Volume 29

Power Play Goal: Analyzing Zoning Law and Reparations as Remedies to Historic Displacement in Pittsburgh’s Hill District

by Theodoros Papazekos

Pittsburgh’s Hill District ranked among the most important historically Black neighborhoods in America until the heart of the neighborhood was razed in 1956. When “urban renewal” hit Pittsburgh, 1,500 families were displaced from the Lower Hill District, replaced by what would become a hockey arena. The displacement had catastrophic results for the entire Hill District: By 2010, the neighborhood had lost nearly eighty percent of its 1950s population and upwards of forty percent of current residents lived in poverty. In 2011, the hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, moved out, and the old Civic Arena was torn down. Over the past decade, the city, developers, and Hill District community groups have fought over the future of the land where the arena once stood. While developers sought special zoning rules, the community was focused on a bigger issue: ensuring that whatever was built on that land benefited those that had been harmed by the historic displacement. The redevelopment and attempted reclamation of the Lower Hill District by the community serves as a unique case study into both the difficulties and possibilities of remedying the historic wrongs that have destroyed culturally important poor, Black, and Hispanic neighborhoods throughout the country. This article, mindful of that history, takes the community’s demand for “restorative justice” seriously—as an argument for reparations in the land planning context. Given the nature of zoning law and the weaknesses of current attempts to negotiate with developers, this article argues that some form of reparations is required to ensure that the redevelopment of former sites of “urban renewal” honor the history of the poor, Black, and Brown families that had previously lived on the land.

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