Feb 19, 2008

Hey, Osama! Hands off Amtrak!

Faster than a speeding bullet train (you know,in Japan) Amtrak, the nation's leading passenger rail line (okay, it's the nation's only passenger rail line) issued notification that they are clamping down on possible terrorist attacks on their trains. Armed guards with bomb-sniffing dogs will patrol platforms and trains in Washington, DC's Union Station, performing random searches on passengers and their baggage.

Remember, it was little more than six years ago (that's only 72 months!) that terrorists used jumbo jets to bring down the World trade Center.

Amtrak officials said the rapid response was necessary to ensure they're dozens of passengers that their security and safety were of utmost importance.

Of growth and gangs in PGH

Ø In today's Post-Gazette biz section, David Murdoch writes about a possible joint venture between PGH and the cities of Cologne and Wuppertal in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany. A lot of cautionary hypotheticals and "what-ifs" are offered up in the article. The impression I was left with was what a slow process it will be for PGH to pull itself up to becoming a city with the reputation of, say, Austin or Seattle.
Innovative business, creative culture, hard work, excellent marketing and personal relationships are indispensable elements in Pittsburgh's quest for post-Renaissance development and growth. The dual economic objectives of direct foreign investment and greater exports require the additional involvement of Pittsburgh's cultural and educational community. Neither of these elements is sufficient of themselves; they also require long-term fortitude, major investments of time and energy, and frequent follow-up.
While Murdoch mentioned the role of cultural life in PGH, he stressed the business development angle as key. What struck me is that it's hard to know if the momentum of economic deterioration here is even being slowed, let alone reversed. The next few years are crucial in this regard.

Ø I'm curious to see the effects of the new Children's Hospital once it is open. Will the surrounding area see real estate values rise as professionals seek nearby housing? Will new retail businesses open nearby to cater to them? What about businesses like movie theaters, restaurants and newer life-style type shops-- things that provide "livability" to those with ample disposable income? Will local businesses be pushed out in favor of those who can pay higher rents? How would all of this affect long time residents if it came to pass?

Ø A sobering counterpoint to all of this is evident in another article in today's P-G about gang violence throughout the city. While it points out that it is small compared to major cities like NYC or LA,
Pittsburgh Police have been dealing with gangs for decades, with gang activity peaking in the '90s, and Sgt. Mona Wallace, head of the Pittsburgh Police Intelligence and Crime Analysis Unit, predicts a lengthy struggle.

"They're not going to go away anytime soon," she said. "It's something we're going to have to deal with far into the future."

Feb 18, 2008

The Sushi-Trader Joe's continuum

One thing that has kept me sane during my transition back to PGH from LA has been regular visits to Trader Joe's in East Liberty. In light of the teeth gnashing on a few of the local blogs about "superior sushi" in PGH being a "semi-serious" indicator of quality of life attractive enough for the talented who may deign to relocate to this bright little city, it occurred to me that TJ's may hold the same panache as raw fish.

Of course, in Cali you can buy wine, beer and booze just about anywhere-- Rite Aid, 7/11 and TJ's of course. It might be worth considering that the alcohol restrictions here in Pennsyltucky are a bigger shiny red flag to the talent crew that some are hoping, pleading, begging please! to lift this city unto Yuppie Wet Dreamland than a plate of fab fluke.

And I guess I could pile on the failure to implement a smoking ban in restaurants and bars. Trust me, it matters a lot.

Btw, I saw one of my favorite affordable Chardonnays (Meridian) at my local Wine & Spirits Shoppeeess. At the TJ's near me in LA (in trendy Silver Lake, no less,) the price is $5.99. The price at the W & S Shhopppeee? $10.99.

Feb 17, 2008

I have questions about...

... death.

Why did the Post-Gazette start calling it's web version "Post-Gazette Now" and then give such prominence to the obituaries?

I even saw a banner ad for a subscription service (free trial!) that would track the obits that are "important to you!" It was called something like, ObitTracker or Obit-a-palooza.

Is death big news here?

Sunday cavil

Ø I'm not sure why the Post-Gazette gives high profile, front page prominence in Forum to today's opinion piece by Tasso Katselas about US Airways abandonment of PGH International Airport and then, on their web site, pushes it way down the page. (Can you find it?)

Anyway, it's an infuriating article that tells how the city designed the airport, specifically addressing US Airways concerns, and also how congressional leaders from the area worked to secure a billion-dollar federal bailout for the airline in the wake of the post-9/11 nosedive in air travel.

And then US Airways moved it's hub out of PGH, opting for Philadelphia and Charlotte, even though both are fraught with problems when it comes to air travel, none of which exist at the new airport. Kinda makes you wonder, or at least consider passing over US Airways when booking your next flight, not that there's much to choose from as far as PGH is concerned.

Ø There is some grumbling on the local blogs about PGH's future, in terms of potential for growth and its ability to attract commerce. Some are worrying about or pondering how PGH can be more like Austin, NYC, LA, SF, Boston or Paris (!) when it comes to tech industry, sushi and Downtown's street level retail. (Okay, on the last one I'm referring to my reaction to the Paris to Pittsburgh initiative. Anyone else want to weigh in?)

And then there's the camp I'm in, along with PittGirl, who loves PGH for what it is/isn't.

In the words of Stuart Smiley, "Sometimes it's easier to wear slippers, rather than carpet the entire world."

Feb 10, 2008

PGH: Culturally sophisticated or provincial backwater? (Both.)

Ø This tacit question was posed by Patricia Lowry in her op-ed article in today's Post-Gazette, entitled "Lost Art." She writes about the dilemma surrounding public art that was commissioned for the PGH International Airport in the early 1990s. Most of it has been eliminated or compromised in some way. One piece left untouched, "Silver Grid Wall" by Peter Calaboyias, was on the verge of being replaced with advertising, the powers that be deeming that move necessary to offset the huge drop in revenue (and 50% drop in air traffic since 1992) due primarily to US Airways major withdrawal from the airport in the past few years-- a virtual economic Katrina for the PGH area.

Oh, and none of the artists are in or from PGH.

Whether or not any conclusions can be drawn about PGH's level of sophistication as is indicated by the situation at the airport, the question of sophistication vs. provincialism could be extrapolated to the city and surrounding area. As a native recently returned to the area, I have been wrestling with the notion of what PGH has become during my 30-year absence. The progress it has made and the evolution that has occurred, coupled with setbacks and deterioration, is by turns enthralling and dispiriting, accompanied by lump-in-the-throat pride and how-could-they-let-this-happen bewilderment.

I see it everywhere.

Ø The Good, the Bad and the Casino - Two incomplete lists:

First, the Bad: The dreaded casino that will soon sully the North Shore; the new transit tunnel under the river, in practice really only to serve the casino and the two sports facilities that really could have been one facility doing double duty like Three Rivers easily did; the transit bus route cutbacks; the raping of Uptown and the Hill for yet another superfluous sports facility; the recent, laughable "Paris to Pittsburgh" cha-cha that sounds like a subplot in a Christopher Guest movie; the limping "Cultural District" that is akin to running a gauntlet between parking garages and the handful of theaters it comprises and then driving back to the 'burbs; the Parkway; downtown's parking rates that drain what little appeal the area has left in it.

The Good: Carnegie Museum (although overpriced when compared to other cities and the corresponding depth of their collection;) the Strip District; Squirrel Hill and its amazing ability to not allow Murray and Forward Avenues to become the charmless bore that Walnut St. in Shadyside has become; Bloomfield for its unshakable ability to remain a small town with a big heart; the State Stores in Monroeville and Fox Chapel and their extensive selection of wines that can calm the increasingly vocal criticism of the rightfully pilloried PLCB for even existing; Kennywood (jury convening to ascertain nuevo owners actions after the next season;) the rivers for their potential to enliven the area, this time from the points of view of recreation and natural beauty instead of their advantages of transport in service to industries of past eras; the potential of downtown to rise again and thrive (probably a generation away;) the music clubs of the Southside (special kudos to Club Cafe.)

As I've written before, PGH doesn't need to become like another city. All of the needed components are here. What has to take place must be in the form of leadership, vision, commitment and self-confidence as a city. These are the elements that shaped the area in the past, enabling it to grow into the mighty metropolis it once was. It can happen again.

Feb 6, 2008

On returning to PGH

Ø Re. today's editorial in the Post-Gazette entitled "State of Antiquity:" I was born and raised in PGH but have lived for the past 25+ years in NYC and Los Angeles. Having spent the last two and a half months here due to a family matter, I have had some time to observe what has and hasn't changed in my beloved hometown.

Yes, the PLCB is an embarrassing relic from the past, similar to state laws institutionalizing racism in the Deep South, although obviously not as onerous. In discussions with aquaintances here, I have heard evidence that some people have been flouting the legal stranglehold the LCB has on wine distribution. It involves having friends in states with a more enlightened attitude about, well, just about everything else. A bottle or two or more is carefully wrapped and shipped via any one of several shippers, from the USPS to Fed Ex,UPS, etc. I say, drink up, the spirit of the Whiskey Rebellion lives on.

Ø Another curious thing I've observed is the so called "rebirth" of Lawrenceville. Being used to sticker shock prices for real estate in NYC and LA, the allure of buying an early 20th century townhouse for $20K to $90K is tempting. The drawback is the vast amount of work it would take to renovate and restore a lot of them. A good deal, if not most of them, have been butchered over the years. Hideous wall-to-wall carpeting (Is there any other kind? No.); botched rewiring and plumbing; original windows ripped out and made smaller so prefab versions can be thrust in with mismatched brick calling attention to the savaging; exterior eyesores added over the years, ranging from metal awnings to aluminum siding to plastic and fake-looking stone face, sometimes all at the same time-- the list goes on.

The owners making these changes meant no harm. In their eyes, they were performing routine upgrades and maintainence to affordable housing for underpaid laborers working in the long-gone mills and factories. Preservation was less on their minds than survival. This was and still is a poor-to-middle-class community that exudes a unique charm with its unpretentious and unselfconscious ways. It doesn't need hipsters moving in and "rediscovering" the area, although there is the appearance of that happening with the meager scattering of boutiques and art galleries that fleck Butler St.

Hopefully Lville will not morph into another frat boy bar crawl strip like East Carson Street, but given the number of bars that have been there for ages, it wouldn't come as a surprise. What Lawrenceville needs is to remain as it is. PGH is not saturated with sophistication like NYC or DC or even Philadelphia. (And yes, I know I left Los Angeles off of that list, because even though I learned the truth in the cliche, "LA is not what it seems," if there is one thing it is not, it's sophisticated. I don't mean that in the pejorative; it's just the truth. But I digress.) The lack of pretentiousness and the rough urbanity that PGH possesses is what gives it its great charms. It's a vibrant, unique and glowing culture if you know where to look for it.

Ø This article in the Post-Gazette, about trying to "instill a bit of Paris?" Look, I know Wonder Boy's heart is in the right place but come on. PGH is not going to draw people looking for The Paris of Southwestern PA. It doesn't need to try to be something it's not. For starters, downtown needs better mass transit and cheap or free parking, because without either, it doesn't matter if you turn it into Sodom on the Mon, nobody will show up. (Except maybe me.)

Feb 4, 2008

Dot 1992-2008

Dot passed away peacefully this evening in Los Angeles. Steve was with her at the time. We are very sad. She was a good girl.

All this loss...

Kelly in London

My friend Kelly is spending a semester in London and she just started blogging about it. Her first post is about the weekend she spent in Barcelona. Check it out here.