Sights and Scenes: Downtown Pittsburgh
Modern Cities shares the sites and scenes from what may be one of the country's most underrated and overlooked urban environments: Downtown Pittsburgh
Named in honor of British statesman William Pitt, the First Earl of Chatham, Pittsburgh was incorporated on April 22, 1794. Located at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, the city quickly became a vital manufacturing center fueling the country’s westward expansion and urban growth. In regards to the production of glass, steel, aluminum, and iron one could argue that Pittsburgh’s products built America. Its downtown flourished as industrialist like George Westinghouse, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Henry John Heinz flooded the city with money and elaborate buildings showcasing the products that made them some of the most wealthy people in U.S. history.
However, the city’s industrial might resulted in the highest levels of air pollution. Covered in soot, as early as 1868 it was described as “hell with the lid off”. Nevertheless by 1910, Pittsburgh had grown to become the country’s 8th largest city. During World War II, Pittsburgh produced more steel than the countries of Germany and Japan combined, leading to the 55.6 square mile city’s population peaking to 676,806 by the 1960 census. Money and civic pride led to the city becoming the site of the country’s first publicly sponsored privately financed urban development project with the 1952 opening of Gateway Center. Pittsburgh’s fortunes changed for the worse when its steel industry imploded under the weight of de-industrialization of the country during the late 1970s. In 1981-82 alone, local mills laid off 153,000 workers alone leading to additional job losses in related industries and business sectors throughout the region. By 1983, the city’s local unemployment rate peaked above 20%.
While initially down and out, the city worked hard to become one of the country’s few early industrial hubs to completely shift its economy to one that is now largely focused on education, healthcare and technology. Today, home to eight fortune 500 companies and the nation’s eight-largest bank and 1,600 technology firms, including Google, Apple, Facebook and Uber, is the model of the post industrial city. Recently identified as the best place in the country for jobs, expansive park space, recreational trails and infill development line urban riverfronts that were once dominated by industry. In fact, one can bike or walk continuous trails that connect the city with Washington, DC, 335 miles away. Despite the impressive economic turnaround, the city is a fraction of its 1960 size today. Between 1965 and 1990, the region lost nearly half of its population. With an estimated 2017 population of 302,407 residents, a preserved, pedestrian friendly, early 20th century downtown built for a much larger city can sneak up on the unsuspecting urbanist.