cityLIVE! gave 10 thinkers three minutes each to offer cool ideas to make Pittsburgh better Forum Editor GREG VICTOR reports
December 20, 2009 5:00 AM
cityLIVE! presented 10 opinionators at its second "10 People, 3 Minutes" forum before an audience of 100-plus at the Hazlett Theater Dec. 9. Hosts Eve Picker and Kim O'Dell told the speakers to "forget feasibility, funding or anything as ridiculous as consensus-building." They wanted "brilliant," "thought-provoking," "outside the box." No pressure.
Moderator Chris Potter, editor of City Paper, conducted an idiosyncratic survey to determine the "winner." He gave five pennies to each audience member and in the lobby set out 10 styrofoam cups, each with a picture of a panelist. Audience members could cast five pennies for one panelist or spread them around.
Late that night, Chris and his wife counted pennies. As a journalist with an alternative weekly newspaper, he noted that a lot of his workdays end that way.
Top honors went to Jon Rubin, an assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University and the founding faculty member of the interactive art project, talk show and waffle shop in East Liberty called ... The Waffle Shop. Even though he kind-of cheated by presenting three ideas, let's start with him.
WHAT'S YOUR BIG IDEA? Send your out-of-the-box ideas for Pittsburgh to email@example.com. We'll consider them for publication in print or online.
And the winner is ... Jon Rubin
Blow up the campuses
Kick Pittsburgh universities off their campuses and relocate every university department -- classrooms, teachers, students and all -- throughout the city in storefronts, apartments, boats, abandoned car dealerships, even tree houses.
Pittsburgh universities (like most) operate in relative isolation from their surrounding areas. Decentralizing them would turn the whole city into a campus, spreading the resources that colleges attract and flattening the social hierarchy between the schools and the city.
By removing faculty and students from the Ivory Tower we'd also develop a richer educational experience. Imagine: a writing department on a coal barge, a philosophy department at the casino, a physics program in row houses, a business school at city hall and university lectures in backyards and street corners.
The transportation challenge posed by making students get to classes in different parts of the city would be the Mother of Invention. Guaranteed: If this is implemented, within 10 years we'd have the most advanced light-rail system in the world.
Blow away the clouds
Reinvigorating Downtown goes way beyond new condos, graffiti removal and streetscaping. It calls for radical measures. Let's install super-gigantic sky fans around the perimeter of Downtown Pittsburgh, blowing out. This would create a perpetual sunny zone, attracting tourists and sunbathers. This also might reverse suburban flight because not only would Downtown seem more attractive, the weather in surrounding suburbs would be worse.
Now, a byproduct of this could be a weather war, where cities, states and even countries fight to push bad weather onto each other. The upside is that every war creates a new industry and we would have gotten in on the ground floor.
Export the Steelers
Pittsburgh used to be known internationally because of its greatest export -- steel. We have struggled since the collapse of the steel industry to reclaim our identity. Ironically, what we now are most recognized for is being the home of a football team named the Steelers.
To regain our spot on the world stage, we need to export our greatest resource again. So let's turn the Pittsburgh Steelers into an international traveling soccer team. Think of them as the Harlem Globetrotters of soccer, but instead of choreographed slapstick, the Steelers would delight the crowd with their naive rule-breaking hits and illegal use of hands.
Seriously, the last World Cup had a cumulative viewership of 30 billion people. Just think how many Primanti Brothers sandwiches we could sell.
America's healthiest city
Susan Everingham, director of RAND's Pittsburgh office, noted that Pittsburgh is going green and global and is poised to ratchet up its economic renaissance. But the former Californian sees one more thing Pittsburgh needs to attract businesses, talent and residents -- a big push to make people healthier.
Google's CEO Eric Schmidt credits Silicon Valley's economic edge in part to its weather. Now, there's not much we can do about Pittsburgh's weather. But what young people see in a place with good weather is a place where they can live a healthy lifestyle. And there's a lot Pittsburgh can do, short of changing the tilt of the Earth (or installing giant fans), to make itself a healthy place to live.
From research at RAND and elsewhere, we know that the kind of community you live in can have a big impact on how healthy you are. Pittsburgh should complement its decades-long emphasis on improving the environment with a sweeping initiative to encourage people to live healthier. Fewer fast food joints and more real grocery stores. More walkable neighborhoods. More parks. Better diets. Stop smoking! Etc.
We need to get a reputation as a place where everyone who lives here can have an affordable, healthy, long and high-quality life.
Still toxic after all these years
Scott Faber, a developmental pediatrician who treats patients at The Children's Institute for conditions such as autism, said Pittsburgh has come a long way in cleaning up its environment but has a very long way to go. In particular, environmental toxins continue to visit horrors on young, developing brains.
The Pittsburgh area still has among the highest levels in the United States of mercury in its soil -- up to 30 times those of the pre-industrial era. And Pittsburgh has among the highest levels of particles floating in its air. Mercury, chromium, arsenic and other toxic chemicals hitchhike on these tiny particles and deposit themselves in tiny lungs (and in your lungs, too). Most of the airborne toxins come from coal-fired power plants, which should be the first focus of attention.
Children in Pittsburgh are asking adults to stand up for them, to work in a win-win way with government, academia and industry to dramatically reduce the environmental toxins in the air, water and soil they are exposed to every day. We need to set clear goals and reach them.
Erase all student debt
Raymar Hampshire, founder of sponsorchange.org, which helps students pay off college loans through civic involvement, talked about how great it would be -- and how attractive Pittsburgh would be to young people -- if the city could eliminate the student-loan debt of every college graduate in town.
What's your big idea?
Send your brilliant, serious or whimsical, out-of-the-box ideas for Pittsburgh to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll consider them for publication in print or online.
Young people have skills to offer but rising student debt -- an average of $23,000 now per graduate vs. $10,000 10 years ago -- means they have to work hard to pay their loans and have little time to volunteer for public service.
Mr. Hampshire hopes eventually to make his site like Kiva.org, which allows people directly to finance microloans for entrepreneurs in the developing world. Sponsorchange.org would allow people directly to finance college loans in exchange for students providing meaningful community service. Win-win.
Soul food revisited
Laverne Baker Hotep of the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime is sick and tired of violence and is starting the EVE Project (Enlightened Voices for the Environment). One focus is the connection between food and violence. Studies show that healthy children on a plant-based diet feel better, behave better and learn more. African Americans in particular are unhealthy and suffer disproportionately from diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments. A big reason is diet.
The old soul food is bad news. Fried this, fried that, lots of fat, salt, sugar. We need a new soul food, a Source of Universal Love (SOUL). We need to focus on fresh food and herbs, to grow some in our neighborhoods, to get connected to our food.
Let's get companies, foundations, governments and other institutions to create a five-year plan to improve the diet of African Americans in Pittsburgh. Let's make it a model for the world. Let's decrease the violence and the health disparities and use food as a source of lifting our souls and nourishing our bodies, minds and spirits.
Alexi Morrissey, poet, artist, provocateur, told Pittsburgh to grow up, to go its own way, to get creative, to secede from the United States. Just do it. It's better to ask forgiveness than permission.
How does this work?
Joshua Abraham Norton (1819-1890) declared himself emperor of the United States. Embraced by San Franciscans, he slapped his portrait on "currency" that was accepted by local establishments. Why? He was emperor of the United States.
Look at the Amish. They also have the confidence to make their own way in the world. And if they're right about God, they're going to heaven and the rest of us aren't.
On Fantasy Island, everyone was met at the airport when they got off the plane. Send all the CMU art students to the airport once a week to shake everyone's hands.
Pittsburgh is like a person with just enough mental knowledge to think he's not good enough. But what happens -- you grow up, meet friends who are into Goth, hang out, get a job and settle down and stop beating yourself up.
We're a city, not a person. And when a city has the problems of a person, it doesn't have solutions, it only has problems. We need to act like a city, not like a nervous little person on the way to the prom who feels fat and stupid and ugly. This place is the greatest city on Earth! You think I live here by accident?
Pittsburgh, the art project
Sean Jones, former lead trumpeter in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University and co-leader of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, said he was nervous moving to Pittsburgh after living in the New York area because he worried that there wouldn't be much of a music or arts scene. But he found a ton of great art in one of the few American cities where you still can hear high-quality live jazz every night of the week.
cityLIVE! describes itself as "a free monthly series of events showcasing the creative, intellectual talent of the city." It offers panel discussions, entertainment, interactive experiences, all kinds of things. Each event includes refreshments and conversation. The hosts of "10 People, 3 Minutes" would like to thank the executive director of the New Hazlett Theater, Sara Radelet, for her help in organizing this and other cityLIVE! events.
He made the rounds of foundations seeking support and everyone talked about collaboration. Artists kept complaining of few opportunities. So wouldn't it be great to represent Pittsburgh as it is today in a monumental collaborative work of art, including dance, music, visual arts, as many arts as possible?
Have a poll. Let people choose 10 to 15 organizations to produce "Pittsburgh: Here and Now."
It could portray parts of Pittsburgh not traditionally talked about -- the Waterfront, Robinson, East Liberty, wherever. The Hill District was jazz, and that's great, but what's happening now. Each movement could represent a part of the city, connected by transitions -- the bridges -- and culminating in the finale, Downtown. This artwork could be spread throughout the city and/or represented in a single space or performance. Let's celebrate this great city.
Priya Narasimhan is a co-director of CMU's Mobility Research Center and lead developer of YinzCam, which allows fans at sports venues to see events from various camera angles on their mobile phones. She thinks Pittsburgh should exploit its unique combination of high-tech capability and sports mania. This is what produced YinzCam Inc.
Priya was born in India, raised in Africa and went to UC Santa Barbara. Sports-averse, she moved to Pittsburgh, and within weeks couldn't wait to see someone get sacked on Sundays. She fused sports and her research on mobile devices and, voila!: YinzCam ... which she and her team developed with the help of the Penguins.
Next came the fusion of high-tech and another Pittsburgh sport: dodging potholes. YinzCam Inc. helped create iBurgh, the first Apple app for reporting potholes to municipal authorities.
Combining sports and tech helps young people get interested in science. And Pittsburgh is uniquely positioned to bring tech research to fruition because it's big enough to provide opportunities but small enough to know everybody. Here, a university prof can work with professional sports teams and city officials to do cool new things.
Help artists, fix roads,reform politics
Hilary Robinson, dean of CMU's College of Fine Arts, dealt with the good, the bad, the ugly.
• The good: Pittsburgh is a great city. Pittsburgh is a great city for artists. Art employs Pittsburgh -- 12 percent of CMU art students come from Pittsburgh but 19 percent stay after graduation. Art greens Pittsburgh and art inspires Pittsburgh. So, let's create infrastructure to retain more young artists in Pittsburgh and to encourage their entrepreneurship and creativity. Let's especially help them find affordable housing.
• The bad: The physical infrastructure here sucks -- sidewalks, roads, lighting. Cities that lack self esteem neglect themselves. Let's rebuild Pittsburgh.
• The ugly: The political infrastructure is nearly as bankrupt as the city itself. There's no political will here. There's political wilt, political want and political won't. Decisions are based on personality and money and party machines and not on policy and vision and the greater good. Let's tear down the political infrastructure and start all over again, with foundations of integrity.
Make schools compete
Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, said that after running a nonprofit for a year she's just about out of fresh ideas. But being with child at the moment, one thing people keep asking her is why she and her husband plan to stay in the city. Doesn't she know the schools aren't so good?
Not true. The city has great schools. But how can it improve the ones that aren't?
At the risk of offending the liberals in the audience, let's try competition. Let's make it easier for kids to go to any school they want. Give them vouchers, more charter schools. Make the schools get better.