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Ruin and revival: Pittsburgh's city staircases as artifacts of alternative urban histories and contemporary narratives

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2:00 PM, Mercredi 31 Août 2022 (30 minutes)
Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania, USA) has over 800 public staircases that began to appear on its hillsides at the peak of the region’s industrial development. The city’s environmental, political, and socio-economic histories are embedded in its public staircases, which have undergone various transformations through local attempts to respond to industrial, urban, and environmental demands. In this project, I document the evolution of Pittsburgh’s public staircases as industrial artifacts in order to demonstrate trends in the city’s urbanization. I connect these trends to contemporary narratives of urban redevelopment and issues of displacement and gentrification. I catalog this through historical documents and photographic archives that illustrate the development of selected “case study” neighborhoods and their staircases, and through contemporary information about neighborhood change. Through these case studies, I trace the evolution of local tensions between industry, people, and land. During the 19th century, factories crowded Pittsburgh’s river flatlands, and workers built their homes on nearby hillsides, constructing outdoor wooden staircases in order to walk to work. The city’s many hills created physical disruptions in the urban fabric that deepened socio-economic divides. Ethnically divided sectors of the city emerged along the natural lines of the landscape, and political bosses built public works and provided services unevenly. Fueled by a subsequent period of social surveys and a rise in the political power of progressive elites, the turn of the 20th century in Pittsburgh saw an increase in public concern with the degradation of the natural and built environments. Reformers backed a series of infrastructural improvements and attempted to organize a masterplan, though efforts stalled. Originally built in wood, large numbers of the staircases were replaced with concrete during a series of mid-century urban renewal schemes that revived the area’s landscape but devastated many of its social structures. Concerns from growing white-collar business and banking industries increased over the health and psychological effects of living in Pittsburgh, where the air quality had markedly deteriorated during the war manufacturing boom. This ushered in a period of public-private partnerships between business giants and city mayors, who spearheaded large-scale schemes such as one project that displaced over 10,000 African Americans in order to construct a civic arena that was eventually torn down. With deindustrialization, many concrete staircases were subsequently neglected, and today, many have been removed or lie in disrepair, while others disappear into the revived vegetation of the hillsides. On-going economic revival efforts include the city’s reinvention through its education, medical, and tech industries. These new industries have stimulated urban growth, including redevelopment projects that involve the rehabilitation or reconstruction of city stairs. The growth of the new industries, however, has also resulted in the displacement – or the risk of displacement – of low-income communities. The City of Pittsburgh has built a database including the location and condition of each staircase in order to prioritize improvements. I briefly introduce existing projects in my case study neighborhoods that propose the rehabilitation of staircases for functional purposes, for new public uses, or for leisurely walking tours of the city. I then explore methods, including various in-situ installations, to “re-embed” narratives into the built environment that describe the histories of populations that have been displaced (or are at risk of being displaced), including histories of industrial workers and of migrant and African American populations, as well as other groups represented in contemporary neighborhood demographics. By focusing on the tensions between “ruin and revival,” I ask whether heritage can become an agent against displacement. This project can be presented in the form of a paper, or as a roundtable discussion focused on producing a collaborative proposal for a multimedia urban installation.

Elena Clarke


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