I think you can tell a lot about a town from its train station. As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Detroit replaced its spectacular and huge train station with a temporary building before abandoning downtown. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has held on to its equally striking and somewhat smaller terminal downtown. The actual train station lobby is about the same size as Detroit’s, and probably used to be the employee lunchroom or a baggage storage area back in the day. Nevertheless, Amtrak remains downtown, and the 12-story office building has been renovated into swanky apartments (for better or worse). Pittsburgh has adjusted to the reality that the rail era is over and made the most of an oversized facility.
The demise of Detroit’s Michigan Central was perhaps pushed along by the city’s identity as the hub of America’s new mode of personal transport. I can imagine that the brash new industrial titans that (now begging for a bailout) were once eager to see the demise of their competitors. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is a steel town, and would have no such bias against the old iron horse. Geography also plays a role; while Pittsburgh is on the main line from Chicago to Washington DC, Detroit is in an odd geographical cul-de-sac, tucked between eastern Michigan and a great lake, and actually north of Canada’s southernmost appendage.
I only spent about 18 hours in Pittsburgh (and the Steelers won!), but got a little taste for the town, and have to say that I’m looking forward to visiting again. The geography of the city is utterly fascinating. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a hilly city. Sorry Seattle and San Francisco, but this place has hills everywhere and nearly the whole place is on a significant slope. Pittsburgh claims to have the nation’s steepest public road, Canton Avenuse’s 37% grade. It looks like a heckuva place to be a bicyclist.
There are webs of green space throughout the city (some of which have great mountain biking, according to the bike map on display at the food co-op). Much of the land is too steep to develop and I forgot to mention it yesterday but the arrival in town is quite startling: One minute we seemed to be driving through a canyon on the outskirts of an urban area, and another we were crossing a bridge into downtown. There are bridges everywhere, crossing the rivers and also the countless gullies, valleys, nooks and crannies. The whole place feels like a huge collection of small towns that have been mashed together around a dense central hub and two river valleys that are the industrial zone. Many parts of town have the feel of being tucked into a small remote valley.
The article I cited yesterday talked about how Pittsburgh has remade itself in contrast to Detroit, but there are also similarities. The city is full of really old houses and apartments, and has a generally creaky infrastructure. There are also long stretches of old storefronts that seem to be mostly vacant or covered by heavy steel doors at night. Abandoned factories and warehouses are scattered about.
Progress is patchy. The food co-op and the theater where I spoke last night are in a redeveloped old warehouse that also houses a kid’s gym and climbing wall, as well as several other organizations. It is a great, vibrant space; but the view from the co-ops seating area is across the street to an old self-storage building, complete with broken windows and graffiti.
And while this city may be doing better than others, it sell has a long ways to go. In particular, there are a lot of food access problems. Fortunately, the food co-op has a strong ally in the city’s redevelopment authority, and it seems that there is a good prospect for public support of neighborhood-based cooperative grocery stores. I hear that there is potential for state support, as well.
There are also a number of projects already underway. In addition to the co-op and its affiliated credit union, there is a bike repair shop called Free Ride and worker-owned Jane Street Housekeeping. There are also at least two groups that are trying to start eco-villages in some of the more neglected parts of town. Garden Dreams is doing urban farming as part of an urban farming initiative called Grow Pittsburgh. Landslide Farms is also flying the urban ag flag. Hopefully the NY Times’ next article will cover these projects too.
Continuing my interstate blur, I got on a 5:45am train to Washington DC, where I was promptly introduced to a Thai organizer named Kovit Boonjear, who happened to be in the neighborhood with some time to spare. He does some really intense and inspiring work. He organizes people who live in linear squatter encampments on railroad property (80 m wide and kilometers long) to cooperatively seek the rights to live there so they can bring in infrastructure and also create common funds for insurance/loans and for organizing expenses, all for less money than they save by not buying secondhand electricity from profiteers who previously ran illegal power lines into their communities. He is working with 21 such communities, and six have already put in utilities with three more following soon. In his spare time, he works with people who live near a landfill to create rice banks and cooperative pig farms. Kovit is in the US for a year learning about NGOs and how to make his own work more effective.
We talked about the role of religion, and it turns out that Buddhist values do play a major role in his work. He is not particularly religious, but says that other organizers are. He also talked about how monks don’t really get involved, and that there are some rather distorted versions of Buddhism which attach magical powers to some monks. There is a practice resembling Christian tithing (or Jewish tzadekah or Muslim zakat) which builds up ones merit and improves the chances for a good reincarnation. He told me that this money generally goes to monks and temples, where it tends to stay. However, some organizers are encouraging people to divert some of that giving into collectively-controlled “mountains of merit” that can benefit the community as a whole.
His translator also told me about a community called Santi Asok, which he described as the clearest expression of Buddhist intentional community. I was also tipped off to a Buddhist social critic named Sulak Sivaraksa and reminded of the work of E.F. Schumacher. I will have to look into all this more when I run out of things to do, but for now I’ll just be grateful for this unexpected opening to study another religion’s cooperative aspects.
After that very inspiring and fascinating cup of tea, I had Salvadorean fried yucca for dinner and gave a talk that was attended by a few of my long-time co-op cronies. The weather is cold and clear. It has been a pretty good day.