Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

February 4, 2016

Mayor Peduto discusses the State of the City

Mayor Bill Peduto

Mayor Bill Peduto

“We are going to be challenged about how to handle growth,” Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto told a packed audience at his “State of the City” address Jan. 26 in the School of Social Work’s Center for Race and Social Problems. “Because not all growth is good. If we ignore the impacts to people, the impacts to place … then we’ll duplicate mistakes of the past.”

Although Peduto pledged to focus on “where the challenges are going to be over the next 10 years,” avoiding past blunders was a major theme of his address and of concerns voiced afterward by audience members.

During Pittsburgh’s first 100 years, Peduto noted, beginning with its incorporation as a city in 1816, it moved “from a frontier town to an industrial giant … It was also [experiencing] the greatest disparity in America, from the people who owned the mills to the people who worked in them, from the people who owned the mines to the people who worked in them.”

Those disparities in wages and living conditions between management and workers, coupled with industrial growth that created tremendous amounts of water pollution and air pollution, were problems that Pittsburgh’s civic leaders tried to tackle during the ensuing 60 years, as the city’s core business focus shifted away from industry.

The year 1979 was a watershed one, he noted: The Pirates won the World Series, the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl, “and we literally died” as a city — or nearly so, as large swaths of Pittsburgh’s population fled to places with better job opportunities following the decline of the steel industry.

“Thirty-five years later … where are we?” he asked. “We’re on the top of every list when it comes to the quality of life.” While a 1999 city report on East Liberty found residents’ No. 1 issue to be violent crime, today “the threat to East Liberty is affordability,” he said: keeping decades-long residents there while maintaining the neighborhood’s longtime character and building neighborhood businesses.

However, he said, despite all the growth of recent decades, the disparity in wages and living conditions “is as great today as [for] those millworkers working in those mills.”

Sixty years ago, David L. Lawrence partnered with the rich, civic-minded families running Heinz, Mellon Bank and other local corporate giants, Peduto said, undertaking the city’s renaissance. Today their equivalents can be found in those who run the foundations and other nonprofits and city institutions. Peduto said his administration has an unprecedented amount of good relations and cooperation with such organizations, as it does with the county executive and his administration, to undertake future city improvements.

However, the mayor cautioned, productive change in the city “has to start at the community level. You’ll never be able to have government come into a neighborhood and say, ‘Here’s what is good for you.’”

Mayors from David Lawrence onward instituted top-down neighborhood changes that have been the opposite of improvements, Peduto said: clearing the lower Hill for the Civic Arena; knocking down parts of East Liberty for a traffic circle; building Allegheny Center Mall in the middle of the North Side.

Peduto recalled welcoming President Barack Obama to town during a recent visit and discussing Pittsburgh housing problems. There is a waiting list of 7,000 people in Pittsburgh who qualify for Section 8 federal housing vouchers to subsidize their rent but for whom no apartments or houses are available.

At the same time, the city has 13,000 abandoned buildings. So Peduto proposed creating what he is calling Bridges Beyond Blight, which would use the same federal Section 8 money to subsidize home purchases and renovation. He said he has met twice with Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro to discuss the idea.

Audience member Brooke Molina, a psychology faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, asked how Peduto’s administration plans to create a better transportation connection between Oakland and Downtown.

Ideally, Peduto said, he would install light rail from Downtown through Uptown to Oakland, stretching also to the airport, Cranberry and Peters townships. However, the mayor said, “We’re not anywhere close to having that.”

Instead, his administration will focus on “What can be done and what can we afford?”
That, he said, is Bus Rapid Transit: essentially a dedicated bus loop, preferably using “electric or environmentally sensitive” vehicles. Such a development, for which the city is applying for $50 million in federal funding, is expected to create adjacent improvements in terms of sidewalks, landscaping and public art, and spur nearby business development as well. “Where you put those stops … will be very critical to the development that happens around it,” he said.

Asked why disparities between the well-being of blacks and whites persists in Pittsburgh, Peduto said: “We [only] address the symptoms.” He stressed that his administration had created the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment to emphasize greater diversity and inclusion and help small businesses develop. “It focuses on the neighborhoods that have been left behind or [are] underserved at this point,” he said, tackling such initiatives as finding housing for homeless veterans and summer jobs for kids.

Local housing activist Craig Stevens pushed the mayor for better development in such neighborhoods as East Liberty, which recently has seen public housing residents displaced in the name of improvement. “East Liberty has been drained of its culture and the people who lived there,” Stevens said.

Peduto said he was meeting that day with the neighborhood’s state legislator, local stakeholders and others to talk about that very subject. He said his administration had been approached by developers eyeing East Liberty for a Tiffany’s store, others proposing to destroy the neighborhood’s last 19th-century buildings and one builder asking “to tear down a church and build a Starbucks” — all unwise proposals, he said. He pledged only smart development in the future.

Still, he cautioned, “The hardest part of my job is altruism. Whether it comes from the right or the left, it makes my life difficult. It knocks me down. Nobody works through to find out what the truth is” — not just pointing out a problem, but suggesting solutions, he said.

—Marty Levine

Leave a Reply