Friday, November 16, 2007

Pittsburgh: many returns

It’s a very pretty city. The quintessential American city. As you exit the tunnel, the Monongahela River appears before you, you are ringed by lush hills and the angled skyline glistens in front of you. Downtown Pittsburgh is alive, the streets filled with buses and people jay-walking. CVS and Rite Aid stores coexist at every other corner, alongside bulletins promoting upcoming performances by Kenny G.

I was quite excited to begin a new project in Pittsburgh. It would be a good excuse to see my relatives in suburban Murrysville and give my skin a bit of wintertime exposure that I miss in San Francisco.

Exploring. My colleagues and I had good meetings with transit staff and hit the road to explore our new project area. We toured the city’s incredible busways and whisper-quiet light rail lines. Our guides took us to the tops of hills and the bottoms of valleys all on the buses of the Port Authority. We saw streetcar neighborhoods with an exciting blend of cafes and gift shops. And cupcake spots.

Next time I'm in Pittsburgh, I want to go back here, in Squirrel Hill.

We spent a few days seeing what Allegheny County offers. But each day I saw communities that were less and less impressive: crumbling mill towns with boarded up shops, decaying homes, empty lots and dreary shopping centers puffing their last breaths. I suppose I shouldn’t say they weren’t impressive, because they were impressive in the sense that they were depressive. I saw beautiful row houses that would be valued at three-quarters of a million dollars in even the lowliest of San Francisco neighborhoods, selling for $5,000 each. And because nobody will buy them, they languish until the owners eventually give up, pick up some plywood scrap from the nearby lots to hammer to the window frames and door frames, officially relinquishing them to the welcoming arms of decay.

My impressions of Pittsburgh dulled as I saw more and more of the landscape. From the mill towns along the river to the down-and-out Hill District, attractive neighborhoods abut horrible neighborhoods that are being bulldozed by the day. Some of Pittsburgh looks just as bad as New Orleans, if not worse. And it’s sad because it has so much potential to be so nice. We got off one bus that simply loops around a hilltop neighborhood of housing projects and I heard a young woman say to her companion, “What are those white people doing getting off that bus. I ain’t never seen no white people on that bus.”

Pittsburgh could use more people. And more money. So here’s my offer. Can I get 20 of my closest friends to buy a $5,000 vacation home in Pittsburgh? How ‘bout a nice little row house in McKeesport? For the price of a house in San Francisco I could easily buy 150 of them. But I wouldn’t want to live there alone. Anyone want to join me?

I like Pittsburgh. And I’ll take any suggestions on what I can do to improve it.

I’ll be back often over the coming months. Maybe I’ll even go back this month. Perhaps even next week. Why not?

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