Almost every day, it seems, there is a letter to the editor of the Post-Gazette that complains about the illegitimacy of suburban interest in the election for Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh. Today's installment, from Guy DeFazio of Greenfield, is relatively tame:
As current residents of the city of Pittsburgh, my wife and I take exception to Craig Conley's Oct. 11 letter ("City Voters, Change Your Ways on Election Day"). He claims that city residents have no common sense when it comes to our "woes" and the upcoming mayoral election. We'd like to know why this is of any concern to him, as a suburbanite. He apparently chose to leave the city to move to the suburbs. Maybe he should have stayed and fought for change.
It seems that the people who are most critical and judgmental of the city and its residents are those who no longer live here, or those who never did. Mr. Conley no longer lives here; he should not sink to insulting those of us who do.
I don't wish to insult City residents, plenty of whom are as disgusted by the antics and immaturity of the current Mayor as are my fellow suburbanites. It's the persistent us-vs.-them attitude that intrigues me.
There are some American cities that have every good reason to look down on their suburban neighbors. New York. Chicago. (OK, maybe there are two American cities that can do that.) There are other American cities that look down on their suburban neighbors because their egos would have it no other way, and they get away with it sometimes because they've got genuine urban charm that goes back centuries. Boston ("the Hub") comes to mind, and perhaps Philadelphia.
That brings me to Pittsburgh. I'm hard pressed to think of any other American city today where the city/suburb conflict is so stark, or where the persistent anxiety about the suburbs is so unjustified. Certainly, in the first half of the 20th century, the City of Pittsburgh was rich and powerful and important. In the latter half of the 20th century, increasingly the City was not, and increasingly the suburbs are wealthy, if not necessarily always important, or powerful. Historical hangovers take a long time to improve, if they ever do.
This plays out both materially (money and jobs) and conceptually (the energy and vision that drives the region). I'll leave the material details to Chris, who always does a better job with that stuff than I ever could do. But I do get the point that suburbanites who work in the City but don't pay City taxes are responsible for some portion of the City's fiscal woes. They aren't the only ones who might be paying taxes; there are plenty of big, needy fish in town who could pony up much more.
The conceptual point, however, is that the anxiety is backward-looking rather than forward-looking. (Ah, so what's new about that in Pittsburgh?) Economically and culturally the City of Pittsburgh needs its suburbs just as much as the suburbs need the City. The future of Pittsburgh is not merely a City issue; it's a regional issue. This is why suburban-ites care about the next Mayor of Pittsburgh, whether or not they are former City residents. There are pockets of economic vitality and promise in both City and suburb - and beyond. Leaders and members of political, business, educational, cultural, and community institutions live all over the place. Like a lot of people in Western PA, I'd like to find ways to engage more of them in regional solutions. I'd like to encourage in-migration of all kinds of populations, to all kinds of different communities. How do we engage them? Attract them? With the man that Chad Hermann calls The Boy Who Would Be Mayor?
Up in Boston, Tom Menino has been Mayor for a long time. He's far from perfect, but he's a great ambassador for and advocate of both city and region. Boston isn't the Hub of anything except in the minds of people who believe, and Menino has the maturity and stature and presence to get them to believe. (Pace Tug McGraw.) Unless the City of Pittsburgh lets go of its suburban anxiety, it runs the risk of becoming something else -- a hole in the Western PA doughnut.