Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dowd vs. Schenley: For All The Marbles

This is the last. Worthless Schenley post. That you'll have to read.

From our first significant post urging the cash-strapped School District to make significant investments to restore that irreplaceable civic treasure, to our penultimate Schenley post wherein we came face-to-face with all the public skepticism for that noble cause, we did our level best to help keep the old school open.

The Post-Gazette was against us, most other city bloggers were against us, and in the end, 5 out of nine School Board members were against us. The massive building was shuttered. The Spartans and their allies who "got it" howled in frustration, while most of Pittsburgh shrugged -- maybe shedding a crocodile tear or two.

Yet there it stands. It has not been sold, nor has it has met with the wrecking ball. Like the New Granada Theater on the Hill, it lies in dormant potentiality -- a superior feature of an ancient and far more advanced civilization, waiting for us to learn again what we have evidently forgotten about the power of architecture, of place, and of classical liberal education.


Since the shuttering of S.H.S. and the closure or reformation of other public schools is at once Patrick Dowd's most important achievement and the source of his most intransigent public opposition, he needed to address it near the outset of his campaign. He did so. For those of you who missed it and who actually care, here's the least we can do:

This is the danger of Patrick Dowd. He has the desire -- and oddly for Pittsburgh, the capacity -- to bring change. Most of us today greatly desire change in the abstract, but when the rubber hits the road we can discover a surprisingly strong attachment to certain aspects of the status quo.

The comforting thing is, Dowd is politically wedded three times over to principles of proper processes and transparency -- so at least we'll have a fighting chance in a dogfight. The discomforting thing is, he has the political skill to get his way even in a fair contest.

However, and much more importantly, in the case of Schenley High School Dowd demonstrated that he can get it wrong. He came too late, if ever, to the realization that something special was up with that school. The School District administration was too belligerent in its approach and too stingy with the data for too long. The rationale shifted too many times under pressure. Clearly Dowd believes that between the District's finances, its overcapacity, and the building's real issues with asbestos that the mission was worthwhile, was necessary -- and clearly enough of Pittsburgh was satisfied by these arguments. But most of us out here know better.

That is why he still owes Schenley something. Whether he will get around to addressing it as a Mayor or as a Council member, the building sits there still -- the story is not complete. It will remain incomplete until Dowd or someone else articulates a vision for that plot of land.

"We ain't selling Schenley", Dowd assured me once. I remember it clearly, because Patrick Dowd used the word "ain't", and that was ludicrous and clearly intended to leave an impression. What he would have us do with Schenley is as yet up in the air, but it gives us hope.


This all illustrates a larger problem Dowd must attend to, and quickly: the vision thing. Remember, Dowd came out of the gate insisting that a Mayor must have the vision to lead, and that he alone in this contest posesses that vision.

His campaign thus far has been about eliminating waste, utilizing competitive and politically neutral processes, following correct procedure and measuring performance. In actuality, running Pittsburgh city government rightways and by the book really is a revolutionary and laudable vision. Yet to the greater voting public, it will not suffice.

Of all the trite cliches Team Ravenstahl has lobbed in Patrick Dowd's direction, "He has no vision of his own" is the one that will resonate. When people think "vision", they don't want improved processes -- they don't even want healthier finances, although they would benefit greatly from both. They want to know, "What will you deliver? How will things change? What does your vision look like, feel like, what will it do for me?" And they will be right to hold out for examples of that brick-and-mortar vision.

I don't suspect Dowd can deliver these answers with respect to Schenley over the next seven weeks. He is running for City office, and although a Mayor would be able to surreptitiously influence the Schenley question, that issue is likely too complex and too divorced from City politics to be soluble during the sprint to the finish. Though Dowd owes Schenley a resolution, he will have to return to it.

Something, somewhere, somehow will need to replace Schenley High School as the archetype of Dowd's concrete vision. Something to show he cares about people. Something to show he cares about spaces. Something to show he cares about more than budgets and procedures, but the city part of a city. Something to show he can solve actual living civic problems.


  1. I think that Dowd using ain't was actually a behind the scenes slapp in the face to all of us picksburghers.

    I guess the good doctor is too good or too smart to use our native slang n at.

  2. Well, regardless of how he talks, we picksburghers could get used to seeing a little "smart" out of our Mayor instead of the current state of affairs... which is basically going through the motions... attending alot of sporting events and being re-actionary, as opposed to leading with foresight. Does Pittsburgh deserve a "smart" mayor... yes i think we do.

  3. Closing Schenley is Patrick Dowd's achilles heel.

    This story will not go away and rest -- as there still is no viable solution to our satisfaction.

    The Spartans are not forgotten.

  4. Check out the survey PPS has put out to create a "community dialogue" regarding developing a facilities plan.

    Its practically a push poll. After filling it out I ended up convinced they already had a plan but they wanted to be able to claim community process.

  5. I went to the meeting where the consultants delivered the first session that deployed that poll. Almost all of the questions are loaded ones with so much FUD. Too hard to set up your decoder rings on a blog comment. Stay tuned.


  6. I admit I was one PPS parent who did not "get it" when it came to Schenley. Attending the last musical staged in the building was as close as I came to feeling the significance of the intangible SCHENLEY. Attending a basketball game in the Schenstein building this year told me all I needed to know about the significance of the loss. I bet if the clock could be turned back the vote would come out differently considering all we have learned. Money be damned.

  7. Jennifer, why would you NOT think that they already have a plan? Isn't Mark Roosevelt the ultimate all knowing pompous A__? The School Board barely tolerates public testimony on a regular basis - it is not televised, AND the board members have apparently agreed to never ask questions, so as not to lengthen the time they have to sit there to listen to citizens. When they voted to close Schenley they made a huge mistake, and many parents basically said that was the last straw, and clearly went elsewhere. It wasn't even worth it to stay and get the "Pittsburgh Promise," after the promise of the education they wanted was stolen from them.

  8. I was sort of a Schenley parent, in having two step daughters go to Schenley before it closed. They spoke of a largely segregated environment, although things were at least calm there. It seems a shame that it closed, but I suspect it was the price (along with the school board voting not to *ever* tax UPMC) for the Pittsburgh Promise. The Mayor also tried to help UPMC out by agreeing never to tax them, but as I remember the City Council shot him down.

    Speaking of which, the larger part of Bram’s post was about whether Patrick Dowd would be preferable to Luke Ravenstahl as Mayor. Bringing Schenley back is not on the table currently. Installing Mark Rauterkus as Mayor is not on the table. The question, as I understand it, is whether we think Pat Dowd’s apparent lack of a specific vision is fatal to his candidacy. If you think that the loss of Schenley and Dowd’s role in it, which as I say we can do nothing about right now, is more important than the Mayor’s pay to play politics, then I encourage you to vote for Mayor Ravenstahl on May 19th, or whenever the primary is. And never complain again.

  9. Well, we can do something about it. It = Schenley. That's the vision we seek.

    Schenley is idle. Is it for sale? Is it to re-open? Can the gym and pool be used now rather than being locked 24-7? That moderate use can bring value to the rest of the building -- and vision quest as well.

    Dowd's role in closing Schenley has lots to do with vision (and lack of vision) AMD pay-to-play politics too. As you posted above the looming question of UPMC. Valid worries for ALL (Ravenstahl and Dowd). Neither are immune.

    None, not even me, can be installed as mayor as per the May 09 PRIMARY.

  10. Excellent post, Bram. I wish it weren't such a good argument, but it is. I personally think that Pittsburgh at this moment needs a manager more than anything -- someone to keep the wheels of government moving, without undue obstruction but without favoritism -- but that doesn't sell politically.

  11. That's exactly the way it works Jen. The fix is already in by the time the pro forma public input process occurs. A complete sham.