Monday, November 22, 2010

Chapter 31: In Which I Talk About Pittsburgh

I live in a hippie house in Oakland, CA. Fifteen people live here, but the nights have been surprisingly quiet and, more surprisingly, relaxed. Tonight I walked downstairs to a full salmon dinner on the kitchen table, with potatoes, carrots and dumplings. One of the non-residents who hangs around bought the meal on food stamps, then treated the house. We broke bread around the table. I was unsure of the place when I first moved in. It's crowded, of course, and there is little privacy. At times, the personality clashes are a bit much. Its not the cleanest place. But it's surely the kind of place I'd like to spend Thanksgiving. It might just be special this year.

This whole week I've been going over last-minute copy edits with my publisher. Lucky for us, the incorrect proof offered a chance to see how this newest edition would look in print. This will be the last round. We cannot polish this book anymore. I'm itching to send it out into the world.

Food Not Bombs

It has been several months since I was last in Pittsburgh. I wonder if they are still digging up Market Square.

I spent many years working with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs. Cooking out of community spaces, apartments and punk houses, we did weekly servings for the city's homeless. The Pittsburgh chapter still does, and hopefully always will. Since the 1990s, the mainstay of Food Not Bombs was the Sunday feeding at Market Square. I experienced some of my best times ever cooking on Sundays, feeding the people who showed up, tossing bread to the pigeons. Market Square was a little cluster of restaurants and bars surrounding a cross-section of cobblestone streets, with horrible parking, benches absolutely filled with homeless and assorted blue-collar people, in the gleaming shadow of PPG place. Doing FNB felt like such a direct form of resistance. The sheer fact that homeless people exist in Pittsburgh is disgraceful. Half the city is vacant buildings. By all rights, it should be a squatter's paradise.

One time, a few years ago, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership declared war on FNB. A black guy in a yellow shirt calling himself a "security ambassador" or something showed up, saying we had to leave. We kept serving, of course. He asked to speak to the leader. We explained that there was no leader. Then a white yuppie woman showed up, telling us we had to leave. She was from the PDP, and did not like our organization attracting homeless people to the area. We treated her with pretty much open disdain, alternately arguing with and ignoring her as we kept feeding people. She insisted we go. She got another black man to come tell us to leave, then finally a cop to enforce the PDP's edict. We had to go to the edge of the square. In what was one of the most disrespectful things I can recall happening to me, we were forced to serve our food by a dumpster. Somewhere out there is an amazing photo a friend of mine took, of a middle-aged white woman in sunglasses surrounded on all sides by black lackeys.

So FNB fought back. We sent emails. Fliers about how the PDP wanted to dislocate the homeless appeared around town. We put out the call to other Pittsburgh radicals and had a presence the next week. Hell, we had a party. The PDP backed down, telling the assembled media they had no problem with us serving. So we won. Temporarily.

How did the PDP gain victory? They got rid of Market Square all together.

For God knows how long, there's been a giant hole in the middle of Downtown Pittsburgh, fucking up traffic even further. The PDP has been remaking it in their image. One thing is certain: homeless people will not be allowed into the new Market Square. The idea of Pittsburgh outlawing homelessness like New York did is pretty horrific. It seems like the gentrification of Pittsburgh has finally gained some momentum. It is, after all, the most livable city. The industry left in the 70s, and, instead of withering and dying, Pittsburghers created vibrant communities. And now the rest of the country's taken notice. A city that's been in a recession for forty years can easily shrug off this latest economic downturn, so the eyes are on Pittsburgh, big-time.

That's where folks like the PDP come in. What I find interesting about the redevelopment of Pittsburgh is how intent they are on establishing an identity that's the opposite of what Pittsburgh's famous for. The definitive blue-collar town is now an "arts" city. The definitive industrial town is now a haven for software development. The definitive smoggy hellhole is now "green." All this gentrification is encouraged by Pittsburgh's child-mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who won the first time because of special elections, the second time because of weak competition. Nobody wants to be mayor of Pittsburgh. I make no bones that I don't think Ravenstahl's worth half a damn. Neither is Gaven Newson, or any of these Carcetti types. Yeah, the whole "we have the youngest mayor" thing was cute for awhile. Fact is, Pittsburgh's a real city. It needs a real mayor.

Long story short: I'm very interested in seeing what goes down with Pittsburgh. I could spend several posts ranting about Levi's Jeans' interest in Braddock, and that insulting "documentary" they made, and I probably will. Maybe the dislocation and corporatization won't be so bad. Or maybe it will be like Columbia Heights in Washington DC, the Hispanic area of town completely swallowed by chain stores, condos and botox centers.

Food Not Bombs serves in front of the Carnegie Library in Oakland now. Every Sunday. It's a beautiful thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment