The Hill District

Lower Hill circa 1956

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by community members + aggregated stories with local interests and social impacts

The Roboburgh Dilemma

By Richard Xu

a student writer of
Prof. Meyer of ENGWRT 1330

"But I fear that tech people gentrify unknowingly, and that a lot of the people who you ask around here who are blue collar, don't want tech coming in."

Robotic and artificial intelligence startups have taken over the Strip District.

Historically a steel and electricity producer, the Strip now manufactures self-driving cars and bomb-defusing robots. This group of roughly 25 tech companies — including Apple, Uber, and Argo AI — makeup “Robotics Row.

These are tech companies that capitalize on the demand for high-tech industrial machines.

CMU-based startup, Platypus, creates robotic boats for water data collection; Blue Belt Technologies creates tools for robotic surgery; RE2 Robotics creates limbs for explosion management; and Proto Innovations creates space equipment for NASA. Just last year, Ford invested $1 billion into Argo AI to create an autonomous Ford vehicle fleet by 2021.

“We see the Strip District as a mini Silicon Valley,” Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky told the Tribune-Review. “In my mind, this is the future of the tech hub in Pittsburgh.”

“Robotics Row” in Strip District, Pittsburgh, PA

Robotics Row’s explosive growth is part of a larger trend. Ever since Google moved to Pittsburgh in 2006, constructing their office in a century-old Nabisco cracker factory, tech companies — from Uber, to Duolingo, to Apple — have flocked here to establish research campuses. The city has seen its high-tech talent rise 31.4 percent from 2015 to 2016.

We’ve become “Roboburgh,” an emblem of hope to our Rust Belt neighbors. But at a cost.

“I think they’re going to gentrify Pittsburgh to the point of San Francisco,” Paul, a software development intern at HERL Laboratories, told me. His aunt and uncle were kicked from San Francisco’s Castro District 20 years ago during the Dot-com bubble, and he worries Pittsburgh is heading down that same path.

“It will hurt a lot more people than it will help,” Paul predicted. “Pittsburgh does have a crumbling infrastructure, so having tech come in could be a good thing. We’ve got CMU. We’ve got Pitt. We’ve got cold winters so innovation can happen. But I fear that tech people gentrify unknowingly, and that a lot of the people who you ask around here who are blue collar, don’t want tech coming in.”

The Renewal Rise

Pittsburgh’s changes have been slowly building for the last four decades. The year 1979 marked Pittsburgh’s rebirth. It was when the steel industry began to collapse, rocketing unemployment to 19 percent — and the year Raj Reddy founded the world’s first robotics program. Since its founding, Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute has become the world’s best robotics research center — pioneering research in space robotics, medical robotics, industrial systems, computer vision, and artificial intelligence. In 2007, they earned first place in the DARPA Grand Challenge III competition, sparking the autonomous vehicle revolution, and have worked extensively with the Department of Defense (which provides half its research funding) to build technology for the Army, Airforce, and Navy. Today, five companies have released self-driving vehicles on Pittsburgh’s streets.

Concurrently, Pittsburgh’s municipal government enacted policies to combat urban decay.

Between World War I and World War II, city planners discovered how decrepit Pittsburgh had become. Smoke crowded the sky. Rats infested the streets. Sewage poisoned the water. Housing violations ran amok. In 1938, Forum magazine ran a story titled “Pittsburgh: What a City Shouldn’t Be.”

Lower Hill circa 1956
(source: ULS Digital Collection)

Robert Moses, famed New York Parks Commissioner and subject of the Pulitzer-winning biography, “The Power Broker,” suggested clearing the Lower Hill District — a poor immigrant neighborhood — and creating several new highways. His advice coincided with the biological framework of cities that rose in popularity during the mid-20th century. Urban planners saw cities as human bodies, organisms that were different in exterior, yet fundamentally similar; they could be infected and cured with similar diseases and remedies. As traffic started to surge from rising car ownership, city planners began to worry about traffic congestion. To unclog congested roads and increase circulation, urban planners began constructing highways — a development touted at the time as “the greatest single element in the cure of city ills.” But instead of saving cities, highways severed them.

With the G.I. Bill and post-World War II economic boom, Pittsburghers fled to the suburbs, filling West Mifflin, Mount Pleasant, Shaler, and Penn Hills. Every three days between 1947 to 1957, a new home appeared in the suburb, Pleasant Hills.

With Pittsburgh struggling from ensuing population flight, the federal government provided Pittsburgh money to clear its “slums.” For the next 50 years, urban renewal policies reigned.

Redwood on The Hill

“The Hill District of Pittsburgh is probably one of the most outstanding examples in Pittsburgh of neighborhood deterioration,” wrote city councilman, George E. Evans, in 1943. “There are 7,000 separate property owners; more than 10,000 dwelling units and in all more than 10,000 buildings. Approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are sub-standard and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.”

Twelve years later, the city acted on the councilman’s advice, approving the $21 million “Cinderella Project.”

Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority razed 95 acres of the traditionally Black neighborhood. Private corporations took over construction projects subsidized by taxpayers. In an effort to build Crosstown Boulevard and the Civic Arena — the future home of the Pittsburgh Penguins — the area’s developers displaced 8,000 families and 400 businesses. Shoe stores, department stores, Jewish butcheries, theaters, a nationally recognized jazz circuit where Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald used to perform, disappeared.

Over a third of the Lower Hill’s residents moved to housing projects in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth wards; slightly fewer rented from private landlords, and less than a tenth bought homes. The collection of neighborhoods, once known as “The Crossroads of the World,” collapsed into disarray. Ten years later — the day after MLK’s assassination — riots erupted in the streets, setting off five hundred fires and destroying over $600,000 in property. With the steel industry’s concurrent collapse, from 1950 to 1990, the Hill District would lose 70 percent of its population: 35,000 people.

The economic collapse of the Hill District in the mid-20th century isn’t unique — just visit the boarded-up buildings in Homewood. But in the last few years, community leaders have been rebuilding the Hill District. Negotiating with the Pittsburgh Penguins after its agreement to construct the $321 million taxpayer-funded, PPG Paints Arena, community leaders secured $10 million to reinvest into their community.They constructed a new YMCA in 2012 and built their first grocery store in over a generation, the Shop ‘n Save, in 2013. With a grant of $180 million from the federal government, they’re currently redeveloping the Addison Terrace public housing complex.

For most of his adult-life, Carl Redwood Jr. has been a part of the Hill District’s revitalization. He was born in the upper Hill section of the neighborhood, moved with his family to Homewood before he was old enough to attend kindergarten, and then to his first home in the Lincoln-Lemington, where his 103-year-old mother still resides.

At 15, Redwood had his “movement-type birthday.” In high school, he helped lead a “teach in” about peace during a student-led national moratorium to end the Vietnam War. Later, he supported the African Liberation movement in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and worked with the Free South Africa Movement to release Nelson Mandela from jail. Every May 19, he and other neighborhood activists celebrated Malcolm X’s birthday.

Moving back to the Hill District as an adult, Redwood founded the Hill District Consensus Group — a center for community discussion and grassroots activism — and encouraged the formation of other Pittsburgh Consensus Groups. For the last 25 years he’s taught University of Pittsburgh undergraduates the same lessons in the class Community Organizing and Social Work.

Carl Redwood /pittwire.pitt.edu

Sitting at his office in the Hill District’s Hill House, Redwood speaks with a deep, gravelly voice. He’s sturdy, gruff-looking, and wears thin, gold-colored frames. His room’s lined with bookshelves, a meeting table, and a corridor connecting to a welcome room for the Hill District Consensus Group. Wearing a t-shirt from the 2010 United States Social Forum, with a logo dotted with blacked out figures of a person sitting in a wheelchair, a man raising his fist in the air, a mother holding a child, and an elderly person holding up a conscientious objector sign, Redwood has the knowledge of an encyclopedia.

“There are a lot of different shapes and kinds of inequality,” Redwood tells me. “But in particularly in terms of housing, there was a very racist housing policy of the United States that took place throughout most of the 1900s, where Black people weren’t able to purchase homes, and were prohibited even from renting homes in lots of different neighborhoods.”

Redwood described these policies as redlining and racially restrictive covenants. Until 1968, American banks couldn’t issue mortgage insurance to Black families under the National Housing Act of 1934. Federal mortgage guarantee corporations drew red lines, issuing these areas as illegal mortgage zones. These “redline” neighborhoods would become predominantly African American, enforcing segregation throughout the United States. Racially restrictive covenants only worsened the problem, making it illegal for property owners to sell to Black people. Because families often build wealth through homeownership — taking out loans on mortgages to build equity — African American families found themselves at a crippling disadvantage.

The African American community faced serial displacement from their homes, a phenomena described by Columbia psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove, as root shock. In her book, “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It,” Fullilove explains how root shock “ruptures bonds, dispersing people to all the directions of the compass.” Describing the destruction of the Lower Hill District (among other neighborhoods), Fullilove notes how the effort to save urban America through renewal projects, “disabled powerful mechanisms of community, leaving the Black world at an enormous disadvantage for meeting the challenges of globalization.” The stress of moving to new neighborhoods, attending new schools, establishing new social ties, has caused trauma to the Black community that’s only now being understood.

Serial displacement primarily disrupted Pittsburgh’s Black community, but the decline of the nation’s steel industry affected everybody. Pittsburgh lost 133,000 jobs from 1979 to 1987.

Thirty percent of the population left from 1970 to 1990. Many reporters questioned whether Pittsburgh would even survive in the 1980s.

But 30 years later, Pittsburgh reversed course. The University of Pittsburgh turned a small medical center into Pennsylvania’s largest non-governmental employer. Carnegie Mellon University became the home of the autonomous revolution, founding the world’s best robotics institute in 1979. Pittsburgh flourished during the 2008 housing crash, seeing its wages rise. Unemployment rate fall to 5.5 percent, and transforming into a knowledge-based economy half-a-decade later, Pittsburgh would win national awards as the United States’ smartest and most livable city. But the problem of finding affordable housing hasn’t gone away.

The stress of moving to new neighborhoods, attending new schools, establishing new social ties, has caused trauma to the Black community that’s only now being understood.

“What we have happening now is the flip-side of redlining,” Redwood explained. “Redlining happened in this neighborhood and neighborhoods across the country. Now, those neighborhoods that were red-lined in the middle of the 1900s are being flipped. Banks and real-estate folks are buying the land up, flipping it, and selling it for much higher prices. More White people are moving into those neighborhoods. But they’re not responsible for this situation. This situation has been controlled by the financial institutions that do the mortgages and lending. They’re the ones who really benefit from gentrification.”

Pittsburgh’s tech revolution has brought up a vigorous debate about the city’s future. Mayor Bill Peduto ran on a “city for all” platform, with “inclusive innovation” — the more equitable distribution of Pittsburgh’s profits from technological innovation — as one of his major talking points. His biggest proposal was the creation of America’s largest per-capita housing trust fund, which would ensure housing stability for seniors and low-income residents living in neighborhoods, receiving an influx of new investment. In 2017, City Council members agreed to fund the $10 million trust fund through a 1 percent increase in the realty-transfer tax.

Redwood believes, however, that the fund lacks the ability to make a dent at the affordability crisis; it doesn’t give enough of its money to extremely low-income families. Instead of giving the vast majority of its funds to people making less than 30 percent of the city’s median income, the bill gives funds to all families who fall below the city’s median income.

Photographs by Hill District native Teenie Harris line the basketball course in the newly renovated August Wilson Park. CREDIT SCOTT ROLLER / PITTSBURGH PARKS CONSERVANCY
A placard outside the childhood home of Pittsburgh playright August Wilson viewed between a newly reinforced brick wall and the scaffolding beside it on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. The building is one of several undergoing renovations in the Hill District. Credit: MEGAN HARRIS / 90.5 WESA

“It should have been targeted, all of it, at extremely low-income families,” Redwood said. “It’s not going to have the impact that it really needs for the folks who need it the most. And the reason they did it was to get the votes it needed on council, because people on council didn’t want to vote for just low-income Black folks; they wanted to see how they could get some of the money into their own communities, so they moved the income levels higher.”

Redwood sees this as a larger trend of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal projects.

“What they’ll say to me is, ‘The Hill District is a crime-ridden community, and we’ve got to get rid of that. In order to get rid of that, we have to tear down the houses, push people out, and give people choice.’ [Urban renewal] is a false narrative. They’re slick in the way they do it… but what they call decay, other people call home and community. The Hill District is a beautiful neighborhood. Thousands and thousands of families have raised their children here for generations. But people tend to overlook that, once they hear the words blight and decay.'”

Gentrification is a complex issue.
People often cite East Liberty as representative of the positive effects of gentrification.

And no wonder. A decade ago, Google constructed an office in a century-old Nabisco factory, and since then it has added over $1.6 billion into the local economy. East Liberty is thriving, with new shops, businesses, and tech companies such as Duolingo bringing billions in new revenue. But its development came at a cost.

Long-term residents who owned homes, roughly 20 percent of the population, benefited from higher real estate values, while long-term renters saw their cost of living rise. Mayor Bill Peduto ended up paying $400,000 to get habitants of Penn Plaza to leave their property, allowing construction crews to raze many of the area’s low-income apartments. In 2016, only one-third of Penn Plaza’s residents remained in East Liberty.

“What all of the cities do, the competition that they are all in, is to compete to get rid of low-income folks.” Redwood said placidly. “Pittsburgh is getting rid of low-income folks.

Cincinnati is getting rid of low-income folks. Cleveland is getting rid of low-income folks. That’s the main thing that they’re doing. Housing is a basic need for folks, and it should be a human right, not just a commodity to be sold and flipped on the market.”

An Uber self-driving Ford roams the streets of Pittsburgh this spring. Credit: Foo Conner /Flickr   

Roboburgh's Future

Four out of five of residents believe this city is heading in the right direction. Three out of four would recommend Pittsburgh to their friends. Nine out of 10 believe Pittsburgh’s growth proves renewal is possible in other cities.

So why bother solving the gentrification problem?

Last September, Amazon announced an auctioning process to determine its home for its second headquarters, HQ2. In a month, regions across the United States sent a total of 238 proposals to Amazon, including everything from billion-dollar tax breaks, to anointing Jeff Bezos as “mayor for life” in a newly created Amazon-named city. Fighting for the $5 billion infrastructure investment and 50,000 new jobs HQ2 claims it will bring, Pittsburgh emerged as a top 20 finalist. If Amazon comes, everything could change.

“There’s a battle already going on in Pittsburgh between the government that supports businesses like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Uber and Google and all these other companies coming into town, and the people who lived here for so long who can no longer afford to live in Pittsburgh,” Carl Redwood said, speaking at a community forum held in the Allegheny County Human Services Building.

“If Amazon comes here, it will accelerate the battle and it won’t accelerate it necessarily in our favor.”

Redwood has reason to be concerned. Two years before Amazon arrived to Seattle, the median monthly rent was $1,008. Today, it’s $1,286, having grown three times quicker than the national median. Seattle currently has a median home price of $730,000, up nearly 17 percent from last year, and 170,000 homeless shelter beds, up by a factor of 73 since 2010.

In Pittsburgh, you can rent a home near one of the city’s major employers for less than $750 a month. The median home price is $130,000, and unlike other metropolises on the East Coast, in Pittsburgh, you can live comfortably as a student, artist, or retail worker. At least, for now.

Others see things differently. Amazon’s HQ1 skyrocketed Seattle’s economy; who’s to say HQ2 will be any different? Since Amazon arrived 12 years ago, Seattle has accrued $17 billion in new wages, $38 billion in new investment, 40,000 new jobs, and the sprouting up of other tech giants, including Apple, Facebook, and Google nearby. Because of Amazon’s gravitational weight, Seattle has grown to be North America’s 20th largest urban agglomeration.

Yet underneath the debate, lies a mystery: what is the City of Pittsburgh offering Amazon? Is it an $8.5 billion tax break, 28 million square feet of land, a neighborhood named after Jeff Bezos? There’s currently a court battle for the public to find out, brought under the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know law, yet no information has been made public.

“The political incentives to bring large employers often produces counterintuitive effects,” Miguel Dickson warns me. “You bring the jobs, but you overpaid.” As a Lawrenceville resident and software engineer for the CMU-based startup, Roadbotics, Dickson sees Amazon HQ2 and the current bidding process as disastrous.

“Nobody, should be begging Amazon to bring the jobs here. That’s ridiculous… but it’s going to work out that way… because politicians are so interested in claiming, ‘I brought Amazon here!’ When you transplant and drop, there’s very little reason to believe it will end well. They’re going to destroy the traffic, get preferential treatment in all kinds of ways, disrupt the way the city works. Suddenly, everyone’s going to be asking, ‘How do we adds more roads to HQ2? How do we deal with traffic to and from HQ2?’”

Amazon has already chosen where it wants to build HQ2, they argue, and are merely using the bidding process to extract as much money as they can from state and local governments.

Dickson isn’t alone. Worried about the unhinged city bidding process for Amazon HQ2, over 600 influential economists, writers, urbanists, and academics have signed a petition calling for a “mutual non-aggression pact.” Signed by influential thinkers, including Robert Putnam, Alan Kreuger, and Robert Reich, the treaty urges cities to resist offering “egregious tax giveaways and direct monetary incentives.” Amazon has already chosen where it wants to build HQ2, they argue, and are merely using the bidding process to extract as much money as they can from state and local governments.

“It’s not always a bad thing,” Dickson reminds me. “But it’s almost always a bad thing when it’s the result of a bidding process — because as what often happens in an auction, people often overpay, particularly because they’re not going to feel the penalty. This is generally true of stadium deals. The politicians who are behind stadium deals, are very loathe to make specific details of what they’re offering for a stadium deal or professional team to move to their town public, because the line-items for those tend to look real ugly and nobody actually likes the deal once they’ve seen it.”

Instead of asking what we should offer, city organizations across the U.S. have been asking the reverse. In an open letter, signed by over 100 organizations from 26 states, community organizers provided Amazon their own wish list. Amazon must pay sales and property taxes, submit regular reports to an oversight committee on community benefits, provide workers with high-quality health care, among a range of other demands. Yet it seems unlikely these demands will be met. Amazon isn’t known for treating its workers well.

No one knows the answer to the Amazon question. At an Egyptian Theater town hall, held by local radio station, KUOW, Seattle residents debated the question, “Is Amazon good for Seattle?” and came out more divided than before. The percent who viewed Amazon favorably, dropped from 56 percent to 50 percent by the end.

“Amazon is doing a lot to try to connect to people who live here, to give them jobs,” Maud Daudon, former chief of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said.

Yet to those, such as former Seattle mayoral candidate, Cary Moon, there’s little to be impressed about.

“The yachts are rising and everybody else is sinking beneath the surface.”

The Story of Urban Renewal, old.post-gazette.com/businessnews/20000521eastliberty1.asp. Aupperlee, Aaron. “Tech Firms Keep Expanding ‘Robotics Row,’ Pittsburgh’s Mini Silicon Valley.” TribLIVE.com, 27 Feb. 2017, triblive.com/local/allegheny/11989147-74/robotics-building-strip.

Bauder, Bob. “Many Fear Pittsburgh’s Hill District Will Never Reach Another Zenith.” TribLIVE.com, 21 Mar. 2014, triblive.com/news/allegheny/5520469-74/hill-black-district.

CityLab, and University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto: ‘There’s No Easy Fix’ for Inequality.” CityLab, 14 Feb. 2018, www.citylab.com/equity/2018/02/bill-peduto-pittsburgh-was-already-a-decade-ahead/552731/.

Cortright, Joe. “In Defense of Gentrification.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 31 Oct. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/in-defense-of-gentrification/413425/.

Day, Matt. “Amid Bidding War for Amazon HQ2, Pittsburgh Debates Trade-Offs.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 19 Mar. 2018, www.seattletimes.com/business/amazon/amid-bidding-war-for-amazons-hq2-pittsburgh-residents-debate-trade-offs/.

Deto, Ryan. “Is Pittsburgh’s Economy Growing for Everyone?” Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh City Paper, 15 Mar. 2018, www.pghcitypaper.com/Blogh/archives/2017/05/11/is-pittsburghs-economy-growing-for-everyone.

  • 5/8/2018 10:03pm identified by Karl Bontrager via Facebook: dot com bubble didn’t happened 40 years ago. Correction has been made: 20 years ago. Thank you, Mr. Bontrager!
Story Credits

Author: Richard Xu, student writer of University of Pittsburgh

Editor & Web Producers: Alyse Horn-Pyatt & Will Halim
Top Splash-page photograph:  By phillq23Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Other photographs: credits as listed on or under individual pictures

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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