“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

Advertisements

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

Music Alert: Summer of Love

All of you ex-hippies and peaceniks out there won’t want to miss the Summer of Love Concert when it comes to South Park in July.  Glen Burtnik – an alumnus of Styx and the original Beatlemania – and his Summer of Love Experience have been touring and sharing the love – all those iconic songs from the late 1960s – for a few years now. Pittsburgh, always a little behind, gets its dosage on July 22nd.

Nineteen sixty-seven was dubbed the Summer of Love, you’ll recall, when the establishment media belatedly discovered the burgeoning youth and hippie movements that were converging on the San Francisco Bay Area and needed a handy way to explain the occurrence. They were generally portrayed as pampered, confused and ungrateful teenagers and young adults in search of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll – and many were.

But the youth movement had been steadily growing throughout the decade, finding inspiration in the old Beats, an ideology in the Free Speech Movement, and a cause in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Growing up in the stifling atmosphere of the Cold War 1950s, free love, drug use and rock music did indeed help them differentiate themselves from their conservative parents.  The music of the period reflected the exuberance and idealism of these young people and the songs remain popular today, and not only with baby-boomers.

Summer of Love Experience concerts have gotten good reviews. The music is said to recreate “note for note and absolutely live the songs, and the psychedelically flavored spirit, of the Woodstock Generation.”  It sounds like a good time, as well as an opportunity to run into old friends and acquaintances and rekindle the spirit of revolution that animated those times.

Long Hot Summer

 Nineteen sixty-seven also saw yet another “Long Hot Summer” of black urban rebellions. Martin Luther King Jr. came out forcefully against the war in Indochina, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the military, Black Power was in the air, and people were decisively answering Langston Hughes’s question about what happens to “a dream deferred.”  Yes, it explodes, time and time again.

The social and political climate affected the popular music produced by African-Americans and some black artists are forever associated with the Summer of Love/Woodstock period: Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Richie Havens, and Otis Redding.

Noncommercial black artists working out of the jazz tradition were also coming up with new ideas and new sounds in step with the times. In 1965, a group of experimental artists in Chicago founded the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), one of the most successful artists collectives in US history. The AACM insisted on artistic freedom and control, practiced cooperation and community engagement, emphasized original compositions and performances and, for the most part, rejected the “jazz” label as being too restrictive.  It celebrated it’s fiftieth anniversary last year.

Trumpet player Wada Leo Smith joined the AACM in 1967 after getting out of the army and has been making creative music ever since.  Smith, performing in duet with pianist Vijay Iyer, is one of the featured acts of this year’s Pittsburgh JazzLive Festival. Pittsburgh is home to many important jazz figures, but the city has never been hospitable to the “New Thing,” free jazz, or whatever you want to call it.  This year, however, the organizers of JazzLive have thoughtfully included creative improvisers like Smith and Iyer, Nu Grid (guitarists Jean-Paul Bourelly and Vernon Reid, cornetist Graham Haynes, and DJ logic) and the Chick Corea Trio – all on the evening of June 25.

The festival’s three days are jam-packed with scheduled performances from scores of accomplished artists; there is (most likely) something for everyone. So check out the schedule and head on downtown, June 24-26, and mingle.  Social change will be helped along when we spend more social time together.

— Jim Collins

A Case of Bad “Metrics”

Like me, maybe you have wondered how the grandiose plans of Pittsburgh elites will be realized when the city is not growing, when the hemorrhaging from the industrial flight of the early 1980s continues. While the leading suits insist that the region is in recovery and on the cusp of a dazzling future, many see the shattered lives, dead-end jobs, and insecurity left in the wake of the broken promises of the last chorus of capitalist magnates.

 The vision of a New Pittsburgh took a heavy blow a few weeks ago with the US Census Bureau releasing the population growth figures for cities with over 200,000 population. The Pittsburgh Pet-Gazette put a gloomy, but hopeful spin on the loss of population for the second consecutive year, quoting the mayor’s spokesperson as saying: “Basically every indicator out there, subjective or objective, is showing growth in the city of Pittsburgh.” So the mayor’s office privileges vanity websites like Zagat’s over the fact-based report of the Census Bureau.

 The P-G, without an ounce of shame, turned to a local developer– one of the stakeholders in the New Pittsburgh myth– for a comment. Predictably, he fails to see a problem: “I don’t see where the reduction is occurring… but I know the influx of people wanting to live Downtown is increasing.” Surprise! A luxury- residence developer cannot see the rest of us from his perch.

 What the P-G left out of the report is most interesting. If you happened to browse a national newspaper for the story, you might have learned that Pittsburgh ranks seventh from last among US cities in population gain/loss in 2015, slightly better than Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland. Apparently, P-G editors did not want this sour note to further tarnish the New Pittsburgh euphoria.

 Another blow to the fantasy came last week with the latest unemployment figures for the region. The April rate advanced .3% from March and is up .4% from last April. Of the 15 comparable cities (Pittsburgh Today), Pittsburgh finished second in percentage unemployed and one of only two showing unemployment growth for the month. Tragic, neglected Detroit is Pittsburgh’s competitor for biggest loser in the unemployment derby. But Detroit’s unemployment rate actually declined by .8% in April while Pittsburgh’s increased!

 The P-G report on the unemployment increase sought a positive spin on the report, but conceded that the biggest job losses were the traditional better paying jobs in manufacturing, mining, and logging, while the biggest job gainer in the region of all categories was in the low-paying sector of leisure and hospitality. It takes a vivid imagination to found the New Pittsburgh on the meager incomes of bartenders and restaurant servers.

 Another blow to the med-ed growth model came with the release on June 2 of the annual Kauffman Foundation report on entrepreneurship, small businesses, and startups. “Firms in Pittsburgh are not growing like in other places” says the senior research analyst at Kauffman as reported by the P-G. Recall the Foundation presented a similarly bleak assessment of startups last year. The same researcher left a not-too-subtle hint with the P-G writer: “high tech is not necessarily a prerequisite for high-growth.” Is anyone in the government/foundation/corporation/ university nexis listening?

 Everyone would like to see a thriving Pittsburgh that accommodates the new along with the old, that accepts innovation while maintaining the integrity and well being of the existing neighborhoods. Unfortunately, our leaders have constructed a plan that scorns the Old Pittsburgh to court a new generation of mental workers, professionals, consultants, and “entrepreneurs”– groups that the urban planning  guru Richard Florida dubbed collectively “the creative class”. These “wunderkinds” are believed to be hope for future prosperity in our region. They are decidedly white, predominantly male, young, and well-educated. Consultants, academics, and foundation heads tell our politicians that every effort should be made to attract them to the region, every effort should be made to remove any obstacles to their comfort and perceived security, and every effort must be made to provide the amenities that they desire.

 At the same time, the 60% of Pittsburghers struggling to make a living with low-wage, low skill jobs are an inconvenience; they are the forgotten people, the invisible people. The plan for the New Pittsburgh offers nothing for the needs of the Old Pittsburgh. The housing, transportation, and well-being of the elderly, the infirmed, minorities, and the casualties of industrial betrayal are marginal to the grand project. Their needs are left to the vicissitudes of an unfriendly, impersonal market.

 The above sobering facts (the consultants like to dress them up and call them “metrics”) should suggest that the New Pittsburgh path is a rocky and unpromising road. Moreover, it is one only to be traveled by those with the proper travel documents. The rest of us are not invited on this journey. Instead of conceding failure, our local lords will likely double-down on their waste of public resources to woo the elusive “creative class” to Pittsburgh. A recent P-G editorial (Start our engines, 6-3-16) pleads for even more of the same.

 Where we go from here depends upon finding a new political vehicle to contest the vision undemocratically shoved down our throats by the corporate and foundation leaders and their political minions. Clearly, adversarial pressure has made a difference, exposing the injustices in the city’s transportation and housing policies. The ensuing embarrassment has caused the establishment to make some loud, but pathetically inadequate measures. More must be done. And it will only come from serious political challenges and heightened militancy.

Greg Godels

Summertime

Summertime is here, bringing with it the end of the school year, vacations n’at, festivals, and outdoor activities of all kinds. Still, the living’s not necessarily any easier for a lot of people.  In fact, late summer and early fall will most likely bring a replay of the misery experienced by public school districts, human-service organizations, and low-income and otherwise unfortunate people during our recent nine-month Pennsylvania budget stalemate of 2015-16.

A new state budget is due on July first, and the battle lines are pretty much drawn: the Republicans who control both houses of the Assembly say “no” to any spending or tax increases; the governor and Democratic caucus say “yes” to increased spending, “why not?” to tax increases on ordinary people, and “okay, no” to tax increases on our wealthiest citizens — including corporations (which are sometimes people and sometimes not).

It looks like significant change will only come from below and outside the traditional corridors of power.  Real “political revolution,” anyone?

Imperialist origins of Memorial Day

Summer is bracketed by two major holidays, Memorial Day on the last Monday in May and Labor Day in early September. First proclaimed in 1868 as Decoration Day to honor those who died fighting in the Civil War, Memorial Day didn’t gain widespread recognition until after World War I, when its purpose was changed to honor Americans who died fighting in any war.  The former Confederate states had refused to recognize it until then.

All the patriotic bombast since then has been about honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to preserve “our freedoms.” Of course, all of the major US wars after the Civil War up until that time were of the colonialist (think Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War) or imperialist (The Great War) variety.  The only “freedoms” preserved were the international rights of the powerful to take from those less powerful.

The pattern of US military action for imperialist ends – which picked up pace after the Second World War – has only intensified since the end of the Cold War. What ever happened to wars to end all wars?

We act locally, even as we always think globally. A sorely-needed local anti-imperialist voice came into being last fall, the Pittsburgh Anti-Imperialist League (PAIL).  PAIL has thus far sponsored two timely forums: a discussion on the Middle East with local peace activists and D.C.-based organizer Eugene Puryear; and a lecture on Cuba’s international solidarity in Africa by Cuban academic Felipe de Jesus Perez Cruz.

Get in touch with PAIL to see what else they’re up to at pittsburgh.ail@gmail.com.  On Facebook, they’re pghail.

Offensive words

 Would you be offended by the following words?

“Be just: the unjust never prosper. Be valiant.  Keep your word, even to your enemies”

Well, you should be, according to Quaker Valley school district officials.  Those words are attributed to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and therefore deemed “offensive.”  They were somehow slipped into the yearbook by a student.  Those darn kids!  It seems that a quote by Hitler and one by Stalin – although neither was as graceful or chivalrous as al-Baghdadi’s –  also made it past the adult censors.

I confess that if the only thing I knew about al-Baghdadi was that quote, I’d recommend him for the Nobel Peace Prize.  After all, President Obama won the prize on hot air alone shortly after being elected to his first term.  But school officials don’t see it that way.  Quaker Valley is offering refunds to any unsuspecting student who doesn’t want to know what their classmates really think.  Or even that they think at all.  Would somebody please just put on “God Bless America” and pass me a ‘burger or a dog?

I’m reminded of the elite “uproar” over comedian Larry Wilmore’s comments about Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Alluding to the honorable art of drone warfare, Wilmore compared the president to NBA sharpshooter Steph Curry: “Both of you like raining down bombs from long distances.”

As for words not spoken, Obama is the first US president with the courage to visit Hiroshima and says that he is in favor of nuclear disarmament, but he refused to apologize for President Truman’s decision to rain nuclear death down on Japan.

Hmm, Bad men sometimes say good things, while good men sometimes say nothing.  And sometimes popular artists – like comedians – hit the nail on the head better than any news commentator.  Maybe high school seniors understand a few things about words that their would-be censors do not. And as for the censors, their actions tell us a lot more about them than their words.

Solidarity . . . , whatever!

The CWA/IBEW strike against Verizon is over.  It’s a pretty good contract for these times, or so I’ve heard and read, so that’s good news. The six-week strike was the largest in the US since a 2011 strike – against Verizon.  If nothing else, the CWA is demonstrating that it is still possible to exercise the right to strike.

Solidarity used to go hand-in-hand with labor strikes – working people stood firmly and instinctively with striking workers. It was understood that you didn’t cross picket lines, were friendly and respectful to picketing workers, and offered words and sounds (like your car horn) of encouragement.  During the recent strike, I found that I was always the first – and often the only – person to honk and gesture in solidarity with striking CWA red shirts, who usually seemed surprised by my support.

In fact, every picket site I came across was more relaxed, and more sparsely attended, than a Republican polling site in the ghetto on election day. I saw in the P-G that there were some 4,000 Verizon strikers in the Pittsburgh area and was embarrassed to see the CWA citing 600 people turning out at a downtown rally as an example of solidarity.  Six hundred people!?  It sounds like not even the strikers were in solidarity with themselves!

Still, the strike is over and considered a win, so supporters of labor should all celebrate along with the Verizon workers.  And let’s brace ourselves for a long, hot summer of struggle . . . but also fun.  Next time, we’ll talk music news.

— James Collins