Lower Hill District Rememberance

Made by Vera Schulz, Cody Soska and Xin Hui Lim

We wanted to foster more conversations between the Pittsburgh community, visitors, and the hill district community. Memorialize the community space, items and people who were displaced, through a mixed media light display and projection technology triggered by tiles.

Lower Hill District Remembrance
Vera Schulz - https://vimeo.com/213031885

Conceptual Design:


In looking at different places in Pittsburgh for placing a hybrid memorial, we were interested in exploring social issues, particularly gentrification and urban renewal. In Pittsburgh, the Lower Hill district underwent an "urban renewal" in the 1950s and 60s, causing the displacement of 9,000 residents and dozens of businesses, one of which was the Crawford Grill renown for its various visits by well know performers like Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane. The lack of maintenance and infrastructure of the area had contributed to the negative perception of Lower Hill as a "ghetto," and an area to avoid. The Civic Arena and a supporting parking lot where put in place of rows of houses and business that were demolished. The proximity of the Lower Hill district to Downtown was seen by developers and planners as something that should be capitalized upon -- the Civic Arena was a great place for many events, concerts and became the home for Pittsburgh's professional hockey team, the Penguins. The Civic Arena has been demolished today and been replaced with the Consol Energy center, which is a sought after venue and hosts a variety of events, but there is still an ongoing debate about what should be built there (it is currently a parking lot for PPG Paints Arena).

Meaningfulness and Community: 

We feel that the voice of the residents, ex-residents, and business have been underrepresented -- and placing a "meaningful memorial" in the site would hopefully highlight the importance of culture and community, serving not only to educate the public (who park or pass by here when going to events nearby), but also spark conversation about redevelopment plans. by creating this memorial we would make sure that the community makes all the decisions surrounding the building, design, and implementation of the art installation or artwork, because the citizens know the area the best and its history, and would do it justice. We wanted to emphasize that we did not want to impose an outsider's design intervention onto a community that is already very involved and waiting to be engaged in artwork and improving the community. 

Project Goal: 
By remembering the good memories of the Lower Hill, and emphasizing the cultural value of the place, we can change the narrative for future city planning decisions. We want to help the community achieve the vision they have for their community and believe that they can also influence the change and development that is happening.
First Design iteration
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Second Design Iteration
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Community-Oriented Design and Process: 

Throughout our entire process, we wanted to focus everything on the community, since we are considering creating an installation that reflects the community history in the community. We were able to involve a community member, Terri Baltimore, in our design processes by scheduling an interview with her to review our concept. We also spoke to her about how we would move forward if we were going to implement the project, and what she and the community would want from the project. From our conversation with her, we realized the project should be completely community initiated and driven. 

Heart Design: 

We chose the heart as the middle-point of my design so that it could represent the “heart/will of the community,” and be the unifying center of the design while the roots (which would be represented by lights) coming out of the heart could represent the communities growth and stories of the displaced individuals in the community. The roots would signify the positive change that is growing from within the community and then expanding, to the four or more tiles which would showcase a remembrance of key locations, that would show the resident's story and lifestyle. With the design of the heart and light installation, we decided to make the center (the heart) spray painted while having the lights either hang from existing poles or have rechargeable light emitting photocells that would be put into the concrete. We also thought that this would have a greater contrast than having the heart also be made of lights. 


Our Research:

The Lower Hill district is well-documented, with many online sources and articles that describe what the Lower Hill once was, how people felt about the place, and what the plans are for the future.

  1. Charles Teenie Harris Archive: photographs
  2. Historic Pittsburgh Census database
  3. Historic Pittsburgh ESRI maps
  4. Archaeological surveys
  5. Local News articles
  6. Hill House Association
  7. Community Plans
  8. We looked into what business and shops were on the lot before Civic Arena was built and felt that it was an important part of the Lower Hill culture that was lost because of the 1960s development project.


Our Concept: 

The main focus of our concept was to recreate the unique cultural identity and experiences the businesses gave the Lower Hill and its residents. 

Main Aspects of our Concept:

  • A video projection that gets activated when people step on a given tile that is placed into/embedded in the sidewalk in the Hill District area.
    • (This video projection would differ depending on the location it would represent) Eg.  Crawford Grill, Darling's Pharmacy in the Hill, Rhumba Theater, Ruth’s Grocery, Crystal Barber Shop, Corner Tavern, Musician’s Club         
    • To tie all the different “tiles” together, we proposed to have an artistic image representing the heart of the Lower Hill painted on the concrete.
    • Along with this artistic image, there would be a light trail leading away from it, guiding users to the tiles and back to the heart. Then, when a user steps down on the tile, the 60-seconds projection is activated, and the lights that guided the user to the light go out, to draw full attention to the projection that gets shown on one of the adjacent walls to the parking lot.
  • We also wanted to create an online interactive component to tie the tangible and the digital together
  • The online platform would allow people to leave comments on how they feel, and also provides links to resources discussing redevelopment plans. The online resource would also showcase future development plans from city planners and potentially give members of the community a voice, and let them leave their voice/opinion on the developments. Another possibility this online platform could do is foster an avenue for discussion between developers and the city and Hill District residents
We want every aspect and step of this project to involve the community, in order to do this we want the:
  • Design to be community driven and installed with help of community, Lights (color variation), placement (spacing and reasoning), maintenance (how often, technical need), cost (implementation, maintenance)
  • Videos curated and managed by community organization
  • To celebrate newer, existing community assets in the Hill

Even if the lot is redeveloped, the sidewalk tiles would not have to be removed, although the artwork in the middle may be. However, remnants of its existence would remain on the digital platform, to preserve the entire effort and mission of the project.

Location Pictures.
Screen shot 2017 04 13 at 3.02.25 am.thumb Cody Soska

Choosing a Site:

Target Audience: 

Anyone walking in the area, Pittsburghers, tourists heading to the PPG Paints Arena


Located along the main local roads: Bedford Avenue & Crawford Street, the site is easily accessible via bus, walking & cars.


We looked at the spaces around and surrounding the Civic area, like existing car parking lots and sidewalk areas which could be the site for our area. We also looked into areas where the city had plans for urban development & rejuvenation and possibly creating new housing projects. We wanted to create a memorial in a public, outdoor place, because of the accessibility and location of the space. We ultimately settled on the parking lot next to the Civic Arena plot of land, although we had looked into other green spaces around the neighborhood, such as Freedom Corner, Albert Turk Graham Park, Crawford Parklet and Crosstown Park (Bigelow Blvd) when we visited the site.


We looked into potential installations that would not take too much work to drill holes into the asphalt/concrete and embedded lights into it. We realized that having more alternatives would be better, because when we present this project to the community there should be the ability to fit it to the needs and wants of the community, and have an installation that is meaningful and fits the resources and skills of the community.

One idea:

 One idea was putting up lamp posts in the car park lot and along the sidewalk and then mounting projectors and speakers on building around the site (for projecting imagery) while hanging lights from posts that already existed in the lot. This way the installation would not interfere with the parking lot as much as a 2-D embedded light carpet in the concrete would and it might be easier to control. 

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Our Prototype(s) (Above &below): 

The Tile(s):

We created a functioning tile with an acrylic cover that memorialized the iconic Crawford Grill that was demolished. When someone, say a passerby, would step on the tile it would trigger a projector which would then show a 60-second video projected onto the surface of one of the empty walls across the parking lot. In this projection,  which could be changed based on what the community wanted to memorialized, the ambient sound/surrounding and livelihood would be recreated for the location, for our project it was specifically the Crawford Grill. While we were creating the projection we decided to add silhouettes from the 1930s -1950s and animated them to add some motion/liveliness to the projection. We wanted to create the most immersive projection so so we also added well-known jazz artist's John Coltrane’s Blue Train melody, since he was one of the well-known jazz artists that frequented the Crawford Grill. We wanted to create the most viable prototype to showcase the potential of such an installation in communities like the Hill District and how it could involve multiple individuals from the community on multiple levels.

Other Prototypes: 

Flow & Focus Schematics, Modelo model, 3-D Architectural model,  Concept Video & Projection Video, Heart and tile sketch (2)

Ideal Scenario: 

Ideally, these tiles would be distributed throughout the Hill District in locations where iconic buildings and houses had been located, and they would enable individuals to see what had existed before and why it was relevant to the community. This would not only help individuals like local Pittsburghers and visitors understand the significance of the location and effect of the displacement of the community, but it would hopefully give them insight into the culture and livelihood the individuals in the Hill District and let them experience it second-handly. 

Prototype of Tile (for Crawford Grill)
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(Shown Above) The Interactive Tile: 


The tile above was the prototype we envisioned would be placed throughout the Hill District community and would trigger the projection that would reflect the building/business that existed before and its history. It was made by using the laser cutter for engraving the acrylic and the wooden component was fabricated with hand tools. 

Interfacing with the Technology

The small wires running out the side plug into GPIO pins on a Raspberry Pi 3. By pressing the tile/button down, two sheets of conductive aluminum make contacting, completing a circuit, these components are covered by the wood and acrylic. Essentially, this is a large button. The script for this operation is below:

import RPi.GPIO as GPIO
import time
import sys, os, time
from subprocess import PIPE, Popen


GPIO.setup(18, GPIO.IN, pull_up_down=GPIO.PUD_UP)

while True:
    input_state = GPIO.input(18)
    if input_state == False:
        print('Button Pressed')
        proc=Popen(['omxplayer','test1.3gp'], stdout=PIPE)
Click to Expand

Example Prompts: 

Prompts for interviewing community members/developers/Pittsburghers (should reminisce about the past as well as look into the future). Everyone should put more thought into what is happening in the Hill District because similar projects are happening in other areas of the city and it is important to understand what happened and why. We want the project to help individuals think about what happened, and see the Hill District as a positive force in its area. We want to work together side by side with the community to revitalize the community and address the individual's interests: to get their voices heard and remind them that the community is still there for them.

Curating Memories questions:

  • What do you think makes the hill district unique?
  • What do you remember the most/first about the Hill?
  • What does the place mean to you today - how often do you go back and how do you feel?
  • What would you want to see in the Hill and why?

Charles Teenie Harris online archive - searchable by date, street name

Modelo -Architectural Model of our targeted space
Modelo.thumb Xin Hui Lim

Design development - Implementation

1)   The Painting of the heart would be located in middle of the location, to symbolize the "heart and feel of the community" and establish it as the central point of our design. It would also represent how the community's needs are at the core focus (heart) of our project.

2)  A trail of lights leading to the tiles would symbolize the displacement of individuals in the community and their want and need to reach out. We wanted the installation to be striking and illuminating not only in the mind but also in a sensory experience, which is why we wanted to add lights. 

3) We wanted to create three designs concerning the arrangement/ embedding of the lights, which would make up the light trail leading from the heart and to the individual tiles.

  • Solar/Rechargeable/Photocells embedded in concrete → drill holes (mason’s drill) and insert photocells

This design would be 2D. The lights would be embedded into the concrete and replicate the design of the heart and its roots. The lights would either be glowing-in-the-dark lights or lights that have solar cells embedded in them so that they would retrieve their energy from the sun. The lights would be spaced out to look like a mosaic or tessellation, to give a contrast to the installation.

  • Hanging lights → Have the lights hang from the already installed poles;
  • Adhesive Light strips → Have the ability to attach/remove them to the surface; 

We wanted to come up with two other alternative designs since the location we chose belonged to the Pittsburgh Penguins and we wanted to also keep the options open for design and installation, so that if we were to present this idea to the community the idea would not be set, and the community could consider our idea and then implement it how they wished.

4)  Tiles - Sensor:
  • For this tile we wanted a compressible box to simulate the actual augmentation to the existing sidewalk. The real tile would most likely be made out of cement with a cast iron top.
  • Our tile is a large button encased in wood. Once the switch’s circuit is completed, a python script pipes the terminal command to start "omx player" and load our video.
  • The video is stored on the Raspberry Pi, a mini-computer,  and linked to the projector.
5)   Video projection:
  • We wanted the video projection to be the most immersive and impactful which is why we decided to implement various pieces to recreat the scene:
  •  Music + Recreated scene + Animated silhouettes + Interview transcript + QR code

6)   Online architectural interface - Modelo:
  • (Below) Here you can see where the houses and shops used to be, as well as the locations of tiles.

Laser Cut Architectural Model of our targeted space (Arial View)
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Laser Cut Architectural Model of our targeted space (Ground View)
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We felt that given the amount of time for the project, we managed to explore the rather complicated history and resources available, which allowed us to create something tangible. We really like the suggestion during the review that it could become a marker for Lower Hill, just like the neighborhood signs/gateways in Uptown by James Simon, especially since the site we chose is on the edge of Lower Hill and Downtown. 

Some of the questions we still need to address is if the design we came up with is feasible for implementation for the community and if the entire community would feel comfortable with the design. What the community would want if we were to move forward with the design, even though we talked with Terri Baltimore, we would want to talk to more community members about the idea to gather their thoughts! Since the design would be placed in the community and we believe the community, especially for this type of project, could be very interested and involved. A couple other question are how we would install our project and the viability of having lights out in the open either embedded in the concrete or hanging over the parking lot? How much work should the installation ideally involve, in terms of designing, implementing and installing? 

In the future, we would potentially try to do more ethnographic research and visit the space more often so that we would be able to get a very high understanding of it. Consider how difficult it is to represent memories that happened 30 or more years ago, and augment/re-create them so that they are powerful. Maybe at some point, we will be able to re-create past memories and feelings, so that when people in the present experience them they feel the emotional impact and understand why individuals reacted the way they did. One question would be: How to recollect the feeling of talking to an individual who has had a lot of experiences in their life, and how to recreate the feeling you felt while talking to them and have the impression resonate within you.

 We also would need to put more thought into cost and implementation, and see what would be the most realistic and practical approach. Another thing to focus on would be how the community members value the memories and how they feel comfortable expressing them? In general just getting to know the community better and trying to understand their struggles, and involving them would help bring our project to a much higher impact level and meaning.

This is the original video

Open Questions and Challenges

  • Is there an easy way to reach out to the community to get their perspectives? Where there any artistic initiatives, similar to ours, that succeeded in the community or a similar one?
  • Can this be implemented elsewhere? How can the project be more even site-specific?
  • Should the projection be on all the time? How can people who are on the site but not stepping on the tiles be educated on the site as well?
  • How can the "activation" of the memorial experience be more impactful? How can it
  • How do we get people to notice the tiles more -- the tiles are on the sidewalk but people are in the parking lot? Perhaps there should be more interventions within the parking lot itself, which people will see when they get out of their car, to capture their attention immediately and teach them about the history of the site.
    • How feasible is it to get funding for the maintenance of this, and would the community be capable of the labor associated with the project or willing to do it? Is video projection truly the best intervention for the given site and issue? What about augmented reality experiences (similar to Pokemon Go)? Could we use sound and voice recordings to create a stronger representation of the community and the culture that existed before? Could a simulation be another potential approach, and be considered more suitable?

    Attribution & References:

     Precedents & Other Resources:


    Many thanks to Mildred Davison & Terri Baltimore for giving us interviews!

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    49-806 Responsive Mobile Environments

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    This 15-week course will introduce students to responsive mobile environments and encourages them to explores speculative terrains that intersect art, technology and design and space.

    Focused on

    We wanted to foster more conversations between the Pittsburgh community, visitors, and the hill district community. Memorialize the community space, items and people who were displaced, through a mixed media light display and projection technology triggered by tiles.