Pittsburgh’s Strip District: Emergence at Work

When I make the time for it, it’s always a treat to go down to the Strip District on the weekend. The Strip is Pittsburgh’s local market district, with fresh foods and artisan crafts. This Sunday I was able to see (all in about 5 blocks) live bass and lobsters, fresh local produce, hand-knit hats, a local winery, and spring rolls being wrapped. And that’s a short list from one side of the street. Pittsburgh, like any other city, is full of these distinct neighborhoods that have maintained their character for decades throughout dramatic demographic trends over the greater region. So what creates a neighborhood?

Historical images of the Strip District are hard to come by, and the Carnegie Libraries came through. This is a view on what is now Smallman Street, looking towards downtown. Smallman street today is enormously wide, and a look at this picture shows why, allowing for loads of truck traffic picking up things from the warehouses at the far right.

I recently listened to this episode of Radiolab that helps to explain. This particular podcast is an hour long and totally worth it, but I’ll be referencing things from about 15 minutes in to about 21 minutes in. Emergence is what happens when you look at the behaviors of a group, instead of the behaviors of a single member of the group. This part of the show compares the formation of neighborhoods to the way that ants colonize. One ant (or type of store) might start off randomly, but if other ants (or stores) begin to follow suit, the result is a snowball effect leads to the creation of these unique neighborhoods. (Planet Money, another podcast that I have referenced before, points out that there are economic benefits to this arrangement as well) As it happens, the Strip was the historical home to many mills and factories, and received meats and produce in addition to industrial goods. Many wholesalers took up residence due to easy access to transportation, and restaurants and merchants filled in around them to serve shift workers at the mills. What is interesting, though, is that long after the mills, factories, transportation access, and even most of the wholesalers (with the notable exception of Wholey’s fish market) have gone, the neighborhood maintains its vibrant character as a merchant hub. The individuals and businesses in the neighborhood, then, are at once extremely important yet not at all. The character of the neighborhood lives on even as old businesses die, as long as new ones are able to take up the slack.

This is a view of the Strip District today, used under Creative Commons from nooccar’s photostream on Flickr. Look closely (I recommend clicking the picture or link below to see a larger version) and you can see “Homemade Pierogis” advertised in the bottom right. The sandwich board with the peace sign is advertising Fresh Donuts. In the background is clothing and cheap drinks.

A recent offshoot of architecture called urban design has risen to investigate what makes good neighborhoods in order to reproduce them. By most counts this school of thought is less than a century old, which in the timeline of cities is very young indeed. Locally, the failures of urban design have ranged from the merely awkward (the Waterfront development) to the truly devastating (the Civic Arena). These two examples show that a top-down approach to community planning usually does more to destroy neighborhood character than to foster it. More recently, the thought process behind urban design has shifted to the more gentle, bottom-up ideas that provide infrastructure and incentives for neighborhoods to grow. Witness things like the riverside walks, and the grassroots “Design Corridor” initiative through Lawrenceville which, while slow to show results, both have much more promise long-term.

If you’ve ever been to a neighborhood and immediately felt at home, or if you’re an urban designer and I just made you mad, or if you’re a scientist that wants to knitpick my definition of “emergence”, leave a comment!

2 thoughts on “Pittsburgh’s Strip District: Emergence at Work

  1. Bernie Benkovitz (founder of Benkovitz Seafood in the Strip District) said “You can’t create a place like the Strip, it just happens,” which is a simple way of saying that top down doesn’t work. At Neighbors in the Strip we frequently receive inquiries from developers in other cities and states asking how they can create a “Strip” in their locale. I think growth of a neighborhood like the Strip can be encouraged through support of local business on all levels, but it can’t be created without turning it into a “Disney Strip.” Since the most frequent term cited by people for liking the Strip is “authenticity” creating a replica is bound to fail. Too often grand developments experience an initial popularity, then number of visitors fall off in favor of the next new thing, chain stores come and go, and ownership changes as the development becomes little more than a tax write-off. I always say that in the Strip there’s always something new and always an old friend – discovery and comfort, the elements of a great love affair.

    • Thanks for the great comment! “Authenticity” is a great word to describe the character of a neighborhood. The word itself implies time; authenticity has to be earned. It’s also a good argument for groups like Neighbors in the Strip. Developers want fast return on investment, and politicians want results during their term. Neighborhood groups have the comparatively unique ability to take the long view and push through changes from the bottom up.


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