Father Pitt

Why should the beautiful die?

Allegheny Center

Urban renewal hit Pittsburgh hardest in three places: the Lower Hill, East Liberty, and central Allegheny. Of the three, the Lower Hill was definitely the worst hit, with an A-bomb’s worth of destruction leaving a scoured and sterile landscape that is only now recovering. Second-worst was probably Allegheny Center.

Both here and in East Liberty, the visionaries imagined an urban paradise freed from automobiles. The central business district would be pedestrianized, and vehicles would be diverted to a broad loop around the edge. Anthony Paletta came up with a useful term for this design, which was repeated wherever the urban-renewal movement really got going: “strangulation by ring road.” The center ends up isolated from residential neighborhoods around it by a broad boulevard that is forbidding for pedestrians to cross, so they don’t cross it.

On the North Side, almost the entire business district of old Allegheny was destroyed. A few landmarks were left—more than in the Lower Hill—but the streets full of shops were flattened and the very streets themselves eliminated. More than 500 buildings were obliterated. In their place was a modernist paradise of office blocks and a shopping mall (marked by those half-moon arches in the picture) called Allegheny Center. In the picture above, the only visible landmark from the old center of Allegheny is the tower of the Carnegie Library poking up just behind the building that is now called “NOVA Place.”

In hindsight it seems obvious that it was a bad idea, but we should give the planners their due. The new urban paradise seemed like a hit for a while. The shopping mall at Allegheny Center was lively and successful for twenty years after it opened in 1965. It did not really start collapsing until about 1990. Twenty years is not a long time in the history of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, but it was something.

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