The End and Future of History in the Strip

Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority has given the thumbs' up to the possibility of later agreeing with the idea of a new development plan for the Strip District, specifically the stretch of the Strip that runs closest to the Allegheny River, from the Strip up to Lawrenceville.

Predictably, even the idea of discussing the possibility of change to the area brings out the custodians of Pittsburgh's rich industrial and working class history. In this instance, the custodians are the occupants and other friends of the produce terminal building on Smallman Street. In the yet-to-be-approved-let-alone-finally-planned-development, the terminal might disappear, or it might be modified. The current tenants likely would be relocated.

According to the PG the other day, these folks -- current tenants of the building, and in some cases very long-time tenants -- are not obstructionists. But they are nostalgic.

Without [the wholesalers in the Terminal] "Why call it the Strip anymore? Change it to something else. That's the way I feel about it."

["In the end, predominantly, the old ways lose out to the new. I think the Strip is probably the last bastion of what Pittsburgh used to be, at least a certain flavor of it."
So it isn't the building itself, which is sort of "iconic," if you turn your head in a certain direction and forget that it was, for most of its life, a warehouse adjacent to a now-displaced railyard, and a not particularly distinguished warehouse at that. Franklin Toker's recent book, Pittsburgh: A New Portrait, the current bible of Pittsburgh's history and architecture, says this about the terminal:
It was to coordinate trains and trucks that the mammoth Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction & Sales Building was erected in 1926. The building covers five blocks in length, but it is relieved by touches of Art Deco on the caps of its miniature buttresses. Rail traffic to Pittsburgh had just about ceased in 1983, but the City of Pittsburgh had the structure renovated that year to ensure a base for the local produce trade. The far end of the structure, diagonally opposite St. Stanislaus, houses the galleries and workshops of the Society for Contemporary Craft, which introduced a note of cultural diversity in the Strip.
No word in the PG yet regarding the impact that potential relocation of the Society for Contemporary Craft would have on the authentic character of the Strip.

In other words, I'm not pro-development or anti-development here. We'll see whether any development really makes it to the table, and that will likely take years. Rather, the little episode is emblematic of Pittsburgh's choice of relevant history.

As just about everyone knows, Pittsburgh is proud and possessive of a specific period of its history - the period that people actually lived and remember, the history of the last 50 years (their own history) and the history of the 50 years before that (their parents' history). It's the history of life being reasonably prosperous and stable (if brutal from an air- and water-quality standpoint). By the beginning of the 20th century, Pittsburgh had pretty much arrived as a city. Its neighborhoods mostly had the character that they have today. What Pittsburghers like to remember and preserve is that feeling of being more or less secure, and in many cases of being on top of the world. Even the first Renaissance, which changed a lot of things, especially Downtown, was premised on Pittsburgh wanting to maintain its pride of (first and then-present) place.

The history that Pittsburgh remembers is not, on the whole, a history of growth, expansion, vision, and change. But that's part of Pittsburgh's history, too - the history of Pittsburgh in the 19th century, when things were changing rapidly and dramatically all over the city, and when Pittsburgh had a plausible claim to being the source of boundless vision. Several years ago, the country celebrated the 200th anniversary of the expedition of Lewis & Clark, which as we all know launched in St. Louis, underneath the Gateway Arch. (Well, the Gateway Arch was actually built a few years later.) But Pittsburgh was justly proud to point out that the expedition's boat was built and launched here, and Lewis sailed from Pittsburgh to pick up Clark, on their way to St. Louis.

Suppose, in other words, that Pittsburgh's sense of history were suffused with the adventuring spirit of Lewis & Clark at the beginning of the 1800s as well as the community spirit of the Poles who built St. Stanislaus at that century's end.

What would Pittsburgh think of the future of the Strip then? What about the Society for Contemporary Craft, as well as J.E. Corcoran and Superior Produce and La Prima Espresso?

And while the western end of the Strip seems not to be part of the redevelopment discussion, what about the future of the Seagate Technology Building, which is part of the Strip and should be part of the future of that neighborhood? The building houses state of the art clean room and lab space - and as I understand it, currently sits empty.

History is often about you. But it isn't always about you.


1 Response to "The End and Future of History in the Strip"

BrianTH said... 3/12/2010 2:39 PM

I've been looking at all the preliminary information on the supposedly soon-to-be-coming master plan, available here:

Their announced goals including preserving as much as they can about what makes the Strip unique. But at the same time, there is obviously no way you can plan to add thousands of new residents to the Strip without remaking not just the riverfronts and other public spaces, but also affecting the retail and commercial scene.

Which I am prepared to embrace, but it is definitely going to keep the conflict of visions described in this post simmering, and maybe sometimes boiling. Conflict which I am also prepared to embrace, because undoubtedly that will be key to making sure the more preservationist elements of the master plan are not completely abandoned down the road.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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