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Not All Black and White

A new Downtown museum confronts history

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The 1964 edition of Stefan Lorant's Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City optimistically displays a proposed arts center intended for a site near the newly completed Civic Arena. Marketed as a cure for neighborhood ills in Pittsburgh's first so-called Renaissance, the massive, flat-roofed structure was culture by and for stodgy white guys. It never came to pass: The Hill's largely African-American population -- for whom leveling whole city blocks for a hockey arena and parking lots was a problem, not a solution -- protested vociferously. Forty years later, Pittsburgh's African American Cultural Center is proposing a building Downtown, representing enfranchisement rather than forced displacement. Can it address decades-old injustices without falling prey to perennial pitfalls of development?

The design-selection process was a step in the right direction. An expert committee led by former Pittsburgh Cultural Trust President Carol Brown sought out African-American architects with national reputations. In the campaign to renew the traditionally strong but currently weakened link between Pittsburgh's African-American culture and the national stage, this process was exactly right. Despite occasional claims to the contrary, national architectural talent always benefits Pittsburgh.

Out of 16 candidates, the committee solicited competition designs from three. They finally selected a scheme by San Francisco's Allison Williams, FAIA, director of design and managing principal of Ai Architects and Engineers. According to knowledgeable observers, William's design was more elegant and less flamboyant than the other contenders. Williams, Brown has said, "will surely give Pittsburgh its next great building, with which to celebrate the richness of Pittsburgh's African-American community."

The $32 million proposal is designed for a triangular site in the 900 block of Liberty Avenue, with one corner facing down Tenth Street. At that intersection it has a four-story bow-like feature to mark its main entry and aim a monumental facade toward the newly rebuilt convention center. A transparent glass façade runs along Liberty Avenue, topped by a roof garden and a large sign, while a translucent screen faces William Penn Way. The center will house exhibition spaces, education and research facilities, a 379-seat theater and the International Center for Africana Music, as well as improvisational stages and a café.

The components are arranged thoughtfully and conveniently. A three-story grand stairway against a tapering stone wall will provide light and clarity while allowing logical circulation, ample street-level activity and isolation for performance spaces that need it. A better treatment of the Smithfield Street corner of the building is needed, as is a better synthesis of the main entry with the Liberty Avenue façade. But these features could change as the design develops, and the beginning version is certainly promising.

Other aspects of the project are more troubling. Building it would require razing two historic properties. Although such demolition pales in comparison to the loss of the Lower Hill (or East Liberty, or the North Side), a more conscientious preservation effort would have been desirable. Sure, the structures look bad now, but poor maintenance and unsavory activities do not deprive them of their historic or architectural value, which are precious and still salvageable. It's ironic that City Councilor Sala Udin has called the structures "seedy": That's precisely the justification once used to attack the Lower Hill. This site might not even be the best location for such a center, given the presence of seemingly vast empty lots on Downtown's prominent Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

Likewise, using eminent domain to seize the properties is still a possibility, since at least two owners have not yet agreed to sell. Given our history, the African American Cultural Center would be justified in confiscating, say, Shadyside. But the real moral high ground is to avoid the practice altogether.
Then there is the money. This project is more exciting and deserving than any of Mayor Tom Murphy's welfare handouts for bank headquarters or sports facilities. But with fears of municipal bankruptcy looming, that $3.5 million in city funding could fail to materialize. Forty years later, we have a cultural center proposal that trades vast injustices for minor ironies. But its fate is a mystery. Will the center be a solution for troubled times, or merely an indication of them?

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