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Urban Blight as Opportunity: Appropriation and Transformation in Pittsburgh’s Hill District

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Abstract:

This paper examines the use of the concept of urban blight in the debates surrounding the redevelopment of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the 1950s and 1960s. Adjacent to Downtown, the Hill District housed much of the city’s African American population. Its neighborhoods became a regional center of African American culture and the epicenter of Pittsburgh’s nationally recognized jazz scene. The Hill was not only a treasure to preserve, but also a problem to solve. It suffered from serious housing and socio-economic troubles that earned it a reputation as a slum and a hub of vice and disease. Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority proposed a series of renewal projects that employed federal funding to address these problems. These projects transformed the Hill and displaced its residents, engendering opposition that ultimately changed Pittsburgh’s renewal practice and the relationship between the city’s planners and the public. The exercise of this transformative power hinged upon representations of blight.

Pittsburgh, like many other North American municipalities, undertook large urban renewal projects during the mid-twentieth century to modernize its infrastructure and its image. Although it pursued redevelopment for many reasons, the city’s planners consistently invoked the elimination of blight. Often equated with cancer, blight was more akin to the common cold: readily diagnosed without a full understanding of its causes and its nature. The diagnosis was powerful, as it enabled redevelopment authorities to compel private landowners to sell their property to the city via eminent domain. The ambiguity of the concept and the high stakes involved in its application led to conflict over its nature and use, engendering many forms of resistance, both overt and subtle. Some opponents of redevelopment rejected the label, while others embraced it as a chance to redefine the problems of blighted areas and their solutions. Blight thus represented not only an opportunity for planners and their supporters to reimagine and reconfigure neighborhoods; it also empowered local activists to appropriate and deploy the term to further their interests.

By contrasting the views of planners with those of neighborhood stakeholders, such as residents, business owners, and those employed in or patronizing local businesses, this paper will highlight the points of contention over the Hill District’s “blighted” designation and the solutions proposed to address the problem. It will also demonstrate how the concept of blight presented opportunities to redevelopers and their opponents. Planners used blight as a technical term to appropriate property and transform the Hill. Local activists, in turn, appropriated and transformed the concept to promote their interests. The conflicts and compromises that arose from these different understandings of blight demonstrate the contentious nature of the concept as well as the utility of investigating its use in urban renewal projects as a legal term and as a form of representation.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509461_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Robick, Brian. "Urban Blight as Opportunity: Appropriation and Transformation in Pittsburgh’s Hill District" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509461_index.html>

APA Citation:

Robick, B. D. "Urban Blight as Opportunity: Appropriation and Transformation in Pittsburgh’s Hill District" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509461_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: This paper examines the use of the concept of urban blight in the debates surrounding the redevelopment of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the 1950s and 1960s. Adjacent to Downtown, the Hill District housed much of the city’s African American population. Its neighborhoods became a regional center of African American culture and the epicenter of Pittsburgh’s nationally recognized jazz scene. The Hill was not only a treasure to preserve, but also a problem to solve. It suffered from serious housing and socio-economic troubles that earned it a reputation as a slum and a hub of vice and disease. Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority proposed a series of renewal projects that employed federal funding to address these problems. These projects transformed the Hill and displaced its residents, engendering opposition that ultimately changed Pittsburgh’s renewal practice and the relationship between the city’s planners and the public. The exercise of this transformative power hinged upon representations of blight.

Pittsburgh, like many other North American municipalities, undertook large urban renewal projects during the mid-twentieth century to modernize its infrastructure and its image. Although it pursued redevelopment for many reasons, the city’s planners consistently invoked the elimination of blight. Often equated with cancer, blight was more akin to the common cold: readily diagnosed without a full understanding of its causes and its nature. The diagnosis was powerful, as it enabled redevelopment authorities to compel private landowners to sell their property to the city via eminent domain. The ambiguity of the concept and the high stakes involved in its application led to conflict over its nature and use, engendering many forms of resistance, both overt and subtle. Some opponents of redevelopment rejected the label, while others embraced it as a chance to redefine the problems of blighted areas and their solutions. Blight thus represented not only an opportunity for planners and their supporters to reimagine and reconfigure neighborhoods; it also empowered local activists to appropriate and deploy the term to further their interests.

By contrasting the views of planners with those of neighborhood stakeholders, such as residents, business owners, and those employed in or patronizing local businesses, this paper will highlight the points of contention over the Hill District’s “blighted” designation and the solutions proposed to address the problem. It will also demonstrate how the concept of blight presented opportunities to redevelopers and their opponents. Planners used blight as a technical term to appropriate property and transform the Hill. Local activists, in turn, appropriated and transformed the concept to promote their interests. The conflicts and compromises that arose from these different understandings of blight demonstrate the contentious nature of the concept as well as the utility of investigating its use in urban renewal projects as a legal term and as a form of representation.


Similar Titles:
Neighborhood Characteristics and the Location of New Educational Opportunities in a Large Urban District

Theorizing Urban Spectacles: Festivals, Tourism, and the Transformation of Urban Space


 
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