The Newtown Pentacle

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Monday

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As described in previous posts, a humble narrator used an Amtrak Rail Pass during the month of September to carry the camera to various locales in the North Eastern United States. First up was a short day trip interval in Washington, D.C., followed by a long train ride on Amtrak’s “Capitol” line to Pittsburgh. In last week’s posts, I brought you along with me on the north shore of the Allegheny River all the way to the 31st street Bridge, where I crossed back on to the river delta known as the “Golden” or “Iron” Triangle, and we entered a rapidly developing post industrial area referred to as “the Strip.”

The Strip is my kind of jam, by the way. Surviving industrial buildings repurposed rather than demolished, and when you encounter new construction it acknowledges the neighborhood it’s in rather than trying to destroy/replace/obfuscate it. I’m looking at you, Long Island City, right in the eye.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I’m trying to not get super granular in these postings about Pittsburgh, given that I was only physically present in the City for 72 hours and of that interval – awake and shooting for about fifty hours. Saying that, the Phoenix Brewing Company building caught my eye. A bit of quick looking revealed that the folks at both “pittsburghbrewers.com” and the “The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh” have paid some attention to this structure well before I wandered past it.

It was pretty warm, weather wise. Again, the weather in Pittsburgh is super dynamic. When I had woken up and left the AirBNB, it had just finished raining and was overcast and in the 60’s. Here I was just a few hours later, and it was sunny and middle 80’s. I had a bit of an atmospheric deadline to oblige, as a line of strong thunderstorms was meant to arrive and rip through the City between 4:30 and 6:00 p.m. My plan was to keep shooting until 4, then head back to the rented room to offload the photos from my camera onto the laptop while sheltering from the weather.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Pictured above is new construction, residential in nature, as encountered in the post industrial Strip district. Given that this is the “hip” section, and where several of the “new economy” companies like Facebook and Google have thrown down stakes, if this was NYC the real estate people would have to be saved from drowning on their salivations. The powers that be in NYC would be screaming about density and affordable housing and describe critics of their greedy intentions as racist or classist “NIMBY’s” who wanted to deny mostly wealthy people a home. They’d build a Tower of Babel sized glassine spire here, not caring about the effect it had on municipal infrastructure like the number of hospital beds or school desks. It seems they’re following a different plan in Pittsburgh, and trying to keep things fairly human scale.

“Post industrial” is a term I use a lot, and it bears a bit of explanation. A Post Industrial area is a plot of land which once housed a manufacturing or warehousing operation. It’s usually quite polluted, and more often than not the property ended up in the hands of the local municipality due to the original owner – a company, say – leaving the area or going bankrupt. Municipal entities all over the world struggle with what to do with this category of land, which often requires expensive remediation procedures to occur before it’s safe for other uses like housing. There’s a serious difference between what’s considered safe for “occupational exposure” eight hours a day versus “residential exposure” which is twenty four hours a day. More often than not, these post industrial parcels adjoin waterways or railroad tracks. A regional decline in heavy industrial and manufacturing economic activity following the creation of the Interstate Highway system in the late 1950’s had particular impact on the Northeastern United States, as industry fled to the American south and southwest in the 1960’s where land and labor are a lot cheaper. These areas allowed them to diminish the power of Organized Labor in “Right to Work” states, and fairly undeveloped land in the American South in particular allowed them to erect enormous horizontal campuses that complimented the new truck based – or intermodal – form of transporting their goods to market. This process got our of control, from a national economy pov, when corporations continued this process internationally and exported their operations first to Mexico and Central America and then overseas to East Asia.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What got left behind when the businesses left, however, were the workers, and the buildings. NYC (along with all of the other 19th century NE industrial superpowers like Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) experienced record unemployment and economic devastation along its waterfronts during the 1970’s and 80’s.

Pittsburgh, alternatively, saw it’s population cut in half at the same time that it lost most of its corporate tax base. What do you do as an individual when you lose your job? Belt tightening and you eat peanut butter sandwiches or spaghetti with ketchup sauce until you find a new one, right? The Strip area here in Pittsburgh was largely abandoned. From what I’ve read about Pittsburgh’s recovery over the last 50 or so years, post industrial has meant a lot of grief, debt, and lateral thought.

That’s the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church pictured above, an 1891 Polish Roman Catholic Church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Again, the topology of Pittsburgh kept on surprising me. Check out that change in elevation from where I was standing on Smallman Street nearby a series of repurposed agricultural and rail warehouses, as compared to that large house up on the hill. The riverine valley nature of this area lends itself to high humidity in the flatlands along the rivers, and even if you’ve got the bucks to afford living up on the ridges overlooking the City, you’ve still got humidity issues to deal with, but you’re able to say that “you’re above it all.”

Seriously though, everywhere I went, one of the odd things I observed was that there were always dehumidifier units laboring away. On large buildings, these units had outfall pipes feeding a steady stream of water directly into street drains. I imagine mold must be a serious issue for homeowners here.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Wandering mendicants can opine about post industrial economic development and land use endlessly, but that isn’t what my mission for the day was. What drew me to Pittsburgh, in fact, was it’s waterfront and in particular its amazing collection of bridges.

Pictured above is the 16th Street Bridge, aka the David McCullough bridge. David McCullough wrote what I consider to be one of the best NYC history books of all time – 1972’s “The Great Bridge,” which detailed the story of the Roeblings, Tammany Hall, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. If you want to get a feel for what NYC was like in the middle to late 19th century – get this book. There’s also a fantastic audio book version of it available at audible. David McCullough was a native Pittsburgher.

More tomorrow.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle


Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at blurb.com for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 25, 2021 at 11:00 am

One Response

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  1. […] A humble narrator normally reacts with horror at the sort of architecture employed by a structure called the “David L. Lawrence Convention Center,” or colloquially the “Pittsburgh Convention Center,” but this massive 1.5 million square foot facility is actually pretty cool looking and a nice accommodation of the space. A section of it is cantilevered out over a highway or high speed road of some sort, as well as the Three Rivers Heritage Trail bike and pedestrian pathway. This is just past the “Strip district.” […]


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