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FYIRenaissance City

Corporate Center: 1945-present

A worn-out Pittsburgh emerged from record World War II production eager to make changes in its quality of life. The city's transformation from "Hell with the Lid Off" to "America's Most Livable City" is a miracle envied throughout the world. Change came at a high price, however. As Pittsburgh's outmoded manufacturing methods were surpassed by foreign competition, factory after factory closed down, so the city had to find new ways to make a living.

Western PA History


Forks of the Ohio
Fort Pitt
Gateway to the West
Smoky City
Steel City
Renassiance City

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Pittsburgh emerged from World War II exhausted and dirty. It had made huge contributions to the war effort and it showed. A famous photo showed people driving with their lights on at noon because the smoke was so thick! Leaders were disgusted and concerned enough that business and government, Republicans and Democrats made the unusual move to actually work together! Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence and banker Richard King Mellon spearheaded the smoke control laws that eventually become the Pittsburgh Renaissance.

Steel Mills of Pittsburgh in 1960
Collection of Susan Donley

1960 postcard of steel mills of the Monongahela Valley--South Side and South Oakland.

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In 1946 long-delayed smoke-control legislation enacted in 1941, but suspended during the war, was finally enforced county-wide. River clean-up and new building projects also began. Land acquisition and construction began on a grand scheme for the point, but wouldn't be complete until 1974 after the Point and Manchester Bridges had been replaced by the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne Bridges, Gateway Center had been built, the Park completed and its fountain turned on for the first time.

Photo of Mellon Square
Public Domain

Mellon Square, a green oasis built during the 1950s Renaissance.

Mellon Square is a landmark park in downtown Pittsburgh. Built during the city's 1950s Renaissance, the park provides a green oasis that highlights and enhances the buildings around it. As the first modern garden plaza built over a parking structure, Mellon Square is one of the nation's original "green roofs." The project was designed by Pittsburgh's leading "Modernists," the distinguished landscape architecture firm Simonds & Simonds and the eminent architects Mitchell & Ritchey, and quickly became influential as an icon of the modern city.

Mellon Square Slideshow/timeline | Mellon Square Video

Photo of Gateway Center under construction
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Gateway Center, one of the first Renaissance projects, under construction in the 1950s.

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Not all of the Renaissance was as successful as Point State Park and Gateway Center, however. In 1956 the Urban Redevelopment Office designated the Hill for "redevelopment" to make way for the Civic Arena and other residential and cultural developments that ironically never happened. Many of the housing structures and locally owned businesses were torn down, fracturing the tightly knit African American community and forcing residents to scatter to new areas of the city. Those who remained saw their economic base crumble and living conditions deteriorate. In the 1960s riots ravaged the community and devastated it beyond the point of recovery.

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Other urban neighborhoods saw similar decline, some, like East Liberty and Allegheny Center, hastened by the redevelopment that was supposed to save them. During the postwar prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, more and more families could afford "suburban" living and moved out of the older neighborhoods to new suburbs accessible only by automobile. Across America, the burgeoning phenomenon of suburban living became dubbed "the White Flight," a harsh reference to whites migrating from the inner cities to new automobile suburbs --Monroeville, North Hills, Bethel Park, for example--leaving their old neighborhoods predominately Black.

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In a reaction to urban redevelopment by bulldozer of the 1950-60s Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation demonstrated that we could honor our past as we moved into the future. Historic neighborhoods like the Mexican War Streets and Liverpool Streets and the Station Square development have shown how the city's past carefully preserved can be a resource for future economic development.

Interior photo of Grand Concourse
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Interior of the Grand Concourse, restored terminal of the formal Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad and a part of the Station Square development.

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In the early part of this era, Pittsburgh was quite prosperous, hitting its peak population of 676,806 in 1950. It boasted the headquarters of an extraordinary number of Fortune 500 corporations, among them USSteel, Gulf Oil, Westinghouse, Koppers, PPG Industries, Heinz, Rockwell International, Mellon Bank, and ALCOA Inc. Many of them took advantage of the Renaissance to build new corporate buildings Downtown.

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But Renaissance II, which gave Pittsburgh Three Rivers Stadium, the USX Tower, Oxford Center, PPG Place, and Mellon Bank Tower, distracted the region from the hard fact that events were conspiring to undermine Pittsburgh's reliance on heavy industry for its livelihood. A combination of high labor costs, lack of willingness to invest in new state-of-the-art technology, cheap competition from foreign producers, costly environmental protection measures, and general long-range changes in the nation's economy made heavy manufacturing—of all products, not just steel—unprofitable in Pittsburgh by the end of the 1970s. Suddenly, factory after factory closed down, leaving thousands of people unemployed and thousands of acres of riverfront unused. Pittsburgh's population dropped from 676,806 in 1950 to 369,879 in 1990 (only 54.7% of its 1950 peak!). Allegheny County's population dropped from about 2,000,000 to less than 1,500,000 in the same period as people left Pittsburgh to find work elsewhere.

Photo of idle blast furnace at defunct Duquense Works
Susan Donley

Blast furnace at the Duquense Works of USSteel, just before demolition in 1988.

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Not for the first time in its history, Pittsburgh finds itself in a paradoxical situation: It has earned international acclaim for miraculously transforming itself from "Hell with the Lid Off" to "America's Most Livable City" (as a popular travel digest named it in the 1980s). Yet it is now called to remake itself in a more fundamental way or risk fading into a shadow of its former self.

Today the area searches for a new economic base in service, education, health, and "high tech" industries, regional tourism, and riverfront development to regain its footing and remake itself as it has many times in the past.

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Photo down the Mon from the South Side Slopes. Jim Judkis for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

View down the Mon from the South Side Slopes showing off Pittsburgh's mix of old and new.

At the close of the 20th Century, the city makes plans for new stadiums, a convention center, hotels, and retail outlets that will keep the city alive into the new Millennium. Grand plans for urban planning outline the re-structuring of roads, development of the riverfront where mills once stood, and additions to the public light-rail system. New building Downtown continues to encourage the mixed-use that 100 years ago was a fact of life in the Golden Triangle.

But while the city comes to terms with its future. . .

Elderly ladies still gather in the basement of St. John's Church on the South Side each Friday to make pierogies.

Italians still gather each summer at Kennywood for the amusement park's largest ethnic celebration of the season.

African Americans gather to sing together to honor ancestors who risked all for Freedom.

And Pittsburghers of all backgrounds still gather at Point State Park each year on the 4th of July, where they look skywards to enjoy the city's elaborate fireworks displays, standing on the unobtrusive outline of bricks that mark the boundaries of long-ago Fort Duquesne. They enter the park by way of a footbridge connected to military-landmark-turned-museum Fort Pitt.

And they gather on a point of land where George Washington himself once stood, and declared the "Forks of the Ohio" a piece of land that promised great things.


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