Saturday, February 1, 2014

Pittsburgh's Next

   Mayor Peduto's new slogan for his new administration is "The Next Pittsburgh".
He was gonna call it "The New Pittsburgh" but some members of the old Pittsburgh or maybe the future Pittsburgh, talked him out of it.
   "Next Pittsburgh", sounds…. okay... and since a good number of us speak the first syllable of the city's name like it ends with an X,  the slogan's got some sibilant style.
  Or "stahl".
  Right now, with the polar vortex beating down on us and endless complaints about salt and potholes and tardy buses beating down on him, the Mayor must feel like he's standing in the center of the same old Pittsburgh, or possibly a new circle of Hell. Which happens to have frozen over.
  But people love to complain about snow storms and then blame mayors for them. It's a rite of passage. It's a sign of health. Of the old Pittsburgh grabbing the Next Pittsburgh's Mayor by the scruff and playfully, if painfully, showing its affection.
  I was at a party for the new Mayor and a wily old member of some of the more recent older Pittsburghs said to me, "I hope he let's them run the city." And I said "What does that mean? Isn't that what got us in trouble in the first place?"
   And he said, "What I mean is there's things in the city need to run like the lungs and the heart....and a good mayor knows how to get out of the way of the people who manage them best. And then pick the few things he can change. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous, you know? Lord give me the strength to know what I can change and what I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference".
   I stood there nodding, in this party of men in suits and women in dark dresses, and I thought there's change coming next to Pittsburgh that the old Pittsburgh might not even have words for, much less the wisdom.
  I couldn't help but ask how many of these well-heeled people were taking the measure of our new Mayor and wondering was he going to upset their old system. What's next?
  Let me make a prediction.
  Hold me to it. Make fun of me if I'm wrong. Seriously, laugh me out of town.
  Whether or not our new Mayor with his Next Pittsburgh campaign upsets the system of how things have been done and dealt with downtown -and I hope to God he does -  in the next ten years Pittsburgh's going to be resettled by a wave of people in their 20s and 30s who will not wait for change. 
  They will not nod their heads at cosy backroom deals over stadiums or rail terminals or other publicly traded lands. They won't listen to billionaires breaking the law who talk about "takings". They won't let their neighborhoods be shoved aside by lazy development or substandard schooling or indifferent local government. They will be the government.
   The popular signs of their arrival, the myriad coffee shops, the tattooed butchers, the smartly styled awnings in Garfield with frosted glass doors and pithy logos are just that, window dressing. What these people really do well when they arrive, is participate. They know what it is to be citizens, to vote, to volunteer, to press for change and not to yield. People do that already here yes but in 5 years there'll be a Hell of a lot more of them.
   What these people see in Pittsburgh is the shape of a democracy they can still believe in. They may have given up on Congress and the Senate, the Fed, the Supremely Conservative Court, and any hope that the Koch brothers will end their Republican Gotterdammerung. But they still believe in cities. In a justice of scale. 
  They look at our small towns and neighborhoods, many of which have seen better days and they think, I can make that work. We can remake that, with its 13 blocks and 4 churches and two schools and a playground and a local bar and a butcher. Sound like 1915? Go to Brooklyn or Portland or Austin right now and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about reborn. Well, Pittsburgh's going to be the next incarnation of that ideal and the dreaming, liberal, industrious grads of half the colleges in the US are going to take a long look at us when they choose where they want to live.
   And maybe want to invest their lives and their labor into molding a responsive, localized America.
   Pittsburgh is their perfect model. Their next stop.
   Let me predict- Our towns will be the template, the testing grounds, of an unabashedly progressive movement, 
where the conservative pendulum -just where it thought it should stick- will begin to swing the other way. Pittsburgh will be Rand Paul's Gettysburg and people decades from now will say "That's where it started."  That's where it worked.
   Again. In Pittsburgh.
   Because it has happened before and not by design and not to completion, but this city was for 50 years 
give or take after the reign of the Radical Republicans, a place where the American Dream got made. 
  Penniless foreigners arrived here, lived in hovels, worked like dogs, and in two generations were putting their grandchildren thru college and breathing easy in the backyard on a Sunday afternoon. 
  It wasn't easy and it wasn't always pretty, inclusive, or fair, but it happened. And it didn't happen because everyone pulled themselves up by their individualist bootstraps. It happened because people agitated, they broke what to them were bad laws and the laws were changed, children pulled out of factories, schools built, weekends created, unions legalized, and a social support system legislated into being where before there had been Darwinian squalor. 
   Pittsburgh worked because enough people said, "No, in our country, in our city, this shall not pass. This poverty, literal and spiritual, is not American."   And I truly think that people come here now, they move here, are drawn back to Pittsburgh, because they feel the echoes of that achievement in their hearts- the wheels of history came up thru the earth here and folks saw them- and they want to make it happen again. 
   "America. The Dream Lives." Corny? Sounds like a Republican cheer, or an NRA slogan? Nope, it's what urban farmers, and Americorp's volunteers, and farm to table chefs, and start up entrepreneurs, and living wage advocates, and site sharing artists feel in their hearts. They might not say it but they sure as Hell live it. It's their country and they're going to rebuild it, block by abandoned block.
   So how lucky we are that without a war chest, without the backing of the local Democratic machine, without at times a prayer, a 40 something guy who loves this town got elected to be the next Mayor of Pittsburgh. And for the last five years or longer, long before most of us even suspected the possibility, Peduto's been prepping for this influx. This change. This wave of American urban pioneers. He's been researching them, checking and cross checking how city after city might make itself more responsive to the will of its citizens, new and old.
  Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of people in this town who've never left who do the work of saints to make it better. I'm just saying they are about to be re-inforced in a way few power brokers used to brushing these saints away from the table will know how to handle.
  Pittsburgh's political realm has been like any one of its rivers, for way too long cut off from its people. We couldn't swim in it, weren't fed by it, couldn't even get to it. Those days are done. Before someone else comes along and tells us we can't use the river the way we want to, can't dangle our toes in it, can't call it our own, dive in. You won't be alone.