How Pittsburgh Returned to the Jungle


By Haniel Long

* First printed in The Nation, June 20, 1923.

This classic tale is a curious example of the effect of legislation on a modern city. And how Sustainability can rise from a seemingly trivial action.

ONE SPRING a millionaire nurseryman, lobbying for his private gain, and in league with a manufacturer of window boxes, was clever enough to attach to a piece of legislation, a rider which had nothing to do with the measure in question and which favored abundantly his own business.  

This rider made it compulsory for every Pittsburgher who owned or rented a window to have a window box, to have a window box indeed for every window. 

In the confusion which prevails at the close of a tiresome session, the state legislature passed the bill - a popular one - without noticing the rider, and in due course it became a law. 

The millionaire nurseryman, who had a monopoly of the sale of seeds and flowers in his city,
saw to it that the officers enforced the law. 

At once there was a loud outcry. The owners of skyscrapers protested. They were joined by the owners of factories and by the private corporations. 

The governor sent a special representative to take charge of the situation, and a number of property owners were arrested.

Their friends brought the case into court, but they were defeated.

The judge, it was whispered, had a private fondness for flowers; and he was known to have said that the law was no more unreasonable than most laws. The property owners appealed the case. 

Meanwhile the nurseryman and the box maker were busy spreading propaganda. 

Naturalists and platform orators of note appeared mysteriously in the city to lecture on behalf of

flowers. A great musician publicly praised the law. So did a well-known evangelist. The national association of women's clubs hired an investigator, and on the strength of his report came out flatly in the cause of window boxes.

Here and there in down-town windows flowers began to appear. An instinctive liking for their color and fragrance, in the hearts of stenographers, abetted the design. It introduced a new interest and source of rivalry, and also a new reason for looking out of the window. 

The supreme court upheld the law, and the manufacturer of window boxes quadrupled his plant and operated it day and night. The face of the skyscrapers began to turn green. 

Bitter-sweet, honeysuckle, climbing hydrangea, and even grape-vines crawled along the surfaces of white tile and red brick, and ran up and down on little trellises. 

The presence in their season of jonquils and anemones, of pansies, larkspur and iris, of peonies and dahlias, of asters and chrysanthemums, wrought an indescribable change in the deep canyons. 

This change was not in color only; the flowers attracted insects, especially bees, and many varieties of birds.

Every traffic policeman put a neat little bird-box on his Stop-and-Go signal, for purple martins.  

Stone valleys where hitherto had sounded only the noise of vehicles, were now filled with bird-cries and the humming of tiny insects. 

The vines grew longer year by year, and hung in the air, or were shorn close about the windows. Flowers flared in many new varieties. 

Visitors were struck by the novelty of the sight, and reports of a new wonder filled the world. Pictures of Pittsburgh in wisteria time or in the season of the gladiolus appeared in the movies everywhere, and were marvelled at by millions.

The city hitherto notorious as being devoted to naked industry was now featured on all American tours for its beauty, and became the mecca of the recently married, of sightseers disappointed in Niagara, of ornithologists, botanists, and searchers for the exotic. 

A great new revenue came thus to the city.    

That portion of humanity which makes its living on the traveler began to influence the business life of the town of steel. 

Hotels of mammoth proportions went up on tier after tier of leisurely gardens to heights of over sixty stories.

It was well known how wonderful were the hanging gardens of Pittsburgh; they contained trees and lakes, and paths which wound for miles over green chasms. 

Awnings of white and orange covered the wide roofs, and all winter long the sun flashed on glass walls which protected flowers. 

IN THE MEANTIME, though not altogether from the invasion of the window boxes, the city lost its industrial prestige. It had a bitter struggle with competitors younger than itself and more favorably situated for manufacturing. Gary, Pueblo, and Birmingham were like young Titans who proved too strong for their giant father.

When the time came that it was no longer expedient to maintain the larger furnaces, Pittsburgh awoke to find its beauty its source of livelihood. 

Certain skyscrapers, now without tenants, we given over unreservedly to horticulture. Then in deadly earnest did the jungle set out to conquer city of ravines and gulches. 

Little by little its tide ran up the river valleys and across the abandoned mills softening angular roofs and turning cupolas in; amazing sights. 

The bridges across the three rivers became fairer than the bridges of vision. 

THE AIR GREW CLEARER. No smoke was permitted only electric locomotives penetrated the city. The roads and highways were banked with shrubs and blossoms.

If the wind blew in the right direction, the citizens of Youngstown, or Morgantown, or Cleveland could smell the fragrance of Pittsburgh from afar. It seemed to them strange and fabulous as it overpowered the sulphur dioxide to which they were accustomed and they would say to one another, "Oh to be in Pittsburgh, in beautiful Pittsburgh!" 

The population of the city changed its nature. Anglo-Saxons, being unhandy with flowers, decreased. 

But thousands and thousands of gardeners were needed to produce those floral effects which men talked of from Cape Town to Thibet; and the children of immigrants found Pittsburgh much to their taste. 

As to the millionaire nurseryman who was the unwitting cause of so complete a transformation, his was a singular fate: the unforgiving corporations pursued him relentlessly; and though they found themselves powerless to check the movement he had started, they had their revenge, for they convicted him of bribery and corrupt practices.

Rather than go to prison he committed suicide, clasping to his bosom a bouquet of lilies. The passing of years changed him into a symbolic figure, a martyr and saint. 

The visitor to Pittsburgh may now see his beautiful memorial down at the Point, where two sky-blue rivers, mingling under his unseeing eyes, form the Ohio, that stream which, as the poets of Louisiana say, flows south to them from a city of unfading flowers.    # # #