Hawking Conspiracies on the South Side, 2000

Larouche supporter on the South Side

Father Pitt does not normally indulge in what they call “street photography,” but back in March of 2000 this scene seemed to invite a picture, and Pa Pitt’s faithful Argus C3 was in his hand.

Just think of all the things you will have to explain to your children or grandchildren (if available) about this picture. You will have to explain who Lyndon Larouche was, and that conspiracy theories like his were not part of mainstream American politics in those days. You will have to explain that this man is hawking things called newspapers, which were sort of like long-form Twitter. You will have to explain that those things on steel posts (the nearest one has been decapitated, which you will try to avoid explaining) were individualized parking kiosks, one for each parked car, which sounds like such a brilliant idea that it must be about time for a revival. You may even, if you are feeling brave, end up explaining the idea of creating photographs with light-sensitive chemicals.

Fifth Avenue in the 1990s

Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh

Father Pitt is not quite sure when he took this picture (some of his records are in a sorry state of disorganization), but it is easy to give it a rough date. In the middle distance we can see the Farmers Bank Building, with its mural of Pittsburgh sports legends by Judy Penzer, an artist who had the good luck to be the sister of a real-estate developer, and the bad luck to be on TWA Flight 800 when it exploded in 1996. That mural was painted in 1992, and the building was imploded in 1997 to make way for the new Lazarus department store.

The Farmers Bank Building was a great loss to our architectural legacy, but we could argue that it had been lost for three decades by the time it was demolished. It was built in 1903, one of our earliest batch of skyscrapers.

Farmers Bank Building

In the 1960s, the owners covered the embarrassingly passé Beaux-Arts exterior with a generic modernist shell, making the building indistinguishable from other International Style boxes except for being uglier. When the building was scheduled for demolition, there was some argument about whether the original exterior could be restored; but the indomitably bland personality of Mayor Murphy overcame all opposition to his project to fill downtown with department stores. Tom Murphy was a brilliant politician, probably the most powerful mayor since David Lawrence, but in this case he was badly misguided. Lazarus failed in a few years, and soon downtown went from four department stores to none at all.

Lanark Street, Fineview, in 1994

Lanark Street, Finevier

Most of the houses along the right are gone now, perhaps destroyed by a fire; one of the remainders has been so tastelessly mutilated that destruction might have been kinder. There is now a little park with an overlook at the bottom of this street. Fineview is an odd Pittsburgh phenomenon: a working-class neighborhood with cheap houses and magnificent views. In most other cities, the views would have driven house prices into the astronomical range, and houses would be destroyed to be replaced with luxury condos instead of vacant lots. But Pittsburgh has so many magnificent views that the demand simply cannot outpace the supply—at least not yet.

Lanark Street, Fineview

Try Street

Try Street

There are few entirely indoor streets in Pittsburgh, but this is one of them: Try Street, after which the Try Street Terminal is named. The street is entirely covered by the subway viaduct leading north from the First Avenue station. In other words, Try Street is a kind of subway under the subway. Here we see it from the First Avenue exit; metal doors along the right-hand side lead into the Try Street Terminal.

Belgian Block

Belgian Block

A surprising number of Pittsburgh streets are still paved with Belgian block, which Pittsburghers usually call “cobblestone.” (Real cobblestones are irregular round stones.) In some better neighborhoods, all the streets were paved with Belgian block. In other neighborhoods, more-or-less flat sections were paved with brick, which is much cheaper but very slippery when wet, and the more expensive Belgian block was reserved for steep slopes.

This pavement is on Elgin Street in Highland Park.