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Present-day Market Square ‘just a big joke’

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Bonnie Pfister
Sunday, October 22, 2006

New plans are afoot for sprucing up Market Square, the more than 220-year-old acre of public space that has been home, variously, to Pittsburgh City Hall, the first Allegheny County courthouse and — up until the early 1960s — a produce market house.
Although proposals for adding temporary art and activities, including those geared toward children, are among the improvements being mulled, there are fixtures that local merchants say are impeding positive public use.

La Gondola Pizzeria owner Sergio Muto calls them “the statues of Market Square.”

“When I come in the morning, they’re here,” Muto said. “When I go home at night, they’re still here.”

They are the dozen or so people — mostly middle-aged men — who locals say spend most of the day and evening perched on the low marble walls around the southeastern quadrants of green space. With St. Mary of Mercy Church’s Red Door program around the corner handing out bagged lunches six days a week, Market Square long has been a place where the homeless can pass time.

Although merchants such as Muto and Dan Konieczny, manager at Jenny Lee Bakery, which has been Downtown since 1938, expressed empathy for the destitute, they say the panhandling and other behavior by some keep would-be patrons from lingering in the area, particularly at night.

“Too many of the regulars are doing drug deals or asking people for money,” Konieczny said. “The garbage, the language. You can make all the changes and redesigns you want. You’ve got to get rid of the bums,” he said. “Market Square is just a big joke.”

“It’s kind of shady,” said Heather Bitar, who works at nearby Point Park University.

Patronizing a farmer’s market stand in the square last Thursday during a spate of warm weather, Bitar said she avoids the area at night and on weekends. Even during the daylight, she said she has seen people arrested and recently a woman “throwing a fit, emptying her purse out on the ground and screaming that someone stole her drugs.

“But what are you going to do, post ‘No Loitering’ signs? It’s a public park,” she said.

And therein lies the challenge that has bedeviled Pittsburghers for much of the four decades. How do you tell people with nowhere else to go not to go to Market Square, with its legacy as a public space?

Since the 1963 demolition of the Diamond Market house — an elevated building straddling Forbes Avenue that featured a second-floor roller rink — Market Square has gone through several reconfigurations and even more proposals, said Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

In the mid-1970s, Ziegler said then-Mayor Pete Flaherty tapped into federal funds to hire students to replace the square’s asphalt roads with Belgian brick cobblestones in an effort to restore a Colonial atmosphere and encourage many of the same outdoor activities, such as sidewalk dining and art exhibits, that remain elusive today.

“Once the market-house demolition occurred, it became a place that didn’t quite know what to do with itself,” Ziegler said. “It’s gone through a number of revisions, none of which have been fully successful.”

It has played host to Steelers pep rallies, anti-war protests and rallies featuring national political figures. On April 15, 1985, a woman wearing a flesh-colored bodysuit and long, strategically draped hair rode through the square on a horse to protest taxation.

But today such public exhibitions tend to be less deliberative. A naked woman arrested in the square in June was merely fleeing after trying to shoplift a bag of peanuts from a Smithfield Street vendor, police said.

Although reported assaults were down from 11 in 2001 to three so far this year, and Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Cheryl Doubt said officers have managed to drive out the open-air drug activity of the past, more resources are needed. Since budget cuts in the early 1990s, only a single daytime beat officer monitors Market Square; he was not replaced during a recent four-month leave.

Michael Edwards, president of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which commissioned the recent study by New York-based Project for Public Spaces, said enhanced police presence, at least initially, would be key to revitalization.

“We can’t be successful without stepped-up police enforcement of the rules,” Edwards said. “The way we’ll take back the square is through recognizing the need to manage it, and we’ll need the city’s resources.”

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said last week that the city will consider making some financial commitment to better management of the square, but he also expects “leadership from the business and foundation community.”

Edwards said the partnership has a $100,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation and hopes to land a similar one from the Heinz Foundation to begin planning events that will draw more people to Market Square — perhaps around Light Up Night on Nov. 17, or for extended outdoor dining in the spring.

“One of the things we heard loud and clear is, we’re done designing,” Edwards said. “The community is pretty tired of that.”

A redesign contest that was discussed earlier this year has been put aside in favor of smaller tweaks to the existing square, such as experimenting with temporary art and event programming. If these steps are successful, Edwards said, a more structured management plan could be forthcoming in several years, as could a redesign.

Not everyone is happy about the smaller-scale approach, however.

Ron Gargani, owner of Buon Giorno, said he is disappointed that a new redesign now — particularly one that reroutes buses as late Mayor Bob O’Connor had suggested, or adds parking spaces — would not be forthcoming.

“It’s just a Band-Aid on the problem,” said Gargani, who opened for business six years ago and purchased his building in 2004. “Who wants to bring their children here when you have cars and buses continuously flying by? This square needs completely redone.”

Bonnie Pfister can be reached at

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633