No Peace, No Coffee at Zeke’s

I love my neighborhood. I have lived and worked in East Liberty for 15 years. When I bought my home,  Home Depot had already moved in. There were plans for the Whole Foods. I knew that some amount of gentrification would follow (you can argue that I contributed to it by moving in) but I had no idea just how much.

I was happy to move into a diverse neighborhood. Happier still when my neighborhood association lobbied to sell three properties on my street to Sojourner House as permanent housing for women in recovery with children.  Then I watched as things began to change. I watched as some of the businesses I loved began to close — Abay, then Shadow Lounge for example — to make way for more upscale (whiter) venues that were willing and able to pay the increasing rents.

Having worked in the business district for years, I love walking down Penn Ave — I know all the regulars on the street. It’s the small town feeling that I have grown to love so much about Pittsburgh over the years. I had to confront my own privilege recently when I realized that there was a sign posted outside my beloved local coffee shop.

I am embarrassed to admit that it had been there for about a month before I took notice, so I was obviously not the intended recipient of its message.

I started frequenting the coffee shop when it was in its original location on the other side of Penn Avenue than where it is now. When they were forced out of their location due to the property being acquired for more development, I empathized with their plight.

I donated as part of their fundraising efforts to stay alive and move to their current location across the street. I wanted to support a local business and not the Starbucks in the whitewashed “Eastside.”  I noticed the movie theater style barriers go up after they decided to put tables out on the sidewalks (for customers only). But it took me a while to see the sign:

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But when I did, I could not ignore it. Now? In this climate? When the police shooting and killing of black people is in the news regularly? When corporations and white-owned establishments are encroaching on a traditionally vibrant and proud black community? To sell coffee to white people in peace lest they be disturbed by the “local color?”

The coffee shop has been here. They knew what the neighborhood was. I cannot even begin to imagine what their expectations could have been to have resorted to this type of action.

The level of insensitivity to the issues of race and gentrification currently facing this neighborhood astounded me. I can’t help but believe that there is a better way. Hostility and aggression only beget the same in return, in my opinion. Rather than attempting an amicable and peaceful co-existence, this type of public display contributed to alienation and divisiveness. In trying to gain customers, they lost me.

I think that I reacted as strongly as I did because they were who they were: the underdogs, struggling to stay afloat in a progressively more expensive neighborhood.

After I let them know how I felt about the issue, one of the owners contacted me. He wanted to meet and talk. So we met. It was me, him and the manager of the cafe. He thanked me for coming in to talk. We sat outside at the tables for customers only. I asked what led to the placement of the sign. They described episodes of intoxicated people intimidating the female staff people, who said they were in favor of the sign.

Then I asked if it helped. They said “immensely.”

But that did not end the conversation. We kept talking. I explained my position. We brainstormed together and, as we sat out on the sidewalk on a busy Friday evening, I watched them interact with all the regulars, just like I do. In preparation for First Friday the atmosphere was festive and interactions were friendly and fun.

I asked if they would try a different kind of sign. One that conveys their intent, that they want their customers to have seating available without being hostile and threatening. In the end they agreed that they will try. They plan to now change the sign and see how that goes. I went in and bought a pound of coffee before I left.

And now?

I trusted that they had heard me and I believed them when they said that they would make a change. That was more than two weeks ago. I know that they are busy, as we all are, but I am hopeful that they have not simply forgotten or pushed it aside.

My optimism and faith in humanity drive both my belief that a new, less provocative and potentially dangerous sign would still yield the desired results and that the coffee shop owner and management will be true to their word.

I will not give up. If the sign remains I will continue to pursue the issue. I hope that others will notice as well and join me. But in the end, my hope is that I will be able to follow up with a photo of a new, improved sign and a report of positive effects.

Kim Kir

UPMC, the Justice Department, and “Justice”

Nothing shows that the private, “non”-profit health care system is an abysmal failure like the recent whistleblower, false-claims suit brought against University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in Federal Court. While the wimpish Justice Department agreed to a settlement of only $2.5 million and failed to secure any admission of guilt, the exposure of appalling practices brought some credence to the fears and suspicions that swirl around UPMC patient care.

The public is indebted to the two doctors and a surgical technician, former employees of UPMC, for fearlessly standing up to the area’s largest employer and notorious bully. Drs. William Bookwalter and Robert Sciabassi and technician Anna Mitina have a commitment to patient health and well-being, a commitment uncommon in this era of health-care profiteering. I would gladly trust my health to them; others, I’m not so sure.

And kudos to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for giving the story more than a perfunctory news announcement. In follow-ups by writer Kris Mamula, many of the allegations that served as a basis for the suit were aired. Examples of overbilling, double-billing, unnecessary surgery, billing for unperformed surgery, and botched surgery were drawn from testimony. Patterns of incentivizing medical care through cost-cutting, short-cutting, and bill inflation were alleged. Others have documented that these practices are deeply embedded in the entire profit-driven private insurance and medical industry.

Given the enormous amount of advertising revenue (extracted ultimately from consumers) that UPMC passes through the media, the Post-Gazette assumed some risk in shedding light on UPMC sins.

Even more kudos to Tribune-Review columnist Kevin Heyl who scoffed at the paltry settlement concluded by the Justice Department:

UMPC suffered a barely perceptible bruise after being slapped on the wrist by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh. To settle some claims in the lawsuit alleging the hospital network overbilled Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare, UPMC agreed to pay the federal government $2.5 million. (August 1, 2016)

Effectively employing satire, Heyl wrote:

“To come up with $2.5 million, they might have to search for the change underneath every cushion in (UPMC CEO) Jeff Romoff’s executive office couch,” the [fictional] observer said. “That could take seconds, perhaps even as long as a minute.”

Heyl went on to speculate that “the financial settlement likely distracted people from mediocre evaluations several UPMC hospitals received Wednesday in the latest federal government quality ratings. UPMC Mercy received two out of a possible four stars, as did UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Shadyside, which were combined into one entity in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services ratings.”

Reminding us that overbilling is not a new charge against UPMC, Heyl recalled that the health care/insurance behemoth “rebounded quickly from a similar injury suffered in 1998, when it paid the government $17 million after auditors uncovered another overbilling scheme.”

The “Justice” Department

Of course, no one should be surprised that the spineless Justice Department has shown such little enthusiasm in pressing UPMC. It was the Justice Department, after all, that could find no serious criminality in Wall Street moguls bringing the US economy to the edge of collapse.

And our local US Attorney, David L. Hickton, showed a similar timidity in choosing not to pursue a criminal case against the police who mugged a high school student, Jordan Miles. Instead, he told the Post-Gazette (November 9, 2013) that he’d prefer to address other issues: “‘Can we assemble 20, 30, 50 people who will look at the future?’ he asked, rather than dwell on past slights. ‘Are we going to develop a community intolerance for illegal guns? Are we going to develop a recognition that violence against police officers is as endemic as community violence?’” Hickton continues to “look at the future” well beyond police violence against African-Americans.

As for addressing the police violence that now draws widespread attention in the media, don’t expect much help from Attorney Hickton: “‘I’m trying to help,’ he cautioned, ‘but the communities are really going to be masters of their own fates.’” (P-G, 11-9-13)

Hickton reminds us again in a recent op-ed piece in the P-G (7-24-16) that his concept of civil rights is a little one-sided. He subjects the reader to a long diatribe on how police-community relations begin with respect for the police “who risk their lives every day to protect and serve the public and ensure the rule of law.” In a season of mass awareness of police violence against Black people, surely this focus  is a little misplaced, especially since cops commit one out of twelve of all killings in the US and the homicide rate for police (killings per 100,000 officers) is approximately the same as it is for the rest of the population.

It should not be surprising– since Hickton and the Justice Department have so little enthusiasm for making the police color between the lines–that they would be equally deferential to a powerful mega-corporation like UPMC.

Hopefully, there will be more legal actions addressing the grievances exposed by the settled whistle-blower lawsuit. However, it is difficult to have much confidence in the hesitant Justice Department. Some may experience even less confidence when they learn that the Justice Department’s representative in Western Pennsylvania is scheduled to speak on “Law Enforcement Meets Public Health” as part of a panel on opioid abuse at the UPMC’s fall conclave in late September at the luxurious Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. While a bit more law enforcement might be a welcome presence among UPMC’s top executives, some may wish for a less cozy relationship. No doubt Hickton will use the opportunity to deliver a searing rebuke of UPMC’s practices.

Well, maybe not.

Greg Godels

The Matter of Black Lives

The Black Lives Matter network (or Movement for Black Lives) stunned its critics and observers by coming up with a platform and list of six policy demands.  After a year of organizing and intense deliberations, BLM waited until the end of the Democratic National Convention in Philly to make its announcement.

Criticized as nothing more than a bunch of young rabble-rousers who like to take to the street but don’t have any vision, one might think this was a big step forward for BLM, right?  Not to the media.

According to various major media critics, this movement of young black people’s weaknesses include not having an identifiable leader; not speaking the “language” of white America; failing to court the African-American church; coming up with demands that don’t “poll well;” and failing to address black-on-black violence.

Let’s see what they said.  “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.” And who are these oppressed people?  Who oppresses them?

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.”

No tired, John Lewis preacher-style pandering to liberals nostalgic for the 1950s and early 1960s here. No more mild rhetoric from people who used to breathe fire but are now thoroughly owned by neo-liberal Democratic Party money.

Over the past two years, they’ve rebuffed attempts to take over their movement by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Cornell West.  These young people know their history, know how to organize in the 21st century, and know that their interests do not lie in selling out for praise from their enemies.  For now, at least, there are no “super star” leaders to be coopted.  Just a growing, increasingly sophisticated collective of people who know that black — and all oppressed — lives matter.

Pittsburgh-area young people have been on the move too, as the large July demonstrations downtown demonstrate.  Opportunists are always lurking, however, just as honest disputes will arise.  Go to this website for official information on BLM: http://blacklivesmatter.com/.

And throw away the key?

Critics accuse African-Americans who are opposed to police killings of our people of ignoring black-on-black violence. We need not listen to them; their intentions are suspect.  We don’t expect the average white person to be privy to conversations in our homes and communities, but can’t they see the “Stop Shooting/We Love You” signs in windows and lawns where African-Americans live?  Are they unaware of the long-running New Pittsburgh Courier front-page campaign to embarrass and mobilize the black community by running a weekly tally of black homicide victims?

Yes, the poor and oppressed victimize their fellow poor and oppressed people.  Take the case of young Eric Taylor, of Duquesne.  Earlier this month, the 17-year-old was sentenced to 22 1/2 to 45 years in prison for a crime he allegedly committed when he was just 15.  The story goes something like this:

In 2014, young Taylor is said to have shot a pregnant 15-year-old girl (motive unclear), whose baby died.  LeRoy Powell — again, just 15 years old — testified at Taylor’s preliminary hearing.  District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office made Powell’s testimony public — his name was all over the news — and he was shot down in broad daylight just days later.  The DA’s office later admitted that it “might not have” fully explained the risks to young Powell and his family or offered protection.  No one has ever been charged with Powell’s murder.

In sentencing Eric Taylor so harshly, Judge David Cashman said he took into consideration the fact that Taylor had committed two armed robberies at age 13.  Two armed robberies at 13 and a deadly gun crime at 15?!  Did Cashman consider what could have happened in the life of a child to cause him to behave so?  Does he, or any of those people who self-righteously condemn people like Eric Taylor, know or care?

The City of Duquesne is a glaring example of the results of deindustrialization, disinvestment and just plain abandonment by those politicians and capitalists who concoct what passes for social policy in the United States today.

In 2010, the average household income in Duquesne was just half the state average.  Its school district is so underfunded that it closed its high school, which had produced state champions in football and basketball, in 2009.  In 2012, it closed its middle school.  At its one remaining elementary school, 100 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a fourth receive special education services, and less than one percent are designated gifted.  What the hell kind of place is that in which to grow up?

Is 17-year-old Eric Taylor related to — perhaps even the son of — another Eric Taylor of Duquesne, an alleged heroin kingpin, who was murdered in 2000?  Or perhaps he knew Terron Taylor, who was sentenced to prison for involvement in the same heroin ring, which also claimed as a member former Duquesne High School and Duquesne University basketball star Kevin Price?

What other life did young Taylor know?  What did Duquesne, the Mon Valley, Pittsburgh or US society have to offer him?  Or the older Eric Taylor, Terron Taylor, or even Kevin Price once his basketball days were over?  Is locking up a 17-year-old kid for the next two to four decades the answer?

The Black Lives Matter network doesn’t think so.  Among other things, they call for economic justice and demand “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people.”

So should we.  Eric Taylor, LeRoy Powell, and the young lady who was shot and lost her baby all deserve a better life.

— James Collins

 

 

 

Give it Back!

 

In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose. In the end, we get it all.       Sam Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), Martin Scorcese’s Casino

The Rivers Casino has a monopoly on legal slot machine and table game gambling in the city of Pittsburgh. Apart from traveling to the Meadows in Washington County, the much longer trip to Erie, or a drive out of state, the Pittsburgh resident bent on spending Friday’s paycheck or throwing away the rent money has nowhere to go except to the temple of vulgarity on the city’s Northside (North Shore, to the sophisticates).

It was Governor Ed Rendell who demonstrated the genius of recovering all of the revenue lost to out-of-state slime balls exploiting addicted gamblers and returning it to Pennsylvania slime balls. Through his diligence, casino gambling arrived in Pennsylvania in 2004. The days of politicians encouraging citizens’ higher sentiments are obviously far in the past. Never mind that casino gambling, like the latest public health problem, opioid abuse, or alcoholism or mental illness are symptoms of an increasingly desperate poor and working class looking for a break and an escape from the myriad disappointments of life in an era of unparallelled inequality.

My own Puritan instincts aside, the monopoly status of the Rivers Casino, like similar government-granted monopolies, awards the owners with a license to plunder. One would expect that those granted such privileges would be suitably humble and appreciative.

But not so.

Back when the Pennsylvania Gaming Board was considering license applications, gambling enterprises were falling over each other, offering juicier and juicier deals to acquire the license to steal. Each contestant promised to fulfill an urban politician’s wish list from buying the Penguins a new arena to sharing large chunks of revenue with the county and city. Backs were bent and, no doubt, some money was offered to fixers and campaign war chests. At one point, then-Mayor Tom Murphy, purposely or accidentally, asserted that the “fix” was in for one applicant, sending the Gaming Board promptly in another direction. Maybe, the “fix” was aborted; maybe, the painfully sober Mayor Murphy was simply discovering a belated sense of humor.

At any rate, the license was granted in 2006 to an applicant who quickly defaulted on a $200 million loan. Rushing in to save the day was Holdings Acquisitions Company, a new partner that now holds a controlling interest in The Rivers Casino.

Part of the original deal was an agreement that the casino owners would pony up 2% of slot machine revenue or $10 million to the city every year, whichever was larger. This would not seem that much of a burden for a business that generates about $275 million a year in slot revenue and nearly $200 million in table game revenue. To give some sense of proportion, casino gross revenue is roughly 90% of the amount of money the City of Pittsburgh collects annually for its entire operating budget.

But the Rivers Casino doesn’t want to abide by the original agreement. They are willing to pay the lower amount, but not the minimum. The casino’s legal advisors cite a glitch in the original legislation that might allow them to escape the agreed terms. Moreover, they are suing to recover $65 million in what they consider back “overpayments.” Like the other entertainment venues that rely heavily upon public largesse to make their private bucks, the casino owners are allergic to giving anything back.

But it should come as no surprise that the owners of the casino aren’t ‘giving’ neighbors. They appealed their local property tax assessment that the county initially estimated at $278 million. They subsequently took their case to court, offering their own estimate of $94 million. The judge bent over backwards and fixed the assessment at $199 million.

Nor did the casino (joining the cheap skate Steelers and Pirates) want to continue subsidizing rides to their doorsteps through the publicly-financed tunnel.

The casino owners are notoriously allergic to paying taxes. In Illinois, a sister casino has maneuvered to avoid over $4 million in property taxes over a 5 year period. Though they paid $117 million for that operation, they argue that it’s only worth $62.9 million. Amazingly, the owners cling desperately to these persistently value-losing enterprises.

Beyond cursory, minimal fact-based news stories, our lap dog media has yet to cover owner Neil Bluhm’s various endeavors, possibly because he is a big-time ‘bundler’ of Democratic Party campaign contributions.

But I have a win-win solution to both the city’s revenue problems and the casino owner’s unwanted burdens: the city should buy back the casino and operate it as a public enterprise. Using the powers of eminent domain, the city could take on all the onerous financial responsibilities currently contested by the casino owners and still accrue net revenues for tax relief, pension funding, infrastructure improvements, etc. And, of course, the current owners could be generously compensated– not at the value they claim for their property ($94 million), not at the value negotiated ($199 million), but at the full value originally assessed ($278 million). In other words, Holdings Acquisitions Company could receive payment nearly three times greater than what they argue their casino is worth!

Of course that will never happen. There is not one elected official in Allegheny County with the spine to suggest, not alone press, such a solution. Every tired,  imaginable excuse would appear: government can’t do anything right, efficiently, or profitably; the law is not clear; the gaming commission will not approve it. But we could be sure that the casino owners would get the message and they would not take their casino and leave as the sports teams always threaten extortionately.

Instead, we get the Mayor’s weak pledge to fight to keep the original deal intact. Sure, like he and his predecessor fought to squeeze revenue from the non-profit free-riders or fought to get the sports teams to live up to their development commitments. Hasn’t happened.

Greg Godels

 

Police-State Politics as Usual

“Tuesday night I heard about Mr. Sterling’s death, and I felt so very tired. I had no words because I don’t know what more can be said about this kind of senseless death.”

— Roxane Gay on the police murder of Alton Sterling in the July 6 New York Times

When I heard about Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala’s decision not to charge Port Authority police officers for the killing of Bruce Kelley Jr., I felt much the same as Roxane Gay. Gay is an African American writer and professor at Purdue and the police killing spree of black people is getting to be too much for her.  I felt tired too, but also angry.

While preparing to write this blog, I again watched the video footage of a platoon of PAT cops pursuing Kelley – who only wanted to be left alone – through backyards and back streets. His initial crime, you’ll recall, was to be discovered drinking with his father, Bruce Kelley Sr., in a gazebo near the busway in Wilkinsburg last January.  Rather than let the men leave in peace, the cops felt the need to provoke them by issuing tickets, which the Kelleys refused to take, and then escalate the situation further by attempting to arrest the men as they walked away.

They set a police dog on Bruce Kelley Jr., who defended himself by killing the dog. In response, he was riddled with bullets.

I watched the video of that man being hunted like an animal and my anger grew. Then came the death of Alton Sterling, and I watched Baton Rouge cops shoot him while he lay on his back, restrained by two cops.  I was moved to tears by the family’s emotional press conference where his 15-year-old son broke down and cried inconsolably.  That’s when I came across Gay’s column.

No time to catch my breath, though. I woke up the next day, on July 7, to news of the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota and was again emotionally shaken, this time by Castile’s brave girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who live streamed the immediate aftermath, even as her boyfriend sat next to her dying in the driver’s seat while a screaming cop stood outside the car window, still aiming his weapon at the visibly mortally wounded man.  And, oh yes, there was a child in the back seat.

What can you say?  Before the deaths of Sterling and Castile, I was prepared to counter Zappala’s “justifiable” defense claim, point by point.  But why bother?  (My colleague Greg Godels did a fine job of that here back in February.)  Bruce Kelley was the victim of business-as-usual in law-and-order America. Kelley and all the black and brown victims of the police were killed because we live in a hyper-capitalist country where racism and the paranoid fear of “the other” are encouraged in order to keep working and middle-class people divided and pacified.  The police are paid to enforce this ruling ideology.

Will black lives ever really matter as long as America continues as a police state? 

We have a black president who has tiptoed around the issue of race, even as white supremacists and police have taunted him with the brazen murders of African Americans, starting with the killing of young Trayvon Martin. Obama fights racism with corny, moralizing speeches, unlike Lyndon Johnson, who responded to violence 50 years ago against civil rights workers in the South with action.

We have a GOP presidential candidate who openly spews hatred toward Muslims and Mexican immigrants. And the candidate most of us will feel compelled to vote for – Hillary Clinton – professes her love for people of all races, colors, creeds and sexual orientations, and also promises to continue the arrogant foreign policy of endless aggression that has made the United States so many enemies in the Muslim world. These policies will no doubt fuel retaliatory attacks against US and Western targets, which will in turn fuel more anti-Muslim rhetoric at home.

We can take some encouragement from the words of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who came close to calling a spade a spade. But we must always take encouragement, pride and, most of all, leadership from the young people in the Black Lives Matter movement, who are willing to take it to the streets.

Bourgeois Brownnosers

The uproar over the Pittsburgh School Board’s selection of Anthony Hamlet for its next superintendent is finally dying down, and what a fiasco it was. Former city councilman Sala Udin (representing the Hill District Education Council), the group called A+ Schools, the Urban League’s Esther Bush, Tim Stevens of BPEP (all our bourgeois friends!) and others tried to “stand up” to the board’s selection after embarrassing information about exaggerations and discrepancies (why is it that nobody says “lies” anymore?) in Hamlet’s resume came to light.  But for whom are they standing? And just how tall?

There is no denying that the School Board conducted a buffoonish selection process – the discrepancies in Hamlet’s resume (or resumes) could have been uncovered by anyone with Internet access and the motivation to use a search engine.  Still, he was selected by an elected public body – a part-time board made up of working, scuffling people.  The board hasn’t done a great job over the years, but has its performance been any worse than our full-time City Council or General Assembly?  They (like the jury in the O.J. trial) may actually take their jobs seriously and know a little something about the school district business.  And who, if not our elected school board representatives, should select the superintendent?

Superintendents these days (and any days, for that matter) aren’t the great innovators and charismatic leaders that the movies and mainstream rhetoric would have us believe. They’re hired to be administrators of an incredibly complex, even arcane, bureaucracy that politically has very little space for innovation.  Sala Udin and his friends, experienced political players all, know this.  They are fronting for someone with power and privilege – someone who’d rather remain in the background – who wants a better-looking suit occupying the superintendent’s chair.

We should all be for “good government” – and governing – but I’m also for democracy. The school board may have made a good or a bad decision in hiring Anthony Hamlet – or no decision at all, given how power works and from where it comes in the education system.  Superintendents can make important differences – and maybe Hamlet will.  But these days, superintendents don’t produce the “Excellent Experience” that Sala Udin and company are calling for – unless said superintendent comes from a wealthy district.

— Jim Collins

 

“Arrangements” and “Accommodations”

 

I remember running late for a doctor’s appointment. Thirty or more years ago, I was hustling down Fifth Avenue and could see the medical building approaching on my right on a parallel street and across from the Civic Arena. I decided to create a shortcut and take the next available side street. When I saw the street sign and turned right, I was immediately stopped by an obviously indignant man who shouted: “You can’t cut through here!” I pointed to the sign and responded: “It’s a public street”. “It’s a parking lot and if you aren’t parking, you have to leave. I’ll call the cops.” I left.

 I learned an important lesson that day about the Old Pittsburgh. Later, a friendly elected official confirmed that this was an “arrangement” converting a public street into a private parking lot. I subsequently learned that there were lots of politically convenient “arrangements” in Pittsburgh that brought together an unholy, but lucrative marriage between private contractors and public officials. People knew about these “arrangements”, but turned a blind eye for the most obvious of reasons: they might one day be in a position to make or need a similar “arrangement”.

 It was a memory of this encounter that piqued my interest in the Tonya Ford case that recently concluded in Federal Court. Ms. Ford, a police officer, brought suit against the city of Pittsburgh and the former mayor, claiming that she was punished because of her vocal objections to “arrangements” that she had witnessed. Ford contended that because of her role in the police department, she reviewed claims for parking variances in the city. When construction projects or special events merit, the city suspends parking restrictions and fees in the interest of the greater good. It was Ford’s job to consider requests and award variances.

 In her federal suit, Ford and her lawyer maintained that political favors were frequently traded for variances. Because she objected to these “arrangements”, she alleged that her employer– the city– suspended her with pay for over 3 years. She singled out one firm– a local valet service– as the most egregious abuser of the variance privilege. The firm, she maintained, had close ties to the Ravenstahl administration. But when she continued to object (allegedly going so far as contacting federal agencies), city officials placed her on administrative leave, according to her account.

 For its part, city solicitors argued that Ford was placed on leave because she was under investigation for her connections with former– and since convicted– police chief Nate Harper. They denied that there was retaliation.

 The jury of eight agreed with the city, tossing the suit.

 “It’s Chinatown, Jake…”

 Given the paucity of evidence that Ms. Ford made any effort to blow her whistle before her suspension and given that that she was paid fully while on leave, justice was probably served by the verdict. But the most intriguing questions raised by the trial remain open and fertile for speculation.

 Since Ford enjoyed a three year vacation with pay and was only recently fully reinstated, one might wonder why these actions against her were actually taken. Ford was never charged with any crime. While the city solicitor argued that suspicions of collusion with police chief Nate Harper were aroused, that explanation cannot, if true, justify more than a thorough, but brief investigative interlude. City officials owe us an adequate explanation of an unprecedented administrative act. If the suspension was not retaliation (as the court affirmed), one must wonder what really spawned a suspension that continued three years after her alleged “co-conspirator” was indicted by a grand jury and pleaded guilty. Ford endured a three year cloud of mistrust with little more than a shred of evidence that she engaged in any misconduct, a cloud that is now belatedly removed. This is a sorry testament to the city’s commitment to due process.

 Another mystery surrounds the official silence on the “arrangements” revealed by Ford. No one has denied that valet services have been granted extraordinary variances in the city. Nor has any public official or media watchdog called for an  investigation of favoritism or corruption in the granting of privileges. Ask any bus driver what it’s like to endure the difficulty of negotiating narrow downtown streets with double-parked cars stacked by valets who are seemingly immune to the rules that the rest of us must obey. It is a curious fact that the guardians of the public trust are not curious about the “arrangements” that Ford alleges.

 City solicitors explain Ms. Ford’s long vacation by citing suspicions aroused by her relationship to her boss, Police Chief Harper. But no suspicions or competency questions befell Harper’s boss, Public Safety director Michael Huss. Though he was the convicted Chief Harper’s immediate supervisor, no one challenged his supervising performance. Despite demonstrated corruption and ethically questionable administrative practices in his Police Department, Mr. Huss was seemingly unaware of the stench, hardly a testament to his vigilance. Until a whistleblower forced his hand, the Public Safety Director stood behind his Chief. Once the charges became public, he threw Harper and others under the metaphoric bus.

 On an earlier occasion, a Fire Chief serving under Mr. Huss experienced a public embarrassment. More troubling, he had a known history of violent encounters that  had little effect upon his career trajectory. And on this occasion, too, Mr. Huss saved his righteous indignation until public exposure made the Chief’s further employment untenable.

 Mr. Huss’s survivability is truly remarkable. When Mayor Peduto purged nearly all administrative offices after his election, Mr. Huss remained in his $105,000 a year job. And when the Mayor found another Public Safety Director, he continued to employ Mr. Huss without a title. The Pet-Gazette reported a Peduto spokesperson as saying: “He is advising on the transition and has no formal job title… The mayor sees Mike as a valuable asset and is open to him staying with the city, and there is no timetable for a decision on that status.”

 They found a title for “Mike”: Deputy Director at his old pay.

 Of course we are not conspiracy theorists, but one might wonder– purely hypothetically– if the entire dust-up were not an example of “arrangements” gone awry. One might smell multiple rats in the “he said, she said…” testimonies that were exposed in the Ford trial. One might speculate that a little light had shined on wide-spread ethically challenged practices common in city government.

But in the end, we’ll never know; the media went back to sleep and the city returned to business-as -usual.

 Greg Godels

Fantasy and Stubborn Facts

 

Along with several friends and colleagues, I was encouraged to see City Controller Michael Lamb opine on the future of Pittsburgh in a recent Pittsburgh Pet-Gazette oped. Lamb kindled hope that maybe– just maybe– a public official was about to stand up to the prevailing mythology of the New Pittsburgh.

For a moment, I remembered a former city controller– Tom Flaherty– who battled Mayor Tom Murphy and his hare-brained schemes to spend public funds promiscuously in order to revitalize downtown and draw suburbanites back to the city. I still have a weathered copy of Flaherty’s “Fiscal Audit of the Pittsburgh Development Fund” that tracked the obscene, massive loans for the Lazarus Department Store, Fifth and Forbes, Penn Avenue Place, and a host of other ill-conceived projects that nearly bankrupted the city.

But Michael Lamb is no Tom Flaherty.

While recognizing the recent data that demonstrate a failed effort to build the heralded “meds and eds” New Jerusalem, Lamb identifies a set of ills and proposed “solutions” that are widely off the mark.

He revisits the old canard that people are leaving Pittsburgh because prices, cost of living, and taxes are too high (at another moment, he concedes: “National comparisons suggest that Pittsburgh is quite affordable”). Apparently, he has slept through the gentrification movement that has developers in such a frenzy here (and in most other cities, see below). Urban gentry are attracted precisely because Pittsburgh’s housing and cost of living are perceived to be a great value.

Affluent people are flocking to Pittsburgh but are displacing an equal or greater group of less affluent people that is overwhelmed by escalating property values, exploding rents, fewer conveniences, and outright eviction. Unfortunately, they bring a higher cost-of-living for those of us without the same means as the New Pittsburghers , a burden that is driving lower wage, less skilled citizens from the city.

Lamb would not be a career politician if he were to ignore the tried and true technique of crime-mongering (and subtle race-baiting). Crime, he suggests, causes people to leave Pittsburgh. An odd assertion since he also notes that “Forbes magazine still rates Pittsburgh as one of America’s safest cities.” Lamb sidesteps these two irreconcilable points by simply repeating that it is crime, and not economic displacement that is driving folks from those “neighborhoods that have seen the largest declines in population.” Where many of us see gentrification, Lamb sees odious criminal activity. Even with a rapidly falling crime rate, we’ll always have crime to distract us from the failings of our politicians.

Add public education to Lamb’s odd laundry list of Pittsburgh shortcomings. It’s not hard to pick on the public school system, with it’s dysfunctional leadership, bloated bureaucracy, and open sores from the racist neighborhood school battles. But Lamb offers no solution, because solutions would point a finger at the decades of neglect, white flight to the suburbs, encouragement of private and charter schools, liberal hypocrisy, and the warehousing of African-American students. Lamb is not ready to tackle those unspoken issues.

Lamb’s revival of all the old gimmicks– taxes, crime, and schools– and the code words for racism add little to our understanding of Pittsburgh’s ills.

To better understand the misdirection of Pittsburgh, one has to turn away from parochial politicians and a willfully blind local media.

Urban Realities

You would never know it from the local media, but Pittsburgh is a national leader in one troubling area. Apparently the region’s print and electronic media, so eager to tout Pittsburgh’s national glory, overlooked data available from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation. The Wall Street Journal, drawing on Terner’s findings, shows that metro areas are demonstrating a radical shift in resident incomes from the poorest to the wealthiest throughout the US. The 26 selected US cities have experienced between 2000-2014 a marked out-migration of those in the bottom six deciles, with the poorest decile reduced by nearly 18%. At the same time, the upper four deciles grew, with the richest 10% expanding by nearly 12%. Clearly, the more affluent are returning to the cities, while the lower and lowest income citizens are leaving. The Terner study demonstrates that urban displacement is not a myth; nor is it benign. In only fourteen years, all 26 cities have experienced a similar shift in population, favoring the well-off and pressuring those in the middle and lower incomes. It would take an incredible effort not to see a connection between the arrival of youthful, affluent whites and the departure of ethnically diverse working class and poor people in “high density, urban areas.” Gentrification is a real and predatory process.

Laura Kusisto, the author of the WSJ article, notes that “…officials in Pittsburgh realized that they had a serious problem in February…” Yes, it took that long for the Peduto administration to acknowledge that a process that they had helped unleash and encourage had consequences for the city’s forgotten citizens.

But the Terner study draws an even more dramatic lesson for our myopic leaders: Of all the 26 cities studied, Pittsburgh has the greatest growth in the young and educated, the new urban gentry since 2000. Gentrification is growing faster here than in other benchmark cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis, Houston, Portland, Seattle, Washington, and Denver. If the local politicians, foundation heads, and corporate moguls hope to make Pittsburgh friendly only to the affluent, white, and the young, they are succeeding. But they should confess that they care little for the 60% of us who are left out of their game plan. They should not pretend that the courtship of the urban gentry has not priced or driven many of the less affluent from Pittsburgh.

The failure to ignite growth, better paying jobs, a broad-based array of social amenities, and a fair distribution of city services, coupled with a conscious effort to reshape the demography of the city in the image of its elites should spark an oppositional movement to take back oversight of our future. We should stop letting our leaders hide behind the city’s sports success and cheap, sensational “best of..” contests to tackle the real problems of urban life. It’s a battle between an inclusive Pittsburgh and the New Pittsburgh envisioned by our “betters”.

Greg Godels