October is an exciting month because you can always count on at least one city council to really get into the Halloween spirit. Sure enough, Wisconsin delivered. But there were plenty of other highlights, including a sudden competition between two cupcakeries and a mayoral field trip that I may have been invited to.
This past year, I had an AMAZING experience. I visited 12 cities and towns across North America for the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. The idea was simple: see as much of the city as I could, talk to as many people as I could, and ask them all the same two questions.
What is the best thing about this place?
What is the worst thing about this place?
Answering those questions can be surprisingly difficult, but it was important for me to hear about individuals’ values and experiences with their communities. I learned that a small city in conservative western Kansas thinks of itself as “progressive.” I learned that diversity in Toronto is much heralded, but also has a dark side. And I was present for a medical emergency in the desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The goal was to find out what cities are doing well to make their communities livable for residents. Then, to find out what people want that their cities aren’t providing now.
You can listen to all 12 episodes on the project page. And this week, I bring you the highlights in a special audio episode about the best of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing.” This “best of” is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM and right here:
If you liked what you heard, please give the podcast a five-star rating on iTunes and like our Facebook page. There are other big projects in the works, so keep checking back!
In the latest, greatest episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project, we swing through Western Pennsylvania to visit the famed steel city of Pittsburgh. There may be three rivers and hundreds of bridges, but I take you on a trip to the less obvious places in search of best and worst things: to a machine shop where Chinese students and high school girls are working together; to a Sunday morning church service; and to the “Yugoslav Room” with a local poet.
If you’ve never heard of the project before, catch the previous 11 episodes here. When you are ready to learn about the hardest part of designing a robot, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download this latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Episode 12: Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh had a reputation as a steel-producing city in Western Pennsylvania and now is known more for its robotics, technology, and medicine. It has a population of 300,000 and is defined by hills, rivers, and bridges. In our visit, we watch a high school team assemble robots with visiting Chinese students; attend a picnic in a park; and experience a Baptist church service. We also hear from a poet, a retired educator, a recently-returned young mother, and a “Girl of Steel.”
The Harrisburg city council had a smorgasbord of issues to consider on Tuesday night. And 99 percent of them came from one kindly, train-loving citizen.
“First, my request to city council: please have police officers on Second Street Wednesday night and Thursday–and especially Friday and Saturday night. Check the Sawyer’s restaurant for noise violations. This summer when they had special music concerts, they shut off the music concert by ten o’clock in the evening at the latest. Sometimes, people are not as good.”
The aged man folded his slender arms in front of him, a large black glasses case protruding from his shirt pocket. He spoke haltingly, clearing his throat directly into the microphone–which made it sound like someone was piledriving just outside the chamber.
“Also, there are some fellows who play music instruments on the sidewalk at the pizza shop next to Zembie’s on Friday and Saturday nights. And sometimes they get loud. And my request is to please have police officers there and check on them and make sure they cut off their music by ten o’clock in the evening at the latest.”
But before you label him a run-of-the-mill city hall gadfly, I’ll have you know that this man can do more than lodge noise complaints. In fact, he’s a regular Ferdinand Magellan–traveling the globe from Central Pennsylvania to as far away as Eastern and Western Pennsylvania. And he knows a thing or two about the romance of the rails:
“Okay, another issue: I asked the city of Harrisburg and the state to support adding one additional passenger train on the Amtrak line from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. The train we have now, it’s a good train. It’s a beautiful, thrilling ride, but the schedule requires at least one overnight stay in Pittsburgh and the hotels that I checked in Pittsburgh are awfully expensive.”
It was barely perceptible, but as he talked more and more about the trains, you could tell THIS was the thing that truly excited him.
“And one other thing: back in June, I went on a beautiful Amtrak train trip that was fantastic from Harrisburg to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and then going across Northern Virginia and West Virginia, and then overnight to Chicago. And the ride I liked the best was going across Virginia and West Virginia and went over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Praise god and the Amtrak people! And the other railroad people also did a great job!”
Hey, Amtrak, are you hiring spokespeople? This guy praised god AND Amtrak people in the same breath! Can you at least give him free rides for life between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh?
Speaking of spokespeople, Council President Wanda Williams had her own exciting transportation announcement:
“I’m proud to say that my husband won the ‘direct support professional’ for the state of Pennsylvania,” she grinned with pride. “He was chosen among 200 other applicants. He represented the state of Pennsylvania in Chicago.”
Then, the bombshell.
“His picture is now on the billboard going towards I-83 south.”
Other council members chuckled approvingly. “Okay!” “Yeah!” they murmured.
Final thoughts: It’s a three-way tie, folks: 10 out of 10 stars to the citizen commenter, the council president’s husband, and trains. Hooray, trains!
With eyes so steely they could’ve been smelted right here in Pittsburgh, city council president Bruce Kraus pounded his gavel from atop a kingly perch of wood, summoning the council members to feast upon the people’s business.
“Councilwoman Harris, we need you back in chambers please!” the bald-headed statesman pleaded, glancing at the long row of empty desks before him where a mere two council members sat.
The young Corey O’Connor rose first to offer a resolution declaring Friday “PACE Day,” whatever that is. Sirens blared by outside, leading the bespectacled and frat presidential-looking councilman to pause and joke, “it’s a busy day out there.” Were I present, I would have retorted, “It’s a busy day in here, too. Now get crackin’!”
The bearded Councilman Daniel Gilman next commended a group called the Snow Angels, which shovels snow for Pittsburghers. Also, he just said the inherently-funny word “Pittsburghers.” Are you thinking about a bunch of people walking around wearing giant sesame seed buns? I am. Gilman handed the commendation to one Snow Angel even more bearded than he. This hipster Paul Bunyan joked about moving from South Carolina to shovel snow, which got a big laugh. Are you taking notes, Councilman O’Connor?!
Council president Kraus opened the public comment period, giving concerned citizens three minutes to speak and vowing that “order will be maintained at all times.” There was little chance of a riot–the first testifier merely wanted to plug her new gospel song and the other speaker used the phrase “wind swirling snow crystals” while reading from his poetry.
Moving on to bills, Councilwoman Darlene Harris, having finally moseyed on in to the chambers, indicated she would be voting no on “the marijuana bill.” It’s a state and federal issue, she said and “I took an oath to uphold local, state, and federal law.” Councilman Ricky Burgess came back with “I do not in any way support the consumption of illegal drugs. The consumption of many legal drugs I do not support…I do not think people should drink alcohol.” Are these people trying to out-Puritan each other? Which council member is going to come out against pre-marital sex? Councilman O’Connor, I’m looking at you.
Councilman Burgess was wound up like a speeding freight train. Calling the effect of the drug war “worse than slavery,” he thundered that they hire white people in prisons “to make a living off of inner city black males.” He ended up voting yes on the “marijuana bill” and, like a true patriot, returned to fiddling with his cell phone.
After the drama subsided, Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith clutched her pearls and came out in favor of a year-round employment program for youths. Coincidentally, her teenage constituents came out with a consensus that “oh my god, we hate you, MOM.”
Council president Kraus closed out the meeting by requesting everyone come to tomorrow’s opioid addiction seminar for his big speech. He paused and stared at Councilwoman Harris, who was apparently causing some commotion.
“Is there something wrong, councilwoman?”
“No, Mr. President. Nothing at all,” she replied, sounding just a teensy bit sarcastic.
On a lighter note, for those of you not attending the opioid meeting, Councilman Gilman will be having a city vs. county free-shooting competition tomorrow also.
Final thoughts: coming in just shy of 90 minutes, with a relatively tame public comment period and good behavior by everyone except for troublemaker Darlene Harris, I give the Pittsburgh City Council meeting 7 out of 10 stars.