Pittsburgh loves the past.
Connor Sites-Bowen loves talking about Pittsburgh’s history, too.
While talking about Code for Pittsburgh’s latest project, Unlandmarks, he tells me about Second Avenue in Hazelwood, which was once populated by hundreds of businesses and frequented by Mon Valley commuters who couldn’t find the same amenities Downtown. These are the places of yesterday he and the local Code for America brigade want to map.
“I personally have been wanting to have this map for a decade, since I was in college and wandering around the city and had close friends who were obsessed with Pittsburgh’s history and what used to be there,” said Sites-Bowen. Happily, the brigade agreed that the map was “an awesome” idea, one that takes a “natural inspiration from the city itself,” he said.
Go to any corner of the city and you’ll see the remnants of what used to be there. Sites-Bowen says people who are new to Pittsburgh or a neighborhood could spend a lot of time in the library or talking to older neighbors to learn about these already buried landmarks.
“But we have cell phones now, so we can just make a map,” he joked.
People can submit nominations online. Sites-Bowen said the form is lengthy and involved by design, to ensure that the process is limited to people who really want to contribute.
The nomination form also asks for more than just the name of the bygone landmark and its location.
“Physical memories are always caught up in stories,” Sites-Bowen said. And it’s those stories that Code for Pittsburgh is trying to elicit. “People might remember the Bruster’s [Ice Cream] in Greenfield that was there until 2003,” he said. But it’s not necessarily the ice cream you’d remember — it’s the social interactions, he said.
At the moment the data mapping project has no map and no data. “We just have the vision,” Sites-Bowen said. There is a timeline in place to work on the map until Dec. 31 then figure out what comes next.
Sites-Bowen knows this is not the first “Pittsburgh history, nostalgia, built-environment thing that ever existed.” Code for Pittsburgh is already working with online repository Historic Pittsburgh on Unlandmarks and asks that other groups with similar expertise come forward.
Code for Pittsburgh will also hold listening sessions (TBA) to solicit input from people who may less technologically inclined. Sites-Bowen said the group wants to “identify communities whose stories should be told” or “whose physical history has been erased or forgotten.”
There’s also the small matter of time.
“There are a whole lot of people who remember Pittsburgh in the ’30s and ’40s who won’t be with us much longer,” he noted.