by David Tessitor
What’s the first thing that comes to mind at mention of the Mexican War Streets, Allegheny West, Deutschtown, East Allegheny, Central North Side, and Manchester? (Hint: it isn’t new construction.) When it comes to our neighborhoods, history is more than just an obscure perception, it is a tangible reality. You can see it. You can touch it. You can feel it, emotionally as well as physically.
Historic preservation has been the basis of our neighborhoods’ cultural, social, and economic vitality. It gives us a sense of being part of an ongoing culture. It stimulates interaction among our citizens. It instills pride, it encourages the upkeep and maintenance of properties, and beyond that it is responsible for keeping up market values by adding a special intangible that other, newer neighborhoods can’t achieve. Some might say that history is the essence of our neighborhoods.
Our neighborhoods’ history is a real regional asset. Immersion in history when one walks among the buildings of a historic district is the rarest of experiences in the age of throw it away approaches to urban renewal that persist today. The traditional urbanscape happens to be the number one attraction for urban tourists, yet it has been and remains the prime target for elimination by too many of our public officials who at the same time talk about making tourism the centerpiece of our local economy.
In many ways, new construction is the antithesis of historic preservation. True, occasional small scale construction can contribute to the historic character of a neighborhood by infilling and returning the historic urban density, especially if sensitively designed. Unfortunately, except in rare instances, about the closest new construction gets is faux historic and in large scale projects, even at its best, the result tends to be rather Disneyesque. The repetitive design typical of such projects in southwestern Pennsylvania only adds insult to the injury. The large scale injection of new construction into a neighborhood generally results in an inevitable dilution and diminution of its historic character.
When new construction demolishes historic era structures, it physically reduces the presence of real history. This can be especially egregious with large scale projects. But even if the damage is already done and nothing more is to be removed, it can still force the indirect destruction of historic era buildings, especially with residences, but also commercial structures too.
It’s simple arithmetic. The region has been losing population for decades, and even the rosiest projections forecast a continuing decline for at least another ten years. That population loss, in and of itself, creates a surplus of unoccupied buildings. On top of this, by creating new housing units of any form – whether traditional architecture, conversion of commercial space to lofts, etc. – more excess capacity is created. If the new structures are to be filled, their occupants must either come from existing buildings or, if the people are new to the region, they will not be filling any of the vacant existing buildings. The more buildings left empty, the more abandoned and the more abandoned, the more torn down – with those being razed often having higher quality construction, if restored, than the new which forced their destruction. The final abandonment might not occur right next to the new construction, but rather it tends to be in the more distressed parts of the neighborhood or city.
When new construction and real estate speculation replace historic preservation as the driving force behind public decision making, it becomes a real and significant threat to what our neighborhoods are and stand for. Unfortunately, the North Side has already suffered from this with the top down decision to “upscale Federal Street” by removing the existing buildings and businesses which served the local residents in order to make way for new buildings to serve the affluent and rich who don’t live here. Those responsible for the under performing real estate speculation project have been anxious to grab something that can bail them out. Enter the library.
With a lightning strike forcing the closure of the Allegheny Regional Library, a top down decision was again made without consultation with the residents and the branch was slated to move into new quarters in hopes it can revive the lack luster Federal Street project. Only after it was final were the neighborhood groups consulted to inform them of what the library management was going to do.
Most groups, seeing it was a done deal and either not wanting to waste their time and energy tilting at windmills or seeking to avoid rocking the boat and possible repercussions, simply nodded and went along. Many believe the library moving is the best way to protect their neighborhood. Some see it as a way to get space in the historic old building for neighborhood groups and possibly a visitors center. With only one option on the table, with the library management saying you take what we want or get no library at all, it is easy to see why some have joined to support it.
BUT, the move is not inevitable! Other projects have been further along and been canceled when they weren't warranted. The Council member in whose district the historic library sits has changed. The new member, Darlene Harris, cares deeply about the history of the North Side and recognizes its importance in the revitalization of its neighborhoods. With the decision now before Council, raiding her district to give one of its assets to Tanya Payne for her district would set a new, dangerous precedent for the other Council members and their own districts. While most of Council has bought into the real estate speculation mode of thinking, the implications of such a precedent and the testimony at the public hearing scheduled for December 18th at 5pm in the Hazlett could make the difference.
This gives an opportunity for everybody to rethink moving the library and the impact it would have upon the North Side neighborhoods.
First is the overwhelming denigration of our premiere historic asset. The Allegheny Regional Library was not the first building to have a clock tower, an arched entrance, or a front staircase. No, the significance of the building is in being a library – the very first library building donated by Andrew Carnegie to be supported by public funds in the country! Take that library out of it and not only do we remove the living embodiment of that history, but the relevance of the building is reduced to being just another of the many other nice old buildings with a blue plaque in front of it.
For those concerned about historic preservation of architecture, at the Louisville National Historic Trust meeting on historic Carnegie Libraries it was explained that the best way to assure preservation of their buildings is to continue their use as libraries. Once that use changes, the likelihood escalates for eventually being razed or architecturally mutilated into an abomination of itself.
Second is its impact on the long held desire to reopen Ohio and Federal streets. One of the complaints about the current library location is that it doesn’t have good access. The traffic the library generates as the fifth busiest branch in the library system can warrant a new focus upon reopening the streets. There are some technical matters with the utilities under the street that will need to be reset, but that is done all the time in the city on other streets, so it represents no real obstacle if the pressure is now put on the City to open the streets again. But if the library moves, with the reduced traffic to community offices or some other use of its old building, there will be much less impetus to do so and we will be unlikely to see the streets reopened in our lifetimes.
Reopening the streets into the East Liberty circle is in large part responsible for it having the businesses it has and the growing enthusiasm for its future. The same can happen on the North Side.
Third is that the revitalization of the upper Federal Street area will be strongest if it starts with the reopening of the circle’s streets and builds upon the draw of the Library restored in its present location. Having its history alive and active just two blocks away will be more likely to lead to the restoration of the historic buildings along North Avenue than would having a new library a half block away.
Fourth is that the library management’s threat to abandon the North Side is just an idle bluff that should be called. They bluffed that they needed to own the library buildings or else they couldn’t rehabilitate the Homewood Branch, but when citizens stood up to call their bluff and Council wouldn’t give them what they wanted, they went ahead and completed the project anyway. Besides, the library management is under an obligation to provide library services and if they don’t they are liable to lose that portion of their funding. If in the unlikely event they should still refuse to reopen the library, the North Side could form its own library as it did when it was Allegheny City and reopen the building. The expertise is here and it could easily be done.
Fifth is the the claim that the building is impossibly expensive to maintain. If that is the case, then any other use of it would be out of the question too. Pittsburgh is billing itself as the Green Engineering capital. If Pittsburgh can’t implement new green technologies in the historic Allegheny Regional library building, then the city should give up its claim of being a green mecca.
We can revive the historic library within its historic building. We must organize to do so, but this can bring the North Side together in a way that moving the library never could.