When cities shun their roots
PITTSBURGH recently thrilled to a gala celebration. Its luminaries were on parade, all the ``brains, brawn, and beauty that epitomize the city's greatness,'' a local paper reported. Television stars, still a bit dim for national fame, took turns with football champs to praise their hometown, America's ``most livable city.'' Pittsburgh? For many, the name still conjures images of smokestacks and grit. But this year, editors of the Rand McNally Places Rated Almanac, averaging statistics in such areas as housing, education, and climate, gave the top slot to this city. It was a lift long-awaited by city and business leaders, who envision a swankier ``service sector'' Pittsburgh. They poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a year-long boast, featuring ``We're Number One'' billboards and bold plans to spruce up the downtow n area, which trails only New York and Chicago as a host to corporate headquarters.
City-boosting is not new, nor necessarily bad. It is public relations for profit, designed to lure tourists and investors. Like all advertising, it touts strengths and soft-pedals or ignores drawbacks. ``I Love New York,'' was masterful in this respect: a simple affirmation that handily dismisses spoilsports.
Such campaigns have a popular effect. As in New York, they can fortify us in a city's dark hour, when financial distress or crime make us consider fleeing to the suburbs. Then, too, we want to love our city, and a little bragging doesn't hurt.
Paradoxes are easy to find. In Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, white residents recently protested blacks moving into their neighborhood. (``People should keep to their own kind,'' said one Philadelphian, ``that's not prejudice.'') In New York, the ``I (heart) NY,'' decorates coffee cups littering gutters.
But the shame is elsewhere. It is in a city disowning parts of itself. It is in catering to a certain ``kind'' of resident and spurning another. As the nation's economy veers from making products to trading services, old cities understandably want a fresh start. But abandoning the people who built our cities because they don't fit into our plans (unlike the ever-malleable young professional), is nothing but a sellout.
This, today, is Pittsburgh's shame.
``In the 1980s, [Pittsburgh] is a smoke-free city of tall office buildings,'' Rand McNally concludes. Well, sort of. Pittsburgh proper encompasses the downtown center and a handful of neighborhoods with a population totaling roughly 400,000. But this is not the workhorse city we think of, nor entirely the one Rand McNally assesses. Greater Pittsburgh (population 2.2 million) is America's 10th largest metro area, where a ring of 160 townships share everything with Pittsburgh, except recovery. While
politicians and brokers cheered on the economic recovery, this area led the nation in unemployment. It's where the smoke came from.
There are distressing signs that image-sculptors will be editing our history books. Imaging is creeping into our dialogue: We say ``New York'' but mean ``Manhattan.''
A false view is emerging of who comprises our society; city ``visionaries'' alienate us from the vast majority of residents, workers, and consumers.
On the eve of Pittsburgh's gala, the city council of Clairton, a steel mill town located a few miles down river, convened. The county had forwarded an invitation to participate: to build a float and join the parade. ``I could be a little funny with a few of those comments,'' said Councilman George J. Gitas, ``but I don't think this is a time for levity.'' It wasn't. Clairton is too broke to party.
There is nothing ``livable'' about Clairton, or many of its neighbors. Unemployment estimates hover around 25 percent; suicide and divorce rates are near double the national average. For a time, some residents of Clairton and other municipalities took their complaints downtown, which many see as the showcase for their labor. The corporations and City Hall were unmoved. Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri maintains that those who can't find a place in the ``New Pittsburgh'' should leave.
The ``New Pittsburgh'' emerged amid old mill towns like Clairton. It is only ``livable'' today because these neighborhoods are dying quietly, and rather neatly. At night, people pause on neighborhood streets to view the emerging downtown landscape. They see a glass corporate castle; it is dazzling. But no one lives there.
Christopher H. Marquis is a Pittsburgh-based journalist.