Rust Wire was able to spend a few minutes recently chatting with Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and, author of the new book “The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century.”
I liked that the book details all of what O’Neill loves about Pittsburgh, but has a very realistic assessment of the city’s problems.
For a more detailed review, read what the Pittsburgh City Paper had to say here.
Rust Wire: “What’s right and what’s wrong about Pittsburgh?”
Brian O’Neill: “I would say that’s what right about it is – as I say in the book – the legacy of all this incredible stuff that we’ve been left: the churches, the institutions, like the museums, the foundations, all this old money that’s still here, the architecture, the fact that we have three sports teams and probably wouldn’t if we were trying to get one now, the universities, all the stuff we’ve inherited, essentially.
And what’s wrong with it is, one- I don’t think we don’t place a high enough value on what we’ve inherited. And that’s recently been shown again by the idea of shutting down our branch libraries in this city. If we want these neighborhoods to come back, we can’t take out resources, we’ve got to figure out a way to keep them around.
And sometimes we don’t value the best things. I mean, everybody appreciates the Steelers, but you know we don’t so much appreciate the fact that we have this incredible architecture. I mean, in my neighborhood, in the book I mention this one bridge, this foot bridge that is incredible, but the city can’t even afford to knock it down…We don’t have the population to support all that’s worth keeping. And that’s a constant struggle.”
RW: Tell us about where you got the title for your book.
BO: “Well, I had heard it as a put down of Pittsburgh, a hipster put down, like, ‘Paris of Appalachia, like the sexiest guy on the Lawrence Welk Show’ kind of thing.
And I have heard it more than once, and I though, ‘What’s wrong with Paris? And what’s wrong with Appalachia?’ Appalachia is beautiful. In the mind, when you hear Appalachia, you think rural poverty, and our impressions are informed by a lot of black and white photos from the early 1960s and late 50s. But Appalachia is actually a lot more complex than that, a lot more nuanced than that. I think people in Pittsburgh don’t even realize we’re in Appalachia, they think these hills are on loan from Morgantown or something. But we are most definitely in Appalachia, we are the largest city in Appalachia…”
RW: It’s interesting to me because I have a friend who had always said Pittsburgh was like the Capital of Appalachia, in the sense that all the coal, all the resources extracted came here to be made into steel.
BO: “That’s true too, that might be an even better explanation that the one I just gave. When the G-20 was here…I went to a journalists roundtable and he [Howard Fineman of Newsweek] pointed out that 100 years ago, this was the Capital of Capitalism. Everything about capitalism, 19th century capitalism was in Pittsburgh, all the good things and all the bad things too. I’ve thought about that a lot since. As I mentioned in the book, Pittsburgh has had its greatest impact on the world already. It’s never going to be as important. It doesn’t have the same impact on the country or the world that it once did, but so what? You can still be great and have that in your past. That’s in Rome’s past, that’s in London’s past, that doesn’t mean it’s over. It just means you are a different kind of place that you were before. And I think this can be an even better place to live than it was [before].”
RW: In addition to all the good things you have to say about Pittsburgh, your book incorporates a lot of urban policy recommendations, such as encouraging more walkable, less car-dependent neighborhoods. Have you gotten any feedback from city or country leaders since the book has been published?
BO: “Not directly. I don’t think it has really reached them yet…it’s reaching regular people and they seem to like it, so I am pretty happy about that.”
RW: Another item you discuss at length is annexation, as well as the absurd number of municipalities we have in Allegheny County. Do you hold out any hope that the city will annex any of its suburbs, or we’ll ever see a smarter, more streamlined local government?
BO: “I do have some hope that that will happen. I think it will be slow and painful, but I think it is going to happen because it makes so much sense for it to happen…. [Pittsburgh Mayor Luke] Ravenstahl has this idea of selling the all the parking garages downtown to help shore up the pension system since neither the state nor the suburban communities have any interest in bailing out the city’s pension system. But what that would do is…those private operators are going to jack up the price at the garages and people will blame the city, but the city will say, ‘Hey, this is the structure we have. We have these legacy costs. Our largest employers that we host don’t pay taxes, don’t pay property taxes, so we’ve got to do something. Things like that really exemplify and point out the bad hand that the city has been dealt in the modern economy. And maybe it will wake people up to say, ‘Maybe this governmental structure that we have isn’t the right structure for the 21st century.’”
RW: What could other cities in this region like Buffalo, Detroit, and Cleveland learn from Pittsburgh?
BO: “We’ve been lucky because we have at least two really great universities. CMU and Pitt have really been helpful. I think what they might learn…each city is unique, but what they might learn is that the stuff that is valuable may not be what the Chamber of Commerce is always clamoring for- like interstate bypasses and all that kind of stuff.…Having not lived in all these other places, I can’t say what they are doing. But I think it’s possible as I mentioned in the book, as the price of gasoline inevitably goes higher, these walkable communities with good public transit and lots of water will look good again, or look better. Places like Phoenix are impossible if the cost of electricity and gasoline goes sky-high. More sprawling places might be in more trouble….”
Like Pittsburgh, they [Rust Belt cities] have this incredible legacy…if people would recognize that the task is to keep all that is worth keeping, and to value the things that make each place unique…those things that make Cleveland Cleveland, make Buffalo Buffalo, make Milwaukee Milwaukee. Lets not live in Generica. Let’s not go back and forth between the Olive garden and Applebee’s. Let’s live in real places and walk around in real places.”
RW: Do you have any favorite Pittsburgh blogs?
BO: “I like Chris Briem’s Null Space, …he has all these great graphs all the time. He sees my wonkish side. That’s the main one for me frankly.”