The Pittsburgh Story
Every American city of size is working today on a Master Plan — a plan calling for a better routing of through traffic, for quicker access to the airport, for slum clearance, for park development and smoke control. The two which have achieved the most substantial transformation are New York, under Robert Moses, and Pittsburgh, under the remarkable teamwork of Dick Mellon and If allace Richards. Pittsburgh, unlike some of the older towns, has big money to spend, and the dynamic changes of the past five years are described by KARL SCHRIFTGIESSER, journalist and biographer who has served on the editorial staffs of the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Newsweek.
by KARL SCHRIFTGIESSER
SIX years ago, insiders were wondering if Pittsburgh was a used-up communily. For a variety of reasons, the oldest, biggest, and most powerful center of heavy industry, the leading steelmaker for ail the world, was shriveling away. Even the steel boom of World War II was not enough to keep it from the edge of disaster. It had become rundown, overcrowded, outdated. The decrepitude showed in its worn-out office buildings, its degraded housing, its traffic-choked streets, its sordid alleys, its polluted and uncontrolled rivers, and, above all, in the dense, choking smoke that covered the city and the river valleys with gray despair. More than a century ago, a frustrated group of citizens had met and passed a brave resolution that something should be done about the smoke. But it was still there and thicker.
Pittsburgh was a “used” city, and now economic considerations beyond the control of Pittsburghers seemed to be conspiring against the city and its surrounding towns. The vast industrial expansion taking place in the West and especially in the South became more than a threat as the decentralization of industry increased. Chicago, Cleveland, and Baltimore, new and expanding steel centers with modern methods and locations closer to consumer markets, added to the challenge. The confusing freight-rate muddle that long has nagged industry was another factor of the growing gloom. At worried board meetings towards the war’s end there was more and more talk about “leaving Pittsburgh,” and no plans for post-war expansion lay on executive desks.
Then, suddenly, something happened. An antismoke ordinance was passed and, even more remarkable, was enforced. To use a phrase Pittsburghers never seem to tire of, “the smoke cleared from the skies.” Then the government got busy: federal money came into the program for flood control, highway projects, a new airport. When the Army Engineers finish the Conemaugh Dam in the near future, the flood level of river-bound Pittsburgh will have been reduced by 10 feet. This is only part of a system of backing up and controlling floodwaters through the use of ten dams upstream from the city. Simultaneously work was proceeding on an extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that will carry through traffic around the city to the north at a 70-mile-an-hour clip, while a new 90-million-dollar, 27-mile, limited-access highway will bring traffic from the turnpike into the city in the unbelievable (to Pittsburgh motorists) time of twenty minutes. Now under construction, at the cost of 29 million dollars, is the Greater Pittsburgh Airport, which, when it is opened in June (it is now being partially used by the Army), will be larger than La Guardia Field and the Washington National Airport combined. These are related parts of a program the total cost of which will run to a billion and a half dollars.
In the heart of the business district — that grim conglomeration of massive stone piles as old-fashioned as Andrew Carnegie himself — two new, modern skyscrapers are going up. One, which will be occupied by the far-flung Mellon interests and the United States Steel Corporation, rises forty-one stories above William Penn Place, and is known by local wits as the Temple of Earning — in contrast to the Cathedral of Learning, the skyscraper schoolhouse at the University of Pittsburgh. Next to this will be a green, tree-lined park, in reality the roof to a five-tiered parking garage, one of thirty-two city-wide garages for which plans have been made. This one, occupying an entire block, was made possible by the gift of land (worth 4 million dollars) by the Mellon family. And beside this is now rising the new aluminum-coated Alcoa Building, a thirtystory home for the Aluminum Company of America.
Ten blocks away another huge development is being built on what for many years past has been one of the worst commercial slums in the Pittsburgh area. Twenty-three acres are being cleared away by the Equitable Life Assurance Company for what is known as Gateway Center. Here there will be eight office buildings. Three of them, which will house the offices of some of Pittsburgh’s leading industries, are now going up. They will look out on Point Park, thirty-six acres of paths, trees, playgrounds, which will replace an ancient slum on the site of the birthplace of Pittsburgh.
Across the Mon River, just above The Point, Jones & Laughlin, next to the combined United States Steel subsidiaries Pittsburgh’s largest industry, has swept away 125 acres of slums and is building a huge new steel mill that will increase the ingot capacity of Pittsburgh by 1 million tons annually and will add many jobs for residents of this booming place. Conservative estimates are that before the end of 1952 the annual steel capacity of the United States will reach 117.5 million tons, an increase of more than 45 per cent since 1940. In the Pittsburgh area, still the dominant steel center of all the world, the industry turns out 43 million tons a year. With the industry running at nearly 90 per cent of capacity, of course Pittsburgh is booming, but Pittsburgh has boomed before, and nothing like this cleanup has ever taken place.
THIS is the story of many men. Probably it could not have happened if it were not for Richard King Mellon, the present head of the Mellon empire of aluminum, steel, banking, oil, coal, and chemical interests. He must be credited with having followed his father’s adjuration, made when he was a small boy walking along New York’s Fifth Avenue, home of Pittsburgh’s absentee landlords: “Live where you work and work where you live.” He has stuck by the Smoky City, as has Jack Heinz, thirdgeneration head of the famous makers of the 57 Varieties, whose food-processing concern will soon begin erecting a new 15-million-dollar plant and warehouse in the city. Even in the gloomiest days Mellon, while admitting that he alone could not fend off disaster, refused to concede that nothing could be done.
Pittsburgh has grown up as self-interest dictated, but down the years there have always been some natives with vision who have felt the city should and could be a better place to live in. Thus there was a background of creative thinking long before the post-war crisis made action imperative. In 1910 a citizens group was set up, and during that year Frederick Law Olmsted was brought in to show how the streets should run. His plan has long since been forgotten. A few years later a Citizens Planning Committee was organized, and over two decades it spent nearly $400,000 on various plans and reports, some of great potential value. But almost every municipality in the country has its Master Plan, and few of them have progressed beyond the blueprints. Men like Frederick Bigger, the forward-looking Pittsburgh architect, were generally frustrated in their dream of a better Pittsburgh. Today Bigger, as chairman of the official Pittsburgh Planning Commission, is seeing his dreams come true.
In the late thirties the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association was off to a fresh start. They had private funds and a vigorous secretary, a young New Dealer who had helped Rexford Tugwell to establish Greenbelt, Maryland, for the Resettlement Administration. Wallace Richards sniffed the smoky air, prowled the twisted streets, eyed the architectural grotesqueries inherited from the past. As executive secretary of the Association, then headed by the late Howard Heinz, he was quick to realize that local jealousies, clashing interests, and inertia were already thwarting the brave new plans which the technical experts of the Association were creating.
Richards believed that what was needed was an over-all agency, built from the top and made up of the city’s most active industrialists, which would have the strength and the persuasion to bring together all the varied organizations necessary to implement a program of civic repair. It should not be a “reform” organization, but a practical amalgamation of all the industrial, political, and civic enterprise latent in Pittsburgh. Then came the war.
During the war many of Pittsburgh’s leaders, men like Dick Mellon and others of his generation, were away in the service. When they returned they saw their home town in a different perspective. They were shocked and awakened. When Wallace Richards, who had also been in government service, proposed to Dick Mellon the establishment of what eventually became the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Mellon was all in favor and gave him the green light. Mellon’s support was absolutely essential, for he is the head of the family whose sphere of influence reaches into so many major American industries, including T. Mellon & Sons, the Mellon National Bank & Trust Company, Gulf Oil Corporation, Koppers Company, Pullman, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, Alcoa, and Westinghouse. Where he led, others would come along.
At Mellon’s suggestion Wallace Richards, now director of the Carnegie Museum and civic adviser to Mellon, turned to the late Dr. Robert E. Doherty, head of the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Dr. Doherty enlisted J. Steele Gow, director of the Falk Foundation; Arthur E. Braun, banker; Dr. Edward R. Weidlein, head of the Mellon Institute; Joseph Dillworth, then of Westinghouse; and Edgar J. Kaufmann, president of Kaufmann’s department store.
The Mellon—Richards team was determined the Conference should not lapse into the desuetude that too often overtakes such voluntary undertakings. They planned that the Conference should become what its prospectus said it would be: “an over-all civic agency, stimulating and coördinating research and planning,” working for the “development of a broad, unified plan and program for the region as a whole,” and above all furnishing “the civic leadership needed to carry out and accomplish this program.” This last was the key to its success.
From the practical point of view the most important single thing the Conference did was to insist that its members represent themselves; in other words, that they serve as individuals and not as representatives of the Chamber of Commerce or other established groups. No bank president or steel head was allowed to turn his duties over to an “assistant to the president” or public relations man. If he did not have an interest in, and some knowledge of, specific community problems he was not asked to serve. Thus men like James Hillman, the coal operator; bankers like Arthur B. Van Buskirk, now president of the Allegheny Conference, and Robert C. Downie; U.S. Steel’s Clifford F. Hood; Westinghouse’s Gwilym A. Price; and other leaders took a personal part in the program.
During its first three years the Conference contented itself with plan-making, sought no publicity, but went ahead solving technical problems. If brought in Park H. Martin, a veteran Allegheny County planner who knew the entire Pittsburgh area like a book, made him executive director, and gave him a free hand. The Conference worked with care. It did not suggest tearing down and rebuilding the city. It brought together industrialists, business men, and politicians; acted as a catalytic agent in fusing old self-interests and a new feeling of social responsibility.
James F. Hillman, who was to become chairman of the sponsoring committee, put in candidly: “Pittsburgh was a blighted area industrially. We needed a new outlook and we got it, through men like Richards and Park Martin. Men around here — hard, tough industrialists — of whom you would never suspect it, came to realize that the carrying of a social or civic responsibility was not only broadening to them but did something — and I’m not kidding — to the spirit of this old place that was wholly surprising.”
THE money behind the drive was Republican money. But since the day it went Democratic with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Pittsburgh has been an unwavering Democratic stronghold. At the time the Conference was ready to emerge from its planning stage the Governor of Pennsylvania was Republican James Duff. Since 1945 the Mayor of Pittsburgh has been Democrat David Lawrence, an old-timer, a national committeeman, and a supporter of President Truman from the latter’s Senate days. His co-leader in all-important Allegheny County, in which Pittsburgh is situated, is another original Truman supporter, an old-time politician, Democrat John J. Kane. This was the two-way political situation in 1946 when the Conference wrapped up its recommendations for Pittsburgh’s future in a single package and sent them to Harrisburg for legislative approval. Mayor Lawrence did not listen to the advice of many Democratic, leaders who warned him that he would be accused of “selling out” to the “Mellon crowd.” He looked at the Pittsburgh proposal and found it good. At what seemed a great political risk he put himself behind the “Mellon deal” — as the plans were referred to in some circles — and captured the support of the entire Democratic Party machine and the help of the dominant CIO unions. Labor has never played an outstanding purt in the picture, probably because in a steel center it is busy on other matters more immediately relevant to the welfare of the rank and file, but from the start it has given it its blessing and done nothing to interfere.
“This unusual and unexpected alliance, cutting as it does across political lines,” Wallace Richards says, “has been the key to the Conference’s success. Without Mayor Lawrence” — and at this point the voice of the entire executive board is raised in agreement — “the minor miracle of bringing competitors together for common purposes and accomplishing what has so far been done could not possibly have been achieved.” Mayor Lawrence is the only known Democratic leader whose name may be spoken out loud in the Duquesne Club.
With the Democrats and Labor backing Pittsburgh’s men of power and position, the Conference proposals met little outright opposition in Harrisburg. Not all the proposals were approved, but these results were obtained: a smoke control act covering first Pittsburgh and then (in 1949) all Allegheny County, including railroads as well as industrial plants and residences; permission for the county to build incinerators and other garbage disposal facilities in 129 municipalities within the county; establishment of an Allegheny Transit and Traffic commission to study and recommend improvement in mass transportation; broadening of the powers of the County Planning Commission; establishment of a City of Pittsburgh Department of Parks and Recreation as a separate and functioning department of the city government; creation of a public parking authority; an amendment to the state highway act which enabled the construction of the Penn-Lincoln highway within city limits; and permission for Pittsburgh and other political subdivisions to broaden their sources of revenue beyond real-estate taxation.
Under the drive of Dick Mellon new blood began to flow into the industrial life of the town. General Brehon Somervell came to head Koppers Company, George H. Love moved in as head of the Pittsburgh-Consolidation Coal Company, Frank Denton took over direction of the Mellon National Bank & Trust Company, and Sidney W. Swensrud came along to head Gulf Oil.
Other companies outside the Mellon empire — but, according to the Federal Trade Commission, closely allied through interlocks in directorships — also went outside Pittsburgh for new personnel. Admiral Ben Morrell of wartime Seabees fame was hired to run Jones & Laughlin and supervise the building of its huge new south-side plant. Still in his middle thirties, William Block took over the active management of his father’s newspaper, the Post-Gazette. A few years before the renaissance it was impossible to induce new executives or workers to come to live in dismal Pittsburgh with its smoke and squalor. Now, many young executives, technicians, and teachers at Carnegie Tech and the University of Pittsburgh have come to Pittsburgh and found it a good place to live in.
Something, of course, was needed to dramatize the Conference. Smoke did it. Every Pittsburgher knew that the only time the skies were clear was when the mills were shut down during the Great Depression. Smoke meant work. They remembered how, in the 1890s, Andrew Carnegie had uttered pious platitudes about controlling the smoke — and let his open hearths roar and his chimneys pour. They had every right to be skeptical, especially when they saw various interests, including the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad lobby, lined up against the measure. But because the Conference was backed by strong men it, too, could exert pressure and did. The railroad lobby was called off and the smoke control measure became law. Soon industrial concerns were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on smoke control; the Pennsylvania began replacing its switching engines with Diesels (and even gave its grimy depot a much needed bath) and householders were encouraged to convert to gas and other less volatile fuels, Last March the Pittsburgh Bureau of Smoke Prevention, which enforces the act, was able to report that, despite the severe winter Pittsburgh experienced, the hours of “heavy smoke” had been reduced from 226 in 1945 to 56. “It’s not always remembered how dense Pittsburgh’s atmosphere was six years ago,” Sumner B. Ely, the Bureau’s superintendent, remarked.
There were objections to the smoke ordinance, particularly on the ground that it forced unnecessary expenses on Pittsburgh and Allegheny County householders. In 1949 Mayor Lawrence was opposed for the mayoralty renomination by a Democrat who raised the smoke ordinance issue, but Lawrence won the nomination and went on to win the election by 56,000 votes (compared to his 14,000 plurality in 1945), the largest majority in Pittsburgh history. Charges of his having sold out to the Mellon interests did not go down.
More serious objections have been raised to one feature of the Conference’s plans. When the Republican legislature secured the enabling legislation, it gave great powers to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, among them the right to seize by eminent domain lands for private usage. Some of the parcels necessary for Equitable’s Gateway Center project and about four parcels of the slum area Jones & Laughlin is now converting into its new steel mill were thus acquired.
There has been no question of the propriety of this procedure, which has in effect been upheld by the United States Supreme Court, and no hint of irregularities. But the possibility of abusing this right does exist, especially if the various authorities involved should fall into the hands of unscrupulous men. Thus far, however, thanks to a system of checks and balances surrounding the procedure (for instance, the Urban Redevelopment Authority cannot condemn land as a blighted area unless it has been so designated by the independent Pittsburgh Planning Commission), and to the integrity of the individuals serving on the various bodies, the taking of land for the new projects has worked wholly for the community benefit.
The spirit of coöperation which, as most of the Conference members will admit, has surprised oven themselves, was exemplified by Edgar J. Kaufmann, the city’s leading dry goods merchant. When the Gateway Center was proposed several of his business associates came to him in alarm because this would place three new office buildings, all more than twenty stories high and filled with a small army of white-collar workers, just across the street from Kaufmann’s biggest rival. Instead of withdrawing from the Conference and fighting the proposal, Mr. Kaufmann stayed on as vice chairman of the sponsoring committee and worked as hard as any man in Pittsburgh to make Gateway Center an actuality. His theory was that anything that was good for Pittsburgh would in the long run be good for his department store, but for a time he had difficulty in convincing some of his associates.
In the minds of some thoughtful Pittsburghers there lurks the suspicion that the work of the Conference has laid too much emphasis on the materialistic side, that it has neglected the fields of social welfare and cultural development. There is no question of the truth of this accusation. But members of the Conference say that Pittsburgh, the greatest steel center of the world, must look first to its industrial welfare. The purpose of the Conference, they say, must be to prevent backsliding and to continue planning the physical improvement of the city. Social welfare and cultural betterment, they feel, will follow as a natural development of the new spirit of coöperation.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh booms.