Well, not really. But I may have your attention. Here's why I think that the outrage over the potential closure of five of the 19 branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, as announced by its Board the other day as a cost-saving measure, is misplaced. (For a fantastic piece of outrage, read Brian O'Neill's column.)
First: "Revitalized" or not, the city of Pittsburgh just isn't as big and wealthy as it used to be. The citizens of the Burgh are going to have to get used to the idea that public services are going to get cut back. The money just isn't there; a city of 300,000 simply can't support the same level of services -- doesn't demand the same level of services -- that a city of 675,000 once demanded. We see proposals to cut one thing or another all the time, and the outrage is always the same - and nearly always misplaced. Cut police personnel? Never. Close fire stations? Never. Cut a library branch? No! My point goes to the general proposition that libraries never should be closed. Cutting *this* library branch or *that* fire station may be the right or the wrong thing to do, and there are bizarro politics sometimes on display in these decisions. Mayor Ravenstahl's "see no evil" ("I want to see the books") response to the branch-closing announcement is beyond silly, though it's consistent with an "I'm not in charge here" tone that pops up in his administration from time to time.
Even if you disagree with that argument, because you think that books and DVDs are just too damned important to the education of our children and the sustainability of an informed citizenry, then there is something else to consider. (I love books and DVDs, too; most of my professional life involves studying ways to ensure that society gets more of them!)
Second: Why, oh why, are decisions and reactions to this sort of thing always made in a one-off crisis mode? Pittsburgh lurches from "close the fire stations? never!" to "close the libraries? never!" to "where's the casino payment for the new arena" as if Captain Renault were supervising the premises. He was shocked, SHOCKED, to find gambling going on at Rick's -- as he pocketed his winnings. What I mean is that there is no plan here, no sense whatsoever that library-branch-closing or fire-station-closing or arena-construction-subsidized-by-gambling is part of a vision of the city's future. Instead, it's just the latest crisis to be dealt with -- at a time when absolutely no one can pretend to be ignorant of the fact that the crisis is part of a long-term restructuring of the city and region. Library-branch-closing is just a game of winners and losers, and the Carnegie Library Board appears to be doing its best with a bad hand of cards. Metaphorically, Pittsburgh is Captain Renault -- without the winnings.
This is part of what Jim Russell called my new "crystal ball" approach, which I brought back from my recent appearance in Amsterdam:
What will Pittsburgh look like in 30 years? In 50 years? I'm not looking at the "Regional Visioning" project launched earlier this year; whatever that "vision" produces, it won't be a template for "how does Pittsburgh prosper while it downsizes?" Going out and talking to "the people" won't answer the questions that the region really needs to answer, like "how many library branches does the region really need?," when that question needs to be coordinated with the answer to "what's the scale and scope of the public transportation infrastructure that the region should commit to?" and with the answer to "who's going to pay to fix our water and waste systems?" Brian O'Neill's outrage poses the problem but doesn't address it:
The library board doesn't want to get in the middle of a mayor's race, but Pittsburgh is not a green city if it's not walkable. It's not a green city if parents have to drive their kids across town to find an open library. And this vaunted city of neighborhoods can't be a desirable place to live and raise children if we allow our community centers to whither and die."That rhetoric -- while compelling and eloquent -- misses the point. Every one of the sentences in that paragraph may be true, but they don't add up to an argument against library closing. "Walking to a neighborhood branch" and "driving across town to find an open library" don't exhaust the options. They exhaust the options so long as we all think reactively, in crisis or winners-and-losers mode (sadly, all of the Mayors and mayoral candidates seem to be doing this, too). What if I could ride a convenient bus to a library, or ride a tram?
What if we sketched out a map of public transportation, parks and schools and libraries and other community "centers," public safety resources (some of which could double as community centers), and housing and shopping concentrations (let's call those "neighborhoods") and figure out how to make those different systems talk to each other in ways that reinforce communities and livability? Doing that wouldn't stop the Board from closing library branches, but it might make branch closing (fire station closing, arena subsidies, and so on) part of a game plan that persuades people that a little sacrifice today is part of a better future. Maybe we think about closing library branches here and opening library branches there. Maybe we think differently about the current round of Port Authority transportation cuts. Maybe the arena gets security for its money from the casino up front, rather trying to claim it out of the back end.
I'm not optimistic right now about the region's collective ability to do all of this. But if it is not done, eventually it will have to be done, and it will get done via the winners-and-losers mode that we're seeing at the moment rather than in any more considered way.