Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pittsburgh: Day 2

After driving through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel in eastern Pittsburgh, we found another example of the geographical isolation of Pittsburgh’s boroughs that was mentioned in yesterday’s conversations. The separation induced by rivers, steep terrain and highways has created numerous distinct communities that not only espouse distinctive cultures but also different perspectives of what Pittsburgh is and should become. The Squirrel Hill Tunnel opened up into gentle residential neighborhoods with small-scale commercial main streets that many urbanists would envy. Getting lost in the curving roadways that lead up and down the numerous hills, we eventually made it over a final set of railroad tracks and into the town of Braddock: a once thriving steel-mill community that now not only lacks jobs, but grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants or nearly any other amenity that many other places take for granted. Braddock Avenue, the main stretch in town, currently terminates at the massive Edgar Thomson Steel Works plant. The unmistakable metallic smell in the air, the consistent ground-rumble of machinery and swooshing of water coolers, sparks, flames, steam and the sheer size of the buildings elicits a fascinating sensation.
Making our way back through town, we are encouraged by an artistically modified trash-can and well maintained pedestrian path to get out of the car. As soon as we are on foot, a visual path of art pieces encourages us to continue walking, to the organic gardens, past murals, sculptures, and around behind buildings. We appear in front of a renovated church where an art show is taking place.
After interviewing a mayoral candidate, a community art leader and a bio-fuel manufacturing business owner, Braddock seems like an awkward place that is both attractive to the urban pioneer and an ugly hollow reminder of a one-industry-reliant community.
Are cheap rents good enough in themselves to encourage development?
Who will the new Braddock be?
Is Braddock symbolic of the larger metropolitan area of Pittsburgh?
Are Braddock and other outlying communities even a part of Pittsburgh?
Can places like Braddock encourage investment without relying on chain-store development or outside help?
Will underlying political tensions cripple the momentum of these small-town creative solutions?

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