Sunday, February 9, 2014


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Wordpress, baby. Thanks to Blogger for all the memories.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

WIZARDS & DRONES: Politico does Pittsburgh

Jamel Toppin, Syfy

Epic, two-part magazine treatment!

First, the phoenix tale:

Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city’s rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, advanced manufacturing and software industries. (Politico, Glenn Thrush)

That's accurate.

But perhaps the most critical factor was recognizing that, beneath the collapse, stagnation and misery, the city’s core assets remained largely intact, in the form of human capital housed in the city’s cultural institutions, foundations, an overlooked industrial research sector and above all its great universities—Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, Duquesne—built and endowed by the 19th century robber barons who gave the city its first golden age. (ibid)

Okay, they're talking a certain group of humans. Nice things.

Pittsburgh is all about the creative destructive of capitalism, and… (ibid)

And we're reading…

Two MIT researchers, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, theorize that rapid technological advances have created a “great decoupling” of productivity and employment, which partially explains the malaise. (ibid)

Thank you...

Mill owners and labor leaders appeared to be dancing long after the music had stopped—pushing for guaranteed-wage pacts that would buy them a few more years of solvency instead of girding for the industry’s eventual decline by focusing on new technologies and retraining their workers. (ibid)

Well, 20/20 hindsight, maybe...

Yet even at rock bottom, the city’s white-marble academic backbone held. (ibid)

Oh, come on.

Yet none of these factors would have added up to a civic resurgence without the collaboration of a surprisingly small circle of interconnected actors—a couple of hundred people at most—who have worked on the city’s rebirth with plodding determination, as if Pittsburgh itself were one of Red Whittaker’s space robots. (ibid)

You don't say? That's actually not all that surprising.

Ultimately, the city’s greatest asset might be its memory—the pain and humiliation of the collapse still acts as a goad, and encourages people in positions of authority to bend the rules when they get in the way of good idea. (ibid)

We, uh… we were with them for a second, there! If memory serves.

Finally, the whole song: There and Back Again, is bracketed within a companion piece:

It was the Democratic primary that really mattered, and here... Peduto surged ahead to a double-digit victory. (Politico, Jim O'Toole)

Within that piece that we encounter a sliver of exposition about how the major universities, nonprofits, foundations and cultural institutions which together reinvent and define this town, for better and worse, are in a degree of natural tension with City taxpayers, stakeholders, voters and neighborhoods. That really is the next song, how that tension resolves.

BONUS: Credit upgrade: Pgh Biz Times

Monday, February 3, 2014

Land Banking and Community Investment: And So We Return...


Gather up. Councilman Daniel Lavelle earns another gold star, this one with platinum tail, for hitting pitch-perfect posture towards the land bank bill.

There are two issues which bear reflection: an analogy and a suggestion.

Towards the analogy: Any City once twice as populous still halfway abandoned, with broad and uneven clusters of vacant, tax-delinquent and sometimes crumbling parcels contributing towards decay and chaos, can stand to benefit the judiciously expeditious exercise of land banking powers.

Right now, only the most economically secure of property speculators can afford to pursue and redevelop broad and key tracts, as their own opportunities and designs arise. Once upon a time, the public might have been thrilled to get directly involved in planning and organizing its community through its government -- or as directly as possible, as through a public agency like the URA or a City land bank devoted wholly to this business.

Yet there is apprehension. Public-spirited liberals have been burned before. 20th century urban renewal was catalogued. The Internet began making that knowledge far more common. And Occupy joined existing movements in radicalizing that waning faith in public institutions. Government decisions have not always been judicious or mindful.

In the end, this is a bit like a health-related epidemic in terms of neighborhood disinvestment. We fear to summon the Paramedics, because we are afraid that the Paramedics, instead of assessing, stabilizing, informing and serving us, will jab us with their needles, dose us on painkillers, secure us in the van and harvest our organs. Nevertheless, we really are wise to have empowered a Bureau of Paramedics to exist -- and to have put procedures, training and accountability in place so that health care is offered to residents soundly and as advertised, and we can transport resources and people to where they need to be.

Where some Greater neighborhoods have, for a very long time, been ailing on the couch.

Towards the suggestion: Call it the Joe Biden plan. You remember, the former Senator's original suggestion to partition Iraq, which had its logic at the time it was stated, and if it had caught more fire, who knows what might have been?

Only instead of managing total warfare, here we would be shepherding productive peace. If one at-large City-wide land bank is felt by very many to be insufficiently overbearing to address community concerns, consider perhaps breaking it up into 3 to 5 smaller land bank jurisdictions. Recognizing that Pittsburgh is a City of neighborhoods, different strategies determined along different accountability chains may make common sense.

These sectional land banks could share certain resources as they deem fit. If nothing else, the Biden plan makes for a constructive thought-exercise.

Meetings looks to continue through February or all six weeks of duly amended and supplemented winter. It's a big'un, s'get it right.

(@DSKinsel's thread)

It'd Be a Shame if City doesn't get Lourdes


*-UPDATE: Council confirms Sanchez-Ridge 8-0-1, and the Trib apparently owns the image to the right by Stephanie Strasburg.

On the latest Castle Greyskull brouhaha…

Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess is asking Mayor Bill Peduto to withdraw his nomination for solicitor, raising questions about whether the nominee, Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge, satisfies the city's requirement that employees live within its limits. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

If Council wants to go through the process of getting outside legal counsel, it should always be welcome. Pittsburgh City Council is often surprised by what its consultants and experts have to tell it.

The administration appears to feel it is on solid footing regarding residency, and that they will remain on such footing. She is the Mayor's nominee before Council and acting Solicitor designee, and she is Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge.

The Comet is a big fan of the Patrick Dowd method of solving problems. That is, an entity with standing to complain about something does so in the proper arena to figure it out.

Now, let me address my bias…

On the transition teams, I actually got to work with Lourdes. We bonded (I felt). I feel this way because we did not just grin and backslap, "Hooray, Peduto!" but we actually fought for a while. Dramatically, thrillingly. For at least :30 minutes in a 2 hour meeting, and by "we" I mean we including all you-know-who-you-weres on the subcommittee. Summarily on at least one and a half topics or occasions she and we duked it out cordially before we all heard and understood each other and saw agreement.

And then we forged more productive agreements. Afterwords we were satisfied with the net outcome, mutually enthusiastic and puckishly merry. And so that was substantive bonding, at least on my end. The Comet can harbor no qualms about professionalism, conviction and insight, or an ability to flex in a manner appropriate to a public Solicitor.

Back to the analysis...

The Murmursphere is already offering elaborate though reasonable suggestions on how we ought to determine the real truth of legal residency. Ordinarily fact-gathering would fall under the realm of Office of Municipal Investigations or OMI. It seems reasonable to assert that at the appropriate point in time (and there is a sidebar disagreement about when meaningful enforcement upon brand new employees actually goes into effect) that OMI might need to secure outside investigatory services in what ought to be a routine fashion in all credible instances of perceived conflict with OMI itself.

Underlying some of the reaction to issues of residency (beneath the practicalities of policing it) is a sentiment concerning whether or not City employees at all times and from the root and stem ought to have been longtime, dedicated City of Pittsburghererers, and the nearer suburbs be buggered. This longtime section of the City Code was elevated further by voters to the Charter in a recent ballot measure, powered largely on the subject of police officers.

Regardless of the law's wisdom or genesis, it must be enforced in due process. To argue merely that municipal labor arbitration panels might not look kindly upon it, is to ignore that we already accuse those panels of tremendous bias against the City.

It would be process-oriented of City Council to judge the ability, quality and capacity of the nominee, with expressed reservations and advisories pertaining to Compliance. Eventually all attorneys must duel in terms of "burdens of proof". The political arena has with grave regularity been a poor place to prosecute such questions.

As clear, law-based and consistent administrative policies are enforced, again, Council should if it feels compelled seek outside opinion and at last flex its attorney muscle. And justice under law shall reign.

Support These Workers! Detention Facility Nursing Sounds Hard!

Nursing is always a challenging profession, and I can only imagine in this case...

“I was very transparent for change. That came to the fore for them because they didn't know for certain that I was the chief organizer,” said Finch, who said she is a sick-call assessment nurse in the jail and a Catholic nun. (Trib, John D. Oravecz)

Allegheny County Jail itself shows cautionary flags.

There is a presumption among many in our region that organized workforce bargaining is a good idea.

Within those labor circles, our own United Steelworkers are always alright. A broad union; their diversity is their strength.

Let us wish these care workers within our jail a positive, empowered future starting on Feb. 14th. Send them a Valentine, why not?

Roses are red, and tulips are ivory. 
Nurses care knowingly, they should help run the infirmary! 

PG-13 alternate: "Nurses know where to stick it…"

MORE:  From the American Nurses Association


Friday, January 31, 2014

AWC needs Change & Funding. (in That Order)


Some commenters lately have expressed that they value reading my perspective on civic events, even if they do not always fully agree. I am going to take that at face value by airing reflections on a series of topics about which I would not ordinarily feel confident of having proper standing. Doing so will drain my reserves of good will amongst Pittsburgh's brilliant and richly interconnected social activist community, but amassing and guarding such social capital is not the point of the Comet. That project is to foster clear discussion about public matters which are otherwise determined by closed-door intrigue and cynical posturing.

In regards to the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, let me stipulate some opinions in bullet form so they are not overlooked:

  • Pittsburgh absolutely requires just such a Center.
  • The mission of the AWC is fine as it stands, and broad enough to attract a wide audience if interpreted broadly.
  • Since we just custom-built a facility to house it, appropriately in the premier theater district Downtown, it ought to remain there.
  • All cultural arts organizations, especially new ones, require ongoing capital from those few in the community (governments, corporations, foundations and individuals) actually possessing of capital, as well as an inclination to provide amenities which markets cannot alone.
  • The fact that errors were made in the past does not make it justifiable to now throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, the present board of the AWC has run out of community confidence.

Strike that, and let us rephrase it: all the communities which must play a role in financially supporting the Center, have come to possess 100%, rock-solid confidence that the present board of the AWC will fritter away any further funding without transmuting it into cultural offerings.

It's not the presence of the Center which frustrates funders -- it's an empty, derelict, joyless Center.

This is not to deny there are a few entities which would rather loot the assets of the Center than save it. After all, who doesn't like to loot things? But those entities would not stand a chance if the board possessed the confidence it once enjoyed.

I have no presumptions about the nature of said "frittering". Given the challenges we know exist in starting up any nonprofit arts institution, I certainly do not suspect it's a matter of anything coarsely unethical. And I doubt it has to do with any lack of personal competencies.
Rather, I suspect it has to do with uniformity and entreanchment of the board in terms of background, perspective and approach. Also a certain pride and defensiveness or "siege mentality". It appears as though that establishment political faction which did valuable work in launching the Center, continues to dominate the 501(c)3's governance and vision. That is neither proper nor healthy -- for the Center, for its mission, or for those represented by that faction moving forward.

Recent reporting about the course of the ailing Center has yet to view it through the prism of its two permanent Executive Directors and one Interim Director. From what I begin to gather, the Center did a lot better during its Directorless interlude than at any other period. There must be lessons to be drawn from that; let's call it a "request" for further reporting.

It seems like Pittsburgh is nibbling politely around the edges of stating clearly, "The board needs to go."  But the message is not being acknowledged. Meanwhile with liquidation and cessation looking like a real probability, the public is finally getting exercised about saving the Center, and is very alarmed and hurt over why it appears as though Pittsburgh does not value its AWC4AAC.

So let the Comet make it plain: the AWC board, that is a majority thereof, in the only possible remaining act which can demonstrate an enlightened fealty to its charitable public mission, needs to step back and assist in the replacing of itself.

If that important prerequisite is not undertaken, any grassroots pleadings or demands for financial support for the AWC, no matter how righteous, plain and defensible in the general sense, are going to be riotously rejected by funders and decision-makers. And then those pleadings are going to be disparaged in the crudest, ugliest, most unfair possible terms by the worst possible people.

Pittsburgh deserves an accountable, commonly held, and desperately engaging August Wilson Center. Not any other sort of August Wilson Center. Although it would be a very bad outcome, I personally would rather see it sold off to the Cultural Trust, UPMC or North Korea than continue to function as a sad, cynical and misdirected moral and political write-off. An insurance policy.

Those philanthropic dollars can now be put to better use enriching residents on matters of culture and history elsewhere. Only the AWC board itself can eliminate the need to find elsewheres.

Come to think of it, it is conceivable that the present board would rather see it foreclosed upon than loosen its grip. Community outrage can be extremely useful under the right circumstances. But I hope we're not living in that sort of drama; none of us in Pittsburgh are bright enough to make that kind of thing work.