Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The need for mixed uses

Downtown, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority's garages are operating at only between 10 and 20 percent of capacity by eight o'clock in the evening, except for the central Mellon Square garage which may reach 50 percent if something is doing at the hotels. (Like parks and consumer shops, parking and traffic facilities are innately inefficient and wasteful without time spread of users.) Meantime, the parking problem three miles from downtown in a section called Oakland is something fierce. "No sooner does one crowd move out of that place than another moves in," explains an Authority official. "It's a headache." It is also easy to understand. Oakland contains the Pittsburgh symphony, the civic light opera, the little-theater group, the most fashionable restaurant, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, two other major clubs, the main Carnegie library, museum and art galleries, the Historical Society, the Shriners' Mosque, the Mellon Institute, a favorite hotel for parties, the Y.M.H.A., headquarters of the Board of Education, and all the major hospitals.
When I first read this paragraph, I was shocked. I had lived in Pittsburgh for a while in the past decade. This description could have been written any time then, or even now. Did Jane Jacobs possess a time machine and decide to write about a city forty or fifty years ahead of her time? Or has Pittsburgh remained fundamentally the same for the past fifty years? I'm going to assume the latter. But why, despite all the talk of improving things for many decades, has it remained the same?

When I lived there, I hardly ever went downtown. After 5pm, all the stores closed. Even the bookstores. Soon, there would be nobody left on the street but some bums. Everyone had retreated back to their neighborhoods. For me, that was East Pittsburgh: Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill. As far as I was concerned, Oakland was downtown. That's where all the activity centered, around the humongous population of the University of Pittsburgh and also its world famous system of hospitals.

In some ways, Boston has a lot in common with Pittsburgh. In terms of raw population, it's about double the size.  Both are constrained geographically by water onto peninsulas, this has shaped the transportation patterns of each. There's a strong sense of neighborhood identity in both. Downtown Boston clears out almost as badly as Pittsburgh -- at least in the Financial district -- although much remains active in the immediate vicinity. Both cities have suffered terribly from a history of segregation, a legacy of which remains to this day. Urban renewal wreaked devastation in both, and yet there still remains some relatively walkable old neighborhoods.

When I read Death and Life and compare the descriptions of Boston and Pittsburgh in the book to my experience of them today, I find myself recognizing the same places and the same problems today that she wrote about fifty years ago. I think that is somewhat depressing. Is it the case that we are unable to address the root causes of the problems in these cities, that they are so similar five decades later? Will I be around five decades hence and looking back, still find that nothing has changed? I hope not.

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