Gregory J. Crowley. The Politics of Place: Contentious Urban Redevelopment in Pittsburgh. PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. x + 207 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-5890-1.
Reviewed by Kent James (Department of History, Washington and Jefferson College.)
Published on H-Urban (May, 2006)
Examining Urban Redevelopment.
The city of Pittsburgh is an excellent place to study urban redevelopment. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities to attempt to remake itself by demolishing "blighted" neighborhoods and allowing private developers to build new buildings on the cleared land. Pittsburgh used a new Pennsylvania law that gave it the power of eminent domain years before such legislation was passed by the federal government. Gregory Crowley has chosen five redevelopment projects in Pittsburgh to examine the interaction between the different interest groups, business leaders, city officials, developers, local residents, as well as other institutional actors‹to understand why some redevelopment projects were enacted while political opposition stopped others. Crowley attempts to use the projects in Pittsburgh as case studies that demonstrate local manifestations of political power. He argues that contentious decisions are good means of analyzing sources of community power because through opposition, the decision-makers become public, and the development of the project is proof as to the relative power of the actors. How redevelopment projects deal with community opposition is an important determinant of their success.
The five redevelopment projects Crowley examines are the Civic Light Opera amphitheater in Highland Park, the Gateway Center at the Point, public housing projects in St. Clair and Spring Hill-City View, the demolition of St. Peter's Church in the Lower Hill, and the Fifth and Forbes downtown retail project. Four of the five projects were constructed in the 1950s; the Fifth and Forbes project was initiated in the late 1990s. Citizen opposition led to the derailment of the Civic Light Opera amphitheater in Highland Park (although it was redesigned and constructed as the Civic Arena in the Lower Hill District), as well as the Fifth and Forbes project downtown, which has recently been revived in yet another altered form. Citizen opposition was overcome in the other projects and they were constructed as originally planned.
Crowley argues that a few factors determined the different outcomes in these contested urban redevelopment projects. First, institutional structures for community opposition were not well developed in the 1940s and 1950s, so early projects (four of the five) faced much less organized opposition than did the later one. In addition, the proponents of the early projects (the mayor, city council, and the business community) were more unified during the early period. Crowley attributes this to the ability of Pittsburgh's mayor, David Lawrence, to use his hold on the traditional Democratic party apparatus to keep the council in step with the mayor. The structure of the city council was also important; as part of the political reform process Pittsburgh changed from a dual council elected by district to a single, smaller body elected at-large in 1911. Crowley argues that at-large elections meant city council members were concerned more about the city as a whole than any particular section, and were thus more supportive of redevelopment projects that were purported to have a broader impact than council members elected by district would have been. Pittsburgh went back to election by district in 1989.
Another factor that helped ensure the success of most of the early projects was the business community's relatively high level of concern for the welfare of the region; urban redevelopment was seen as crucial to the rejuvenation of the region in which the business community had so much invested. Somewhat less important factors that still had an influence were different levels of federal and state support, as well as changes in the regional economy. By the 1990s, the Pittsburgh regional economy was much less concentrated in the primary manufacturing sector as technology and the service industries grew dramatically. Crowley argues that in the 1990s business leaders had a much wider variety of interests and were therefore much less unified than they had been immediately after World War II. Additionally, they had less time to devote to urban redevelopment projects, so the city government was forced to play a much greater role in the later period.
Crowley documents that activists who were unsuccessful in stopping the early projects had attempted to use the courts to prevent the acquisition of property by eminent domain, but that the courts in the 1950s rejected their lawsuits. The court decision to dismiss the lawsuits effectively ended the opposition, and did so very quickly. Because the legal case for using eminent domain to take functional, profit generating property from one private owner to give it to another seemed so tenuous and had not yet been litigated, it would have been nice if Crowley had analyzed why the courts ruled as they did, especially in light of the fact that Crowley argued that a fear of losing in the courts was one of the primary motivations for the withdrawal of the CLO project. Additionally, although Mayor Murphy's acquiescence to political pressure to revamp the Fifth and Forbes project during the 1990s was largely a political decision as Crowley points out, it is also important to remember that some of Murphy's decision was probably due to the change in the legal atmosphere surrounding the government's use of eminent domain. While in the 1950s the courts gave the government the benefit of the doubt, by the 1990s, the property rights movement, as well as the mounting physical evidence of some of the drawbacks to using eminent domain to remake large sections of major cities, had clearly had an impact on public opinion and the courts. In his focus on structural issues in decision-making, Crowley does not give sufficient weight to either the legal system or the broader historical forces that affect the decision-makers.
Crowley's book is an important addition to the literature on the city of Pittsburgh. Crowley has used newspaper articles, reports, and the work of other historians to flesh out a more detailed picture of some of the early redevelopment projects in Pittsburgh. His analysis of the Fifth and Forbes retail project breaks new ground, and his use of interviews of many of the important actors allows him to get past the headlines to tell a more complete story. But the book is not without flaws. Urban redevelopment is an important component of urban history, and one that has not been adequately explored. The projects Crowley chose to use as case studies makes his work uneven. Why are four of the five studies from the 1950s? Why include Fifth and Forbes, while skipping the almost fifty years in between? Why mix public housing projects (St. Clair and Spring Hill-City View) with urban redevelopment, when the dynamics of public housing are very different than those for commercial projects? Although displacement has always been contentious and is the primary motivation for much of the opposition to redevelopment, constructing large public housing projects to be occupied by low-income (often minority) families was contentious in the 1950s even when the projects were being built on vacant land.
Crowley documents that urban redevelopment evolved from a "top-down" program to one in which the community increasingly had a role. Although his primary concern is how community opposition used existing political structures to attempt to alter the projects of "the regime," he has failed to place the changes in the redevelopment process in the broader context of an evolution of programs from the New Deal-type approach that typified early programs (experts deciding how to use federal funds for large projects) to an approach in which local actors had more of a voice, initiated by Johnson's efforts to include neighborhood residents in the decision-making process. The idea of local control was pushed even farther by first the Nixon administration and finally President Reagan who wanted to get the federal government to get out of such projects altogether, which would leave them to either local governments or, as Reagan preferred, the private market. These changes at the federal level affected redevelopment projects at the local level, since the government provided key elements of funding. Although the earliest redevelopment projects in Pittsburgh (the Gateway Center) used little federal money because it was not yet available, most redevelopment projects used large federal grants to make their projects feasible. But by the 1990s, the federal government was not providing that type of funding; Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and other proponents of using eminent domain to rebuild urban areas had to put together much more complicated deals, with much less federal funding, to make the deals work. While Crowley correctly documents the more sophisticated and organized nature of the opposition, he does not give enough weight to the importance of historical context and the evolving nature of federal support.
Pittsburgh provides an ideal location to track this evolution of the process of urban redevelopment for, as Crowley points out, in the 1960s Pittsburgh was the first city to use urban redevelopment money to try to maintain housing for low- and moderate-income families instead of bulldozing it. But Crowley does not even mention Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), which used a combination of code enforcement and rehabilitation grants and loans to property owners to improve existing housing in the early 1960s, which was a pioneering effort that became a national model. Nor does he mention the Community Action Agencies and the idea of "maximum feasible participation" by the community that became the mantra for activists wanting to influence federally funded programs such as urban redevelopment. While rightfully placing Pete Flaherty ("nobody's boy") at the forefront of the movement away the old regime in which local business leaders effectively ran the redevelopment efforts with the cooperation of the city, he shortchanges the previous administration's efforts to include community groups in the decision-making process by neglecting to mention the City Planning Department's Community Renewal Program, which divided the city into five planning districts in 1961, nine years prior to Flaherty's Community Planning Division (which Crowley used as evidence to show that the redevelopment process was becoming more attuned to the needs of the community). A book that examines contentious urban redevelopment in Pittsburgh would be better served by examining the process in more detail during the 1960s, when many of the important trends were changed.
Although it is unfair to criticize an author for a book he didn't write, it is fair to point out that a book that examines the process of urban redevelopment, and especially one that hopes to draw lessons that apply to places other than Pittsburgh should use a more representative sample of case studies. On the other hand, Crowley does cover much of the history of the intervening period (although he breaks no new ground), and his history of the period leading up to the redevelopment projects is excellent--concise, relevant and well written. The case studies Crowley uses are also well documented and clearly presented. In spite of the limits imposed by Crowley's choice of case studies, this book would be of value to anyone interested in twentieth-century Pittsburgh or the process of urban redevelopment.
. Roy Lubove, Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh: The Post-Steel Era (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), pp. 101-103.
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Kent James. Review of Crowley, Gregory J., The Politics of Place: Contentious Urban Redevelopment in Pittsburgh.
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