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

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4 thoughts on “Fantasy and Stubborn Facts

  1. Did you read the whole article? He’s saying many of the same things you said. His point is not that other cities doing better than Pittsburgh, but that the suburbs of Pittsburgh are doing better than the city of Pittsburgh. Lower-income people are moving to the suburbs because they can no longer afford to live in the city. That is, the city is gentrifying.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Jerry. The issue is not the city versus the suburbs (Lamb) or the city versus other cities (Peduto). Rather, it is: what are elected officials doing to make Pittsburgh a more livable city for the majority who are not at the top of the tech/med pyramid? Gentrification is not a natural event; it is a process unleashed by “special interests” and their enablers.

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    1. Well that’s why I’m so confused that you’re criticizing Lamb’s article. Isn’t he saying that we need to support school and infrastructure (like public transit) and lower the cost of living in the city? The unspoken contrast in the article (or maybe this is just me projecting) is that we should stop emphasizing things like bike lanes and “smart city” planning — things that primarily appeal to relatively wealthy young people who will move to the suburbs as soon as they have school-age kids.

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  3. I think gentrification is a result of cultural changes more than it is a creation of city planning. As a lifelong Pittsburgh resident I don’t mind seeing some folks with money moving into the city; the population has shrunk by over 50% in my lifetime, so I think we have plenty of room to absorb 100,000 or so yuppies. I agree the pols are making much more of an effort to attract wealthier residents than they are making to retain poor folks, but I have to take issue with the assumption that all the new urbanites are white. I know quite a few young, educated, upwardly mobile members of minority groups who have chosen to come to town.

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