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« Elsewhere | Main | Politicized Religion Revisited: Some Data »

May 04, 2007

Pittsburgh: Yay or Nay?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back here, I raved about the city of Pittsburgh. Since I was basing my cheers entirely on a three-day vist The Wife and I made to promote our dirty co-written fiction, I was relieved that, in the comments on that posting, DarkoV, MQ, and The Holzbachian contributed not just their own enthusiasm for the city but considerably more experience. More recently, I had the chance to feel vindicated for all of us when the Places Rated Almanac declared Pittsburgh the "most livable city" in the U.S., ahead of such strong and better-known contenders as Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco.

Now, though, comes Bill Steigerwald, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to add some lemon to the discussion. According to Steigerwald, Pittsburgh -- for all her heartiness, her gorgeous neighborhoods, and her advantages -- is in a death-spiral. Taxes are high, politicians are deluded and corrupt, and people are leaving.

One especially sad passage:

It's bankrupt. Its school district spends $16,000 a year per kid. Its parking tax is the highest on Earth: 50 percent. City police and firefighters irresponsibly pad their numbers, salaries, and pensions -- and openly trade their mayoral votes for sweetheart contracts. Meanwhile, local school and property taxes are among the highest in the country. So are public bus and taxi fares. And, oh yeah, highways are congested, in bad shape, and under-built.

Yes, Pittsburgh is highly livable. But it's also dying.

Don't you hate it when satisfyingly simple pictures get complicated? But you can still buy an awful lot of very nice house for amazingly little money in Pittsburgh.



posted by Michael at May 4, 2007



Ok, the concept of being rated #1 is a bit silly. But, what to make of the fact that "no points" were taken off for Pittsburgh's high taxes or gross mismanagement of public funds.

Um, anyone here hear of the Big Dig? Or NYC or SF taxes? If the 'burg didn't get points off for these things neither did alot of its cool city competitors.

So, I think the heart of the argument is that it is a dying city. Ok, but why does massive population growth always signal strength and coolness? I *like* that it's a dying city! Boston is losing population too, and I love it.

Frankly, I love it when wealthy robber barons build beautiful libraries, museums and gardens and then... leave (and take half their manufacturing base labor pool with them). Who then inherits all the grandeur? The lucky few who recognize the ugly duckling for what it is, that's who.

Like in high school, often what is popular is not good, and is by definition financially overpriced.

And does this closing sentence ring alarm bells around here?:

**So unless 50,000 immigrants invade Pittsburgh real soon, it looks like “America’s Most Livable City” will soon become “America’s Most Leave-able City.”**

Pittsburgh has lots of immigrants, particularly Poles, Germans, Koreans, and (more recently) Indians. What they don't have is a massive influx of high school dropouts from just ONE country. It's balanced there.

And if you want to talk about truly dying and what can be done with it, check out the yesterday's front page article from the WSJ on Pittsburgh's closest neighbor (my hometown) Youngstown.

(sorry it may be gated)
"As It's Population Declines, Youngstown Thinks Small"

Instead of trying to save neighborhoods, the city is actively demolishing derelict buildings and hopefully turning it to green space.

Maybe all of this turns on a simple aesthetic leaning regarding density. A friend of mine from London remarked that Providence seemed eerie to her because of the low density of people on the sidewalks. But, I told her... that's a feature!

Regards all,

The Holzbachian

Posted by: Holzbachian on May 4, 2007 10:27 PM

Holzbachian: "Frankly, I love it when wealthy robber barons build beautiful libraries, museums, and gardens and then... leave (and take half their manufacturing base labor pool with them). Who then inherits all the grandeur? The lucky few who recognize the ugly duckling for what it is, that's who."

Hmmm. To see what those "beautiful libraries, museums and gardens" look like after a few decades of neglect, check out The Fabulous Ruins Of Detroit.

(When Michael Bay's film The Island wanted postapocalyptic desolation, they shot scenes in Michigan Central Station and the Michigan Theater. Click on the "Detour" buttons for the grim details.)

Key quote from the site:

How does decay begin?

The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit all began as sparkling edifices, the fulfillment of the dreams of their architects and developers.

Their end did not come suddenly, as part of some natural disaster or war. Instead it resulted from an accumulated lack of basic aesthetic sensibility. A small thing left broken here, an indiscretion of taste there, until a preponderance of damage equals an insoluble situation. What was revered becomes scorned.

Abandonment and vandalism follow and the damage becomes irreparable.

Plenty of "green space" to follow, no doubt.

Posted by: Brian on May 5, 2007 10:34 AM

the Penguins just got unceremoniously dumped from the Stanley Cup by the Miracle of Gerentolgy NY Rangers. Of course, Mr. Steigerwald will be in his bitter cups. And, unfortunately, he's taken it out on his own fair city. I'm not arguing with his claims of corruption and municipal negligence as he's more attuned to those facts as a resident, while I am mainly an avid Pittsburgh tourist.
But, living just outside of Corruption Central, namely Philadelphia, I can see a huge difference between the two cities and Philly is on the upswing. So, convoluted logic (and hope) here, I'm praying the same for Pittsburgh. Staid Old Money, PA govt. support, New Wave of Industrious Immigrants...any combination may do the trick. While the downtown has been radically alterred and spruced up, I'm thinking it will be the thoroughly uniques and self-governed villages or sub-sections of the city that will bolster Pittsburgh and encourage a reverse exodus.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 5, 2007 11:53 AM

It is no coincidence that the most livable moments in some cities coincided with boss rule; the first Daley in Chicago, Tom Pendergast in Kansas City, and we should include Jimmy Walker in New York, though he was not really a boss. Reformers tend to do grim things to good cities.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on May 5, 2007 4:57 PM

Detroit! I like the detroitblog better...

Posted by: Mencius on May 5, 2007 10:00 PM

The Penguins weren't dumped by the Rangers, they lost to the Senators.

In my opinion, Pittsburgh is at a disadvantage right now vis-a-vis similar cities because our biggest employers all pay no taxes because they are nonprofit institutions. (Pitt, CMU, and especially UPMC) The guys in charge are betting that this situation will lead to the appearance of an actual corporate tax base soon to replace the one that disappeared 35 years ago.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on May 6, 2007 1:45 PM

I don't know what Pittsburgh's relation to its "hinterland" is. But when I googled Pittsburgh population I got an answer that the Greater Pittsburgh Metropolitan District (I think that was the term) has slightly over two and a half million people. The city's loss of population may simply be, in large measure, an outflow into the greater region; with a return flow, especially if the city is lively and attractive, of the regional population taking advantage of what the city has to offer -- and dropping coin.

Posted by: ricpic on May 6, 2007 2:46 PM

"The Penguins weren't dumped by the Rangers, they lost to the Senators."

Cryptic Ned, I stand corrected. The Miracle of Gerentolgy NY Rangers were busy displacing the Atlanta Thrashers while the Penguins were going down in 5 to the Senators. The Rangers then were bid adieu by the Sabres of Buffalo, the latter being another city on a lot of folks' Metropolis Death Watch.

Thanks for the correction.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 7, 2007 3:09 PM

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