A True 'Renewal' for Pittsburgh's East Liberty? During the "urban renewal" movement of the 1960s and '70s, a highway project cleaved apart the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa. Since then, it has lost most of its businesses and few call it a community. Now a new generation of urban planners wants to pull the highway down and re-create a community -- but not everyone is convinced.
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A True 'Renewal' for Pittsburgh's East Liberty?

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A True 'Renewal' for Pittsburgh's East Liberty?

A True 'Renewal' for Pittsburgh's East Liberty?

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One of the big political issues was urban renewal. The controversial renewal projects leveled thousands of homes and businesses, often in poor African American neighborhoods to build highways and low-income housing. Today many of those projects are being turned into mixed income neighborhoods. The philosophy has changed but the controversy hasn't. Jason Witmer from Alleghany Front Productions reports from the East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh.

JASON WITMER: Sam's Bostonian Shoes is one of the last businesses left from the East Liberty heydays of the 1950's. Sam Arabia is 78. He has been selling and repairing shoes here for 47 years.


SAM ARABIA: Sam's Shoes. Dale?

WITMER: Arabia's business is profitable but it's easy to be wistful about days gone by, when the neighborhood overflowed with grocers, theaters and restaurants.

ARABIA: Unidentified Man: Oh man, we gotta go far back.

WITMER: Fred Johnson is shopping for a pair of shoes today. He's a retired trolley operator and bus driver. He's been a regular at the store for decades.

FRED JOHNSON: We have Bolens(ph). Conigs(ph) was the best one. Ambers. Remember, Sam?

WITMER: Do you still do shopping here?

JOHNSON: There is nothing (unintelligible) I just come to Sam's to get shoes. That's it. There is nothing else any simpler.

WITMER: Back in the sixties, East Liberty experienced one of the largest urban renewal projects in the country. Pittsburgh planners tore down homes and businesses to build a highway to circle the neighborhood.

ARABIA: They routed traffic around East Liberty and there was a lot of businesses going out of business.

WITMER: Planners also build low-income high rises, which eventually became dysfunctional and crime ridden.

SUSAN POPKIN: To concentrate thousands and thousands of poor families in high rise buildings is a disaster.

WITMER: Susan Popkin of the Urban Institute has studied redevelopment projects throughout the country. She says many cities made the same mistakes as Pittsburgh, but now they're trying to turn back the clock. As in East Liberty they are turning highways back into grid streets. They are demolishing low income housing and replacing it with mixed income townhouses.

POPKIN: It brings resources and high income people into the community so that there are better schools, better services, better grocery stores. The kinds of things that these communities are lacking.

WITMER: In East Liberty, the redevelopment has already attracted Whole Foods and Borders. High-end condos are under construction. But some fear a higher influx of wealth will have a down side.

RAYMOND DAVIS: These restaurants down here next to the post office, they re-doing, refinishing, rebuilding. All they're trying to do is get the black man out of East Liberty.

WITMER: Raymond Davis is 67 and has worked in three different steel mills in his lifetime. He's standing in front of the last of three high rises. It's slated for demolition in the next year. He's lived here for years and calls it home, despite its drawbacks.

DAVIS: I look out my window and I see cars burning and I see shootouts. I've seen the moon set on top of Penn Hills. It looked like it was so big and orange that I could just reach out and touch it. I mean it's just a magnificent sight up there on that sixteenth floor.

WITMER: Davis and all other former high-rise tenants in East Liberty were given Section 8 vouchers. They can use these to help pay for housing wherever they choose. They were also guaranteed the opportunity to return to East Liberty. But the relocation process can be tough on the elderly and disabled. And if this project follows national trends, only a third will come back. Popkin says there's usually several reasons for this.

POPKIN: It takes so long for these redevelopments to occur that people may decide where they are now is okay, and they don't want to be bothered moving again. They may have a little - a lot of distrust for the housing authority, or it's because of bad things that have happened in the past, and they may not believe that the new community's going to be better. I think the biggest problem is the loss of affordable housing for the poorest households.

WITMER: Critics site the small number of returnees to these types of projects as evidence that they're another form of 1960s urban renewal. But Popkin says even if residents don't come back, they usually end up in better situations.

POPKIN: I think this time there has been a lot more sensitivity to the fact that you want to create a real community. What you're getting is living in better housing, in a safer neighborhood.

WITMER: But Popkin says one of the goals of this redevelopment hasn't been met. The neighborhoods are filled with people of various income levels and ethnicities. Studies show they don't often interact. For NPR News, I'm Jason Witmer, in Pittsburgh.

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