Cherries and lemons for Pittsburgh: Loved the marathon; hated the opera protest against Corbett

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As a columnist I generally stay out of Pittsburgh matters: Other writers at the Post-Gazette handle them better than I. At the same time, I live here and every once in a while build up a head of steam on topics regarding the city that must escape.

Two cherries and two lemons.

The Pittsburgh Marathon, according to me, was a breathtaking success. For a more objective assessment, I turned to my son, an experienced runner who covered the 26.2-mile race at a brisk 3-hour, few-minute pace and has also run the Boston and New York marathons. He came from Washington, D.C., to participate under the colors and to the benefit of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

My son rarely agrees with me on anything, as a matter of principle and due to better judgment, but he loved the Pittsburgh Marathon. He said our signature hills and bridges made it interesting, and he found our neighborhoods especially welcoming, with bands, cheering spectators and refreshments, in one case even little cups of beer. The Pittsburghers may not have matched the Wellesley College girls in Boston, who offer runners kisses and decolletage, but, as do most people, he found Pittsburghers to be warm and special.

The sponsors, led by Dick's Sporting Goods, deserve special thanks for having made the Pittsburgh Marathon happen, the fourth since its resurrection in 2009. About 19,000 runners took part, and it is worthy of note that the events attracted participants from at least six nations, underlining the increasingly international character of the event and of our city.

The second cherry goes to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for the truly special displays of spring flowers with which they have decorated the streets to go with our extraordinary weather. The daffodils, tulips and pansies in artists' color combinations of yellow, violet, red and white have showed us all how a city can look when someone cares about it.

We also need to thank the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy for making city parks the welcome spring flower gardens that they are this season. The only city I know that matches Pittsburgh for providing residents quiet, beautiful spots to duck into for relief -- in Pittsburgh's case from the noise of construction, motorists who share their bad musical tastes with everyone within miles and shops that blast recordings of long-ago Steelers's games -- is London.

Now, it's time to go down under the bridge and play troll for a few paragraphs.

Whatever problems anyone has with Gov. Tom Corbett have nothing to do with the Pittsburgh Opera. That organization, like the conservancies that bring us flowers, makes life in Pittsburgh a more civilized affair -- more worthy of its past, more livable in the present and more likely to offer a cultural future attractive to those who live here and those who might come to live here.

The opera honored Mr. Corbett and his wife at its annual benefit ball Saturday night. Protesters against Mr. Corbett's budget policies, some dressed in horned helmets and other silly costumes, did their best to disrupt the event in the tradition of Pittsburghers who see demonstrations as a form of recreation.

They have the right to consider some of Mr. Corbett's policies as iniquitous. I could make a whole list. As example, the Post-Gazette, which endorsed Mr. Corbett's candidacy in part because he pledged to privatize liquor sales in Pennsylvania is still waiting for him to make it happen. We are waiting for him to upset the vested interests trying to preserve the commonwealth's inefficient, troglodyte approach to liquor marketing by getting rid of the expensive, obsolete Liquor Control Board.

But tying one's opposition to Mr. Corbett's policies to demonstrating against the opera for honoring him and his wife is to miss at least two points.

The first is that to get the governor to come to its benefit, the opera would likely have invited Mr. Corbett long before he became the Saddam Hussein of social services in Pennsylvania that some now consider him to be.

The second is more subtle, but fully in keeping with the general level of sophistication that is the coin of the realm in Pittsburgh. Mr. Corbett is the governor of the state. It is fully appropriate to honor him as governor, even if one does not agree with some of his policies. We elected him. He deserves respect. If we don't like his policies we have ample opportunity to try to change them, now or at the ballot box on later occasions. To try to make his and his wife's experience at the Pittsburgh opera ball unpleasant is simply bad manners and not in keeping with the quality of hospitality that this city normally offers.

My second lemon goes to whomever made it possible for a local merchant to install a food stand on Grant Street that sits at either the Fifth Avenue or Forbes Avenue end of the courthouse Monday through Friday. It is an eyesore. It emits an odor. It blocks the sidewalk. Worst of all, it is powered by one or sometimes two generators that sound like chain-saw motors or M1A1 tank engines.

However this came about -- through a permit, a friend or relative in the courthouse or a pay-off -- the stand adds nothing and detracts seriously from the dignity of the courthouse and the beauty of Pittsburgh's Downtown. It ought to go, now.

So, two cherries and two lemons. Now, if the Pirates could just edge up over .500 and climb, the month of May wouldn't be half bad.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (, 412 263-1976).


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