Community-driven mitigation: Murals, canal stones, and a walking tour
04 July 2019 – David Rotenstein
Jack Schmitt has mixed feelings about the way that the Pennsylvania Route 28 project turned out. On one hand, the longtime Pittsburgh historic preservation advocate beams when he talks about how he successfully convinced the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to replicate historic Pennsylvania Canal lock stones in a retaining wall in the urban highway corridor.
On the other hand, Schmitt laments the complete erasure of a historic Croatian community along the route and of the demolition of a historic church that once was a commanding visual presence in the corridor. This post examines some of Pittsburgh’s preservation community’s responses to the Route 28 project and its place within larger historic preservation trends.
PennDOT’s Route 28 project was conceived in the 1990s. Federal funding triggered the agency’s compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The law requires federal agencies to take into account effects to historic properties by federally funded and permitted actions. Decades of top-down decision-making in Section 106 have propelled some communities to flip the script on Section 106: People are becoming active participants instead of passive observers in Section 106 proceedings. Whether it is through litigation for more comprehensive identification efforts (e.g., more complete historic resources surveys) or advocacy for more meaningful mitigation efforts, the public face of historic preservation compliance has been changing in recent years.
Schmitt and his partners in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny City Society are among the grassroots organizations across the nation flexing their muscles as Section 106 consultations crop up in their communities. In May 2019, Schmitt was one of several speakers in a two-hour walking tour that highlighted public art in the Route 28 corridor produced to mitigate the impacts to historic properties by the highway project. The art includes murals depicting historical scenes and people from the corridor’s past, along with historical markers and the replicated canal stones connecting it all.
What is Mitigation?
Mitigation is an inelegant word. It is one of several outcomes deriving from environmental impact reviews. At the federal level, public historians frequently are consultants, expert witnesses, and advocates in compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). According to regulations implementing NEPA, mitigation includes avoiding, minimizing, reducing, and rectifying impacts; it also includes “Compensating for the impact by replacing or providing substitute resources or environments.”
When federally funded or regulated actions (e.g., permits and licenses) are found to impact historic properties by altering or destroying them, some form of mitigation or, in Section 106-speak, resolution of adverse effects is required.[i] Public engagement is mandatory at all levels, from determining the scope of a particular project to identifying historic properties and mitigating impacts.
Mitigation plans depend on the accuracy of the earlier research that determined a particular property or space to be historic. The premise is that mitigation is commensurate with the type of historic property, its historical significance, and the action that will alter or destroy it. Many equate mitigation with preservation; yet in reality, mitigation is only compensation for a loss.[ii]
Mitigation in historic preservation oftentimes is little more than salvaging bits and pieces of the past. Mitigation plans rarely are designed and executed by the people who live in communities where historic properties are adversely affected. Some exceptions include community-led efforts in 1980s Philadelphia to redesign a downtown highway and get more meaningful compensation and the last-minute push in the Washington suburbs in 2018 to commemorate a historic railroad bridge before its demolition.[iii]
These examples bring us to the May 2019 Pittsburgh walking tour. The Allegheny City Society invited participants to join them in the one-mile walk to learn about the murals designed and painted by Arizona public artist Laurie Lundquist. The Behind Every Wall installation was integrated into the Route 28 retaining wall and, according to the May 19 event notice, “are the only memories left of the thriving ethnic neighborhood called Mala Jaska.” The Croatian neighborhood, which emerged in the last decades of the nineteenth century, was for a long time considered to be the heart of Croatian culture in the United States because of its religious institution (St. Nicholas Church, demolished 2013), an influential bookstore (established by Josip Mahronic), and the large concentration of industrial workers who lived along a stretch of East Ohio Street they named for the Croatian village from which many immigrants originated: Jastrebarsko. Mala Jaska means “Little Jaska.”
Jack Schmitt was a Preservation Pittsburgh board member when he became involved with Route 28 historic preservation issues. Schmitt’s key contributions included negotiating with PennDOT for better mitigation of the impacts to historic properties in the highway corridor. PennDOT’s plan, it seemed to Schmitt, didn’t have any recognizable mitigation. “There was going to be walls on the north side of the road and we tried to get them looking better. They were just going to be poured concrete walls like all the other bypasses,” Schmitt said in a June interview.
PennDOT rejected earlier proposals, which included historically-themed imagery. The agency finally agreed to replicate Pennsylvania Canal lock stones (the canal’s western terminus was nearby) and include five historically-themed murals. The murals depicted images drawn from Mala Jaska’s history.
The Route 28 murals, retaining wall, and the Allegheny City Society’s walking tour are potent examples of mitigation efforts that archaeologist Tom King calls “creative tweaking to make them useful.”[iv] “Creative tweaking” to King means thinking beyond archaeological excavation and Historic American Building Survey (HABS)/Historic American Engineering Records (HAER) documentation.
The Route 28 mitigation isn’t perfect but in Schmitt’s opinion, the result is better than the alternative: a blank concrete retaining wall and a corridor that lacks a connection to its past.
~ David Rotenstein is a consulting historian and folklorist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He researches and writes on historic preservation, industrial history, and gentrification, and in 2019 he joined Goucher College’s Masters in Historic Preservation Program’s faculty to teach a course on community engagement and ethnographic methods.
[i] The archaeologist and anthropologist Tom King has written extensively about the shortcomings of consultation with stakeholders in the Section 106 process. King’s book (with Claudia Nissley), Consultation and Cultural Heritage: Let Us Reason Together (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2014) is an accessible introduction to these issues.
[ii] Thomas F. King, Places That Count: Traditional Cultural Properties in Cultural Resource Management, Heritage Resources Management Series, v. 6 (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2003). King writes that effective mitigation relies upon an accurate understanding of what makes a place historically significant.
[iii] Miriam Camitta, “The Folklorist and the Highway: Theoretical and Practical Implications of The Vine Street Expressway Project,” in The Conservation of Culture: Folklorists and the Public Sector, ed. Burt Feintuch, Publication of the American Folklore Society, New Ser (Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1988), 206-16. David S. Rotenstein, “An Old Bridge Speaks About Race and History,” Blog, Preservation Leadership Forum (blog), December 26, 2018, https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/david-rotenstein/2018/12/26/an-old-bridge-speaks-about-race-and-history. In the spirit of full disclosure, my research is what led to the greater understanding of the bridge’s social history. Using a reciprocal (or collaborative) ethnography model, I worked with residents to advocate for better historic preservation solutions and I was among the planners involved in events held on the bridge in 2018.
[iv] Nissley and King, Consultation and Cultural Heritage, 85.