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3.29.2020

Pittsburgh's City Parks: Wonderful Urban Nature Sanctuaries & Testaments to Progressive Urban Planning

Pittsburgh's City Parks are some of the crown jewels of the city and help make it a livable place for city residents. Before we delve into the system, it is important that we start off with some background on how they came about as a part of a progressive plan to make America's cities more livable in a time when cities were growing beyond their capacities and people were really hurting.

The Landscape Architecture and "City Beautiful" Movements to make America's cities more livable really took root in Pittsburgh. In the wake of horrendous tenements, shacks, and unlivable conditions that did not keep up with the booming expansion of industry in the mid 19th to early 20th centuries, progressive city planners opted to find ways to make city living more pleasant and livable for the masses within cities. Pittsburgh was a brutal place to live in as a working person in this time period.
City life in Pittsburgh's Hill District around the turn of the century. This photo from Historic Pittsburgh, showing what was some of the better housing for working class people in Pittsburgh. 

These conditions were outlined in the 1909-1914 Pittsburgh Surveys, along with other serious issues, which lead to national reforms such as the creation of Workers Compensation, advanced efforts to improve quality of life issues, and housing improvements.
Company housing in Homestead. Photo from 1909 in the Pittsburgh Surveys. 
Diseases like Typhoid and Tuberculosis ravaged working class communities across the country. 622 people died of Typhoid in Pittsburgh in 1907. One of the sociologists who worked on the Pittsburgh Surveys even died from Tuberculosis. The issues reported came to a head with the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. Worker protections outlined by the Pittsburgh Surveys lead to sweeping labor rights measures that went into effect in New York State in 1910, only to be overturned by the courts in 1911. The notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which killed 146 workers happened the next day in New York City. Eventually the headwinds from the Pittsburgh Surveys prevailed and lead to huge improvements in worker safety and labor rights across the board. Thanks to James Maurer, a Socialist  Party State Representative from Reading, Pennsylvania passed a Workers Compensation Law in 1915, though it took until 1947 for the rest of the states to implement such laws. 

Company housing was often little more than shacks and disease ravaged the impoverished and hurting populations without simple amenities like indoor plumbing. People who were injured on the job were entitled to no protections and were tossed out to the curb like trash. They were left homeless, to create shacks from whatever wood scraps they could find and without any sort of safety net aid. City life for working class people, to put it mildly, was hell. The City Beautiful Movement was one aspect of a wide approach that aimed to improve urban life. While it did not solve the problems, it was one facet of a greater plan that laid a backbone to help improve city living that endures to this day.
A view of Skunk Hollow, located adjacent to the B&O and Pennsylvania Railroads near Bloomfield and North Oakland. In the far right you can see Luna Park, a former amusement park in Pittsburgh, as a view of stark contrasts between the wealthy and the impoverished. Picture from the 1909 Pittsburgh Surveys

Frederick Law Olmsted set the wheels in motion for a new wave in focus towards landscape architecture and the "City Beautiful Movement" with the creation of Central Park in New York City in the 1850s. Throughout his life he saw first hand what social inequality looked like. He opted to create Central Park as a place that was open and free for the public to visit, with no encroachment of private interests. This was a radical concept at the time, and much of his career was spent trying to instill this idea into the citizenry. Perhaps his most moving work of what I have seen was in the creation of Niagara Falls State Park on the New York side of Niagara Falls, in which he set about to create a large public park as an access point for the masses to see this natural wonder. He also designed the beautiful grounds for the US Capitol Building and a number of other national urban treasures. While he did not have any direct projects within Pittsburgh, his son's work extends across Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh itself. Olmsted work extends across Pennsylvania, with the creation of a number of campuses for colleges and universities, including Bryn Mawr College, Grove City College, Haverford College, Lafayette College, and Pittsburgh's own Chatham University. He also designed some of the state's finest city parks, including Philly's FDR Park and Scranton's Nay Aug Park. The borough of Vandergrift was designed from the ground up by him as a vision for a company town and company housing that was more compassionate to its workers, as opposed to the images of life for industrial workers that we just saw.

A number of civic improvements for Pittsburgh were suggested by Olmsted Jr. Of these suggestions, some were implemented piecemeal, and others were rejected as being too progressive. Some of the ideas that were implemented were the creation of the Parkway system, Schenley Plaza as a grand gateway to Schenley Park (though these plans were quickly scrapped to create a parking lot, and then restored back to a parklet area in 2006), Washington Boulevard, Liberty Bridge and Tunnel, and removal of the Grant Street Hump, a hill that was right in the center of Downtown Pittsburgh on Grant Street. A civic center and public garden was proposed to be built that extended from the area of the courthouse, though this never came to fruition.

Pittsburgh's system of city parks followed the lead of what visionaries like Olmsted were doing through creating large and public areas within cities to help improve quality of life. Edward Manning Bigelow followed this lead and helped to create the jewels of Pittsburgh's parks system. Bigelow is known as the first great visionary in Urban Planning in Pittsburgh's development. One of the ways he was able to garner such local influence is having a close friendship with Andrew Carnegie, which gave him the clout to make bold moves within the city.

Bigelow's leadership brought the city its great urban parks, the basis of its water and sewer system, and the creation of wide and beautiful boulevards to connect the neighborhoods of the city. In the case of the first park that we will evaluate, the water system and park system is fully joined with the city's reservoirs.

Highland Park
The ornate entrance plaza
Highland Park was founded in 1889 and opened in 1893 after the city bought out a number of farmers in the northeastern corner of the city surrounding the city's drinking water reservoir, which was a huge public health advancement in 1879.
Reflection Pond
This 377 acre park has hiking trails, picnic groves, the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, a beautiful fountain, and an overall forested urban oasis.
Dog Park
This section of the city grew as a streetcar/trolley suburb, and the creation of the park helped to make this new section of the city more livable than older sections of the city. Two of the most prolific figures in American pop culture grew up in the neighborhood and East End neighborhoods surrounding the park, dancer and actor Gene Kelly, and jazz legend Billy Eckstine.
Brit and CeCe getting ready for adventures at Highland Park
The park features beautiful architecture, a city reservoir, playgrounds, great hiking trails, a dog park, swimming pool, reflection pond, tennis courts, sporting fields, the Bud Harris Cycling Track (an outdoor and public bicycle velodrome), and more. Highland Park is a treasure.
It is a lovely place to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon, or to just spend some time decompressing after work. All of the city parks offer this sort of setting, which brings so much quality to city life.
Heading over towards the reflection pond
The Reflection Pond
The entrance to the park area is adorned with Victorian style entrances with sculptures that were designed by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti. Additionally, the entrances have ornate fountains and beautifully landscaped gardens. Moretti also created works for the next park we will be looking at, Schenley Park.

Schenley Park
Me and CeCe making the most of a sunset up at the overlook at Schenley Park's Schenley Oval

Similar to Highland Park, Schenley Park also came about through visionary planning. It is tough to imagine these days, but in the 19th century a good portion of Oakland was a rural suburb to Downtown Pittsburgh, complete with farming and grazing livestock. Building development was rapidly expanding in the boom days of Pittsburgh in the late 19th century. A 300 Acre tract, known as the Mt. Airy Tract, was owned by rich heiress Mary Schenley. When European settlers came to the region, William Thompson gained control of the tract. The wealthy O'Hara family purchased the tract from Thompson. General James O'Hara was a Revolutionary War Veteran and he bequeathed the land to his wealthy granddaughter, Mary Schenley. She suffered from Asthma and could not handle the poor air quality of Pittsburgh, but due to her grandfather's prolific real estate empire, she was a giant landowner in the city. From 1869 until 1889, Pittsburgh attempted to acquire the Mt. Airy Tract, but did not gain any traction. A bond issue came to vote in 1872, but lost by 4500 votes. In 1889, as Pittsburgh was in the midst of a building boom, Mary Schenley's Pittsburgh based real estate agent intended to head to London to convince her to sell the land to developers. When Edward Bigelow learned of this development, he dispatched his own team to persuade Mary to give the land over to Pittsburgh.
A view of Oakland from Schenley Park's Flagstaff Hill, with views of the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute (home of the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History) and Carnegie Mellon University

Bigelow's team rushed to London to talk with Mary Schenley about converting the Mt. Airy Tract into a park, beating the real estate agent by two days. Mary donated the main 300 acres of Schenley Park to the City of Pittsburgh, under the stipulation that the city must never sell the land, and that they must name the park after her. Bigelow happily obliged and created the first of the City Parks that were established by the City of Pittsburgh. Large developments occurred around Schenley Park, with the park serving as the heart of this region of the city. Oakland surrounds the western edges of the park, while Squirrel Hill surrounds the eastern borders. The world class campuses of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon are directly connected to the land of Schenley Park. There is a strong chance that without the investment that the city put into Schenley Park, Oakland would not be the cultural center that we know and love. The University of Pittsburgh relocated to Oakland in 1907 to become better organized and expand, and Carnegie Mellon, then known as Carnegie Tech, was founded in Oakland in 1900. 
 Moretti's Panther Sculputres on the Panther Hollow Bridge. Pitt students are known to dress up the panthers for different holidays and seasons. 
 Panther Hollow Lake
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Also connected to Schenley Park is the Carnegie Institute, which is home to the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the main branch of the Carnegie Library, and the Carnegie Music Hall, which was built on land donated by Mary Schenley to Andrew Carnegie to build the complex. The park is also home to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, another of the jewels of the city of Pittsburgh. Phipps was founded in 1893 as a donation by real estate magnate Henry Phipps within Schenley Park. All of these institutes were set in motion with the planning of Edward Bigelow's work to make Schenley Park a center for the improvement of city life.

We mentioned earlier how Gene Kelly grew up in the improved living conditions that were offered in East End area. He ended up going to school at the University of Pittsburgh. He would go on to change American pop culture within his lifetime and many of these achievements are a testament to the changes that Edward Bigelow initiated in the quality of city life within the city of Pittsburgh. Every facet of Gene Kelly's life in Pittsburgh happened in the shadow of improvements that Bigelow made to the city. Had these changes not been instituted, there is a high likelihood that Gene Kelly's trajectory may have ended differently, even with the challenges he faced in his early life. 
One of the beautiful Tufa Bridges.
Today Schenley Park serves as an urban oasis, with sporting fields, picnic groves, a running track at the Schenley Oval (which was originally used for horse racing), tennis courts, frisbee golf course, miles of hiking trails, a pond, second growth woodlands, scenic views of the Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland Skylines, an ice rink, a public golf course, and more. Beautiful stone pedestrian bridges are located within the park, including two large bridges, known as the Tufa Bridges, which were built in 1908 and are absolutely stunning.
One of the many stone bridges in the park built by the WPA during the Great Depression
There are many smaller stone bridges that were built as projects during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which gave employment to young men. Multiple statues by Moretti are located throughout the park, as they are in Highland Park.
Serpentine Drive's curves in autumn
Two 18th century cabins remain. One of the cabins, the O'Neill Cabin, was lived in by General O'Hara. Driving through the park in an automobile and by bicycle is also a real scenic treat. It is a joy to ride through the park, with its stunning views of the city and the exciting roads, including Serpentine Drive, a curvy road with beautiful stone walls on the edges that is utilized for the annual Vintage Grand Prix. In many ways, Schenley Park has directly and indirectly served as the heart of life in Pittsburgh since its founding. The visionary planning of Edward Bigelow at a regional level, and Olmsted at the national level, have left an indelible mark on the quality of urban life, one that cannot be easily quantified. 

Frick Park
Frick Park's main entry points are adorned with these beautiful gateways
Schenley Park adjoins the western edge of Squirrel Hill, and the next park we will check out, Frick Park, adjoins the eastern edge of the same neighborhood. Before you enter the Squirrel Hill Tunnel heading inbound, you see Frick Park. Soon after you leave the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, you pass through Schenley Park.

In addition to Squirrel Hill, Frick Park also adjoins Point Breeze, Regent Square, Swisshelm Park, Summerset, and Duck Hollow. These neighborhoods were shaped by heavy industry, with Summerset being a relatively new neighborhood which was built upon a giant slag pile from Pittsburgh's old steel industry. Duck Hollow was once a company housing spot and now it is Pittsburgh's smallest neighborhood. The neighborhood is boxed in on one side by a railroad that is adjacent to the Mon River, and on the other side by the border of Frick Park, in which the hollow was used as a thoroughfare for dumping slag from the steel mills. Just a handful of houses remain and the only way in is on a small bridge with only 11 foot clearance under the rail line. Point Breeze, Regent Square, and Squirrel Hill were where the wealthy industrial magnates often resided, which ended up leading to the creation of Frick Park in the first place, as a donation of land by steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.
Frick Park measures in at 644 acres and is mostly located within steep and heavily wooded ravines. Unlike Schenley and Highland Parks, which were pretty much set in size upon their founding, Frick Park has gradually grown, with lots of the growth occurring as industry slowed down within the region. Initially the park was began in 1919 and grew from the original 151 acres of land holdings from steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, upon his death. The park officially opened in 1927 with an initial will based investment of two million dollars from the notoriously stingy Frick. He only made that investment upon insistence from his daughter, rather than his own generosity. Through the years, the park has grown down the Nine Mile Run Valley to nearly reach the Mon River.

Recently, the park has been culturally significant with Blue Slide Park Playground being rapped about by the late Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller. 
The Braddock Steel Works off to the left, the Monongahela River and the Rankin Bridge in the center, and Kennywood Park off to the right. Kennywood is roughly four miles away from this spot, as the crow flies.

The park offers great easterly views out of the city at its higher elevations, with overlooks and vistas showing the Monongahela River, Kennywood Park, the steel mill in Braddock, Homestead, Edgewood, and Swissvale. While scenery and those neighborhoods are not often associated with each other, the views really are quite impressive. Beautiful and ornate stone structures are located throughout the park and really add to the relaxing feel of the place.
Frick Park Nature Center
A state of the art nature center was opened in 2016 and wildlife abounds throughout this enormous park. It is a noted sanctuary for birding, along with many mammal species and amphibians. It is also home to a sprawling dog park, the Off Leash Exercise Area, which CeCe really loves.

Riverview Park
The three of us up at the beautiful Allegheny Observatory
As opposed to the prior three parks, this park was not actually created by the City of Pittsburgh. Most of the North Side of the bank of the Allegheny River across from Pittsburgh was the city's similarly sized twin, Allegheny City. The twin cities merged into one in 1907. The 259 Acre Riverview Park was built in 1894 as a response to Pittsburgh's construction of Schenley Park. Riverview Park was built into a hillside in Perry North and is home to great hiking, a dog park, a pool, playgrounds, and picnic shelters. Riverview Park is best known for its outdoor concerts, which often include jazz performers. It is also well known for its ornate architecture, including the Allegheny Observatory, an beautiful structure that was built in 1900 and serves as the centerpiece for the park. It is the home of the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Geology and Planetary science as is also home to Western PA's only Seismic Station. When the observatory was built, it was committed to being open and free to the public, a mission which is still followed.

Similar to the other three major Pittsburgh city parks that we have covered, this is a forested urban oasis.

Allegheny Commons Park
Allegheny Commons Park is the oldest park in the City of Pittsburgh. Similar to Riverview Park, Allegheny Commons Park was also created by Allegheny City and did not become a part of Pittsburgh until 1907. The park was established in 1867 in the center of Allegheny City. Even today, Allegheny Commons serves as the heart of Pittsburgh's North Side.
It is home to a mature arboretum with lovely tree cover and walking paths, an awesome overlook for those who enjoy watching trains, the National Aviary, an ornate fountain, Lake Elizabeth, views of the Pittsburgh skyline, and more.
The park is especially beautiful in autumn, with its deciduous trees showing radiant yellow, orange, and red leaves. In the spring, a beautiful row of cherry trees lines Lake Elizabeth and frames the view of the Downtown Pittsburgh. This park was ornately planned by Mitchell and Grant, out of New York City. They were leaders in the City Beautiful Movement. Walking around Allegheny Commons Park is delightful and a real testament to what those city planners were working to achieve.

Thanks to progressive planning, these parks contribute to the health of the region in many ways. Not only in allowing great opportunities to exercise, take in some fresh air, and socialize, they also create lots of fresh air within the city itself. At the start of the 2010s, Pittsburgh was a leader in urban forests and tree canopy cover. However, since then, due to willy nilly cutting down of trees and disease, Pittsburgh has lost about 10,000 acres of tree cover, according to Tree Pittsburgh, an organization that is dedicated to reforesting the city of Pittsburgh. As a metro area, the City of Pittsburgh has an F grade in air quality in ozone and particle pollution according to the American Lung Association. Outside of California, Allegheny County is the only American county outside of California to fail on Ozone, and daily and long-term fine particle pollution. All tree cover within the city is important to help mitigate this bad air quality, and the city's tree cover within its parks is invaluable in this effort.
A view of fireworks from the scenic overlook at beautiful Frank Curto Park
Pittsburgh has a great system of smaller parks and parklets that are evenly spread across the city, but these five parks are the largest and the true gems of the park system. They are a testament to what can be achieved with forward thinking in civic planning and help make Pittsburgh a great place to live.
North Shore Riverwalk/Three Rivers Heritage Trail, popular for sightseeing, bicycling, running, dog walking, and more.
When coupled with Point State Park and the open riverfront access by way of the construction of multi use/bicycle trails, there is no shortage of public land for recreation within the city. All of this visionary planning has added so much to the overall quality of life in the city and should serve as a benchmark for future development within the city.

3.15.2020

A Stroll Down Baum 2014 vs 2020: A look at Quality of Life in Pittsburgh & the American Economy

Today we take a stroll down Baum Boulevard, just under six years after we first did so on our page. In many ways, Baum Boulevard shows us a baseline of where America is at right now in terms of the economy and quality of life. It has historic structures and businesses that give us insights into the many boom times and busts since the late 1800s. It is very much an area that is in flux, leaving us with a mixed bag when it comes to quality of life for people in the region. Generally we focus more upon upbeat articles on tourism and travel, but this article will be a deeper look into the history and quality of life of the place we call home.

We start at the beginning of Baum Boulevard, at its intersection with Bigelow Boulevard on the edge of North Oakland and the Upper Hill. 
An old Amusement Park, Luna Park, was located at this location. The above map features of a view of the park land in 1910, which showed the park buildings, but included then paper streets that would be created once demolition of the park was complete, since it had closed in 1909. This is the start of Baum Boulevard's historic Automobile Row, a place that introduced the region and the country to cutting edge automobile technology. It was filled with car dealerships, tire stores, and more, along with being part of the routing of the first coast-to-coast designated auto route, the Lincoln Highway.  It still is referred to as the old Lincoln Highway and also is home to a few car dealers and auto parts/repair places.
The same plot of land in 1923, thanks to http://peoplemaps.esri.com/pittsburgh/
The specific building in the prior photo is the UPMC Wolff Center, which is utilized as a training center for UPMC. It also served as the Oakland Motor Car Company dealership, and adjacent buildings housed tire stores for Kelly-Springfield and BF Goodrich, in addition to Oldsmobile, Nash, and more. 
The black building on the left remains in use as a car dealership. Porsche currently occupies a spot which was first used as a car dealership by the Paige Motor Company, which went under in 1927, and Fisk Tire. Through various times in its history, it remained used as a tire company building. The black building also served as a concert venue, known as the Graffiti Showcase. The second floor hosted bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Green Day, Hootie and the Blowfish, and local bands such as the Clarks, Joe Grushecky and the House Rockers, and more. According to the Pittsburgh Music History website, 1500 bands played at the old venue. Since 2000, it has only been used for the storage of more cars. 
One of the most impressive buildings of Baum Boulevard's Auto Row largely sits as additional car storage for P&W BMW and an Budget car rental location. They have done the bare minimum to keep the building intact. There is a storefront on the left side of the building that is used as the Budget rental counter area. Otherwise cars are just strewn about the property in any place that they can fit. 

1913, from an auto trade publication, The Horseless Age
Back to the 1923 map. The building with the busted facade appears to be the old Kaufmann-Baer Garage, which was a repair/storage shop for trucks from the old Kaufmann's Department Store. That portion of the building appears to be this section with the decrepit storefront.
The storefront of the building, which has so much gorgeous potential, is just sitting and rotting away. It was last officially used as the used car dealership of the old Auto Palace, which used to run the Porsche Dealer across the street. The building has now declined into an even bigger eyesore that is mostly used as car storage. Over the years, the building was used for other used car dealerships, a Pontiac dealership, and even a Papa John's Franchise. It would be great if the front storefront could be used again, or at least restored.
The side parking area once housed an Atlantic Service Station

 This building has so much potential, but I have a heavy feeling that it may face the wrecking ball at some point instead. 
Looking across the bridge and the old B&O Passenger Mainline/current Allegheny Valley Railroad Right-of-Way, we can see the old Studebaker dealership on the right. It is currently used as the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Since our last article, the building has received an exterior rehab that has added new windows and cleaned off vandalism on the walls. In the center you can see Pep Boys and the old Ford Model T Assembly Plant. On the left you can see Mercedes Benz of Pittsburgh, which has created a sprawling campus for itself that spans pretty much an entire city block.
The railroad tunnel on the Allegheny Valley Railroad. 
Looking the other way on the bridge, towards the railroad, East Busway Ramp, old Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, Bloomfield, Children's Hospital, and Lawrenceville.
Khalil's Indian Restaurant, one of the few remaining family owned restaurants on Baum Boulevard.
FE Johanssen & Sons Plumbing is another great family business that has called Baum Boulevard home for a long time.
P&W BMW and Chipotle. Two brands that are prominent in 21st century life.
 As chain fast food has proliferated, many local family businesses have faltered. The Orient Kitchen was on Baum Boulevard for decades and went out of business within the last year. 
 Here you can see the Mini Cooper Dealer, along with Einstein Bagels, GetGo Gas Station, KFC, the Design Center, and the old Ford Model T Assembly Plant looming large in the background.
For the better part of the last twenty years, the Ford Model T Assembly Plant has sat empty. 
For the better part of the last decade, UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh have talked about opening a research center within the building. Large steps have been taken to move forward with this plan, with the demolition of an old addition to the building and work to create a brand new research building on the remainder of the land that sits between the old plant and Centre Ave. 
The building itself looks great, though at this point it is just a Potemkin Facade. Large steps are being taken to make this building and adjacent property a research facility, but the pace in which it is moving leads any casual observer to question if it will ever get completed. Regardless though, huge steps have been taken to beautify and restore the building. The wheels are also clearly in motion to make this campus happen. 
 Note the shadow from the old building addition that was recently demolished. The entire property is cordoned off and a giant crane is in place to work on construction of the new complex.
Note the difference in restoration work between 2014 and 2020. It looks so much better. I am eagerly awaiting the completion of the restoration 


 Note the difference in restoration work between 2014 and 2020 
 A banner showing what the new addition is planned to look like.

Another before and after from 2014 to 2020
Hasty plywood coverings on the rear part of the building in 2014
Versus an active construction scene now. 
 In the days when the Model T plant was bustling, the Shadyside Train Station would be visible in the distance from this shot.
Across the rail line is the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, one of the world's leaders in cancer research. 

And across from the Cancer Center is UPMC Luna Garage
It is an interesting juxtaposition that the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, which conducts research and treats cancer patients is located across Baum Boulevard from a site that was known to work with carcinogens from the 1890s to the 1950s. The old Duquesne Reduction Company / Federal Metals Lead Smelting site was documented by the EPA for Superfund Cleanup, but UPMC moved forward with construction of their Luna Garage for employee parking, directly across the street from UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. The primary portion of the smelter was located on land that is occupied by trees and grass. I am unsure if UPMC backfilled any fresh dirt to the site. The back third or so of the parking garage itself looks like it is directly over where the lead smelter was. 
Lead smelter site and the current UPMC Luna Garage
 The upcoming stretch of Baum Blvd has seen the most change since 2014.
 The only thing that has remained constant is the legendary Ritter's Diner. This is a great American diner that is well worth checking out if you are in the area. 
 In 2014, the apartment building was in the middle of being constructed. This is "Morrow Park City Apartments" which ranges from studio apartments that start at a whopping $1275.00, up to $3680.00 for a three bedroom apartment. As with most of these high end luxury apartment complexes across the city, they received major tax incentives to get built, yet the new housing stock is not affordably priced or subsidized at all for current residents to live within them. The city has not been able to find tenants for these high end apartments, so the prices for them have naturally gone down, while people lower on the socio-economic scale have their rents getting higher, to the point in which they are being squeezed out by price, or physically being forced out through eviction while the land that their buildings are located upon is getting cleared for prospective new development. 

I do not have hard occupancy numbers from this facility, though apartment finder websites show high immediate availability for apartment units within the complex. A quick glance at street view also shows that many of these units are uninhabited. Having been completed for 5 years, they still have a sizable vacancy rate, which shows that these units are way overpriced for the region. This complex was built with tax incentives, meaning that we all chipped in to build this complex. Instead of lowering prices to meet the market price, they let these units remain empty and at a high rental cost. Many luxury complexes like this are located throughout Pittsburgh, and have even higher vacancy rates. Few subsidized buildings for affordable units have been built in that same time period, yet a number of them have been demolished, effectively displacing many individuals and families and making them refugees from their own city. Historically, the same thing has happened since at least the 1950s and 1960s with "urban renewal" projects to build the old Civic Arena, Three Rivers Stadium, Allegheny Commons Mall, Point State Park, and more. Many of those folks ended up living in affordable housing that was built in this area of the city, only to have a similar displacement happen again today. This problem is not a matter of a lack of housing supply, for many of these high end apartment complexes remain empty, rather it is a matter of people being purposefully priced out, cruelly with their own taxpayer money subsidizing the builders of these luxury apartment complexes that sit as large Potemkin Cities.

Across the street from the Morrow Park City Apartments is Cafe Sam. Back in 2014, this building still housed a wonderful local mid scale restaurant. Now in 2020, it has sat abandoned for two years. Yet another local family business that has disappeared over the last few years on Baum Boulevard.
 As I walked back down Baum on my return, I saw this guy heading out from the Cafe Sam Property, salvaging some stuff.
 The Don Allen Dealership in 2014
2020 view with replacement building
In 2014, the venerable Don Allen Dealership building stood in this spot at Liberty Avenue, though its days were numbered. Now it is home to a brand new development that houses several fast food chains, including Five Guys and Dunkin Donuts, with several more storefronts awaiting new tenants. I feel like these new businesses could have easily been housed in a retrofit of the old building, yet they opted to demolish the classic building and put in a new one. As far as a business development, it is good to see this come to the area. As far as a quality of life issue, the jobs provided at these fast food joints could not possibly pay for housing at the nearby Morrow Park City Apartments across the street. It leaves me wondering who has benefitted in our economy in the last few decades and Baum Boulevard is a prime case study for this. Many family businesses that provided life sustaining wages to people and families have shut their doors. The businesses that have taken their place do not provide life sustaining wages. Affordable housing has either been demolished and not replaced, or prices have risen and people have been price hiked out of their own neighborhoods.
 
This Hyatt was under construction when we went through here in 2014.
Morrow Park and the First United Methodist Church are two of the gems of the Baum and Centre Ave corridors. On one hand, we have that huge vacancy rate in luxury apartments in Pittsburgh that are unattainable by the people that live here. On the other hand, just last month a homeless man was found dead in his sleeping bag in the portico of the church, which is located just a few hundred feet from the vacant luxury apartments we just looked at. The city has a homeless problem and a serious shortage of affordable housing. Rather than be aggressive in solving these issues, property owners that took tax subsidies to build their luxury apartments have opted to leave them sitting empty  for years instead of housing those in need. The end result of that is shown in this tragic loss of life that happened a few weeks ago. 
 
Somebody lost an axle! Judging by the amount of bumper fragments in the area, my guess is that it was during an accident, though a pothole may have done it in as well and caused the driver to lose control. 
I believe this Wendy's had just been rebuilt back in 2014. This restaurant is always busy. Next door is Levin Mattress, which occupies an old Blockbuster Video.

 This office/retail building was built in the last few years, and also sits largely vacant. I am seeing echoes back to the housing bubble in 2005 with these vacant hulking luxury buildings that have never seen tenants. 
 I just can't get my bearings here anymore.
This is one of my favorite reuse projects in the city. 
For much more background information on this old Chrysler Dealership, which was designed by Albert Kahn, and the transformation to Aldi, check out this article. 
Instead of opting to tear down this beautiful old car dealership, Aldi instead opted to reuse the first floor showroom area as the footprint for the store, with the upper floor areas that were once used for storage and car repair being utilized as parking decks. This is one of the most brilliant reuse projects that I have ever seen and it also enables many working class people to actually be able to afford groceries. Instead of demolishing this character filled building and putting up a steel and glass box, they did something special with the building and preserved it with modern use. 
This was the site of the first drive through service station. 
Gulf opened the first modern filling station on this site in 1913.
The upcoming complex on the left is a beautiful old Oldsmobile and Buick Dealership.
The showroom is now occupied by the Spinning Plate Gallery, which is awaiting opening their "Really Big Faces" art exhibit, which has unfortunately been delayed thanks to the Corona Virus.
  
This picture shows the business that is most abundant along Baum Avenue, banks. There are two PNC bank branches and a myriad of others. Here are two banks, KeyBank and Bank of America right next to each other, neither of which were present six years ago. 
Here, things deviate a little bit with a Comcast Xfinity store sitting right next to Bank of America. Both Bank of America and Comcast are in the top fifty of most profitable companies in the country, with each posting ten percent growth in the last year and exponential growth over the last ten years. Compare that with the amount of old small family businesses along this same stretch of road that have shuttered and sat abandoned, not just over the last few decades, but over the last few years. Buildings with character have been torn down and replaced with standard, uniform steel and glass boxes that are architecturally bland. Many of these buildings have been built and remain empty, offering retail and residential rents that are not sustainable for the average worker. 
The new residential complexes of Baum Boulevard, and across the city of Pittsburgh, offer rents that exceed the median income for the residents of the areas in which they are located, yet these buildings were subsidized with local government dollars. Meanwhile, not even a block north of this location is a large dirt plot that is about a city block in size. That plot is being used to build a new Whole Foods Market, to replace a store that is not even a quarter mile away. Just five years ago, that land housed hundreds tenants in affordable housing units. Meanwhile, another quarter mile down the road, there are lots of swanky, high-end apartments that sit vacant. Many families that lived in the former Penn Plaza Apartments were unable to secure replacement housing in the neighborhood that they have called home for generations.  

In many ways, Baum Boulevard exemplifies the current state of affairs in America. Old family businesses have disappeared and corporate retail has taken its place.
Two of my absolute favorite buildings in the city are Motor Square Garden and East Liberty Presbyterian. They are located along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh's East Liberty Neighborhood. Both are prime examples of Gilded Age architectural opulence and dominate the skyline of Pittsburgh's East End. East Liberty Presbyterian is visible from most points in the city east of North Oakland and the Hill District. They have recently added evening lighting that makes the skyscraper even more stunning.
The copper dome of Motor Square Garden is gorgeous. While the building is primarily used as an office for AAA, it is well worth going in just to see the beauty of the structure. I would love to see the building get reused as an eatery or spot for nightlife. For history and background information on this place that has served as a center for commerce, and even as a sporting/boxing arena, check out this article. 


 On the left you can see the recently renovated East Liberty Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.


 As opposed to 2014, most of the storefronts along this stretch of Baum Boulevard are occupied, with this one serving as a local branch for Don's Appliances.

This building in particular is one of my absolute favorites. It hosts several stores and offices, in addition to the lovely Lorelai Beer Hall and Cocktail Bar. It easily is our favorite place for cocktails in the city, and it has a terrific tap list. It is Alpine themed and is a very popular and intimate space that reuses the old Werner Building, which has served as the heart of East Liberty since it was constructed at the corner of Highland Avenue and Baum Boulevard.

 I love the detail of the street signs on the Werner Building.
Here is the beautiful Highland Building. It is one of sixteen buildings in the city that were designed by Daniel Burnham, the famous architect that is best known for his creation of the old Chicago skyline. This thirteen story skyscraper sat derelict for twenty years and seemed doomed to getting hit by the wrecking ball. In 2012, work began to refit the tower and rebuild the interior. It is now home to Walnut on Highland, another high end housing complex. I am unsure of the occupancy rate of this complex, but instead of demolishing this classic structure, they opted to refit it, which helps the neighborhood retain its character and be more aesthetically pleasing. For the better part of a century, this complex served as a business hub, with doctor's offices and other businesses occupying its units. It has now been refitted into an apartment building after it had sat derelict for many years. It is great to see that the building is back, but once again, the rents are not affordable for the majority of the people that live in the area, with prices ranging from $1368.00 to $3218.00 a month. At least though, the investment into the formerly endangered building itself likely justifies the high rent prices.

 East Liberty Presbyterian dominates this end of Baum Boulevard, even with the giant Highland Building next to it. 
Looking back down Baum Boulevard from the easternmost end of the road, 1.5 miles from its start. 
Back to Motor Square Garden


 So I have no idea how I missed the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. 
Of all of the family owned restaurants and businesses to leave Baum Boulevard, the delicious Yinzburgh BBQ has remained a staple. 

I have contemplated doing an updated stroll down Baum for a while now, since the completion of the construction projects that were underway back in 2014. I thought this would be a more upbeat article, but as I looked further into things as I walked around, I noticed that there are frankly more issues along Baum now than there were then. Family and local businesses are faltering even more, the new businesses that are coming in are mostly not bringing living wage jobs, new housing stocks are prohibitively expensive and being kept empty for years while affordable housing stocks are either being removed (demolished) or their prices are getting prohibitively high for residents. The realities along Baum Boulevard provide a glimpse into the state of our current economy and who benefits from it, and the hordes of people that are not. It is a fascinating study of contrasts that are reflective of the overall economy of the country.

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