Seeing that this is Jane Jacobs Day at AntiRust, everyone ought to follow the link to this article--one of a series--that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It says a lot about what happens when the government gets involved in redevelopment. Too bad it appeared in the paper six years ago. Here's a taste:
Four decades after promising to give East Liberty "one of the finest residential and shopping complexes in the United States," Bob Pease is back in the neighborhood he tried to save from ruin, talking about how some of his plans went awry.
"You can see what happened to that," said Pease, 75, who was director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority in the late 1950s and 1960s. "It ought to be torn down."
Circling the business district on a one-way loop, Pease pulls his car into parking lot after parking lot, pointing to the places where store owners promised to build back-door entrances but never did. He drives down Negley Run Boulevard, a road he widened, and points to deserted grass patches that failed to lure wealthy shoppers from Point Breeze and Fox Chapel. Pease passes trash-choked Broad Street, where the vacant Bell-Stern Furniture store, a bar and a fitness center sit amid litter. On Penn Avenue, he passes the East Mall Apartments, a 17-story, low-income housing complex that is a host to drug dealers, crime and vandalism.
"Right or wrong?" said Pease, looking at the high-rise. "I don't know."
After the URA demolished 1,200 homes, reduced the size of the shopping district by 1 million square feet and closed the middle of East Liberty to automobiles, the neighborhood lost hundreds of small businesses, according to one report. In the four decades that followed, it lost more than 4,500 people.
Pease's URA got most of the blame. "They ruined East Liberty," said Floyd Coles, 75, who has lived in the neighborhood most of his life.
It may be easy to lay blame for what happened. But Pease's story -- and that of urban renewal -- defies easy explanation. To pin East Liberty's demise on one person or one agency is to ignore the influence of the federal government, the growth of suburbs and a post-war faith in institutions and planning.
What East Liberty illustrates is how sprawling urban renewal projects rarely live up to their promises and how delicate the line is that separates good intentions from unintended consequences.
"It seemed like a perfect plan," said Dave Craig, 75, who was city solicitor in the 1960s. "It just didn't work the way we planned. I feel, in a measure, guilty."
By the way, the major defense offered later on in the article amounts to, "Well, we'll never know what would have happened if we HADN'T done the redevelopment."
But we do know what did happen.
Hundreds of millions of dollars (if not more) spent. Half the people abandoned the city. Poor minority citizens disproportionately impacted, giving the whole enterprise a racist tinge. And downtown is such a calamitous failure that we have decided to turn to a casino for salvation.
I mean, the free market isn't perfect. But in what way could it have been worse?