Reaching “Acceptance” about the Demolition of the Perry Hotel and Bar: The Hill District



Perry Hotel and Bar, 649 Perry Street c. 1938-1970 (Charles “Teenie” Harris-photographer, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh)

I live very close to what used to be the Perry Hotel and Bar in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA.  It was demolished on Thursday, December 13, 2012.  The building was structurally sound.  It was vacated a little less than 5 years ago by the previous owner. No heir claimed it.  No one wanted to purchase it.  The City of Pittsburgh eventually took possession of it.  

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This is an excellent article illustrating the challenges for communities in trying to conserve historic and sentimentally-valuable buildings, and the role of community development in the effort.

I can think of several instances as a Community Development Worker (CDW) in which I have been drawn into ‘Save the [insert name of local building here]’ efforts: infant schools, a pavilion, miners institute and a naturally regenerated, former coal tip. In a personal capacity, an effort to restore and revitalise a bowls pavilion in my local community in Cardiff was brought to a halt by arsonists destroying it so I can sympathise with the Hill District’s residents’ concern about safety.

The author writes that:

it takes an abundance of human and financial capital, without a guarantee of any return on such an investment.

Absolutely! Indeed it is the human capital that is arguably more a necessity. Such efforts are extremely labour intensive and tend to revolve around a core group of individuals. The challenge I have always found as a CDW in such instances is balancing the desire to support residents achieve their ambitions and not being drawn disproportionately from the action plan upon which my CDW post’s funding is provided.

The key is to identify those community outcomes that are expedited and/or enhanced by the building being retained. In the example of the former coal tip above it is the only natural, non-sports-related area of green space in a community in the Gwent valleys, south Wales. As such a local group was able to articulate how it complemented Key Stages 2-3 curricula, education on sustainability, safe and creative play, community events and skills development (particularly in traditional outdoor crafts such as dry stone walling and meadow management). The original campaign to save the area, however, was motivated by a desire to prevent further house building in the village. It is not necessarily a CDW’s role to question the validity of such a sentiment, but by broadening the argument out to encapsulate what else the land offered the local community allowed the campaign, in my view, to be more fruitful. By adopting a more positive stance – “Let’s save the land because it offers the community….” – rather than a negative one – “We don’t want the land built on…” – created a discursive environment that allowed the local authority and third sector organisations (such as the local Groundwork trust) to engage and avoid accusations of siding with one or other.

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