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How has the soundscape of the Lower Hill changed over time?
By Ben Grossman

Cities constantly transform themselves. Sometimes that process can be drastic. Philosopher and historian Michel de Certeau observed that a city reinvents itself "in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future." Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill, where Frankie Pace Park now stands, exemplifies such radical change in city design. Thinking about the plot of land where this park is situated, we can track the sweeping of the area from the 1930s to the 1950s to the present. Although the changes were visually dramatic, as buildings were demolished and new ones built, the Lower Hill’s transformation was also audible. Consider how changes in
the soundscape also reveal shifts in urban values.

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Lower Hill 1923
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Created by Ben Grossman

In the 1930s, the intersection of Webster Avenue and Chatham Street was a dense community homes, businesses, and places of worship. In the audio file, notice the rumbling of city traffic, pedestrian movement, and occasional chirping of birds. Listen for the chime of the bell at Hancock Public School (818-20 Webster Ave), followed by the chatter of the emerging school children. Everyday sounds are suddenly interrupted by the fire-alarm sounding from Engine House No. 3, followed by the blaring of a hand-cranked, sterling siren on the responding engine. You also might hear the low humming of Cadillac engines from the Dyke Automobile dealership at the end of the block. This soundscape reflects the values of the Lower Hill community during this period, placing importance on educating youth, providing emergency infrastructure for the neighborhood, and fostering the success of local businesses.

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Lower Hill District (1923)

In the 1950s, the sounds of the Lower Hill shifted from lively to strident. A comprehensive redevelopment project displaced roughly eight thousand residents and four hundred businesses to enable the construction of a new highway system and a civic arena. Between 1957 and 1961, the neighborhood soundscape was replaced with sounds of bulldozers, jackhammers, and industrial saws, as you will hear in the corresponding audio clip. While construction noises are familiar and perhaps unremarkable, they are a sonic demonstration of power. The noises are evidence of contractors having permits and financial backing. The sounds are powerful and loud, perhaps just as dramatic as the visual transformation of the space. In this way, construction noises might be considered to be sounds of vision, wealth, and power.

Lower Hill 1952
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Created by Ben Grossman

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The Civic Arena with the Pittsburgh Skyline (2000)

Lower Hill 2024
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Created by Ben Grossman

After the Civic Arena was demolished, the city made space for the development of Frankie Pace Park, a wide space with inviting benches, grass, and exhibits. From the park, we are exposed to omnidirectional sounds, from the highway that flows underneath to the local street traffic. The newly planted trees offer refuge to chirping birds, and the wind whistles through the ornamental grass. At the center of the park, an installation of musical pipes invite visitors to fill the space with resonating tones. The park reflects community values as it restores the cultural memory of Frankie Pace and the Lower Hill history through the exhibits. It offers visitors a meditative place to breath amongst the density of Downtown Pittsburgh.

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Photo credit: Nicole Vilkner

What sonic changes have happened in the area where you live?
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Site History.” Lower Hill Redevelopment. n.d. Accessed 2 May 2024.

Ribbon-cutting Ceremony Marks the Opening of Frankie Pace Park (Formerly I-579 CAP Park)
Connecting Downtown and Hill District
.” Lower Hill Redevelopment, n.d. Accessed 2 May

Strauss, Matthew. “The Lower Hill District, Before and After the Civic Arena.” Heinz History
Center Library and Archives, 4 May 2011. Accessed 2 May 2024.

Hancock School" Historic Pittsburgh. n.d. Accessed 2 May 2024.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley:
U. of California Press, 1984.

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