100 years since another critical juncture, progressive Peduto takes helm
Bill Peduto is poised to take over a city on the rise. When the mayor-elect takes office on Monday, he will do so with the belief that Pittsburgh, having spent decades in decline, is on the verge of great things.
“We are the next great American city,” Peduto declared on his election in November. “We are at a transformative time in this city.”
His administration, he said, “will be the first progressive administration for a rust-belt city in America.”
Time will tell whether the 60th mayor of Pittsburgh is right — and if he is the right person for the job. But history shows that Pittsburgh has been at crossroads many times, changing its identity and makeup and appearance during 100 years, since the time when a different sort of progressive movement swept the nation.
On the eve of what could be another shift, the Tribune-Review looks back to 1914, when historians say Pittsburgh was on the cusp of major change — the results of which remain evident.
“Pittsburgh was a city trying to modernize,” said Lou Martin, chairman of Chatham University's Department of History, Political Science and International Studies. “In 1914, the progressive movement was at high tide, and many activists and officeholders were concerned about the high accident rates in the city's industries, the last vestiges of child labor, air and water pollution, and women's suffrage.”
A loosely defined political philosophy, progressivism generally seeks reforms, supports activist government and relies on science and empiricism for policies. Many modern progressives such as Peduto, 49, a self-described “Reform Democrat” from Point Breeze, are from the political left.
Peduto says he wants to streamline government. Leaders in 1914 took a different approach to address concerns.
“Progressives believed that they could use science and government to solve problems that the city faced,” Martin said. “They created a number of agencies to do just that, including the Bureau of Lighting in 1913, the Bureau of Recreation in 1915, the Bureau of Tests in 1915, and the Division of Inspection in 1916.”
The establishment of those entities was in response to a rapidly growing city. Pittsburgh's population in 1914 was about 550,000 and would increase for several decades, census data show. Down to about 306,000 today, the population is growing again for the first time in decades.
Peduto pledges to draw 20,000 new residents in 10 years by improving public transit, focusing development on long-neglected neighborhoods, and supporting economic growth in education and medical services. Although outgoing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl takes credit for ushering in the city's third renaissance, Peduto says he is the mayor Pittsburgh needs for seeing through the transformation.
Physically, the city is vastly different from what it was 100 years ago.
Today its three rivers and waterfronts, with 13 miles of trails and parks, draw people year-round for recreational purposes, officials said. Gone are the steamers and barges that clogged murky, polluted waters, and the sprawling industrial plants that placed an impenetrable barrier between neighborhoods and the water's edge.
“The scale of the industrial complexes along the rivers literally blocked the sun from a lot of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods,” said Lisa Schroeder, CEO of Riverlife Pittsburgh, an advocacy and planning group. “Many people at that time were told, ‘Whatever happens, don't go near the water.' ”
Old photos reveal the property that became Point State Park as an unwelcoming but expansive wedge of rubble, highlighted by a rail yard and two steel bridges spanning the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers to meet near the spot where the iconic fountain now stands.
The Point, a crowded Irish slum, was home to David L. Lawrence, born in 1889, the grandson of Irish immigrants who grew up to become a powerful politician.
As unpleasant as it was, The Point still was a gathering place, Schroeder said.
“As far as we can reconstruct, it looks like there was an exhibition festival ground (on the Allegheny River side) with a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, merry-go-round and a boardwalk,” Schroeder said. “It's very interesting that The Point, even in a state of industrialization, was a place where people wanted to gather.”
Pittsburgh bridge builder George W. Ferris is credited with designing the first Ferris wheel, for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
Construction projects boomed in 1914.
Work was under way on the Bloomfield Bridge; construction of Alumni Hall at the University of Pittsburgh began; and, after years of work, city crews finished excavating a troublesome hill on Grant Street known as “the hump” that was so steep horses had trouble scaling it, records show.
Work began that year Downtown on the William Penn Hotel, which became the first grand hotel in the country to offer private bathrooms in every room, said Bob Page, the hotel's director of sales and marketing.
“It was the largest hotel in the eastern United States,” Page said.
In modern times, Peduto finds a city with many aging bridges and the nearly completed Route 28 upgrades, in which crews widened lanes, added a center divide and built ramps where Rialto Street meets the 31st Street Bridge.
While Peduto becomes the latest in a decades-long string of Democratic mayors, Republicans ran the city 100 years ago. Outgoing GOP Mayor William A. Magee was replaced by Joseph G. Armstrong, another Republican. Magee Hospital is named for the former, and Armstrong — nicknamed “Joe the Builder” because of ubiquitous building efforts under his watch — oversaw construction of the Armstrong Tunnel and the City-County Building.
A city grows
Civil unrest was common in 1914.
Workers at Union Switch and Signal, a supplier of railway signaling equipment, went on strike that summer. In May, 1,500 activists marched Downtown for women's rights, historians noted.
The Steelers were two decades from being formed, but future baseball Hall of Famer Honus Wagner starred at shortstop for the Pirates, who were entering their sixth season at Forbes Field in Oakland.
That year, business tycoon Andrew Carnegie visited the city for the last time.
Other names familiar to modern Pittsburghers dominated the job market.
U.S. Steel, Westinghouse and PPG Industries were industrial titans of the times. Henry J. Heinz, who founded H.J. Heinz Co. in 1869, still ran the company at 70. His North Shore factories, now mostly converted into high-end lofts, employed thousands.
In Peduto's Pittsburgh, UPMC is the city's biggest employer with more than 60,000. The city is challenging the nonprofit health care giant's tax-exempt status in a lawsuit.
In 1914, an ongoing controversy was whether the city of Pittsburgh could annex nearby municipalities, Martin said: “After Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City in 1907 (to become the North Side), local municipalities fought for their independence in these years. It would not be until the 1920s that the city limits would again expand significantly.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Peduto has said he was drawn to politics by listening to his father and uncles discuss politics after Sunday evening dinners.
He'll lead a city known for its immigrant influence — though it's worth noting that 1914 marked the end of Pittsburgh's greatest influx of European immigrants, Martin said.
“The beginning of World War I cut off migration and also marked the beginning of an Americanization movement that resulted in legislation that curtailed immigration to the U.S.,” he said. “One Pittsburgh socialite, Lillian Russell Moore, was credited by a local author with helping to popularize the slogan ‘America for Americans.' ”
Instead of European immigrants, blacks from the South began moving to the city to work in factories, Martin said, bringing culture that changed the city's dynamics.
How the city changes next, observers say, likely will be greatly influenced by its next mayor.
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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