How the now-defunct Civic Arena buried Pittsburgh’s “Little Harlem.”
By Dante A. Ciampaglia
At 5:30 p.m. on October 21, 1961, a group of black Pittsburghers—kids and adults, blue-collar laborers and starched-collar professionals—congregated under darkening skies outside the Civic Arena to protest discriminatory hiring practices at the city’s sleek new auditorium. They carried signs that could easily have been spotted at similar demonstrations occurring across the country: “We Want to Work Too,” “Job Opportunities for Us Too!,” “Not Later, Now!” They sang “Nearer My God to Thee” as they marched. A couple men brought trumpets, another a large drum. It wasn’t the first protest decrying Pittsburgh’s bigotry—prior actions targeted segregated public swimming pools in 1949 and Islay’s restaurants’ refusal to hire black counter clerks in 1953—and it wouldn’t be the last. But this one was different; more raw, more personal.
The Space Age stainless steel marvel of modern engineering where they gathered was built on the ruins of the Lower Hill District, the center of black Pittsburgh known nationally as Little Harlem. The neighborhood had struggled with decrepit housing, virulent disease, and violent crime, but the community was tight-knit and vibrant when, in the early 1950s, the city identified the Lower Hill as ideal for urban renewal and condemned 95 acres as a blighted slum. Thousands of residents were displaced and hundreds of businesses shuttered, shredding the fabric of the neighborhood. The massive highway constructed at the base of the arena severed the residents of the Middle and Upper Hill from downtown and any kind of continuity with civic life.
Still, Hill residents were assured of adequate, affordable replacement housing and new job opportunities. And while progress was slow, there was a sense that this time things would be different. Pittsburgh would surely use its eye-catching new auditorium—a UFO-shaped building boasting the world’s first retractable dome—as a first step toward reversing the racism that led those who arrived during the Great Migration to dub the city “Up South.”
Reality set in at the arena’s dedication. “‘JIM CROW‘ HOVERS OVER CIVIC ARENA,” howled the Pittsburgh Courier in its September 23, 1961 banner headline. More than 5,000 people attended the opening six days earlier, including hundreds of black Pittsburghers who wondered why their community leaders were shunted to the back of the official crowd. Then they noticed the arena staff. “Gosh,” the Courier reported, “all of the ushers and guides are white! So are the concession employees! In fact, all of the employees seen are white! This can’t be! . . . No Negro employees in the New Arena! Impossible!” Black workers were eventually found, as expected, as bathroom attendants, and even then in small numbers. “Whether ‘Ole Jim’ was there by request, or whether he came uninvited, the aggrieved did not know,” the Courier wrote. “Being veteran watchers of the ‘bird,’ they recognized him on sight.”
An October 7 follow-up documented the lack of representation: all but five of the arena’s 86 ushers and all 28 ticket takers were white, as were its six engineers and six electricians; no blacks worked concessions or among the four-person office staff or four-member watchman’s crew. “We have been very patient in Pittsburgh on this kind of treatment,” local NAACP president Byrd Brown wrote to arena director Edward Freher. “We are determined to get our fair share of employment, [and we] propose to take positive action unless the Auditorium Authority and your office makes some move to equalize the employment picture at this arena.”
Protesters organized by the NAACP and Negro-American Labor Council assembled two weeks later. In one photo taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris— along with Gordon Parks one of the most important chroniclers of twentieth century black American experience—an older woman in a fine hat and knee-length winter coat looks directly at the camera. She wears a slight smile, perhaps happy to be photographed, as her unflinching gaze bores into you. When you look away you notice her sign: “The Soundness of Our Cause Should Prick Your Conscience.”
That cause is fair and equal employment opportunities, but also something bigger: the assertion that communities are more than collections of buildings, and people are more valuable than any single structure. It was a direct repudiation of the Modernist principles that guided the city’s postwar Renaissance program and promoted the Civic Arena—a community’s tombstone—as one of its crowning achievements. Nearly sixty years ago, little attention was paid to that message outside the black community. But today—as the calamitous failures of urban planning and civic responsibility that devastated the Lower Hill repeat themselves around the country—the soundness of such nascent anti-gentrification no longer pricks; it stabs.
For nearly a century, as they disgorged the guts of the nation’s skyscrapers and bridges, Pittsburgh’s iron and steel mills belched enough smoke, soot, and fire to render the city “hell with the lid taken off,” as Atlantic Monthly writer James Parton famously gasped in 1868. By the end of World War II, not much had changed. The incessant wartime demand for material to build planes, tanks, and weapons kept the mills on full blast, and as the country transitioned to peacetime Pittsburgh “saw itself older, grimier, more unlovely than ever,” as Fortune wrote in 1947. Its three rivers were toxic and routinely flooded, air quality was noxious, and parkland seemingly extinct; there was a growing housing crisis, streets were choked by increasing automobile ownership, and the first flutters of white flight had begun.
The solution presented by mayor David L. Lawrence and the coterie of corporate titans who comprised the Allegheny Conference on Community Development was the Pittsburgh Renaissance, a colossally ambitious program of civic rebirth, environmental rejuvenation, and economic stimulation. A key aim was aggressively targeting blight and replacing dilapidated infrastructure with new, exciting opportunities attractive to outside investment. At the tip of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle, for instance, two shabby bridges that connected at the Point—where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers confluenced to form the Ohio—were torn down to create Point State Park. Above the Point, a thicket of old Pittsburgh was demolished for Gateway Center, a plaza consisting of a hotel, apartment complex, and three polished steel cruciform office buildings that realized Le Corbusier’s Modernist fantasy of towers in a park. The Renaissance eventually attracted a bonanza of mid-century masters—Mies van der Rohe, I.M. Pei, Natalie de Bois and Myron Goldsmith, Max Abramovitz, Philip Johnson—who reshaped Pittsburgh’s built environment. Congested, cacophonous zones of timber-and-brick low-rises were cleared for open plazas and superblocks anchored by ordered, efficient metal-and-glass buildings and skyscrapers.
Modernism’s clean-lined anticipation of the future formed the backbone of Pittsburgh’s architectural rejuvenation, which made it inevitable that the Hill District, which connected nearly 100,000 black Pittsburghers with downtown’s eastern edge, would find itself in the crosshairs. For close to fifty years, the benign neglect that begets slums had done its work on the Hill. Many lived in substandard housing, some without access to indoor plumbing; drug use and prostitution were rampant; crime was commonplace. Yet the community thrived. Trailblazing jazz artists such as Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine, Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, Art Blakey, and Roy Eldridge honed their skills at the legendary Hill clubs like the Crawford Grill. The Hill-based Pittsburgh Courier, one of America’s most important black newspapers, led the dramatic and still extant realignment of black voters from a Republican to Democratic bloc. So many celebrities and influential personalities passed through the Hill that the corner of Wylie Avenue and Fullerton Street was dubbed the “Crossroads of the World.”
All Lawrence, the ACCD, and Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh saw was a slum standing in the way of progress (and potential property tax windfalls). “The Hill District, as we have come to know it, must be destroyed, residents [have] learned,” the Courier reported on February 25, 1950. The reason, according to URA executive director John Robin, was that “living patterns . . . are neither desirable, acceptable nor endurable.” Six years later, the city finally brought in the “headache balls” to clear the Lower Hill for new housing, office space, and hotels. Work also began on the Crosstown Expressway, proposed by Robert Moses in his 1939 Arterial Plan for Pittsburgh, which severed the contiguous link between the Hill and downtown Pittsburgh.
The marquee project, though, was the show-stopping Civic Arena. Designed by architect Dahlen K. Ritchey, it was initially intended as a home for the Civic Light Opera company and drew fawning attention for its unique 415-foot retractable dome. Constructed of six 300-ton steel leaves that opened into a 260-foot arched cantilever that held two more, stationary leaves, the dome was heralded as an engineering marvel and gave Pittsburgh an iconic building to promote its Renaissance success story. “The auditorium will stand as a symbol of an era here,” Lawrence said.
The arena was officially added to the URA’s Lower Hill plan in 1952 after an earlier site for the auditorium in the East End was met with stern resistance from white residents, and at first the Hill was encouraged to embrace it. “[S]ome 8,000 residents of the sector, crowded into slum and substandard dwellings, will be moved to more wholesome quarters,” the Courier wrote on January 16, 1954. “The remodeling job will be a revelation for residents of the Lower Hill, who now have sixty-three residents to the acre compared to only five in residential areas like Squirrel Hill.” The paper also assured its readership, a year later, there was “no cause for alarm” as the city plotted the gutting of their neighborhood.
But by the time the Civic Arena finally opened in 1961, hope had curdled to enmity. Many Lower Hill residents were still in temporary housing or out of the area altogether, and they were denied jobs in the marvel of Modernism. The Courier—the voice of the Hill—was forced to relocate its newsroom. The Crossroads of the World was a parking lot. And all for a building that never served its purpose. The stainless steel leaves made for crummy acoustics, immediately scaring off the CLO and frustrating other organizations. “It is impossible to play here without a shell on stage,” conductor Leonard Bernstein fumed in 1963. “The music is wasted. There is no projection. As far as I’m concerned, this is my first and last concert in the Arena.” It quickly became a sports venue, with the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team its anchor tenant, and over time so many cables, speakers, and other equipment were added to the ceiling it became futile to open the roof.
The Civic Arena’s failure of function compounded its insult and catastrophe. The Hill District, as generations knew it, was gone, as were a community’s friendships, support systems, culture, and identity. Even though the arena began hiring black employees after the 1961 protest, Lower Hill jobs never fully materialized; neither did quality, affordable housing, which exacerbated the tragedy. The few projects that were built became new ghettos ridden with worse crime, drug use, and civic detachment than existed before redevelopment, and the many Hill residents who sought homes in surrounding neighborhoods were met with hardened bigotry and segregation.
Pittsburgh attempted to cleave off more of the Hill District throughout the 1960s for more development projects, but the community had had enough. “Urban renewal means Negro removal,” NAACP president Brown famously said in 1962. Hill and civil rights leaders drew a line at the intersection of Crawford Street and Centre Avenue in the Middle Hill—memorialized today as Freedom Corner—where they would not allow any further encroachment. None occurred, but the worst had been done. The Renaissance had driven a stake through the heart of the Hill.
“In hindsight, I suspect no one . . . could have envisioned the frightful effects this particular Urban Renewal effort would visit upon the low-income families who peopled the neighborhood,” wrote Rev. James W. Garvey, former pastor of Epiphany Parish, wrote in 2010. “The infrastructure of the whole neighborhood collapsed almost overnight.”
For more than forty years, the Civic Arena, renamed Mellon Arena in 1999, attracted white suburbanites to hockey games and rock concerts while the predominantly black Hill District residents struggled with deteriorating housing, worsening crime, and municipal apathy. But an unprecedented opportunity emerged in 2007. The Penguins secured a new facility, across Centre Avenue from the Civic Arena, which would be leave the old building—described by then-city councilman Jake Wheatley as “the symbol of the beginning of the end of our community and communal process”—vacant as of June 27, 2010. Pittsburgh had a chance to correct an historic injustice.
Many called for the arena’s demolition and the site redeveloped in a way that reconnected the Lower Hill to downtown and restored life to the community. But a vocal minority, led by local architect Rob Pfaffmann, demanded the arena be preserved for its historic value to Modernism and the Renaissance and reused for the benefit of the city, hockey fans, and architecture lovers. The Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority was unmoved, and in a thirty-second proceeding on September 16, 2010, its seven-member board voted unanimously—as someone shouted “Gestapo!”—to demolish the arena. By the end of 2012, the site was empty. Seven years later, despite some restoration of Wylie Avenue and Fullerton Street, it’s still a parking lot.
Like the mid-century plan that preceded it, there has been a flurry of activity around the twenty-eight-acre site. The Penguins control redevelopment rights, and in April 2018 signed a new agreement with the city to develop eleven acres by 2023. The team’s $500 million plan includes new housing, office space, and entertainment venues, with the Lower Hill reconnected to downtown via a government-funded cap park over the Crosstown Expressway. Unlike Renaissance planners, though, the Penguins and city leaders have committed to involving Hill residents in the process. In 2008, the team, politicians, and One Hill Neighborhood Coalition, representing 100 community groups, signed a regional-first community benefits agreement that led to investments across the Hill and a promise to prioritize hiring residents in the future. There have been public hearings on the Hill, and the Penguins signed a letter of intent with a minority developer to build some of the proposed housing units.
Still, the process has been bumpy, and the Hill’s veteran birders vigilantly watch for a new breed of discrimination: gentrification. The modernist housing projects and superblock ghettos built a half century ago on the ruins of urban minority neighborhoods are themselves being designated blighted, crime-ridden slums and marked for demolition, replaced by sleek glass towers, big box retailers, and restored streets to accommodate white residents fleeing suburbs. In the Hill District, community leaders carry the generational scars of urban renewal and pounce slightest hint of exclusion, be it a design competition that didn’t solicit proposals from local and minority firms or a dearth of actually affordable housing. And like their forebears, they have no hesitation mobilizing residents to stop unfair treatment before it roosts. Even if this time is different—that maybe the Hill District will experience its own renaissance—too many know what’s at stake.
“Tall, gleaming buildings housing transplanted middle-class suburbanites cannot hide the ghettos, slums, and racially segregated schools and churches of the city’s economically deprived,” New Pittsburgh Courier executive editor Carl Morris wrote in 1967. “Aluminum and steel are poor substitutes for human dignity.” ■
This essay appears in Midwest Architecture Journeys, available now from Belt Publishing.
Dante A. Ciampaglia is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, NY, whose work has been published by Metropolis, Architectural Record, The Paris Review, and the Daily Beast, among others. A native Pittsburgher who spent his first twenty-seven years in the Steel City, Dante has a complicated relationship with the place that, to paraphrase Jimmy Breslin, he loves and hates equally.
Cover image of the Mellon Arena in 2007. Public Domain Image by Derek Jensen via Wikimedia.
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