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Tourist Trap

Turning jails into public attractions

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From the day it was built, I've believed the "new" Allegheny County Jail was a mistake. It despoils a patch of prime waterfront property more or less at the end of Grant Street, our fair city's grand boulevard. And it's always seemed like it would impede the sort of upscale Downtown development that has long been wished for around here.

As it turns out, I was wrong yet again. A trip to San Francisco illustrated my folly.

From practically every hill in this beautiful and picturesque place it's possible to see Alcatraz, butt-ugly, sitting right out in the bay. Every tourist shop in town sells "Alcatraz Swim Team" shirts and "Alcatraz Psycho Ward" shirts. They're easier to find than Barry Bonds jerseys. (I never even saw a San Francisco 49er shirt.) Roughly a quarter of the postcards in the racks in Chinatown feature a picture of "The Rock." Every year, more than a million tourists ferry over to vicariously experience the misery of the famous convicts who were once there.

Last Wednesday, the San Francisco Chronicle related how Southern Folger Detention Equipment Company was repairing the main cellblock locking mechanism so the cell doors could once again all be closed at once, thereby putting the "slam back in slammer." Folger is the country's largest prison-hardware firm; located in Texas (where else?), it is doing this work for free in order to claim bragging rights as the company that fixed the Rock.

Not wanting to miss all the fun, I decided to hop a boat to see what all the hype was about. Conventional wisdom has it that it is easy to get back inside the joint. In the case of Alcatraz, forget about it. There is a two-week waiting list to get tickets from the official Web site (alcatraztickets.com). Ticket prices are around 50 bucks. A clerk at a hotel told me that he could hook me up with some scalped tickets for around $75. Like I said, forget about it: I didn't like the penitentiary all that much when I stayed for free.

Instead, I settled for a sail-by on the Sausalito ferry and a virtual tour on the Web (alcatraztours.com). It's a prison, all right. For those of you who've had the pleasure, it looks a lot like the federal joint at Danbury, which was built at roughly the same time. Except for the city view, it looks like just another joint.

What did strike me about Alcatraz is how it can be viewed as a metaphor for the prison system as a whole. Alcatraz is showy and designed to be cruel. ("The end of the line," is how the authorities liked to refer to it.) It was ill-conceived and expensive to construct. All of the materials were shipped over on boats. Ultimately it became so expensive it failed. Alcatraz was shut down and turned into a museum. A very successful museum.

Meanwhile, back to Allegheny County's jail. The mistake, it would seem, wasn't building it on a prominent piece of real estate. It was building it on a spot that wasn't visible enough. Maybe they should have put it in Station Square, or between the stadiums. But that would have been too mundane. Better that they would have dangled it from one of the city's famous bridges. The Fort Pitt Bridge might be a good choice. Then everyone would see it as soon as they come through the tunnel from the airport.

Maybe it's not too late. How's this for an idea: Instead of building a $400 million subway tunnel under the Allegheny River, use the money to build a new "new county jail." If $400 million isn't enough, sell the old jail off as condos: Downtown condos with river views ought to bring in a few hundred thou apiece. That should be plenty of money to build something truly spectacular that also takes advantage of Pittsburgh's natural resources. Why not suspend a new county jail from giant, davit-like structures jutting from the top of Mount Washington?

Judging from my trip to San Francisco, people apparently love prisons. One like that would really put us on the map.

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