It would be convenient to place the blame for the widening gap between the two Pittsburghs—one affluent and filled with possibilities, the other economically distressed and neglected– at Mayor Peduto’s doorstep. Certainly, he and other civic leaders have shown little, but belated interest in addressing the issue.
But to be fair, Pittsburgh’s growing class and race divide is characteristic of cities across the US. And the indifference by elites traces back many generations.
Prior to World War II, living patterns were dictated in cities like Pittsburgh by the needs of local industry. The hills, valleys, and rivers of Pittsburgh shaped neighborhoods which took on ethnic and class character as workers migrated to the area for jobs in mines, mills, and shops. Typical of most cities, the process of urbanization was anarchic, chaotic, and unplanned. In this regard, Pittsburgh followed the path of industrial cities throughout the world since the dawn of the industrial age.
But the unique topology of Pittsburgh—suited perfectly for the metals industry—coupled with the patchwork, unstructured evolution of working class and poor neighborhoods fostered the impression that Pittsburgh was a depressed, dirty city—an impression that local leaders were anxious to remediate.
The post-war wave of so-called “urban renewal” projects fit perfectly with the desire of Pittsburgh’s industrial magnates to sweep the image of poverty, neglect, and racism under the rug of urban engineering. It was no wonder that Pittsburgh’s leading lights were among the first to embrace the urban renewal strategy in the early 1950s, reshaping the downtown and lower Hill districts by forcibly removing the pockets of poverty and working class life from the city’s center.
Like the national urban renewal policy, the local version hid the ugliness of the policy behind high-sounding slogans: “clearing slums” and “removing blight.” But “slums” was simply a nineteenth century code-word for low-income, impoverished neighborhoods.
In Pittsburgh, as in many other cities, “slum clearance” or eliminating “blight” was eye wash for dealing with the neglected human by-products of industrial capitalism; like industrial slag, the unemployed, dark-skinned, and low income workers were to be hidden from sight. The consequences of mass displacement were met with civic indifference, proving that renewal was little more than urban cosmetics.
A New Round of Urban Surgery
When the industrial corporations abruptly decided to pull up stakes in the early eighties, Pittsburgh was faced with another human crisis: tens of thousands of families that had– only over the last few decades– enjoyed a reasonably high standard of living from the steel and related industries were left without employment.
Faced with this tragedy, and no doubt speaking for the local elites, then-Mayor Caliguiri offered the succinct advice: leave! We memorialize his role with a statue at the entrance to the City-County building.
Accordingly, the population shrunk, creating under-utilization of costly city services and under-occupancy of existing housing stocks. At the same time, local authorities embarked on an expensive, further aggrandizement of the downtown skyline—a tribute to the “vision” of elites, an insult to the neglected neighborhoods.
Where Renaissance I funneled public funds to private contractors for public projects, the newer mini-Renaissance adopted a fresh strategy: Public funds funneled to private developers for private projects. Like earlier word games, the self-important term “Public Private Partnerships” or, charmingly, “P3” was invented to mask the bleeding of the public for projects that the market place had determined to be too risky for private investment.
This strategy came to a zenith in the Murphy administration with expenditures of as much as four billion dollars on hare-brained schemes in pursuit of an ever-changing vision for the region. The target changed impulsively: attract suburbanites to shop downtown (retail), lure suburbanites to reside downtown (condos and apartments), support the meds/eds industry (infrastructure/amenities), and attract the “creative class” (bike trails, restaurants…), etc. What all of the Murphy goals had in common was an unspoken desire to serve a new community rather than meet the needs of the existing population and its neighborhoods.
Ironically, Murphy campaigned on a pledge to serve the neighborhoods. In fact, his first official act was to take his staff on a road show to every neighborhood in the city. But very quickly his head was turned by a host of consultants and “experts” (like Richard Florida and the Urban Land Institute).
To a great extent, the Peduto administration has only continued the Murphy legacy. Having landed a big corporate fish in Google, Peduto and his minions have simply thrown resources at the private sector parasites who seek to attach to the big fish. With no foresight or control over the ensuing feeding frenzy, East Liberty has been purged of its existing community and transformed into a Google playground.
Speaking with Forked Tongue
Characteristic of the entire urban engineering project is a willful, crafty distortion of goals and realities by adopting arcane, innocuous or euphemistic words or phrases to mask or confuse. “Urban Renewal,” “Urban Redevelopment,” and “Public-Private Partnerships” are examples of terms that are cover for far more unfriendly and destructive ideas than the words suggest. They disguise urban strategies that not only put private interests ahead of the public, but serve to evade any serious solution to urgent urban issues.
The embarrassing reality hidden behind the curtain of technocratic jargon is the harsh face of poverty, a façade unwelcome in the “new” Pittsburgh. Since the dawn of commercial and industrial cities, poor people have been produced and reproduced by the chaos of commerce and industry. A workforce necessarily crammed into areas contiguous to large-scale industry and subjected to the ever-changing whims of the market place necessarily generates unstable employment, uncertainty, and, of course, poverty. At least in earlier times, officialdom tried to find crude solutions: the poor laws, outdoor relief, even workhouses. But today’s public officials replace solutions with neglect—force the poor out of sight. ‘Disappear’ them.
It is this outrage that makes the interminable debates over the unfortunate term “affordable housing” so disgusting. By couching the gentrification issue in terms of the weasel-word “affordable,” the powers-that-be escape the responsibility for providing housing for low-income and poor people. Arguments over the appropriate percentage of median income within an arbitrary area as the determinate of “affordability” is sheer casuistry, arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They only delay a discussion of how public policy can be crafted to include everyone, including the poor and the ever-growing low-income population.
Waves of poverty still wash over a neglected population devastated by de-industrialization and the loss of decent paying jobs.
The hypocrisy of the “affordable housing” shell game was recently brought home when Peduto’s administration structured a $20 million deal to keep McCormack Baron from throwing 143 existing units of Crawford Square “affordable housing” onto the open market. McCormack Baron is the designated developer for the affordable housing promised for the lower Hill site vacated by the Civic Arena. Maybe the next mayor can keep them in the affordable housing game with another subsidy.
A recent Post-Gazette article underlines the lengths that the media and elite opinion go to avoid facing the harsh realities of urban poverty. Supplied to the P-G by PublicSource, a news service heavily endowed by local foundations (their most prominent crusade was against excessive overtime by public employees; they haven’t gotten around to the bloated salaries of foundation heads, non-profit officials, or corporate leaders!), the article (City marked with pockets of violence, 1-24-16) highlights the incongruity of affluent neighborhoods abutting “pockets of violence.” While the article concedes that racially segregated neighborhoods are visited by income, employment, and housing disadvantage, it devotes only a few short paragraphs to these factors in a commentary occupying nearly three-quarters of a page of newsprint.
Rather than exposing the cancer of racism and the inequality-breeding dynamics of discrimination, the author casts a shadow of fear and the taint of mindless violence over an entire (racially defined) community. To one unfamiliar with any predominately African-American community, a picture solely of foreboding violence is drawn.
Of course violence is tragic. But when it increases in a community, it is invariably a product of increasing poverty, persistent unemployment, and the resulting hopelessness; it has been so since the industrial revolution in every country and with every ethnic group. With very few exceptions, it is the inevitable consequence of inequality and civic neglect—correctable conditions, should the will to correct be present.
Of course this point is lost when attention is drawn primarily to the violence plaguing a neighborhood, as though wishing it away would be the answer.
But PublicSource, the Post-Gazette, the rest of the commercial media, and their sponsors, advertisers and directors are afraid to face the actual causes of urban street violence. To do so, they would have to acknowledge more than the symptoms of urban problems. They would have to acknowledge the persistent violence of indifference, neglect, and racism.
Until we have that conversation, the gap between the two Pittsburghs will only widen further.