Skip to comments.EMINENT DOMAIN [How Pittsburgh Democrats hurt the poor & minorities, & destroy jobs & housing]
Posted on 07/09/2005 8:57:05 AM PDT by grundle
Posted on Thu, Jul. 07, 2005
By JOHN TIERNEY
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Your land is my land
PITTSBURGH - Two questions I'd like to ask candidates for Sandra Day O'Connor's job:
1. Does the Constitution forbid the government from seizing your home and giving it to someone else?
2. If you're not sure, would you be willing to tour Pittsburgh before taking this job?
O'Connor had no problem with the first question. Noting that the Fifth Amendment allows property to be taken only for a "public use" like a road, she rejected arguments that it could be given to a developer just because the public could benefit from new jobs and tax revenues. By that logic, she argued in one of her last opinions, no one's home or business would be safe from anyone with a better use in mind for it.
But her side was outvoted, 5-4, by justices not inclined to be too literal about the Bill of Rights. They were pragmatists, arguing that land grabs like this had previously been allowed, which is quite right. And that's why I recommend a trip to my hometown to see the long-term effects.
Pittsburgh has been the great pioneer in eminent domain ever since its leaders razed 80 buildings in the 1950s near the riverfront park downtown. They replaced a bustling business district with Gateway Center, an array of bland corporate towers surrounded by the sort of empty plazas that are now considered hopelessly retrograde by urban planners trying to create street life.
At the time, though, the towers and plazas seemed wonderfully modern. Viewed from across the river, the new skyline was a panoramic advertisement for the Pittsburgh Renaissance, which became a national model and inspired Pittsburgh's leaders to go on finding better uses for private land, especially land occupied by blacks.
Bulldozers razed the Lower Hill District, the black neighborhood next to downtown that was famous for its jazz scene (and now famous mostly as a memory in August Wilson's plays). The city built a domed arena that was supposed to be part of a cultural "acropolis," but the rest of the project died. Today, having belatedly realized that downtown would benefit from people living nearby, the city is trying to entice them back to the Hill by building homes there.
In the 1960s, the bulldozers moved into East Liberty, until then the busiest shopping district outside downtown. Some of the leading businessmen there wanted to upgrade the neighborhood, and the city evicted hundreds of small businesses and thousands of residents - mainly poor Italians and blacks - to make room for upscale apartment buildings, parking lots, housing projects, roads and a pedestrian mall.
I was working there in a drugstore whose owners cursed the project, and at first I thought they were just behind the times. But their worst fears were confirmed. The shopping district became a ghost town. The drugstore closed long ago, along with the department stores, movie theaters, office buildings and most other businesses - some replaced by social-service agencies, some still vacant.
You'd think a fiasco like that would have humbled Pittsburgh's planners.
But they just went on.
They kicked out a small company to give H.J. Heinz more room. Mayor Tom Murphy has attracted national attention for his grand designs - and fights - to replace thriving small businesses in the Market Square downtown and on the North Side with more upscale tenants.
The city managed to clear out shops to make room for a new Lazarus department store, built with $50 million in public funds, but Lazarus did not live up to its name. It has shut down and left a vacant building. Meanwhile, the city's finances are in ruins, and businesses and residents have been fleeing the high taxes required to pay off decades of urban renewal projects and corporate subsidies.
Yet the mayor still yearns for more property. He welcomed the Supreme Court decision, telling The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that eminent domain "is a great equalizer when you're having a conversation with people." Well, that's one way to describe the power to take people's homes.
But I think a future Supreme Court justice would take away a different view of eminent domain after touring Pittsburgh's neighborhoods, especially those that escaped urban renewal: the old-fashioned business districts with crowded sidewalks and the newly gentrified neighborhoods with renovated homes and converted warehouses.
The future justice would quickly see what sets the success stories apart from Gateway Center and East Liberty.
No politicians ever seized those homes and businesses for a "better use."
Says it all.
So is the City of Los Angeles. It will be interesting when the city government types, get together with the development types (Eli Broad), and cast covetous eyes towards South Central L.A. and Watts. For that matter, Boyle Heights would make a nice Yuppie Town with hotels, shoppes and boutiques.
America. The land of opportunity for government.
I wonder how many of these eminent domain cases REALLY collect the desired revenue. Aren't there ususally tax breaks to attract the new "residents?" Isn't there an additional loss of revenue while there is a transition to the new use of the property? Not to mention the cost of changing infastructure, like rebuilding roads.
BTW - I have heard (and am working to confirm) that the city council of Maplewood Missouri is taking proposals to "redevelop" an area east of Big Bend and South of Manchester, just outside of St. Louis. The area has several small business including a car dealership and a great bowling alley. All have been around for years. There is a development just to the east of this place in St. Louis city that is in the exact shape of the ones in the article. K-Mart is still there, but fledgling.
Maplewood destroyed one neighborhood via eminent domain already.
If the author is attempting to use the transformation of Pittsburgh's "Point" as an example of "bad" use of eminent domain and urban planning, he just shot himself in the foot Big Time.
martin, do you have any pics 'before' and 'after' the Renaissance handy???
Show everybody that the jagoff author doesn't know what he's talking about.
"Pittsburgh's mayor and city council are all Democrats."
More than that, the machine running Pittsburgh and Allegheny County is and has been a Democratic Party one, stretching back a century. There is more waste and duplication of jobs in this area than in most areas of the country. Allegheny Co. has more police departments than any county in the country. Overlapping districts, everybody's cousin is on "the force"--and the major industry in many a community is traffic tickets of one sort or another.
I agree with everything the writer said or suggested--namely, that the big government planners always get it wrong, and try to force a "community" on an area, rather than allowing communities to evolve organically. An outside-in approach, rather than an inside-out one--which leads to the sterile, unproductive city landscapes we see in so many urban areas. The city of Pittsburgh still has a white-collar workforce that comes to those office towers, but come 6:00 PM, downtown sidewalks are dead and desolate -- all those workers have fled for the burbs.
Now, completely subjective, but my instincts have gotten pretty good on this subject: The New York Times ENDORSED the New London decision; they WANT big government to take over your property so tax bases will increase. The reason, I believe, that they ran this piece, which makes a great argument for gov keeping its damned hands off citizens' property, was that most of the displaced victims mentioned were...blacks.
I am sure I could write a parallel story about the horrors in Philadelphia. I'll just this, Philly NE, which used to be mostly lets say low to upper middleclass is quickly being replaced by minorities via. Section 8 Housing. Thousands of homes are changing hands, as those that can flee to slightly better conditons in New Jersey do so. And surely this is being repeated in many cities throughout our land.
It doesn't matter if the project was a dismal failure as it was or a roaring success, which is unlikely with government employees doing it.
If it violates the 5th Amendment, it's wrong no matter what.
Well, maybe you're from the Burg (you did invoke "jagoff"), but the author did not shoot himself in the foot. If you want to say that the buildings put up in the 50s were bigger and better (technologically) and "prettier" (a subjective issue, that one), I probably won't argue.
But it's hard to argue that the vibrancy is better; that the unique, only-in-Pittsburgh character was not destroyed. When you're smack in the middle of "dawntawn" Pittsburgh, the only way you can be sure you're not in a similar sterile area in Cleveland or Erie or South Bend or You Name Your Small to Midsized city, is if a Pittsburgh cop comes over and says, "Yens can't park here!" The Point sucks. Forget the artificial "festivals."
These raze-and-raise projects put up, at best, artificial environments that tourists and the lamebrained are steered to; at worst, they make urban areas dead zones, especially after hours or on Sunday afternoons (and the so-called jumping nightlife of downtown doesn't count, as young people will go just about anywhere if there's even a slight chance of getting laid. Now, the South Side area is a different story, as the bureaucrats were focused on "the city." But somewhere is a pencil pusher who sees the sidewalk traffic there and must be thinking, If we just tear down all those old, one- and two-story buildings that have restaurants and shops in them, we can build much more valuable buildings that will give us a lot more taxes, and be able to accommodate even more people! Of course, that would kill the South Side completely.) We've seen the pix and documentaries and read the articles of the now-gone Wiley Avenue neighborhood, which was once a national destination for blacks, and jazz aficionados. If it were still here, if it hadn't been bulldozed, and a way of life destroyed, today it would be a WORLD destination for travelers, and we couldn't put up enough hotels here for them. It would have that "unique American art form," jazz; great food; "marquee" value (meaning, people from all over would want to be able to say they'd "been to Wiley"... nowadays, people talk about WHICH Hard Rock Cafe they've been to... as if, once inside one, you can really tell if you're in Seattle or Atlanta).
I talk about other angles on this subject in my post #6.
Hey, the Steelers suck, and Cowher's a clown. Nah, just making sure you were listening.
The promised benefits of eminent domain abuse are almost never delivered. The Poletown case from a few decades ago is a great example of that. Government planned economies don't work.
Yes. Very true.
But what the hey - someone's house might be in the way of one of your beloved choo-choo's.
I don't know how you've managed to jump to that erroneous conclusion.
All I did was point out that the author picked an extremely poor example to support his position.
As a native Pittsburgher, I fully agree that the East Liberty and North Side renovations were pretty dismal flops. But the downtown development of Gateway Center and Point State Park was truly visionary.
Here's a picture of "The Point" in 1950. Look at all the crappy dilapidated warehouses:
Here's what it looks like NOW:
It's not difficult to argue at all.
Just take a peek at some of the old pictures.
There was an awful lot of that "vibrant" old crap that NEEDED to be destroyed.
Here's what it looks like NOW:
Ah yes. How nice to see that all that color was added to the area, courtesy of eminent domain.
That reminds me of this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, written by Bill Watterson:
CALVIN: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn't they have color film back then?
CALVIN'S DAD: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It's just the world was black and white then.
CALVIN'S DAD: Yep. The world didn't turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.
CALVIN: That's really weird.
CALVIN'S DAD: Well, truth is stranger than fiction.
CALVIN: But then why are old paintings in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn't artists have painted it that way?
CALVIN'S DAD: Not necessarily, a lot of great artists were insane.
CALVIN: But ... but how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn't their paints have been shades of gray back then?
CALVIN'S DAD: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else in the '30s.
CALVIN: So why didn't old black and white photos turn color too?
CALVIN'S DAD: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?
(CUT TO: EXT. Tree limb, Calvin talking with Hobbes)
CALVIN: The world is a complicated place, Hobbes.
HOBBES: Whenever it seems that way, I take a nap in a tree and wait for dinner.
Yeah, yeah, yeah... whatever...
Me: "But it's hard to argue that the vibrancy is better; that the unique, only-in-Pittsburgh character was not destroyed."
You: "It's not difficult to argue at all. Just take a peek at some of the old pictures. There was an awful lot of that "vibrant" old crap that NEEDED to be destroyed."
Well, you missed my point so widely you must be in Wheeling by now. No building ever created "vibrancy." That comes from people, who were displaced.
You showed some cavernous warehouses and terminals in your old pic that clearly are not very attractive, but skipped right over the point I made about the destruction of Wiley Avenue. And quite a few other points, too.
Let's just drop it.
Yes, I did not address each and every Pittsburgh neighborhood that was affected by urban renewal.
Rather than demagoging one side of the issue or the other, I think its more objective to observe that results were "mixed". The downtown renovation at the Point was an obvious success, and well worth the pains of transformation. Construction of the Parkway East and West also proved it's long term benefit, despite the disruption to whatever was there previously.
Urban renewal on the North Side and in East Liberty was more of a flop.
Wylie Avenue? Well urban renewal certainly didn't help Wylie Avenue any. But I don't think urban renewal was the primary cause of decline of that neighborhood, either. Yeah, once upon a time it had a "vibrant" night life, alright. But it was also "vibrant" with crime, drugs, prostitution, etc. etc. etc. Can't blame decent people for wanting to move away from there.
Good to see you are the one to decide what gets destroyed for the "common" good. You can make that case for any older neighborhood anywhere in the US. Look we can knock down these old houses and buildings and put up a mall! And it will bring in more tax money also! Oh boy!
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