David Malehorn, a research professor from Morningside, says that after participating in the city's first Civic Leadership Academy last fall, he no longer sees Pittsburgh as "a city of the past which is half-empty but a city of the future, half-full."
As the city prepares to begin its second academy next month, he and other December graduates are sparked by their 10 weeks of Tuesday-night gatherings with city department heads and their staffs.
"It was like going to school to learn how the city works," said Mr. Malehorn. "We got the brass tacks mechanics, and it didn't smack of political spin."
The classes were built to show -- up close and personally -- how and why the city operates as it does.
"There are misperceptions about government and its functions," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, "so what better way to change that than to invite people in and experience it firsthand? Our goal is not only to educate them about city government but empower them to do more in their communities. They had access to all the top officials."
The class was organized and administered by Rebecca Kottler-Wein, chief service officer for the city, and Kim Graziani, the mayor's director of neighborhood initiatives. Twenty people were chosen from among 100 applicants and 19 graduated. The graduates have decided to take on a graduation project -- volunteering with the Larimer Green Team in community garden projects.
Ms. Kottler-Wein said academy applicants are picked for motivation and involvement in neighborhood groups or nonprofits.
Felimelia G. Abenes-Douglass of Shadyside, a tax preparer and treasurer of the Pittsburgh Obama Academy's PTO, said she downloaded the application "because I thought I should have a little knowledge."
"I was a preschool teacher, and parents would ask me about the city and I didn't know anything. In the building where I live, a lot of foreign-born people would ask for information that even my [Pittsburgh-born] husband didn't know."
Rachel Rue, a facilitator for the Lawrenceville Planning Team -- a collaboration of three nonprofits, said the academy was tailor-made for her being more effective in her job.
"I knew nothing about how anything works," she said. "It was a magical opportunity for me to see all the things that are critical to my work: planning, procedures for development, a million agencies involved, all sorts of steps, political realities you never understand unless you're in the middle of them.
"I could see what individual people do in the city every day. Even though it was a quick view, it was so much more concrete than anything I had in mind."
Field trips to the fire and police training center and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority's water treatment plant were highlights for most in the class.
"The fire station was fascinating, a 'wow' kind of thing," said Susan DiGirolamo, a collaborative divorce attorney who lives Downtown.
Firefighters demonstrated thermal imaging cameras that let you see through smoke, GPS locators on their suits and gear that weighs 80-100 pounds. Darryl Jones, chief of the city's Fire Bureau, said "it's like putting on your winter snowsuit in July, doing calisthenics and being blindfolded while you do them.
"Some people are confused by what they see in action films and on TV, thinking we wear nothing but raincoats," he said. "It was rewarding for the guys doing the demonstrations to be able to show people what it takes to be a firefighter today."
For other department heads, the rewards were in being able to explain their work to a receptive audience.
"It was refreshing to be able to tell how our department runs to people who want to know what you do instead of why you aren't doing something," said John Jennings, acting chief of the Bureau of Building Inspection. "I took them through how we do inspections, the things we enforce, fireproofing and fire codes, the things we inspect, like engineers' reports to make sure parapets and fire escapes are sound.
"We talked about green designs, the latest thing we are reviewing for. We are required to enforce the National Energy Conservation Code, and some building owners go the next step with LEED or Energy Star construction, and we enforce that as well."
"It was good to be sharing our stories," said Noor Ismail, the director of city planning. "It was kind of an eye opener for the students to look at our staff, our budget, our functions and what we are trying to achieve" with the first citywide masterplan. "It's very rewarding on our end and I would like to think it was for them, too."
"The sophistication of the planning effort was a real revelation," said Mr. Malehorn, who is on the board of Friends of the Riverfront and kayaks to work in Oakland. "They're doing proactive thinking. It was a treat to meet all these people who are confident, capable and motivated."
"My biggest impression was how professional and serious the department heads are," said Ms. DiGirolamo. "You don't hear positive things about the city, but there is strategic planning and an effort to be as efficient as possible."
The class did delve into messy stuff, specifically "the parking-pension thing," said Mr. Malehorn. He said the class materials included the city's budget and a huge binder. Two and a half hours every Tuesday for 10 weeks is a big commitment, he said, "but so little time for all the information."
Ellen Roth, a relocation consultant from Point Breeze, said the class gave her an assurance that city employees are "dedicated to the well-being of city residents." And then there was the icing on the cake -- "the opportunity to meet, to become friends and bond with individuals from all over the city whose paths would not have otherwise crossed," she said. "This has enriched my life."