Wednesday, June 30, 2004

We had to destroy the village in order to save it

It seems that we don't have a monopoly on half-baked redevelopment schemes here in western Pennsylvania. Officials in Ardmore, a Philadelphia suburb, want to create a transit-oriented development district. In so much as they want to encourage high-density, pedestrian-friendly development, this is a great idea. But it's not the ends but the means that befoul this project. Officials are proposing using eminent domain to acquire and demolish several buildings in the town's business district. Sound familiar, Pittsburghers?

There is one legitimate reason for governments to invoke eminent domain to acquire private property: the construction of public works or public buildings like highways and schools. But using the power of government to acquire property from one private party merely to transfer or sell it to another private party--in this case, to build an "urban shopping village"--is an abuse of government power and reeks of fascism. (It is, unfortunately, sanctioned by state redevelopment law.) You'll recall that in Pittsburgh, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has threatened to use eminent domain Downtown, and is currently in a legal battle with the owner of the adult Garden Theater on the North Side, who has refused to sell to the URA and thus is holding up the Federal North redevelopment project. The URA has spent a half-million dollars in legal fees; meanwhile, the URA-controlled Federal Street and North Avenue remain blighted.

The bottom line is this: Government-driven redevelopments projects rarely if ever succeed. Pittsburghers need look no further than the Hill District, Allegheny Center and East Liberty. And Pittsburgh is not alone. Many American cities have neighborhoods that were destroyed by urban renewal projects during the middle and latter parts of the last century. The projects accelerated urban decline; they did not arrest it. The fact that urban renewal is migrating to the suburbs is ironic yet still tragic.

Dream the impossible dream

Check out a new blog by local political gadfly Mark Rauterkus, who ran a quixotic campaign in 2001 for the Republican nomination for Pittsburgh mayor. He lost the right to be the GOP's quadrennial sacrificial lamb to Carlow College Professor James Carmine. Rauterkus was as unsuccessful in attracting the attention of the media as he was in attracting the support of the city's five Republican voters. Reporters would pray that they would
be away from their desks when Rauterkus called, begging for coverage, and they would delete his emails as quickly as if they were Nigerian spam scams.

The bottom line is that the media just sees little reason to pay attention to Republican candidates for office in Pittsburgh, given the Democrats' seven-decade stranglehold on city politics. Rauterkus has gotten more ink as a crusader for the city's shuttered pools and recreation centers than he ever got running for mayor.

I was working for the Trib when Rauterkus ran for mayor, and I encountered him once or twice while I covered the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I, too, was dismissive of his mayoral campaign, and found the guy a bit goofy, but the media's treatment of his campaign--and Carmine's for that matter--is instructive. The media, rather than challenging the status quo, often reinforce it by giving voice only to those who have power.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Give me that old time religion

Bad news for John Kerry: According to Slate, Kerry's inability to discuss religion on the campaign trail isn't only going to hurt him with Republican voters, but with members of his own donkey party as well. A majority of the party, like a majority of Americans, are religious, and one of the party's core constiuencies, African-Americans, is very religious.

John Kerry, of course, has a problem in part because conservative Catholics, including some bishops, have attacked his defense of abortion rights. But you'll recall that Howard Dean had a problem with God-talk as well. All anyone knew of his religion was that he left the Episcopalian faith because of a spat with his church over a bicycle path. He made a too little, too late effort to cozy up to the faithful by making a well-publicized visit to Jimmy Carter's church with the former president, a southern evangelical Christian.

The problem for Democrats, as Steven Waldman points out in Slate, is that the party's liberal activists are secular, even anti-religious, just as the GOP's most conservative activists are fundamentalists. But as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter proved, Democrats can talk religion and still win the presidency. In fact, they may have to.

A rare infusion of courage

Despite union scare tactics, Pittsburgh City Council approves the Act 47 recovery plan. The plan has its flaws--namely, its recommended budget cuts do not go far enough--but it's at least a partial acknowledgement that Pittsburgh has a bloated government.

Guess who's back

For the two people outside my family who read my old blog, The Conversation, I'm back. Stay tuned for more worthless drivel from the maelstrom of my consciousness.