Bad ol' days: mayoral nepotism, SEA strongarm
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Two Pitt researchers released a report last month trumpeting the news that young workers in this region now rank among the nation's most highly educated.
It's welcome news -- to most of us, that is. It can't be good news to the Ravenstahls, the Sports and Exhibition Authority and the other entities hereabouts that are stuck in the old, autocratic way of doing business.
Within weeks, even days, of the Pitt report's release, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appointed his 25-year-old brother, Adam, to the board of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority -- Adam Ravenstahl's sole achievement being elected to finish the term of state Rep. Don Walko and run in November. At the same time, the powers-that-be announced their swell new plans for the site of the Mellon Arena, though they've never sought the public input legally mandated by the arena's national historic status.
What these powermongers' heavy-handed machinations reveal is a profound ignorance of -- or disregard for -- the city's relatively new professional class. What that in turn portends is a powerful, painful collision of cultures straight ahead. It will come not a moment too soon.
In fact, it's already well under way -- most visibly in the city's popular blogs and online open forums, where disgust with these ludicrous "Old Way" decisions is aired round-the-clock.
The New Way of doing things may not triumph soon enough to save and repurpose the arena -- I don't know whether the arena should even be saved -- but the New Way must win if this region is ever going to lift itself from the money-wasting, soul-crushing, progress-retarding pit that our self-serving politicians prefer.
Pittsburgh has always been one of the most Old World of the New World's capitals. For more than a century, its abundant natural resources and early industrialization dictated a highly polarized society. The underpaid masses toiled in mines, mills and factories, their dirty, dangerous labor enriching a handful of tycoons who ran the show. Politicians were little more than pocket-lining brokers between these two extremes.
While postwar prosperity created a middle class of industrial workers, the political legacy continued. There was no large, healthy middle class of small businessmen and professionals to insist on the deliberative processes of city-building and representative self-government. It was all top-down.
But over the past four decades, with the collapse of the steel industry, Pittsburgh's economy has been slowly and painfully transformed to one built on health care, research and technology, financial services and high-tech manufacturing -- fields which, as that Pitt report points out, "recruit and retain ever more educated workers."
Workers in these fields put a greater emphasis on communicating, exchanging ideas, collaborating and reaching consensus. They expect the same from their government, quasi-governmental agencies like the SEA and powerful private entities like the Penguins that so greatly impact our city's quality of life.
They're right to expect this -- it's what American democracy was always supposed to be. Not top-down, but organic, meritocratic and open to all comers.
They're not going to just roll over without protest when the same old, same old goes down -- the backroom deals and nepotistic appointments that are the enemies of transparency and accountability.
This generational shift in expectations has little to do with goodness of character. Generations of miners and mill-workers had to organize just to extract humane working conditions and a living wage. They didn't have the opportunities to participate that we have now.
And Pittsburgh's rising, educated middle class won't be immune to the old temptations of influence-peddling and insider deals and other types of corruption. Their sheer numbers simply guarantee that there will be plenty of conflicting voices to open up the process and to protest when they are unfairly shut out. Their masses can force a little accountability and due diligence.
Now we have architects and urban planners and real estate developers to ask why the Penguins and SEA are ignoring federal and state laws that govern the redevelopment of Mellon Arena, to question whether demolition costs have been wildly underestimated and street-grid restoration claims wildly inflated, to ask whether Pittsburgh's vacancy rates justify public subsidies for yet more retail and office space.
And there are literally thousands of people in Pittsburgh far more qualified than Adam Ravenstahl to sit on the Alcosan board. Some of them might actually be interested in the job -- not for what they can get out of it (i.e., connections to deep-pocket political contributors) but for what they can contribute.
Despite their youth and college degrees, the Ravenstahl brothers -- and the Onoratos and the rest of Western Pennsylvania's political families -- are steeped in the tradition of brokering deals instead of building consensus. They're about power politics, not participatory politics. They are the Old Way.
The old way brought us a few nice monuments and civic blessings, courtesy of Pittsburgh philanthropists and their political cronies. But mostly we're blowing up and tearing down the buildings that memorialized cultural hubris and political condescension. We're busy dynamiting the Old Way -- one degree at a time.
First Published June 14, 2010 12:00 am