The Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission is considering the historic status of the Civic Arena (you can see the criteria they must use to make their decision here). While they consider the fate of the arena, the debate rages on: What should be done with the arena? There are those who believe that the 49-year-old landmark should be saved. They include the group Reuse the Igloo, who imagine repurposing the building. This is an issue which is not unique to Pittsburgh. Other cities are also debating what to do with their historic arenas and coliseums. One such city is Portland, Oregon. There’s a proposal to take their Memorial Coliseum and recreate it as a public recreation center known as the Memorial Athletic & Recreation Center (or “MARC”). That vision can be seen in this video:
However, when it comes to Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, the issue goes much deeper than just what to do with the area currently occupied by the arena. As Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neil puts it:
The way the Hill District was treated when the arena site was cleared in the 1950s was a civic crime. About 1,300 buildings, 400 businesses and 8,000 lower Hill residents got the heave-ho. Promises of better housing were never kept, and the highway ditches and largest park-for-pay lot in Western Pennsylvania are the neighborhood amputation scars.
David Conrad goes a step further in an opinion piece also published in the P-G:
It’s important because it’s evidence in a crime scene. It’s a weapon left on a battlefield. And this sword should be made into a plough share.
We should never forget what happened on those 28 acres. A strong, nationally known working-class neighborhood was wiped away. A neighborhood that gave Pittsburgh and America a symphony of cultural giants — musicians, actors, merchants, sports heroes and civic leaders — was chopped off at the knees.
The Hill gave generations of immigrants a foothold in this country, it gave them their first home and it gave them a voice — quite literally with the Pittsburgh Courier, which was to the African-American population The New York Times of its day.
The Hill. August Wilson’s crucible for the greatest play cycle in American literature. The home of the Crawfords, the fiercest baseball team that ever graced a diamond.
He makes an impassioned plea that we should expect nothing less than excellence from not only the Penguins and Oxford Development Company, but from ourselves. That the only way to begin to ameliorate the negative decisions from generations past is to think big:
Pittsburgh and the Hill deserve a better shake. A deeper process. One that, in the end, will create something that not only makes everyone involved more money than a series of movie theaters and cheesecake factories walled in by parking garages but that also will be a thing of beauty and strength that ties the Hill back into the life of the city it was meant to be a part of. A thing that people all over the country will travel to see.
We must not shrink from this challenge. Whether or not the arena is given historic status; whether the arena is creatively repurposed as more than just an arena and parking lot or if it is completely replaced; or if a part of it is kept as an icon and the area is completely reimagined; we deserve a real vision. We must ensure that this area is best used for the community of The Hill and for the City of Pittsburgh. The best plan will be the one with the most integrity. It will reintegrate the neighborhood with the rest of the city and be worthy of our history. A tall order to be sure, but one which all Pittsburghers deserve because it’s our city afterall.
And, as we look to to our future, we may want to turn again to Portland. Vision into Action seeks to create a vision for their city’s future by involving the communities and neighborhoods which make up their city. Their objectives include:
1. Facilitating the engagement of communities and populations whose voices are under-represented in public decision-making and planning processes;
2. Helping organizations, businesses, neighborhoods, and governments to align their efforts with the community vision for 2030; and
3. Advocating for projects and policies that align with the vision for 2030 articulated by 17,000 Portland-area residents who participated in visionPDX.
In other words, a vision of how to make Pittsburgh better shouldn’t come from Grant Street, it should come from the neighborhoods themselves with city government serving as the facilitator of how to make it happen. Perhaps if we had something like this in Pittsburgh, we wouldn’t be having the fights like the one over the Civic Arena.