Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Silver Fox

Bill Steigerwald zings mayoral favorite Bob O'Connor for claiming he can solve the city's financial problems even though he was complicit, as a city councilman and City Council president, in causing those problems. Bill also reminds us that O'Connor signed on to all the city's hare-brained redevelopment schemes, and he insists the city can get its house in order without any pain:

Manager O'Connor won't make quarter-billion-dollar blunders like Mayor Murphy. But he still thinks the subsidized sports stadiums and the convention center expansion were good deals for Pittsburgh, and he's against privatizing the city's paramedics, garbage pickup or 32 swimming pools.

It's silly to expect out-of-the-box thinking from an unreformed, economically challenged big-city Democrat.

Indeed. O'Connor has said that he can find private money to re-open all the city's swimming pools, without even bothering to consider whether the city and its incredibly shrinking population need all those pools. O'Connor also has said he would have signed the same lavish contract for the city firefighters that Murphy did in 2001 in order to eke out his narrow victory against O'Connor.

Steigerwald turns to urban thinker Joel Kotkin for some advice on managing the city. I've disagreed with Kotkin previously but he offers some excellent ideas here:

"You've got to scale down your government to the size of your city," he said. "Start acting like what you are, which is a small place. Then take the advantage of being small. Be streamlined. Figure out what the strengths are of being small."

As for realistic role models, Kotkin pointed to Des Moines and Indianapolis. It sounds funny, he said, but O'Connor could emulate cities like Burbank, Calif., that "are very business- and customer-friendly and are run very much like businesses. Become a progressive city in the turn-of-the-century sense of progressive -- clean, well-run."

Meanwhile, he said, speaking to the city's befuddled professional ruling-and-boosting elites, "Pittsburgh should be aggressively Pittsburgh. What you're selling is an older city with soul and great neighborhoods and a lot to do in a small place that is affordable. There aren't a lot of those places left."

Pittsburgh has many great assets, Kotkin said. "Build on your strengths. Stop trying to be hip and cool. Stop trying to prove that you're a big high-tech center. Why don't you just try to be a nice place where middle-class people who own businesses and pay taxes might actually choose to live?

"It's sort of basic, isn't it?"

I don't know enough about the examples Kotkin cites to say whether they are truly cities Pittsburgh should emulate. But his broader point is correct--we need to work on making Pittsburgh a nice place to live, and stop trying to be so many things we are not.


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