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DeLuca's Paradox

| Sunday, Oct. 20, 2002

It's not easy to fall in love with DeLuca's.

It's 51 years old and looks it. Its cramped booths are made of Formica. Its water glasses are plastic. It's got a long, low counter with round stools that spin, a big, ugly painting on the wall and cheap cigars for sale at the cash register.

But DeLuca's restaurant in the Strip District — a humble eating place for the hungry common man and woman – is one of Pittsburgh's great treasures.

In a tiny but invaluable sociocultural way, it makes Pittsburgh a more interesting, more livable and more colorful city. Noisy, real and incapable of being duplicated, much less franchised, DeLuca's is one of those unique, home-grown places that helps to differentiate Pittsburgh from everywhere else.

But its value transcends its unique character and fame as a purveyor of good, cheap diner food. DeLuca's history – what it is and where it came from — can help us understand why some good things just seem to sprout naturally in certain parts of the city.

More important, DeLuca's contains lessons in city planning for the folks in power in City Hall who, despite 50 years of failed urban renewal projects, still don't understand the inherent limitations of large-scale, government-dictated redevelopment.

FUNKY AMBIENCE

I love DeLuca's.

It is the closest thing I've seen in these parts to my all-time favorite restaurant, the Pantry, an equally funky, equally unique steak-and-eggs factory in downtown Los Angeles that is so popular it literally has never closed its doors in more than 75 years.

Not long ago my wife and I went to DeLuca's for breakfast. It was a typically crowded, noisy, smoky Saturday morning. As a short line of patient customers stood outside the front door, we sat at the long counter and watched a tireless trio of sweating short-order cooks do their stuff.

Squeamish or uptight people might be put off by the crazy-messy food-and-platter-slinging scene at the grill. But as I looked around at the frantic waitresses and the happy mob of yakking customers, I began thinking about the greater meaning of DeLuca's.

DeLuca's is one of those many little pleasant miracles of everyday existence we usually take for granted, I stipulated to myself. It is a good, Pittsburgh-only place. Few would deny that life in the city would be improved, albeit minutely, if there were a DeLuca's in every neighborhood.

So how do we make that happen• Can City Hall do it• No. McDonald's• Nope. No one — not the smartest developer from Columbus, Ohio, not the brightest mayor or urban planner — could ever make a single new DeLuca's appear in Pittsburgh, much less a dozen.

To understand why not, you have to know where DeLuca's came from in the first place. Who planned it• Who ordered the DeLuca family to start a restaurant in 1951• Who foresaw that by 2002 it would fry, scramble and poach 1,200 eggs every Saturday?

Of course, we all know that no one from on high did any planning, ordering or foreseeing 51 years ago.

WONDERFUL CHAOS

DeLuca's is like most successful businesses in a relatively free marketplace. It came into being and succeeded for a whole bunch of subjective, uncontrollable, unpredictable entrepreneurial/idiosyncratic reasons known only to the DeLuca tribe and Drew and Chris Mikrut, its owners since 1988.

In a literal sense, DeLuca's sprang spontaneously from the wonderful chaos and organic commercial complexity of the Strip District, a vibrant, wildly popular, truly 24/7 part of the city that itself has evolved spontaneously – and has been mercifully left alone by city planners, regulators and zoning officers.

That's Part 1 of DeLuca's Paradox: DeLuca's restaurant only exists in the first place because no one on high deliberately or consciously set out to create it 51 years ago.

Part 2 is equally paradoxical: If, by some miracle, City Hall's chronically misguided planners decided they wanted to bring a new DeLuca's or two into being, there's only one sure way they could make it happen – by doing nothing.

Unfortunately, however, doing nothing is not in City Hall's playbook. Few city halls anywhere have understood the counter-intuitive benefits of “planning” by deliberately doing nothing and letting nature — i.e., the marketplace — take its course.

Doing nothing doesn't mean letting old city neighborhoods rot. It means having the wisdom to let neighborhoods – even poor ones — evolve naturally, incrementally and unpredictably over time and in market-sensitive, nurturing ways, with a minimum of government intrusion and subsidy and planning.

For half a century the Planning Industrial Complex's preferred way of doing business – as practiced to a "T" in Pittsburgh — was to use federal money to destroy old, poorer neighborhoods in the name of renewal or make them disappear by aiming interstate highways at them.

You don't have to be a straight-A student of the great and wise urbanologist Jane Jacobs to notice the horrid effects of this crude brand of planning in Pittsburgh: The parts of town people like to live in or play in the most are the parts where the clumsy, trampling foot of government has not stomped.

Neighborhoods that City Hall has largely ignored — the South Side, Squirrel Hill, the Strip District, Bloomfield – are vital, healthy urban communities, juicy with people and local commerce.

Neighborhoods that City Hall has spent hundreds of millions to “redevelop” or “renew” – the Lower Hill, East Liberty, the North Side and huge chunks of Downtown – are, decades later, still slathered in cold concrete and devoid of commercial and human life.

A 50-year parade of arrogant, all-knowing mayors and their corporate cheerleaders are responsible for these conspicuous failures. Several generations of public and private powerbrokers should be hauled before a tribunal, or at least held up to public ridicule for their stupidity.

But they have not paid in any way for their sins. Nor have they learned from their mistakes. They and their descendants are back at their long conference tables even now, formulating ambitious master plans for “redeveloping” Fifth and Forbes, Downtown, Oakland and the already once-ruined Hill District.

Whatever they have up their sleeves, it won't include a place where anything simple and small like a DeLuca's could take root.

SLOW EVOLUTION

The lesson of DeLuca's Paradox – that the way to assure good things happening is to do nothing — applies to both the Strip District and the whole city.

Like DeLuca's, the Strip evolved on its own over decades. The Strip grew unpredictably, crazily, unattractively, practically – and virtually free of government interference or guidance — as thousands of business owners and property owners made decisions based on what they saw or thought or dreamed.

It should be obvious, but it needs to be said: No powerful mayor, no brilliant city planner, no big-bucks developer, could have imagined or wanted the Strip, much less have created it. They can only kill it.

What you get when a mayor, a planner or a big developer gets their hands on 95 urban acres is the Lower Hill, at worst, or the Waterfront, at best. The Waterfront is a roaring commercial success, thanks to its fancy mix of shopping, entertainment and heretofore-unseen-in-these-parts chain restaurants.

As far as malls go, the Waterfront looks very good. But it is a shopping theme park, not a city neighborhood. It is only going to become what its developer wants it to become, which is fine.

It will evolve only in ways its developer/owner will allow or can imagine. No matter how many condos are sited there, it's never going to be another Squirrel Hill or another Strip District, where a baby DeLuca's might someday sprout in a low-rent niche of real estate.

The Waterfront is a carefully contrived, artificial construct – and always will be. The Strip – like DeLuca's – is an organic human and commercial mess, which is why citizens in search of genuine character and surprises go there in crowds.

The Strip is broken into thousands of controlling pieces. Therefore, it can evolve in countless, unimaginable, incremental ways that are not based on the whims or politically skewed directives of an unenlightened City Hall or its favored developers.

All of which begs a big, important question that no one ever asks: Why should Mayor Tom Murphy or his deputy/pal Tom Cox or the city planning director or any single mega-developer they choose get to decide what happens in large swaths of the Strip, in Oakland or Downtown at Fifth and Forbes?

They and all their commissions and public-private partnerships don't possibly know enough to make informed, rational choices about what to do with whole city blocks – though they think they do.

This blind arrogance is a local version of Hayek's “Fatal Conceit” – the mistaken belief that a few experts and government people at the top are smarter than the market and its thousands of participants and infinite social and economic possibilities.

Our local urban redevelopment czars think they know what they are doing. But they don't – as evidenced by where they have been and the urban ruins they have left behind in the Lower Hill, East Liberty and the North Side. Mayor Murphy's original Marketplace at Fifth and Forbes would have clear-cut two city blocks and replaced it with little more than an unenclosed suburban shopping mall. It was a primitive, crude reprise of the worst of 1950s urban planning – only City Hall was too clueless or too ambitious to understand it.

It's a miracle Mayor Murphy and his wrecking crew didn't get their way with Fifth and Forbes. It took an odd coalition of doomed Downtown merchants, façade lovers, maverick politicians and defenders of property rights (plus an upcoming primary election) to stop him.

Mayor Murphy's team hasn't dropped its vision of remaking Fifth and Forbes to its liking. It's already back with a new master plan full of friendly talk about preservation, cooperation and incrementalism.

It'll be a better plan than last time. How can it not be• But it's not likely to include the priceless but tragically unlearned truth of DeLuca's Paradox – that the best way for planners to revitalize what's left of this city is to leave it alone.

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