By John Tierney
Two questions I'd like to ask candidates for Sandra Day O'Connor's job:
- Does the Constitution forbid the government from seizing your home and giving it to someone else?
- If you're not sure, would you be willing to tour Pittsburgh before taking this job?
Justice O'Connor had no problem with the first question. Noting that the Fifth Amendment allows property to be taken only for a "public use" like a road, she rejected arguments that it could be given to a developer just because the public could benefit from new jobs and tax revenues. By that logic, she argued in one of her last opinions, no one's home or business would be safe from anyone with a better use in mind for it.
But her side was outvoted, 5 to 4, by justices not inclined to be too literal about the Bill of Rights. They were pragmatists, arguing that land grabs like this had previously been allowed, which is quite right. And that's why I recommend a trip to my hometown to see the long-term effects.
Pittsburgh has been the great pioneer in eminent domain ever since its leaders razed 80 buildings in the 1950's near the riverfront park downtown. They replaced a bustling business district with Gateway Center, an array of bland corporate towers surrounded by the sort of empty plazas that are now considered hopelessly retrograde by urban planners trying to create street life.
At the time, though, the towers and plazas seemed wonderfully modern. Viewed from across the river, the new skyline was a panoramic advertisement for the Pittsburgh Renaissance, which became a national model and inspired Pittsburgh's leaders to go on finding better uses for private land, especially land occupied by blacks.
Bulldozers razed the Lower Hill District, the black neighborhood next to downtown that was famous for its jazz scene (and now famous mostly as a memory in August Wilson's plays). The city built a domed arena that was supposed to be part of a cultural "acropolis," but the rest of the project died. Today, having belatedly realized that downtown would benefit from people living nearby, the city is trying to entice them back to the Hill by building homes there.
In the 1960's, the bulldozers moved into East Liberty, until then the busiest shopping district outside downtown. Some of the leading businessmen there wanted to upgrade the neighborhood, so hundreds of small businesses and thousands of people were moved to make room for upscale apartment buildings, parking lots, housing projects, roads and a pedestrian mall.
I was working there in a drugstore whose owners cursed the project, and at first I thought they were just behind the times. But their worst fears were confirmed. The shopping district was destroyed. The drugstore closed, along with the department stores, movie theaters, office buildings and most other businesses.
You'd think a fiasco like that would have humbled Pittsburgh's planners, but they just went on. They kicked out a small company to give H. J. Heinz more room. Mayor Tom Murphy has attracted national attention for his grand designs - and fights - to replace thriving small businesses downtown and on the North Side with more upscale tenants.
The city managed to clear out shops and an office building to make room for a new Lazarus department store, built with $50 million in public funds, but Lazarus did not live up to its name. It has shut down and left a vacant building. Meanwhile, the city's finances are in ruins, and businesses and residents have been fleeing the high taxes required to pay off decades of urban renewal projects and corporate subsidies.
Yet the mayor still yearns for more acquisitions. He welcomed the Supreme Court decision, telling The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that eminent domain "is a great equalizer when you're having a conversation with people." Well, that's one way to describe the power to take people's property.
But I think a future Supreme Court justice would have a different view of eminent domain after touring Pittsburgh's neighborhoods, especially those that escaped urban renewal: the old-fashioned business districts with crowded sidewalks and the newly gentrified neighborhoods with renovated homes and converted warehouses. The future justice would quickly see what sets the success stories apart from Gateway Center and East Liberty. No politicians ever seized those homes and businesses for a "better use."
- Private Property Rights, Institute for Justice.
- Death by Wrecking Ball: Pittsburgh and the Politics of Eminent Domain by Bill Steigerwald, Reason Magazine, June 2000.
- Witness to the Fifties: The Pittsburgh Photographic Library, 1950-53, edited by Constance B. Bchultz and Steven W. Plattner, narrative by Clarke M. Thomas, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999.
New York Times: www.nytimes.com
John Tierney: email@example.com