Renaissance Mayor: Learning from the Work of David L. Lawrence


Mayor David L. Lawrence, second from left

Daevan Mangalmurti, Editor

When David Leo Lawrence died in 1966 at the age of 77, he was hailed by the New York Times as “the maker of presidents.” Bobby Kennedy attended the funeral, and Lyndon B. Johnson issued a eulogy. Today, though, the average Pittsburgher knows Lawrence only from the convention center named in his honor. That situation is a foul memorial to the mayor who brought Pittsburgh out of its literal dark ages, when smog cloaked the city and the light of the sky was unimaginable. This is especially so given the lessons that Lawrence’s urban renewal efforts hold for the city as its most underdeveloped neighborhoods undergo revitalization and gentrification in the current day. 

Described by Pittsburgher Bob Peterson as a “benevolent crook,” Lawrence merged the old corruption of politics with a dedication to improving the lives of his constituents during his four terms as Mayor of Pittsburgh. His first step in the direction of urban renewal was when he created the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for the sake of dealing with problems in the city. The URA began its efforts with cleaning up the city’s air and cooperating with Pittsburgh’s business community, especially the Mellon family, which was then led by the incredibly wealthy Richard K. Mellon. These cooperation efforts between the city, the business sector, and foundations have continued to the present day as a result of Lawrence’s groundwork, and they continue to benefit the city in many ways. Without foundations, projects like the Almono site in Hazelwood and the revitalization of the North Side would not have proceeded, and the close relationship between the mayoralty and foundations -which some experts have described as nearly unparalleled in similar cities in the country- has served the city well. From that cooperation a key to Lawrence’s success can be drawn: an understanding between government and the private sector is crucial for the revitalization of a city. The current administration of Mayor Bill Peduto seems to have taken that message to heart.

Roughly five years after its creation, the URA turned its attention to the Lower Hill District, which was considered a blighted neighborhood and described by City Council Member George Evans as, “one of the most outstanding examples in Pittsburgh of neighborhood deterioration… Approximately 90 per cent of the buildings in the area are sub-standard and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.” Unfortunately, the claim of “no social loss” was a false one, and the impact of the demolition of hundreds of homes and eviction of over eight thousand mostly African-American people from the Lower Hill remains unresolved today, with the social situation in The Hill worsened for decades by its isolation from Downtown by the I-579. Although the Lower Hill was certainly one of the most debilitated areas of the city at the time, with high rates of tuberculosis and crumbling buildings, the construction of the Civic Arena without strong relocation efforts worsened overcrowding in the rest of the Hill District and actually made integration between blacks and whites harder as each group retreated to neighborhoods populated almost entirely by one race or the other. Within that quasi-debacle lies an important message summed up by Hill Community Development Corporation CEO Marimba Milliones when the Eagle interviewed her earlier this year: “the most important thing that the city can learn from the Hill District in the past is that they didn’t listen to the residents, and they messed up. Like, they really messed up badly, and we’re still trying to recover from those errors, decades later.” Despite its laudable goals, by failing to fulfill its promises to rebuild housing in the Lower Hill after demolition, Lawrence’s renewal efforts in The Hill ultimately fractured a community instead of saving it. Although Mayor Peduto constantly draws comparisons between himself and Lawrence, and recently stated his admiration of Lawrence’s renewal policies in The Hill, East Liberty, and the North Side, it must be hoped that even he recognizes that Lawrence’s policies were tragically flawed when it came to the Hill District and the construction of the Civic Arena.

In other areas of Pittsburgh, Lawrence’s redevelopment agenda uplifted instead of destroying, and paved the way for the livability and cleanliness Pittsburgh enjoys today. His impositions banning the burning of smokey bituminous coal cleared up the skies, and his efforts to beautify the city undoubtedly set it on its path to becoming one of the most liveable in the world. Even his renewal attempts had certain positive outcomes. He preserved the historic Mexican War Streets in the North Side, modernized the city’s buildings, and connected Pittsburgh with its suburban environs. He also succeeded in spurring job growth and industrial development in the South Side and business growth in the Golden Triangle consisting of the Point and Downtown. Many of the city’s greatest failures in urban renewal, such as in the North Side and East Liberty, actually happened after his tenure, when he had assumed the position of Governor of Pennsylvania. Each of Lawrence’s successful urban renewal projects is united by a realization on his part that lasting success was impossible without the assistance of a community’s leading figures, and his ability to secure their aid was pivotal to completing projects like the Gateway Center in Downtown.

Overall, Lawrence’s mayoralty had a positive effect on the city, despite certain outstanding fiascos, but both his failures and his successes should be studied by Pittsburgh’s current and future generations of planners and politicians to ensure that their own initiatives are as beneficial to the Pittsburgh community as can be.