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. 


  1. I hope your prediction for this city comes true. Even though I have moved out of the city and into a suburb of South Hills I still go to the same church I grew up in every Sunday and see the community I grew up in and it makes me sad because that thriving community has dwindled down to a area with empty store fronts and the spark that was in the air has seemed to vanish. I hate it. I am always telling my kids about walking to the pool or playing softball at the field that my aunt and uncle lived by and wish they could experience the same things I had growing up. I didn't have the opportunity to vote for Mayor Peduto but I have an investment in his time as mayor because I think that if anyone can get this city back on it's feet it's him.

    1. The city IS on its feet -- and has been for some time. As someone who lives in the suburbs and only comes in once a week to church, you just don't recognize the signs -- The city looks shabbier than the suburbs, and you're comparing it to what you remember, and finding it lacking. It's changing, but it's very much alive, and people who live here can see that.
      I live in a neighborhood that could very well be the one you are referring to. I am a relative newcomer; I chose to adopt and invest in this neighborhood by buying a house here. I can walk to the pool or to the softball field --those things are still here, and they're heavily used by the people who choose to live in this neighborhood. It was a previous generation who moved to the suburbs in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, when things got rough. They wanted the suburban dream and weren't willing to stay here and work to make things better. Now, they remember the old neighborhood with fondness, they might even come back on Sundays for church, but after services, they jump in their cars and leave -- they don't go to the coffee shop, or to the bookstore, or walk around and look at the community gardens or new green spaces. A new community has developed here, but it doesn't look like the old one, and it's not centered around the church, so people there think the neighborhood is in a bad way, or dying. It isn't. That old ethnic community dwindled and faded -- because many of those people choose to leave.
      It was others who turned the neighborhood around -- people who weren't of the ethnicity that used to define this neighborhood. It's not as crowded as it used to be, the population is a third of what it was -- since whole families aren't crowding into small apartments. Now, most people have cars, they aren't forced to shop here, so the small shops couldn't survive. There aren't as many people on the streets, but don't be fooled by how quiet it seems; the revitalization is in full swing here and has been for years. Now this area is in-demand; apartments rent immediately, houses sell within days. The "new people", as some legacy residents refer to them, are younger, they might have tattoos or funny hair, but they're community-minded, willing to work hard, and have moved in and come to love this neighborhood as their own. And they're the ones who participate, come out for neighborhood cleanups, they garden, they plant trees, they make music, they care -- a lot. And they don't expect the Mayor or the City to make things better, they are actively out there working.

  2. This, this fierce attachment to place, so defines your writing. That and the way in which past and present connect. Pittsburgh lives, is presented to a distant stranger as place that knows itself. A place that acknowledges its past and embraces the possibilities of its future. It is true that many of us drift through the world we lived in, the place we call home. I hope your Mayor Peduto and all those gathered, will bring the lifebreath and realise the possibilities you imagine.

  3. Never stop. I enjoy reading your posts sir. really here in mexico is the same story. Pittsburgh ROCKS !!

  4. \m/ Let *US* make It so. I've been waiting and watching Bill build the critical mass for Pittsburgh's next iteration for the past 5 years and I am loving watching it come to fruition.

    Also, because you do share my nearly ineffable and definitely slightly insane love of this place, have you read Wendell Berry? If not, you really need to.

    The saddest thing about traveling across this country is strip malls, interstates (I mean, they're handy, don't get me wrong--I would not have enjoyed driving a UHaul from California on back roads trying to beat winter to the east coast), and bourgeois housing projects. Pittsburgh has not lost its sense of place. We remain rooted in our hills and hollers, in our forests, our rivers, and our neighborhoods, in our history, and in each other.

    The old guard will not go down without a fight, but this town has a lot of fight in it. B)

    Let us never forget that all that we have, we have made together, and that abundance shared creates more joy.

    Keep writing! :)

    "Calling his neighbors together into the sanctity
    of their lives separate and together
    in the one life of their commonwealth and home,
    in their own nation small enough for a story
    or song to travel across in an hour, he cries:

    Come all ye conservatives and liberals
    who want to conserve the good things and be free,
    come away from the merchants of big answers,
    whose hands are metalled with power;
    from the union of anywhere and everywhere
    by the purchase of everything from everybody at the lowest price
    and sale of anything to anybody at the highest price;
    from the union of work and debt, work and despair;
    from the wage-slavery of helplessly well-employed.
    From the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation,
    secede into care for one another
    and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

  5. Well done! You just made me even more excited for this city.

  6. David, I agree with almost everything you've said, but it's the libertarians, NOT the so - called "progressives", who are going to make the changes to make a better Pittsburgh - and a better country.

  7. I agree that change has to come from the bottom up! But I also agree with Vix above - Pittsburgh has been under one-party rume for many, many years and that has lead to an old-boy's network -- but that party was NOT the Republicans.

  8. Proud to be a part of the CHANGE! Opening a small business in the neighborhood that I grew up in (Lawrenceville), with the help of the entire community, family, friends and neighbors (indiegogo): Stop by the next time you are in Pittsburgh!!!

  9. It's been a month, where you at man lol?

  10. October 21, 2015, 20 months passed, are there any changes? That's rhetorical. I looked you guys up, seems pretty nice and a week from today Ringo Starr is playing in your town, good show. But there really is no way for outsiders to rate the change until the next census numbers come out. That should in no way be taken negatively. Change comes from within, so they say. So if the insiders notice it then you're on your way. In 2003 I moved to Detroit Proper, smack damn in the middle of Detroit, my reasons for moving from Austin TX to Detroit should be explained but that would take way to long, suffice it to say that a move was necessary and I had one cousin living in downtown Detroit and working a CCS, which for those who know it is the College for Creative Studies. I'm sure I am rambling but there is a purpose, Detroit gets a bad rap, okay maybe it is close to accurate some times but I lived there for almost 4 years and it was only supposed to be there 6 months. I found that I couldn't help but love the people and just kept staying. They are rough and salty but my god they don't give up, they keep taking hits and never stop fighting, I loved it. People are always amazed when I say that but I mean it, I truly loved the experience of living there. The only reason I moved home was to be with my family and I really am a Texas girl. Okay I also couldn't take winter every year (except that watching the one tree outside my apartment window changing with each of the seasons was fairly amazing). However, my point is, Detroit is always thought of as a city where all hope is lost. But it isn't, if anything it's the one place where hope is real, people really depend on hope there, they hold on to it, they make what they have last and they don't let go. I know what you mean by saying the progressive machine will take over and make change, and I'm glad for Pittsburgh, I hope it happens, but what of the other forgotten cities. I'm so sick of good intentions leading everyone to hell. There has to be a major shift in thinking that we are all separate. If someone saves Pittsburgh, then save them all, save all the cities that time forgot. Detroit deserves to be saved, they have been lost for too long and if we make these microcosms of what we can do as a nation, with better education and community involvement then we can do it all together and not just watch as some get saved and others are allowed to live in squalor. I believe if we can bring Detroit back to the greatness it saw during the industrial revolution we can save us all, we keep saying that we are a great nation, one day we should see if we really can be.