Brian O'Neill: Small size seen as big connection for cities

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Andy Cutler is a quiet guy from the nation's smallest state who has this idea that smallish cities such as Providence and Pittsburgh and even Copenhagen can learn from each other.

Can we? A shade skeptical, I met Mr. Cutler for coffee the other day as he bounced around Pittsburgh with Tom Buell of Global Pittsburgh.

Mr. Cutler, 47, is calling his movement "Smaller Cities Unite!'' but even defining what cities qualify is open to debate. He figures that the city proper can be no bigger than 500,000, which would include all but 34 cities in the United States but still exclude places such as Tucson and Milwaukee and Louisville.

Maybe I'm too hung up on details. Mr. Cutler already had made some progress when we met. He had spoken with Justin Strong, who opened the Ava Cafe + Lounge at 304 N. Craig St. (the old Luna) in Oakland three weeks ago. Mr. Strong, who operated the Shadow Lounge and Ava in East Liberty for a dozen years before closing down in 2013, thought Mr. Cutler could help with an idea he has had for years of a sort of exchange program for local bands.

Pittsburgh could showcase Providence's top artists from different genres for a night or two at local clubs, and then Providence could return the favor. The idea could work just as well with visual artists and galleries. Finding willing venues in smaller cities between the two would help, too. Each city would be promoting itself with this double-reverse play.

"I think a lot of times when you try to compare Pittsburgh to other cities -- your New Yorks, Atlantas and L.A.s -- it's kind of unfair,'' Mr. Strong said. "There aren't the same issues and the same volume.''

You could say that meeting Mr. Cutler was Providential, though that would make this story cornier than we want it to be.

Mr. Cutler is proof of the old adage that there is no one more zealous than a convert. Born in Swampscott, a little Massachusetts town 15 miles up the coast from Boston, he bounced around America's bigger cities before landing in Providence a decade ago. He was chasing a woman who had his heart, but she's gone and now his adopted city has it.

As he bragged about Providence, using phrases like "birthplace of the industrial revolution'' and "all paths led through us," I recognized the symptoms of a proud citizen wondering why the world didn't see his city as he did.

"People in Denmark had no idea where Providence was," he said, having taken his case there last year.

Denmark? I'll bet I could find people in Dormont who'd have no idea. But I expect more people will come looking for Providence if Mr. Cutler continues as a Johnny Appleseed of small-city networking. (A communications counselor by trade, he carries with him his "letter from the king,'' an endorsement of Smaller Cities Unite! signed by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, the city's first Hispanic mayor.)

Pittsburgh is coming out of its Rodney Dangerfield don't-get-no-respect phase but that doesn't mean we can't learn something from Providence. I liked Mr. Cutler's idea of an acclimation program for college students: Show them the city neighborhoods and attractions that they'd never see if they stuck close to the campus. Get them internships Downtown.

"Students stay where they plant roots,'' he said, and on this trip he met a Carnegie Mellon University graduate student who was doing just that after a successful work-study program in the Golden Triangle.

The first city to make that work on a large scale "wins at the retention game," Mr. Cutler said. "I'm looking to care as much about Pittsburgh as I care about my own city."

Mr. Cutler is doing this urban affairs missionary work on a shoestring, crashing until Saturday at Mr. Buell's home and dining on his first Primanti Brothers sandwich. I wish him well, not least because he has the self-deprecatory sense of humor so many Pittsburghers do.

He directed me to the blog "The Size of Rhode Island," dedicated to collecting all the half-baked ways that term is used by the media to make comparisons to counties, small countries, oil spills and even duffel bags.

Rhode Island is way bigger than Luxembourg but not nearly as big as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010. Who knew?


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947

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