By John Ruch
Add Pittsburgh to the list of Atlanta neighborhoods considering stronger historic protections as a bulwark against madcap redevelopment.
Members of the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Association (PNA) and other advocates for the historically Black community met last week with the City’s historic preservation chief for advice on what kind of historic district protections to pursue and how to gather community input.
“There’s a lot of interest in Pittsburgh right now,” says PNA Vice President L. Winfrey Young, “and we’re trying to weave it all together in a fabric that will speak to the history and culture of the community and help us move forward into the future as a beautiful, unified space in the city of Atlanta.”
It remains to be seen if a consensus can be reached. And a practical decision is already coming in the form of the “Pink Store,” a commercial building at 1029 McDaniel St. that is infamous for crime and is now under redevelopment considerations. Community conversation includes “whether to preserve that particular building or build something new,” says Young.
One thing’s for sure – the pressures from outside developers and new residents are not lessening.
“These historic neighborhoods are more than endangered; they are truly under siege,” says David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), which has helped the PNA convene the historic district discussions. “… The Pittsburgh neighborhood and those that have called this space home for generations, decades and a few years should be applauded and thanked profusely. Their courage to say we have always been here and we are not going to be forgotten or removed is the very purpose of historic preservation.”
Pittsburgh is a roughly triangular neighborhood bordered by Metropolitan Parkway to the west, a railroad line and the Downtown Connector/Pryor Road to the east, and the Atlanta BeltLine and University Avenue to the south. Its name is an industrial-era nod to the city in Pennsylvania then known for its smoke-spewing steel mills. Atlanta’s Pittsburgh was smoky, too, with its origin traditionally tied to the 1883 establishment of railyards there.
But the history may go back further. Young says her own research has found evidence of settlement of the area by formerly enslaved people decades earlier, including through the Freedmen’s Aid Society. “Since then, it has been 90 percent Black for 140 years now,” says Young.
The community grew with shotgun homes and bungalows that remain architecturally distinctive. Along the way, the neighborhood accumulated historic significance, from an early home of today’s Clark Atlanta University to a pioneering Black school in the Atlanta Public Schools system. “People think and talk about Auburn Avenue and Tulsa with Black Wall Street, but this was an entire community that was upwardly mobile Black excellence,” says Young.
That past has been formally recognized before, notably with the 2006 listing of most of the neighborhood as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. But that designation does not prevent demolitions or alterations of historic buildings. And that is what’s happening in a neighborhood surrounded by such attention-getters as Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the BeltLine and the ever-expanding Georgia State University.
Young calls the rapidity of change “absolutely incredible.” Less than a decade ago, she says, “you could’ve gone into Pittsburgh and bought anything, any building, for $30,000.” A couple of weeks back, she says, a house sold for $900,000.
The historically Black neighborhood is “rapidly gentrifying,” says Young, adding that while diversity is welcome, the PNA wants newcomers to know the history – and to save sites so they can. But developers are taking down the characteristic houses and replacing them with what she calls “birdhouse-looking things.”
“We want to put some kind of protections in place to halt that,” she says. “Don’t just come in here and tear down a block of these historic homes…. and just make the community a jigsaw puzzle of architecture.”
The City has designations – historic and landmark districts – that come with legal teeth of varying sharpness to review and control such changes. The PNA began considering an application for such status about four years ago. Now, after a pandemic stall and connecting with the energetic APC, it’s moving into high gear with planning meetings that will soon become public outreach.
“It is, from what we understand, a time-consuming, arduous kind of journey, but I think Pittsburgh deserves it,” says Young, making it clear the PNA intends to see some version of the designation through.
Last week’s meeting with Matt Adams, a Department of City Planning official who oversees its Historic Preservation Studio, laid out the challenges in the process, said Young.
“The first will be acquiring a community consensus on whether or not to move forward with this task,” she said. “We’ll need to disseminate info on our intent and purpose, explain the benefits of historic designation while quashing unfounded fears, and gather signatures from those who approve of moving forward. … After we have a large, agreeable consensus, we would then move on to deciding if historic registration or landmark registration would best suit the end game.”
The immediate next step, she said, is contacting representatives of adjacent neighborhoods that have gone through similar designations.
Will it work? Another aspect of Pittsburgh culture is community-involved planning – notably the Pittsburgh Yards commercial complex, a multi-neighborhood effort on University Avenue that opened its first phase in 2021. But historic districts can be divisive, too, as residents debate property rights. Ansley Park is one neighborhood where such discussions have reached lawsuit pitch. The Pink Store’s future may be a focal point for such push-and-pull between past and present.
At the APC, Mitchell is dealing with many neighborhoods under similar pressures, which he likens to being loved to death by newcomers. He notes that only a small percentage of the City is within protected districts – one of the few legal brakes on bulldozing – and expressed wariness of a dark side to the civic symbolism of a phoenix and creative destruction.
“I believe that we are now going to be faced with a reckoning of where we will go culturally,” says Mitchell. “We have risen from the ashes multiple times – but each time, a little less.”
In Pittsburgh, digging deeper than that old real estate mindset is the goal. “People are noticing this prime piece of land,” says Young, “and I guess it’s just down to putting down some protections to recognize our flag here.”
Correction: A previous version of this column gave an incorrect name for the “Pink Store.”
I’ve seen a lot of pushback against the neighborhood movement by developers and “YIMBYs” lately on Twitter and elsewhere, claiming the NPU movement is a front for white gentrification standing against necessary affordable housing development. https://www.danablankenhorn.com/2023/03/the-new-generation-gap.html
Pittsburgh is not that type of neighborhood.
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