annexation. After that, Allegheny City not only lost its name, but its political autonomy and, it seems, its confidence in itself as a place.
Buffeted by the urban problems common to most American cities after World War II, the renamed "North Side" was deemed blighted despite much evidence to the contrary, leaving it vulnerable to the gargantuan renewal schemes of the 1960s. A new highway thickened the isolation belt of the railroad, and north of this wall, in the old heart of downtown Allegheny City, the bulldozers arrived in batallions. With the smashing of the beloved Market House on the Diamond, and the raising of a massive and mediocre suburban mall, it was as if the soul of the city itself had finally been extinguished.
BUT THE SOUL OF Allegheny City was not dead. In the 1970s it simply regrouped in the form of community and neighborhood organizations, preservation efforts, and new cultural institutions, with support from private foundations.
A new spirit arose that would resist planning from the top down and outside in, replacing it with grass-roots initiatives from within.
The Mexican War Streets and Allegheny West were spared the wrecking ball and steadily came back to life. The Mattress Factory took root in an obsolete commercial building and became a contemporary art center of international importance; the Andy Warhol Museum did likewise in the 1990s.
A civic group developed plans to preserve and enhance the Commons, now more precious than ever. The old Post Office, once threatened with demolition, became the nucleus of the Children's Museum, which has now grown to encompass the Buhl Planetarium and a modern addition. The Children's, the Warhol and North Side communities banded together to restore the New Hazlett Theater, which just reopened.
Next in line is a study to determine future uses for the Carnegie Free Library, the very symbol and center of Allegheny City (and vacant since being damaged by lightning last year). Also planned is a design competition to break the adjacent Diamond Park out if its concrete tomb and make it green again.
Building by building, lot by lot, block by block, the center of Allegheny City is being restored and rebuilt. The public realm is being reclaimed.
SO WHY STOP THERE? Why not create a new public market on the fourth square of the Diamond where the Market House once stood? Why not reopen Ohio Street to the neighborhoods, and Federal Street to the river? These arteries once brought the vitality of trolleys, cars, bikers and pedestrians right into the heart of Allegheny City, but were then cut off by the forbidding walls of Allegheny Center.
Two decades after Berlin, it's time for those walls to come down. Comparable malls have been successfully reconfigured in cities like Pasadena; surely Pittsburgh can do the same if not better.
Reconfiguring Allegheny Center is not about tearing down every building that we don't like -- that's precisely what they did in the 1960s. A more constructive strategy is to convince the mall's owners that a reconfiguration makes economic sense, and that the walls -- which after all are only steel frames with thin covers, can be readily opened up to let Federal through. Students at Carnegie Mellon's Urban Lab have developed a beautiful design for doing just that. Can removing a few steel columns and beams really be such a daunting task for the Steel City?
In fact, why not restore all 36 blocks and 14 streets of the original Redick plan?
Much of this groundwork could easily be accomplished today with some careful rebuilding of roadways. Replacing the driveways and dragstrips of Allegheny Center with Allegheny City's original grid of streets and sidewalks would set the stage for a new kind of redevelopment: Community based. Pedestrian friendly. Transit oriented. Mixed in uses. High density. Sustainable. Livable.
Yes, these are the mantras of the progressive rethinking of downtowns across the United States. The irony is that these are the qualities Allegheny City once had. The opportunity is that Allegheny City can have these qualities again.
What could be built on the empty lots of the 36 blocks? New housing, affordable to a wide range of families, artists, students, retirees. New lofts, studios and offices. Shops with a local flavor. Expanded cultural offerings connected to the Children's Museum, Warhol, Mattress Factory, AIR Gallery, National Aviary and the Carnegie Science Center. New architecture combining beautiful materials and sensitive scale with green building techniques. All served by a light rail or bus rapid transit line from across the river.
In short, a virtual demonstration lab to show how a community long overwhelmed by big projects and outside intervention can rebuild itself for the 21st century.
IT WON'T BE EASY, BUT it is feasible.
The community must agree on the long-term vision and strategy. Public and private partnerships will need to be crafted. Investors will need to persuaded, new residents and shopkeepers will need to be attracted. The deleterious plans to carve off the choice lands of a "North Shore" and serve it with its own light-rail line must be replaced with a broader vision to serve and re-integrate all of the North Side. Citywide political support will be needed, bolstered and guided by disciplined community initiative.
Almost 225 years after Allegheny City's founding, 100 years after its forced annexation, 40 years after the damaging explosion at its heart, Allegheny City is opening a new chapter, written by its citizens, full of hope and possibility.
The sad story may turn out to be a tale of inspiration after all.
Doug Suisman is founder of Suisman Urban Design ( www.suisman.com ). This is based on his presentation Wednesday evening as part of the Charm Bracelet project. The Next Page is different every week. John Allison firstname.lastname@example.org 412-263-1915.