The Plain (?) Truth | Slag Heap
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Monday, December 1, 2008

The Plain (?) Truth

Posted By on Mon, Dec 1, 2008 at 6:34 PM

We've all had that experience of hearing our voices on a tape recorder for the first time. Usually it's painful to hear yourself the way others hear you -- that strange distortion when your voice is no longer distorted, no longer resonating inside your own head.

But thanks to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Pittsburgh recently had the equally strange -- but far more pleasant -- experience of sounding better to others than we sound to ourselves. 

This story, which Cleveland's daily ran about Pittsburgh last week, is the fulfillment of every regional booster's wet dream. They must have been dancing in the aisles over at VisitPittsburgh the day this sucker dropped. Here's a sample: 

Places Rated Almanac named Pittsburgh America's most livable city. Forbes magazine included it among the world's 10 cleanest cities. Kiplinger's Personal Finance rated Pittsburgh among the 10 smartest cities to live and work in. An affiliate of the Financial Times called it one of North America's top three cities of the future.

Heady stuff indeed. Although some of the shine comes off when you read such mystifying assertions as: 

"Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue anchor a growing downtown shopping corridor."

or:

"Pittsburgh has lost population, but regional ties give it as much -- or more -- clout in Harrisburg as Philadelphia. "

Meanwhile, the story says nothing about such problems as the city's massive pension debt. (Shouldn't all our clout with Harrisburg have taken care of that?)

Such oversights have been noted -- with customary restraint -- by the Tribune-Review's Colin McNickle. But it's almost cruel to point these things out. Stories like this are endemic to journalism. The reporter gets parachuted into a new city with little time to figure out the intricacies of the local political scene. So guess who he ends up talking to? The people who get paid to talk to him.

Sure enough, the PD quotes: the mayor; the head of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership; two sources from the Allegheny Conference; a real-estate developer (who tells us how great the real estate market is) and the new head of Iron City beer (who tells us how great Iron City beer is). A rich and varied group of experts indeed. 

But the irony of all this is that in the late 1990s, the process used to work in reverse. Back then, we used to send our reporters there instead. And in the Post-Gazette especially we'd hear all about the wonderful things Cleveland had. There was ... Jacob's Field! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! A shopping district and movie theater downtown! A new arena for the Cavaliers! 

The message was clear: IF THEY CAN DO IT, WHY CAN'T WE? And the agenda was always just below the surface. The local stories emphasized the very amenities Pittsburgh's corporate elite was pushing for -- namely, destination-retail and entertainment complexes. If you had those things, well, you had it made. 

Or did you? Obviously if a new ballfield or a Downtown mall could turn around a city, Plain Dealer readers wouldn't be envying us today. The truth is that Cleveland's school district was flirting with bankruptcy, and their crime rates were considerably higher than our own. But back then, the coverage had little to say about Cleveland's problems -- about as little as the Plain Dealer had to say about our pension issues today. 

I'm no expert on Cleveland's politics, but I'm guessing the stuff the story praises us for having is the same stuff Cleveland's civic leaders are pushing for. (Check out the PD's sidebar on "The Pittsburgh Plan," and see if you don't agree) There's probably a bit of projection taking place here. Cleveland wasn't that great then, and maybe we're not that great now.

In the end, really, the biggest difference between Pittsburgh and Cleveland might be simple: It's their turn to be sold a bill of goods. But 10 years from now, we'll probably be envying them all over again. 

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