Sure we've got problems, but aren't we a net plus?

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In the grand journalistic tradition of ripping off story ideas from other newspapers, let me riff on the recent piece by Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky: "Philly: What's right, wrong."

How would you answer that for Pittsburgh?

Mr. Bykofsky begins his Philly positives with Independence Hall, and I'll concede that our Fort Pitt blockhouse doesn't quite measure up there. But he goes straight from there into a string of pluses that Pittsburgh can brag about, too:

" ... Our low cost of living, plentiful parks, amazing architecture, walkability, restaurants and culture.''

But this isn't a game of can-you-top-this with Philly. Pittsburgh's in a different weight class, though it punches above its weight. Look around the country and it's tough to find another city our size with two daily newspapers, three professional sports teams, a world-class symphony, an outstanding zoo and art museum, a large university presence and all the rest.

It also would be tough to find one with two competing hospital systems locked in a no-holds-barred fight that's like studio wrestling without the charm, but every place has quirks.

Philadelphia's negatives, according to Mr. Bykofsky, include "crony politics, lousy schools, too many taxes, a few bullying unions, dirty streets, crime.'' Some in Pittsburgh might now be thinking, wait a sec, isn't that our list? I'd say no.

One-party politics, yes, but local Democrats are so factional they have trouble reaching consensus on where to go for lunch. Taxes? Sure, we have our complaints, largely with a county assessment process that is only a bit more fair than a carnival game, but the city wage tax is actually down from where it was in the late 1980s. Litter's here, even without a Kenny Chesney concert, but the committed army of altruists that is Citizens Against Litter has made a serious dent in it.

The city schools need to get better, but there are more than 40 school districts in Allegheny County alone, and I'll say again that the city school system is like a big-box store. There's a lot you don't want but you can also find tremendous value. Our daughters have done well in the magnet schools, and thousands of families are benefiting from the $10,000-a-year college scholarships provided to city high school graduates through the Pittsburgh Promise.

Crime we have, but not to the extent of most cities. The metro unemployment rate is also well below the state and national rates -- and here is where I should cut off this exercise. Because how a person feels about Pittsburgh hasn't much to do with regional data.

If you have a job that sustains you, you likely feel pretty good about where you live. Ditto if you feel secure in your home and neighborhood. Ditto if you have a wide circle of friends. Ditto if you found love. Some of those things aren't easily tabulated.

Lack any of them, though, and you're not going to feel so great about where you live, not going to care if a good Thai restaurant opened around the corner or that the Point State Park fountain is high and wet again.

So we need more than one person pontificating here. Taking a page from Mr. Bykofsky's notebook, I invite readers to offer what they think is right and wrong with Pittsburgh. That can be either the city itself or the Pittsburgh we all call home, which stretches well beyond Allegheny County's borders. You can respond online or through a letter to me or the editor.

Personally, I've long thought that many problems around here can only be fixed at the state level, but the General Assembly is asleep at the wheel. It's not only dawdling on funding highways, bridges and mass transit, it's ignoring the common problem of Pennsylvania job centers large and small: The biggest employers -- hospitals and universities -- are largely exempt from property and payroll taxes.

But that doesn't speak to what is uniquely right and wrong with Pittsburgh. That's the task, so let me name one more plus before I'm done:

We have all the water we need.

Seriously, that's no small thing, and Pittsburghers are going to be able to say that long after our Sun Belt brethren are parched.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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