A Few Lumps of Coal in your Holiday Stocking

 

Pittsburghers can count on our corporate and political leaders to close the year with a bounty of gifts for their friends. Unfortunately, their gift-giving fervor doesn’t include everyone:

●Once again city government passed on securing revenue from the myriad non-profit corporations that enjoy public services—public safety, infrastructure, urban conveniences, public parking and recreation– without paying taxes on their physical assets. Around forty per cent of Pittsburgh property goes untaxed while the properties’ owners ride free. The current mayor has shut down the former mayor’s feeble legal challenge to non-profit status in favor of … doing nothing. The gift that keeps on giving to non-profits.

●City Council ended the year in a generous mood—

a. It awarded a million dollars to the Massaro Corporation to help them calculate maintenance and determine potential sales of property owned by the city. Apparently no one in the city’s rather large work force has the time to inspect the properties or show them to real estate agents. To help us understand the crying need for this service, Councilman Gilman likened it to an “oil change.” Got it?

b. In the same spirit, City Council voted to add $12,000 to the staff appropriations of each of the nine city council members and $375 per month to each member’s personal auto reimbursement. While at it, they voted to give Mike Huss a raise of $14,524. Huss was the public safety director during the massive corruption scandal that rocked the Pittsburgh Police Department. While the scandal was on his watch, Mr. Huss only received a light slap—a demotion to assistant director. Apparently, in the holiday spirit, Council voted to forgive and forget.

c. Intent upon raising revenue to support its projects, Council decided to charge a landlord “rental registration permit” fee. Before we could celebrate the idea of charging the big developers of luxury apartments who enjoy tax abatements and public subsidies, Council decided to make the fee regressive. The mayor’s chief of staff—guided by his developer pals—convinced Council that it would be better to charge mom and pop and their boarding house $65 per unit while charging luxury apartment landlords renting over a hundred units only $45 per unit. A nice gift for the gentrifiers!

●In need of a new superintendent for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the former and current school board presidents proposed that the board hire a nice man who they met at a conference to head the search. Armed with little more than immediate impressions, they nonetheless convinced the board to offer a contract ($100,000) to the nice man. Thanks to the diligent research of Post-Gazette writer Clarece Polke we learn that Brian Perkins is indeed a learned and nice man, but with virtually no experience as a talent scout for a top position in a major urban public school system! Happy holidays Mr. Perkins!

●After threatening a tantalizing examination of the practices of county authorities, County Controller Chelsea Wagner decided to present her fellow politicos with a gift by backing off her legal challenges to the blocking of performance audits. As a long time insider from a politically connected family, she knows where the bodies are buried. But after humbling the county executive in the last election, she decided to put her abacus away and let the circus continue. Speaking of authorities, the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority gifted the Pittsburgh Steelers and their partners a fourth extension on the rights to develop land adjacent to the stadium. So the land will remain unsold, undeveloped, and untaxed for another year despite the fact that others are interested in developing it. Maybe its time for a performance audit!

●Finally, I had a dream that the Urban Redevelopment Authority would present a gift to the diverse East End community by converting the Hunt Armory (passed on to the city for $1) into a public recreational and educational facility much like the city of Santa Fe converted the old Fort Marcy into an asset of use to the entire community. I dreamed that the URA gathered the RAD board and foundation heads to gift the city with indoor basketball courts, a swimming pool, fitness equipment, perhaps a youth jobs center or job training facility, maybe other services of use to urban youth or even an affordable housing complex. But I forgot—this is the New Pittsburgh! I awakened from my dream to find that the URA chose between another Walnut Capital luxury apartment development and a private ice skating complex. Since the mayor and his chief of staff are avid hockey fans, the URA selected the latter. Realizing that hockey is about as popular with less affluent East End youth as racist cops, the developer promised a plan to create opportunities for “disadvantaged youngsters” to use the rink. Maybe they should integrate the Penguins games first. Thanks, URA—another gift for white suburbanites!

–Greg Godels

Chicken Hawks

What strange days these are.

The terrible hawks of war are soaring higher and higher, leaving in their wake unimaginable death, suffering and destruction, while the chickens keep returning home to roost.  And these chickens are increasingly macabre, defying our every expectation and upping the pervasive paranoia that is the psychological background to life in our war-and-police state.

When one speaks of those chickens roosting, most Americans will think of the Paris and San Bernadino terrorist attacks, situations where Westerners are targeted by rightwing Islamic extremists.  But what about our own local Pittsburgh chicken, aka Anthony Mohamed, who allegedly shot a Muslim immigrant taxi driver in Hazelwood on Thanksgiving after questioning the cabbie’s nationality and making anti-ISIS statements.

Mohamed, of course, is a Muslim surname and Anthony Mohamed is African American!  These are strange days, indeed — days pregnant with menace and foreboding.

Sticks and Stones

Our nation’s “War on Terror” is exceeded in length only by the undeclared Cold War on communism and the centuries-long assault on Native-born Americans.  Just like during the Cold War, today there is no respect for democratic ideals or tolerance of differences of opinion in important matters.

The leading GOP candidates for president  exercise their “right” to freedom of speech by employing the most dangerous, demagogic rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants:

Donald Trump would require all Muslims in the US to register in a national database, bring back waterboarding and spying on mosques, and would close them if he thought they were “radicalizing” people ; Marco Rubio declares that we’re in a “clash of civilizations” and there “is no middle ground;” Ben Carson announces that he could never support a Muslim for president unless the candidate  denounced sharia, the ethical legal and moral code of traditional Islam. (How about all Christian candidates denouncing Deuteronomy?)

Meanwhile Jeb Bush, channeling Bill Clinton, says that all of the above nonsense is “just wrong.”  But when asked about admitting some of those desperate Syrian refugees (made homeless by US war policy and regime change) to the United States, Jeb expressed a preference for Christian Syrians.

This rhetoric of ignorance and hate by our political leaders supports similar speech — and actions — by more ordinary citizens.  Business owners across the country are declaring “Muslim Free Zones,” perhaps the most whacky subset being a slew of gun shop-shooting ranges across the South and Southwest.  One idiot shot himself while guarding such an establishment from nonexistent besiegers.

The most interesting and frightening to me, however, is the Florida gun merchant who displays his “Muslim Free Zone” message to the backdrop of a giant Confederate flag.  Here the “rights” to discriminate against Muslims and African Americans come together in an airtight expression of white, Christian “pride.”

Winter in America?

The flying of the Confederate flag is a first amendment thing to some, tied to the wounded pride and heritage of supporters of a long-lost cause.  These people are saying in no uncertain times that I, my relatives and racial kinspeople should be working for them from sunup to sundown, forever and ever. The penalty for slacking is whipping; the wages of running away are mutilation or death.

I doubt if, in their mind, there’s an Anthony Mohamed exception. One imagines our Confederate gun-nut congratulating him on his eager deed before sending him back into the fields to toil —  at gunpoint.

However deranged Anthony Mohamed may be — whether one is speaking clinically or colloquially — his actions take place in a larger context.  He was influenced by loud Islamophobia, just as the murderer at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was influenced by pervasive Confederate nostalgia.

And the shooters in Paris and San Bernadino are influenced by a context of international events that don’t cast the United States very favorably in the eyes of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people.  When we callously sow death and destruction overseas, can we expect to reap peace and tranquility at home?

It’s a mean season right now, it’s “winter in America” if you ask me. More and more, the oppressed and working people are adopting the hateful values and attitudes of the oppressor. And in that type of environment,  who can distinguish friend from foe, lion from lamb, and peace from justice?

And make no mistake about it: before there can be peace, there must be justice — both at home and abroad — or at the least the hope that there will be some day.  In these times, they — our rulers — are tossing us very few bones in that direction.

It is up to us, instead, to speak up, stand up and oppose this madness of war, police-state justice, imperialism, Islamophobia and racism.  We have to create a new atmosphere of hope — hope for a brighter day when war will not be the answer to everything.  Anti-American extremists will not only continue to exist but will flourish as long as our foreign policy of crude imperial domination continues.

— Jim Collins

 

 

 

 

‘Are You Kidding Me?’ Awards for November

 

1. The “Big Con” award for fooling some of the people all of the time.

Awarded to Walnut Capital for persuading Pittsburgh’s urban hipsters that putting some bright colors on barracks-like buildings counts as “luxury living”. My friends and I cannot decide whether Walnut Capital developments resemble spruced up college dorms or UK council housing. In any case, other developers have followed the same path, pawning off burnished warehouses and austere living spaces as hyper-modernist. Hipster Bill Peduto has dubbed this trend “industrial chic”; we call it a most profitable scam on a most gullible group.

Second place is a permanent award to the Pittsburgh Steelers for persistently extracting the most from the tax payers and ticket holders, while giving the least back to the community.

2. The “How dare they!” highly outraged award for calling out the few while ignoring the many.

November’s award goes to Post-Gazette writer Robert Zullo for publicly shaming 43 Pittsburgh public housing tenants who exceed the income ceilings established by the Housing Authority. Zullo is appalled that those breaking the rules are depriving some of the 1,960 people on the waiting list for a place in public housing.

A spokesperson for the housing authority points out that the 43 represent less than 2% of public housing tenants and that those exceeding the ceiling pay close to market rate, based on the Authority’s income-based sliding scale.

This does not appease Zullo who cares deeply about those denied low-income housing.

Or does he?

If the 43 are in fact nearly 2% of the tenants currently occupying public housing, that means that there are nearly as many waiting as there are housed. Is that not the greater tragedy? Does not the fact that the Housing Authority can only help a little more than half of those in need of housing count as a disgrace? The real outrage in this story?

Doesn’t that fact deserve an exposé?

Zullo’s sense of proportion or lack thereof allows him to condemn 43 anonymous people whose circumstances remain unknown to him. At the same time, he callously passes over the appalling lack of housing for over a thousand people.

3. The University of Pittsburgh weird science award.

Two tragic deaths in the greater Oakland area spurred a graduate student in bio-engineering to conduct a traffic experiment by trudging up to the 36th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, aiming his cell phone at Forbes Avenue, and recording 10 minutes of traffic. Undoubtedly, 10 minutes of late afternoon Friday traffic counts as a representative sample to someone in the upper reaches of higher learning. But a representative sample of what?

The enterprising graduate student authenticated his study by running the recording through a “computer program” to determine auto speeds. He offered no margin of error for his procedure, though he regretted not having a radar gun (devices which generally have a margin of error +/- 2 mph).

Ten minutes… cell phone camera…open source program… height of 440 feet… none of which deterred the ambitious scientist from drawing an ominous conclusion: some drivers (maybe many, the report doesn’t tally the total number of cars observed) driving on Forbes Avenue exceed the posted 25 miles per hour speed limit, roughly the top speed of an NFL wide receiver.

Indeed.

To my mind, this study is as weighty as my own 15 minute study of drivers-while-texting who pass through the intersection of Forbes and Braddock, my repeated observation of bikes flying through an intersection in my neighborhood, or my 12 minute research on student pedestrians crossing Fifth Avenue in Oakland while viewing their smart phones. But unlike my equally rigorous research, this study caught the attention of the Post-Gazette. The newspaper ran two (2) articles (November 19 and 21) showcasing the Cathedral of Learning experiment.

Confronted with this pioneering study, luminaries stepped up: the assistant director of Oakland Planning and Development noted its importance; Bike Pittsburgh posted and praised the study; and the Mayor’s spokesperson acknowledged the study while putting in a plug for the latest unneeded Rube Goldberg scheme: the Oakland-Downtown Bus Rapid Transit project.

We applaud them all for their commitment to fact-based deliberation just as we applaud the Post-Gazette for bringing this landmark, rigorous research to our attention.

-Greg Godels