‘Everybody rowing together’

Andy Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad Ali watches me interview Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto

When I decided to write about Pittsburgh’s reinvention stories, I knew I’d want to try to talk to Bill Peduto, the city’s 60th mayor. Peduto took office at a time when the city was just beginning to hit its stride as a tech hub with potential. He is an unapologetic booster for the city and the region. [This is a nice profile of Peduto by Chris Togneri of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, written just before Peduto was elected mayor in 2013. He had all but sewn up the mayoralty by winning the Democratic primary a few months earlier.]

I spoke with Peduto a few days before President Obama held the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh. The mayor joked it was one of the few times the he had had all day to sit down.

I wanted to know what he saw as the biggest catalyst for Pittsburgh’s rebirth, and what he thought of the near-constant coverage by national press about how Pittsburgh is the Next Big Thing. I also asked him whether he was concerned about the large role ride-hailing company Uber will play in the local economy for the foreseeable future. (Spoiler: He’s not.)

(Note: I edited this interview for length, but Peduto was so candid that I tried to keep his stream of consciousness intact as much as possible.)

To you, what has been the biggest catalyst of Pittsburgh’s change? Is there one thing, or is it a series of things?

Peduto: I think it’s a series of things. I think it’s really a chronological pattern of change. It started right at the beginning of the collapse in ‘79. That was the year Carnegie Mellon launched the world’s first robotics program. It was in the 1980s intelligence that during was the 1980s

It was the understanding of artificial intelligence during the 1980s that turned Carnegie Mellon into a global campus.

At that same time, in the late 80s early 90s UMPC was basically creating the model for NIH funding, to become the largest employer in the state of Pennsylvania. And in the 1980s doubling down by the foundation community, who were investing in the arts and the quality of life, and watching the continuation of David Lawrence’s renaissance through Dick Caligiuri.

All those things were happening during an economic collapse. That doesn’t happen. It was like somebody was planting seeds.

The 1990s became more about individuals and small organizations. You think about everyone celebrating their 20th anniversaries: Attack Theater, PUMP, Quatum Theater. Almost every youth organization in the city. You had an investment in people that occurred in the 1990s. And you had people like Tracy Jackson and Khari Mosley and Pat Clark and Justin Strong, Kathy Lewis and so many more who decided to stay instead of leave and started to create their own things.

That wasn’t necessarily a time when staying in Pittsburgh was a given, or especially easy for a younger person…

Peduto: It was very difficult but there were these pioneers. And it went through art groups and tech groups and all these small organizations that sort of took off at the same time. And so many other groups that all of a sudden, organically, decided “we’re going to take this town.”

And I think that what you’ve seen most recently in the past 15 years has been the culmination of all these things happening, from the large institutions to the foundations to the individuals and the small organizations to the corporate community and labor that were at the forefront in the 1970s and are still there today.

It was everybody rowing together. Even though there wasn’t one person calling out the orders in the back of the boat, it was an understanding that this community was too valuable to walk away from.

Do you think that a larger city would have had that cohesive, unspoken effort do things together?

Peduto: I think that in any other situation where a city has basically gotten to the point of collapse, whether it’s by man-made disaster, natural disaster or economic disaster, there is usually a master plan everyone is told to follow. I think Pittsburgh’s success story was there was much more of a grassroots effort. People joined together in a non-uniform way.

With all the changes you’ve seen happen, is there anything you look at and say “I wish we had done this,” or that in hindsight you think should have been done differently?

[Peduto thinks about this question for several minutes]

Peduto: I think if we had focused more during the past 15 years on developing neighborhood plans we’d see growth happening and revitalization throughout more of the city. There are neighborhoods that have been left behind simply because there was never a community driven effort to prioritize what they wanted to see done. Unfortunately some neighborhoods have opposition from different sides that fought to be in control instead of what was best for the community.

Economic development dollars needed to revitalize neighborhoods are like rivers and when they hit a rock, they go around, in those cases go to other neighborhoods.

It was everybody rowing together. Even though there wasn’t one person calling out the orders in the back of the boat, it was an understanding that this community was too valuable to walk away from.

The other fear now without these plans in place is that developers move in with their own plans that aren’t necessarily community driven. You end up having to play more defense than offense to bring a community back.

We’re trying make up for it now, making sure ever neighborhood has a round table, no one owns the table but everyone has a seat. The second part is developing out the community plan for the neighborhood.

I was going to ask about East Liberty… there’s been a great deal of progress in that neighborhood, but there’s a large faction of people who feel like they’ve been pushed aside or left behind or not included in the progress. You end up stepping into a situation like Penn Plaza, you end up stepping in to mediate a situation, whereas if you’d had a plan…

Peduto: East Liberty did have a great plan in the late 1990s, but it took two years of a community process to get there. The concerns back then were, number one: public safety. East Liberty was a very dangerous neighborhood. And number two was all the businesses had left or were leaving. It was hollowed out. So the community came up with a plan that would create opportunities for mixed housing and business and make the neighborhood safer.

Now we have whole new series of threats. Number one is keeping affordable housing, number two is keeping a mix of local and national retail and a vibrant commercial district for everyone. These are very real threats although very different than the initial plan from the community.

Do you think the idea that there are two Pittsburghs — the haves and have nots — is fair?

Peduto: That’s been true of Pittsburgh and pretty much ever American city since the Industrial Revolution. Our goal is to be able to lessen the impact of that disparity, and our weapon is public funds, government funds. and whether or not we put them towards a deepening of the gap or opportunities for all. So we moved from a city that basically faced decline for 50 years to a city that growing. Help government steer public dollars in a direction that’s more inclusive.

I moved into the East End in ‘83. East Liberty was 50/50, black and white, mixed income. We saw a lot people moving into public housing in East Liberty during that time, and so the demographics changed drastically. That’s when we saw the highest crime numbers and businesses leaving. So when people talk about East Liberty, it didn’t go from 1950 to 2016…

It wasn’t a straight line…

Peduto: Right, it was wasn’t like all the businesses moved out and gentrification moved in, which we’ve seen in other parts of the country. East Liberty had bottomed out by the late 1990s and it was the people who lived there who were calling for change.

Our goal would be to seek growth and reinvestment happen in every neighborhood, but to balance it without having anyone who loses. So there wouldn’t necessarily be a need for anyone to have to leave, so they would be able to see the best days of their community after going through some of the worst.

Public Source did a really great piece on diversity and they went into neighborhoods and talked to people, asked them how they feel about how diverse their neighborhoods are. I was struck by one of the quotes:

“ More so than in most cities, it’s easy to be isolated in Pittsburgh. The city’s character comes from its neighborhoods, but many people probably only visit a handful of them on a regular basis.”

The implication being that if you’re not diverse, you’re missing out on experiences. That was something I noticed when I first moved to Pittsburgh, that everything was very neighborhood-based. Everyone wanted to know where you went to high school, which to me was sort of an odd thing to ask.

[Katie O’Malley, Peduto’s assistant communications manager, who’s been sitting in on our interview, laughs at this point.]

O’Malley: It’s so normal to me but you’re right…

Peduto: … I heard it happen twice today

O’Malley: And people instantly categorize you based on the response.

So how do you encourage people to explore other neighborhoods, when you have people who don’t want to cross the river to go anywhere?

Peduto: You have to be able to provide somebody something they want to travel to see.

It’s all about the places. The first places are the places we live, where we watch TV and go to sleep. The second place is work, where you spend your days. Third is your gym, your church, your bar, your bowling alley. And identifying the third place to the person means bringing that interest to that third place.

So when Justin Strong opened the Shadow Lounge he did more than open a club. He opened the opportunity for so many people my age, black and white, to hang out together. There weren’t other places where you could do that. There hadn’t been other places since the 70s jazz clubs in Shadyside and Downtown. After they closed, everyone went back to their own neighborhoods. Justin opened in East Liberty during difficult days. That bridge on Highland Avenue became a bridge between neighborhoods, and ages.

You started to see this organic blending of neighborhoods and people coming together.

It’s interesting that you pointed to Shadow Lounge, because that’s a place that I think after it closed, a lot of people had like a mourning reaction that nothing was going to replace it. That it was sort of a once in a lifetime place, never to be duplicated.

Peduto: I think Quiet Storm was, too. Those were locations that were special beyond the idea of having a business.

I remember hanging out at the Artery in the late 80s, and a band named Rusted Root playing there all the time. This was before anyone was investing on Ellsworth Avenue.

But that’s part of a city. A city is constantly changing. Neighborhoods going through down cycles will see up cycles. We saw it in Pittsburgh in the late 80s when people started to invest again into Shadyside. In the 90s they started moving into Friendship. Then you saw a group move out of the East End and called themselves the “Boys of Lawrenceville.” It was a gay group started to move into Lawrenceville and said “we’re here, we’re queer and thing are going to start to get pretty.”

We saw artists, that’s what cities do: the artists, the gay community, crafts people and pioneer types will move into a neighborhood that hasn’t seen development for years. SoHo. Adams Morgan. East Liberty. Then they start to see changes occur, and they leave and find a new neighborhood.

Well you’re not going to get out of an interview with me without talking about Uber [I covered Uber and Lyft since they moved into Pittsburgh not long after Peduto became mayor]. We’re kind of all in with Uber. They’re developing the driverless car here, they have a lot of investment in the city. Do you worry at all that maybe we’re giving them too much of a blank check? We’re inviting a large company to kind of settle in here for we don’t know how long — not just because it’s Uber but any large company coming in and setting down stakes — Do we know their long term plan once they develop the driverless car, for instance?

Peduto: In the past year and a half, Uber has employed over 600 people. They are working with the Veterans Leadership Program to hire vets as drivers every week. And this is beyond the just the Uber drivers you use through their app. This is through the headquarters in Lawrenceville. They’re building out a campus within the city to employ over 1,000 people and invest upwards of a billion dollars.

The last time we had any company come into the city to do that was probably before I was born. And instead of every other development, where the developer demands tax breaks grand money and public subsidies, Uber has asked for nothing. All they want is a partner with local government to see innovation occur in a city. People who would say we gave too much up to Uber would trade the birth of a new industry to another city. It wouldn’t stop it. It would just ensure that Pittsburgh would not be the home of autonomous vehicles. Even though since 1979, we’ve been working to create it.

So according to the national press, Pittsburgh’s a thing now. Do you read some of the coverage read some of these articles and think ‘where have you people been?’

Peduto: No, I don’t. I think back to coming downtown in the 1970s with my friends, taking the bus, going to Ralph’s Discount. I think about going to Market Square with my grandfather to get a fish sandwich at the Oyster House. I think about being in my teens and going to the [Electric] Banana and seeing some of the best and worst punk music I’d ever seen.

I’d think about all those things that were so incredible and important to me when people said this city was dead, and I don’t want to lose that, because we have built upon that base. I want to enhance it. When I read the articles I don’t think about all the great things they’re saying about this next phase of Pittsburgh, I just think about how we can keep all the things that have been a part of it and take them along for the ride.

Who else has an interesting story of Pittsburgh renewal and reinvention? Ideas are most welcome: editor@pittsburghphoenix.com