WQED changes Lives
shop WQED


Western PA History Bridges and Buildings Rivers and Valleys Folks in Community The Arts Having Fun

FYIThe 'Burgh and the 'Burbs

Urban growth patterns

The pedestrian city

The commuter suburbs

Rivers and Valleys


Making mountains
Rolling on rivers
Moving mountains
Burgh & burbs<
Cleaning up

Related video
Discussion & activities

The Pedestrian City

While the steam engine--in steamboats and in trains--was a good solution long-distance travel in the mid- to late-1800s, travel within the city was still accomplished on foot--either humans' or horses.' Nineteenth century neighborhoods were constrained in size to what a person could walk in a half-hour. Within that circle, most people live, worked, shopped, worshipped, socialized, and went to school.

Painting of first Allegheny County Courthouse at Market Square
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

First Allegheny County Courthouse at Market Square ("The Diamond") with market stalls surrounding it.

A common 18th century arrangement for new towns was to arrange streets around a central square where a market or courthouse would be located--a logical place for people to gather. The streets in Pittsburgh were laid out around Market Square or "The Diamond." The first Allegheny Courthouse was located right in the Market Square along with vendors trying to sell goods to people walking through the square. Diagram of town square

1868 photo of Allegheny's North Commons
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks
Postcard of North Side's Market House, 1912
Collection of Susan Donley

TOP: Allegheny's North Commons in 1868 showing grazing cows. This area is now part of Allegheny Square.

BOTTOM: The North Side Market House in 1912.

Allegheny had both a Commons and a Market House at Allegheny Square. Birmingham was also laid out around Bedford Square (at the present Twelfth Street) where a Market House allowed farmers to bring produce in for city dwellers to buy. Clustered around Bedford Square you can still see shops, houses, churches, a school, and a factory, all right next to each other. It is a typical compact, mixed-use pedestrian town of the early 1800s when everyone (even horses) walked everywhere.

video icon Related video stories:

Diagram of development of riverfront towns

Another typical town planning scheme was to line streets parallel and perpendicular to a waterfront to make a grid. Businesses that depend on river traffic spring up in a strip along the wharf to handle the boats, their cargo, and to sell goods to people going back and forth. The city grows out from the wharf. A through-road will often parallel the river to take advantage of the level route, it creates a strip of commercial businesses to serve both travelers and residents. When a through-road--the Washington Turnpike --went through Birmingham, the focus of the town changed from Bedford Square to the "strip" -- the Victorian commercial district we know as Carson Street.

Postcard of Carson Street in 1913
Collection of Susan Donley

1913 postcard of Carson Street on the South Side: A typical 19th century "strip" around a through-road.

These patterns repeated themselves throughout the 1800s as towns around Pittsburgh established themselves along the river plains. Towns typically move out as they grow, extending their grid plan as they go. Of course, most grids don't adapt well to being draped over a hill, sunk into a valley, or cut threw by a river!

Union Local Express ad
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Local Delivery service ad, 1900. Long after trains and steamboats revolutionized long distance travel, local traffic still depended on the muscles of humans and horses.

Pittsburgh's neighborhoods were further confined by the practical limitations of hills, valleys, and rivers. City stairs and later inclines allowed settlement of the hilltops once the "flats" (river floodplains) were full. An inclines' two cars are attached by cables so that they counterbalance each other: when one goes down the slope, it helps pull the other car up, reducing the amount of engine-power needed to transport people and freight up hill. Pittsburgh had 17 inclines at one time, with the South Side claiming 12! Now only two survive the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines, which flank Station Square. Mon is was the first in 1870 and amazingly still survives, but the Duquense Incline still has its original 1877 cars!

Postcard of Mon Incline in 1913
Collection of Susan Donley

1913 postcard of the Monongahela Incline showing the freight incline to the left of the passenger incline. Notice the convergence of transportation systems at this point: trolley, pedestrian, and behind the photographer, the P&LE Railroad Station and Smithfield Bridge.

video icon Related video stories:

Even Downtown was confined between two rivers and Grants Hill during the 1800s. Three times it had been leveled -- the last time in 1913 with the removal of the famous "Hump" because of the intense pressure for room to build more office space during Pittsburgh's industrial boom. In fact, if you visit the Allegheny County Courthouse downtown you'll see that what once was the basement of the building is now its street-level entryway!

Postcard of removing the Grant Street "Hump"
Collection of Susan Donley

1913 p ostcard of Grant Street during removal of the Hump. The Courthouse and Frick Building on either side. Steam shovels help ease this third and final surgery on Grants Hill, but horse-drawn v.

video icon Related video stories:

Pittsburgh's terrain has much to do with the fact that our neighborhood's still have very distinct personalities, often with a distinct ethnic flavor. In a typical working class family, the father walked a couple of miles to work at the mill, children walked a couple of blocks to go to school, and a mother walked just around the corner to shop at the market. Everyone walked to church. City dwellers did not generally own horses because of their expensive upkeep.


Even the railroad did not change the pedestrian neighborhood, except for the wealthy who could afford to move out of the city and ride the train to work. Homewood, Shadyside, and Oakland were suburbs where wealthy factory owners and bankers like Carnegie, Frick, Westinghouse, and Mellon could escape the smoke and noise of the city and ride the train of have a private coach take them to work.

Postcard of Penn Avenue East Liberty
Collection of Carole Anderson

1912 Postcard of Penn Avenue East Liberty. During its heyday as a streetcar suburb Penn Avenue had very little other vehicular traffic: Commuters and even freight were delivered by trolley.

When the electric trolley developed as a cheap, reliable short-distance form of transportation in the 1890s, it began a revolution in urban life: the era of the suburbs and the commute. Unlike much larger trains, streetcars could go almost anywhere there were.., well, streets! Just at the time the large steel firms raised up a prosperous class of "white collar" middle management workers, the trolley made it possible for them to escape the city and commute to the developing "Downtown" central business district. Out in the trolley suburbs where space wasn't so sparse, they could have detached houses with lawns to raise their families. Dormont, Wilkinsburg, East Liberty, Bellevue, and Aspinwall, like typical trolley suburbs, still have a "strip" of commercial development on the street where the trolley ran.

video icon Related video stories:

The next major short-distance transportation revolution came quickly on the heels of the trolley. Though automobiles were available by 1900, and by 1920, Pittsburgh started to have parking and traffic problems when people started driving their cars to work--a problem that has never been completely solved! A huge spurt in bridge- (see Golden Age of Pittsburgh Bridges) and road-building took place. The Liberty Tunnels opened the South Hills to even more development and the areas between streetcar suburbs started to fill in with houses. Mount Lebanon, West View, and Penn Hills grew up as early automobile suburbs.

Liberty Tunnel
Collection of Rick Sebak

1932 Postcard of Liberty Tubes, which spurred suburban development in the South Hills. Building was stalled for several years while engineers figured out how to provide adequate ventilation for the long tunnel.

The Great Depression and World War II interrupted new house construction, but when it was over, a new building boom was on. Veterans returned with the GI Bill to help them make the move to brand-new suburbs that were completely car-dependent. Monroeville, a typical post-war suburb grew-up where the four-lane Pennsylvania Turnpike--the first "superhighway" met the four-lane William Penn Highway (Route 22) and later the Parkway East.

Postcard of Miracle Mile Shopping Center
Collection of Rick Sebak

Postcard of Miracle Mile Shopping Center (c. 1960), Monroevile, largest of its kind when it was built in the early 1950s.

The "shopping center" recreated the "strip" to bring back a friendly central town square where pedestrians could do their marketing. In the 1950s and 60s drive-in restaurants and theaters took the places of diners and movie theaters in older communities. This scenario repeated itself in a ring around Pittsburgh that could be measured as a 30-minute (non-rush-hour) commute: Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair, Churchill, North Hills, Allison Park. In the 1980s, the circle widened to Cranberry Township and Moon Township, many of whose residents don't commute Downtown at all, but rather to Oakland or suburban industrial parks or research centers.

video icon Related video stories:

Trains didn't service these suburbs at all--by the time they developed, trains were already in serious jeopardy, victims of the greater flexibility of cars and trucks and the greater speed of air transportation. Though we aren't driving our personal "helicars" to work everyday as futurists of 75 years ago might have predicted, we outgrown two municipal airports during that time as we try to keep up with the demand for the ultimate way to make obstacles like mountains disappear under the clouds. And now the 3-4 week trip between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh takes less than an hour by jet--but the trip to the airport during rush hour and the wait inside the terminal and the ground trip on the other end can boost the time to the 4-5 hours that a mag-lev monorail might be able to accomplish if today's futurists have their way!

Postcard in Allegheny Airport c. 1940
Postcard of Greater Pittsburgh Airport c. 1955
Collection of Rick Sebak

The Allegheny County Airport (top) as shown in the 1940s. Built in 1931, it was superseded by the Greater Pittsburgh Airport (bottom) in just 20 years. The Greater Pittsburgh Airport outgrew this terminal building and moved to an all new one in 1992.

video icon Related video stories:




[Previous] Moving Mountains
Teachers' Guide Home