St. Clair was a neighborhood placed high atop one of Pittsburgh’s south hills. The past tense is appropriate here because little remains within the borders of this isolated patch of land overlooking the Monongahela. The neighborhood used to be home to St. Clair Village, a public housing project with 680 apartments that was built in the 1950s. St. Clair Village is completely abandoned now; demolition crews were tearing down long brick buildings as I pulled up on my bike.
St. Clair is an example of urban planning gone wrong, but unfortunately, it’s not a unique example. There are hundreds of St. Clair Villages around the country, places where the underserved are sent to become further marginalized. To be sure, I don’t mean to suggest that places like St. Clair are borne out of a mean-spirited intent to exclude, but geographically isolated housing projects have proven time and again to be misguided. Geographical isolation often equals economic and social isolation; does it make any sense to locate 680 of the city’s poorest families, many without their own transportation, at the top of a steep hill, with only one bus route and one crumbling sidewalk connecting them to the grocery store three miles away?
According to an article that appeared in the Tribune last summer, the decision to tear down the project was based on “perceptions of violence and crime and a dwindling population.” Painted on the side of an old recreational center, a mural featured tombstones marked with the names of sixteen homicide victims from St. Clair, an alarming number of deaths for such a small area. St. Clair Village, however, wasn’t always known for violence and crime. The same Tribune article mentioned that early residents of the community remembered it “like at a kibbutz, where you’re self-sustaining, and you’re so close together, you’re more like brothers and sisters.” There was a bakery, a grocery, and a clothing store. Looking at the ruins that exist there now, it’s hard to imagine where any of those neighborhood conveniences might have stood.
While taking some pictures around St. Clair Village, I was asked to leave by the foreman of the demolition crew. I told him I was just taking a few photos and wouldn’t disrupt anything but he insisted that I be on my way. “What are you even taking pictures for?” he asked me. I wanted to tell him that I was documenting every neighborhood in Pittsburgh and St. Clair was next on my list. But in a strange way the foreman had a point; there was no longer a neighborhood for me to photograph, just the sad remnants of one. “I promise you there’s nothing to see up here,” he said, and I hated to admit that he was right.