A recent Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership pedestrian traffic study quantifies the ugly perceptions of Market Square. When surveyers asked 202 people for their first thought upon hearing "Market Square," the No. 1 response was "homeless people" and "riffraff."
Other top answers: Dirty, drugs and "it's bad."
When I read that list of complaints, as reported by the Trib's Rochelle Hentges, my internal translation is "poor people, black people, and poor black people." The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, no longer content to deploy Safety Ambassadors for discouraging charity and hassling the homeless, is now hoping to renovate the untouchables clear from its business districts.
"We saw a lot of things that surprised us," said Strategic Metrics Group President Matt Brady. The researchers were harassed and threatened by some of the people loitering in the square, where obvious drug use was going on, Brady said.
I would like to have witnessed the demeanor of these clipboard-toting anthropologists toward the "riffraff" whose diaspora they were plotting. But I'm more concerned with the idea of "loitering" in a public square.
The P.D.P.'s "Vision and Action Plan" calls for many renovations and improvements to the square. I want to stress that many of its suggestions sound pretty neat. I'm not a naysayer and I always prefer some public concern to none at all.
But the document is loaded with pictures of how Market Square is "supposed" to look after the improvements. We find lots of people lounging about on benches and chairs, soaking in the sun, enjoying a chat. There is very little to indicate why they are not "riffraff" and why they're not "loitering." Unless you count the fact that every face in the document -- and there crowds in some -- is white. Well, on closer inspection, there appears to be one Asian young lady, but it's hard to tell.
Two points for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Number one, after the improvements you hope to achieve, what happens if the poor black riffraff simply return, hogging the life-size chess set and scaring the money away? If your problem is with poverty, I'd like to hear your ideas on ameliorating poverty, not on shooing it out from your storefront.
And number two, if I owned a business on a certain street corner, I'd love to try to get my city to spend millions on new bells and whistles, rotate art installations, organize street performers, and generally turn my front stoop into a fairy wonderland. But a more practical idea, probably, would be to provide a better product or service, market that product or service more aggressively, and redd up my own sidewalk.