Sights and scenes: Downtown Pittsburgh

By Ennis Davis, AICP, ModernCities.com
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Named in honor of British statesman William Pitt, the First Earl of Chatham, Pittsburgh was incorporated on April 22, 1794. Located at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, the city quickly became a vital manufacturing center fueling the country’s westward expansion and urban growth.

In regards to the production of glass, steel, aluminum and iron one could argue that Pittsburgh’s products built America. Its downtown flourished as industrialist like George Westinghouse, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Henry John Heinz flooded the city with money and elaborate buildings showcasing the products that made them some of the most wealthy people in U.S. history.

However, the city’s industrial might resulted in the highest levels of air pollution. Covered in soot, as early as 1868 it was described as “hell with the lid off." Nevertheless, by 1910, Pittsburgh had grown to become the country’s eighth largest city.

During World War II, Pittsburgh produced more steel than the countries of Germany and Japan combined, leading to the 55.6 square mile city’s population peaking to 676,806 by the 1960 census. Money and civic pride led to the city becoming the site of the country’s first publicly sponsored privately financed urban development project with the 1952 opening of Gateway Center.

Pittsburgh’s fortunes changed for the worse when its steel industry imploded under the weight of de-industrialization of the country during the late 1970s. In 1981-82 alone, local mills laid off 153,000 workers alone leading to additional job losses in related industries and business sectors throughout the region. By 1983, the city’s local unemployment rate peaked above 20 percent.

While initially down and out, the city worked hard to become one of the country’s few early industrial hubs to completely shift its economy to one that is now largely focused on education, healthcare and technology.

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