Invisible People

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.

–Greg Godels

Sing a simple song

Sometimes the lyrics to a simple song make the point better than a 10,000-word speech or essay.  Listen to Isaac Hayes wail about “Soulsville,” way back in 1971.  Doesn’t seem like things have changed much since then, does it?



You have to admire a man who sticks to his guns, and Gov. Tom Wolf is doing just that.  Speaking last Tuesday before a GOP legislative majority that just doesn’t give a damn, Wolf proposed a budget package for next year that would increase spending on education and human services, tax Marcellus Shale gas extraction, and — get this — raise the minimum wage!  For that, I can almost forgive the flat income tax hike and continued punishing of tobacco users.

But there’s one big problem: we’re more than seven months into this fiscal year without a budget.  And the governor’s proposal for next year looks a lot like the one for this year.  Wolf and his Republican playmates allegedly had a “framework agreement” on a budget back in December, but it soon fell apart.  The GOP majority just won’t agree.

One really has to wonder: what exactly is going on in this man’s head.  After a year in office, doesn’t he know what he’s up against?  Does he really think they’re going to give in?  Finally, at one point in his address, Wolf suggested that if the Republicans can’t agree to a sane budget, they should “find another job.”

Ah ha.  And how, Gov. Wolf, do you intend to see this happen?  By just continually talking and talking and talking?  A little prayer that their callous consciences be ignited?  (I’m sure most of the GOP legislators would strenuously proclaim their Christianity.)  It has never occurred to the governor, and the well-meaning Democrats who support him, to call in the people.

The Great Farce

This whole ordeal has the makings of a great drama, starting out as a farce, moving on quickly to tragedy (it is people, after all, who are paying the price for this situation, and not just “the books”) and ending where?

The scene: The politically impotent governor paces the floor of his Harrisburg office. He has become increasingly isolated over the months, his visitors dwindling to a handful of hapless Democrats from Philadelphia and Allegheny County who try to keep up his morale.

“Why can’t they understand?” he cries. “Why?”

“They” are his GOP rivals, businessmen like himself after all, who are far more venal, heartless and cynical than he found them to be at Chamber of Commerce meetings.  “They” are the people who decry his tax hikes on regular folks and want to see the well-heeled start paying for things.  They utter distasteful words like “fight” and “mobilize.”  Nobody seems to understand the delicate art of compromise anymore.  The governor and President Obama are a dying breed.

Trancelike, he walks to a window to see what’s brewing over at the Capitol.  Holy shit!  What is going on out there?

A huge crowd has gathered outside the building where the legislators are nominally working for their good, and it just keeps growing and growing: Ragged orphans and foster kids, accompanied by their underappreciated wards; abused children, holding hands and clinging to each other for support, knowing their overworked, underpaid case workers can’t help them; battered women and other homeless people, who have nowhere else to go since providing them with safe housing offends the good legislators’ sense of sound economics; people struggling valiantly against the ravages of drug and alcohol addiction; college students from working- and middle-class homes, who are only trying to get ahead (poor naïve fools!); teachers and state workers, who feel that they deserve their pensions.

The governor is an educated man, a man of reflection. In the old days, he muses, these people would be peasants, brandishing pitchforks and torches.  Instead of facing a line of riot police, armed with shields, batons and pepper spray, they’d find themselves face to face with knights on horses, who would soon cut them to pieces.

But this isn’t the Middle Ages and the mass of humanity just keeps swelling and pressing forward.  Soon the police will have to take the offensive, in order to save the hides of the noble legislators inside.  But wait.  The days of pitchforks may be over, but quite a few (hundred!) members of the crowd are holding high other, more lethal weapons: firearms.  Damn that Second Amendment!

Police officers in the rear lob the first canisters of tear gas into the crowd.  It parts itself like the Red Sea to give its own sharpshooters — hundreds of them — a clear line of sight . . .


— Jim Collins


Uncomfortable Pet Tales


The folks who have their name on the masthead of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette should be ashamed. They should apologize to the readers. The editorial headline below the masthead on February 4 reads “Officer Down: Pittsburgh loses another K-9 in the line of duty.”

The editorial references an imaginary “line-of-duty” owned by the slain police dog. Animals don’t have duties. Dogs don’t have duties. People have duties. Freshman philosophy students know this. Law students know this. But apparently the editors of the P-G are unaware of this simple truth and their duty to respect it.

Dogs don’t have duties not to bark, not to poop, or not to bite when their tails are pulled. But their owners or handlers DO have a duty to restrain their dogs, to clean up after their dogs, to protect their dogs. Those duties come with the privilege of enjoying the loyalty, companionship and protection afforded by animals.

By irresponsibly anthropomorphizing the animal, by willfully portraying the now dead animal as a voluntary employee of the police department, a conscious agent of law and order, the editorial distracts the reader from a host of issues raised by the deadly encounter on Sunday, January 31. By fostering the illusion that an actual police officer—and not a service dog—was killed and that the dog was acting autonomously, the editorial obfuscates both the dimensions of and responsibilities for the events.

And by once again orchestrating an ill-conceived public outrage, the editors promoted the embarrassing funerary spectacle of contrived city-wide mourning for a service animal cruelly and unnecessarily abused by its handlers, a spectacle pathetically modeled after the virtual shut down of Oakland for the sainted police dog, Rocco.

Lost in the unseemly display over the killing of a service animal is the fundamental fact that a man was rousted from his reverie while drinking with his father peacefully and solitarily on Port Authority (public) property. Like any of us who have carelessly or irresponsibly drunk in a public park, a campus, or any other public space, we move on when rousted. We don’t expect to die. Mr. Kelley and his father did move on. But he died anyway.

For what happened subsequently, we only have the police reports and a partial surveillance video.

With no more evidence than this, the P-G editorialist deigns to speak for all of us: “Pittsburgh mourns the loss of another K-9 officer killed in the line of duty…” But for Kelley, Pittsburgh is apparently silent. The writer adds insensitively: “…and Kelley’s survivors wish this had ended differently as well.”

Embarrassing Facts

But with even the scant evidence and questionable testimony, we can draw some relevant conclusions and pose some challenging questions.

Mr. Kelley’s record points to the likelihood of mental illness. His encounters with the law involve alcohol, drugs, and erratic behavior. A pattern of judicial probation points to the fact that his bad behavior places him in the gray area between incarceration and treatment. The lack of treatment facilities in Pennsylvania frequently places the mentally ill on the streets, often placing law enforcement in an untenable situation. The responsibility for the violence that ensues begins with the choking off of treatment funding by elected officials. Of course no one steps up to take this responsibility.

The rush to judgment fanned the flames of indignation towards Mr. Kelley. The early reports cited the brandishing of a terrifying 14-inch knife, a claim repeated by the P-G editorialist and a letter from a wise-cracking local chief of police (remind me to avoid Sharpsburg). But by Friday, February 5, the P-G reported a 4-inch knife and DA Zappala displayed a picture of a far less terrifying device.

We know that Kelley and his father initially tried to walk away. We don’t know why they were not allowed to simply leave. Is there any doubt that if a group of white adults were found drinking in North Park that the police would see disbursal as a happy conclusion?

Whatever transpired next, it is hard to believe that nine fit, trained officers were unable to disarm a 37-year-old man without risking the life of a service animal and a human being. Since there were no independent witnesses, there was no immediate threat to the public and no urgency.

Apparently none of those indignant over the death of the police dog were moved to ask why the police officers unleashed the dog in the first place, putting it in harm’s way. When nine officers surrounding a single man feel threatened by him, why would they risk the life of their supposedly cherished “fellow officer?”

No one distressed by the killing of the police dog sees that it is irresponsible to use a dog trained for explosive detection as an attack dog.

Those angry over the dog’s death do not question why it was not fitted with available protective gear (It is sophistry to say, as the authorities do, that it wouldn’t have helped or that it cannot be worn all of the time: responsible handling would have considered the dog’s training and recognized the lack of protection or provided it at the time).

Asking these questions is to acknowledge the “line of duty” owned by the dog’s handlers—to hold a person responsible for putting the dog in harm’s way. It is convenient, of course, to take the P-G editorial line and simply blame Mr. Kelley, who is dead and has no spokesperson.

Nor do those anxious to forget Mr. Kelley recoil from the harsh fact that two police officers fired 12 rounds at close range at his body, an example of massive overreaction and a hair-trigger escalation from deterrence to homicide.

In the days to come, we will be lectured by authorities on police protocol, judgment, police authority, and hair-splitting legalisms. But the morality of taking Mr. Kelley’s life will be evaded. Mr. Kelley will be, like so many others, a forgotten victim of the curse of race and class.

–Greg Godels

POSTSCRIPT: On Saturday, February 6, the Post-Gazette reported that Mr. Kelley did not knife the initial officers as originally announced. The knife appeared after the initial tussle and the use of pepper spray on the part of the officers. We learn this from the police– no thanks to the P-G editorialists and their obscene rush to judgment.