Opinion 250: The view from on high
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A few years ago, when Pittsburgh was just 245 years old, USA Today named the night-time view from atop Mount Washington the second Most Beautiful Place in America. Anyone who's ever loved or lived in this city would be hard-pressed to disagree. It's a breathtaking vista -- an almost perfect combination of natural wonders and civic designs, united by the hard work and great deeds of generations of Pittsburghers who forged, and then twice recast, this great city.
But no matter how much we're awed by that view, and no matter how much we love this city, we know that down here on the ground, in over-taxed homes, over-burdened businesses and under-performing schools, on our streets and in our neighborhoods, we see things differently. We see a city, an economy, an infrastructure that needs work. We see plenty of people happy to talk about that work -- especially if they think it will bring them something in return -- but we don't see a whole lot of people actually willing to do it.
In 1956, when Pittsburgh was only 198 years old, Mayor David L. Lawrence, a man who knew something about the powers and possibilities of fundamental change, gave a speech at the Harvard School of Design. He talked about urban renewal and the Pittsburgh Renaissance, but he also talked about hard work and true leadership:
I am only a very practical and prosaic mayor of a large city, which I love, and which I want to see become more serviceable to its region and more livable for its inhabitants. My effort must go, not into architectural and planning critiques, but into the limited, tedious, persevering work of making things happen.
What was true in 1956 -- when the city needed to balance Downtown and neighborhood development, public works at the Point, the needs of the Hill and the impending construction of a new civic arena -- is true again today. We have a city we love and that we need to become more livable and more serviceable for its inhabitants, the accolades of Places Rated Almanacs notwithstanding.
We have much work in which to persevere and many things we must make happen. But we also have a limited mayor, a prosaic county chief executive with one foot in Pittsburgh and another dancing toward Harrisburg, and a monolith of a major regional employer (that would be UPMC) whose annual contributions to the city are some small fraction of its "excess margins," or even of its advertising budget.
Mayor Lawrence understood what everyone who comes down from Mount Washington knows, but what Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and many of our school and corporate leaders seem to have forgotten: that a view from on high distorts your perspective. It makes everything and everyone else seem insignificant. It softens the blemishes and smooths out the rough spots and makes the hard work that needs to be done seem so vague and distant that it's tempting to forget about it. Or merely to play at it.
Our pension fund doesn't match our pension liabilities? Talk to other mayors.
Our Port Authority is bloated and inefficient and underfunded? Cook the books, slap a tax on poured drinks, ignore systemic failures large and small and pretend a darned good alternative transit plan -- one that's worked in Brazil and Colombia and several American cities -- hasn't already been offered in the pages of this newspaper.
Instead of a grocery store in the Hill and a connector to Oakland, where lots of people live and work, give 'em a publicly subsidized skyscraper Downtown and a tunnel to the North Shore.
We're leaving more children behind than we (or they) can possibly count? Close a couple more schools, tinker with the curriculum, reassign some teachers and make noise about trying to save Schenley High School to shut some people up.
We can barely keep up with our medical premiums and co-pays? Put your initials and your helipad atop the USX Tower, your phony Minutes on TV and your auditors on the trail of even more claims to deny. Instead of good schools and affordable health care, give the kids a couple of bucks for college, so long as you don't get double-dipped and other people pony up, too.
In 1900, when Pittsburgh was just 142 years old, Andrew Carnegie, a ruthless capitalist and relentless philanthropist, continued his life's work of giving away his life's wealth, founding what would become Carnegie Mellon University with the famous declaration, "My heart is in the work." (You'll notice he did not say "my heart is in the tax credits," or "the matching funds" or "the election results.")
During the 10 years I spent teaching at CMU, Andy's old Pittsburgh Promise, I saw a lot of people evoke that phrase, but not nearly enough living it. Many of my students hated the city -- Pittsburgh sucks! was a common refrain -- perhaps because when they looked at it, they saw leaders much like themselves: bright people, full of talent and advantage, content to coast and drift and just scrape by on a culture of complacency, telling themselves everything will be all right in the end, fooling themselves into thinking the hard work it takes to excel will get done if you just take a nice trip to Europe, or ask your Act 47 professors to cut you a break, or pray the homework fairies in Harrisburg will step in and bail out your lazy butt.
It is no sin to fail to match the considerable legacies of David Lawrence or Andrew Carnegie. But it is a sin not to try.
To give our best effort in that great, tedious, persevering work of getting things done, a 250-year-old Pittsburgh needs leaders of wealth and ideas and influence who are willing -- we already know they're able -- to make a real difference. Which is to say, leaders who are willing to care deeply about something other than themselves, their next election, or their next annual report. We need the public service of true public servants, not the lip service of cynical self-preservationists. We need to summon the pride and courage and fierce determination of all the generations of Pittsburghers before us who, when told they could not possibly do any better, vowed that they would, and did. And we need to demand, starting right now, more than just the simple, numbing mediocrity we've come to expect, and to accept, from our leaders.
In 1917, when Pittsburgh was a mere 159 years old, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in which he said:
There is no more American city than Pittsburgh. And Pittsburgh gives a lesson to the entire United States. Pittsburgh has not been built by talking about it. Your tremendous concerns were built by a people who actually did the work.
For too long now, especially from on high, we've talked too much, asked too much of others and worked too little ourselves.
First Published February 3, 2008 12:00 am