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165341)  Cigarette Smoking Man (The X-Files)

Strangely calm — maybe it was the Canadian accent — and occasionally vulnerable (seemingly) in later seasons, there was something compelling about this guy. We seem him as the top villain for Mulder, but then we see that he is just a part of the much bigger conspiracy. He’s the guy they go to for clean-up and it has cost him a normal human existence. His centric episodes are never dull. (Always wondered why he didn’t just take out Mulder, though.) He smokes not like a villain trying to intimidate someone, but like a man with all the time in the world, who isn’t even thinking about any of it.

2) Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Iconic, duh. Think of him in the first movie when he’s the terrifying cyborg, but is beneath Grand Moff Tarkin. And he has that strange commitment to this mysterious religion. We learn more about him. He blows up a whole planet. He can choke people with his hand. He is willing to get into a TIE Fighter and fight — albeit, not very well. And though people usually mock Mark Hamill’s acting when he discovers the terrifying truth about his parentage, well, think how you would feel. Look at Luke Skywalker’s reaction and realize, it’s serious, horrifying stuff to be the son of this man.

3) The Joker (The Dark Knight)

The late Heath Ledger really did deserve those accolades, regardless of their inevitability after his tragic death. Ledger plays the Joker in a transformative, uncomfortable, annoying (those fucking sounds he makes, aaaugh!) disturbing way. It’s such good acting that it’s fun to watch. He’s the best part of the movie, and is on my short list of highly praised things that are not remotely overrated. The greater meaning of the anarchic character isn’t important. Just fucking watch him act.

4) Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones TV show)

Not the sadistic King Joffrey? Not the real power, Tywin Lannister? Nope. Give me Cersei, because we see her struggling to be a villain. She’s a woman, she’s maybe not as smart as she thinks she is, but she’s wily enough to fight hard for what she thinks is hers. She’s funny as hell. And she loves her scary-ass son, because he is just about all she has, but she knows he’s sick. She knows how women gain power, but she still yearns to be playing at the big kids table. You see her when her villainous swagger is on, and you see her being completely dismissed by her father and intellectually trailing behind her brother. She’s fascinating. And she has the world’s most flawless bitch face.

5) O’Brien (1984) and The Operative (Serenity)

Like all good top villains in a dystopia, O’Brien knows all the counter-arguments with which our hero has struggled. He knows them all and can beat them with authority, charm, conviction, and the terrifying certainty of his position. He inflicts the pain, and he is someone to whom Winston Smith can finally speak freely. He knows what he does and he does it because power exists to keep itself alive. No grand motives. Just keeping the system going.

The Operative sees even more clearly than O’Brien does that he does terrible things. But he thinks he is doing them to build something better. Yet, he also thinks there is no place in that world for people like him with so much innocent blood on their hands. He’s the mechanism for improvement at a terrible price, but he has no illusions about being warmly invited into into the new society. Strange character. Very human for a villain, but very frightening.

6) Angelus (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

God damn was he a better monster than a hero. Bland, self-hating (understandable, but still), earnest, when he had a soul, he was playfully sadistic without one. He tortured a woman into insanity, he toyed with a lovesick Giles (best character) after killing his ladyfriend. The contrast between that guy and the guy trying to do right makes even the dull fellow more interesting, just because we know what nastiness is inside of him.

What are some of your favorites, dear readers?

soviet exhibit interior

The Soviet National Exhibition took over the L.A. Convention Center in November of 1977 to try to impress Americans with their shiny spacecraft and crappy consumer goods.

 

Looking for Anya X

 

Anya was not a happy communist travel agent.

It was Nov. 17, 1977. We were eating an inexpensive lunch together in the crowded cafeteria at the Los Angeles Convention Center in downtown LA.

I was a 30-year-old divorced bartender and freelance journalist living in Hollywood. She was married and living in New York, where she was a guide for Intourist.

Anya Ryukhin was one of 200 lucky bureaucrats, public relations specialists and KGB agents who had been sent to sunny southern California to staff the Soviet National Exhibition, a massive Cold War propaganda show that took over the convention center from Nov. 12 to Nov. 29.

Only 28, Anya was already a privileged citizen of the Soviet Union. Smart, personable, youthful as a schoolgirl, she was blessed with an easy smile and thick dark hair that piled up on her shoulders. Born in Moscow, a straight-A graduate of Moscow State University, she spoke English better than I did.

Since 1973 she had been working for Intourist and living in Manhattan with her husband, who worked for the Soviet mission to the United Nations. I had become friendly with Anya on the first day of the exhibition by taking photographs of her and her more businesslike sidekick, Tanya, as they worked in their information booth.

During our lunch Anya and I exchanged life stories and avoided East-West politics. She was in good spirits until she began telling me how little fun and excitement she was having in the entertainment capital of the “Free World.” After two weeks, she had seen virtually nothing of Los Angeles’ nightlife, tourist attractions or famous beaches.

Picking at the remains of her fruit salad, saying she felt “empty inside,” she looked like she was going to cry. She wanted to go out to a jazz club. Most of all she wanted to see the Pacific Ocean — and swim in it. They were two things I did all the time, I told her.

And she wanted to go out by herself or with Tanya, not on a tour bus with a dozen comrades and security chaperones, which was how she had seen Disneyland and the starry mansions of Beverly Hills.

But she knew an unsupervised night on the town was impossible. She and her colleagues were forbidden to leave their motel at night unless they went with a boss. Her boss was a real nice guy. He knew how miserable she was and he sympathized. But he didn’t have any free time in Los Angeles either.

Anya was disappointed, frustrated, emotionally worn out. She was being treated like a child — or a prisoner. All she wanted were some good memories to take home with her. All she had were memories of work and a Holiday Inn hotel room.

When I said I wanted to help her in anyway I could, Anya surprised me. She said she might be able to sneak out of her hotel late at night. It sounded like a great idea to a fun-loving libertarian like me. I encouraged her to try it.

And I told her that if she could escape from her unhappy outpost of the Soviet Union, I’d pick her up in my tiny $1,000 red 1960 MGA sports car and take her wherever she wanted to go.

Anya Ryukhin working at the  Intourist booth at the Soviet exhibit in L.A. in 1977.

 

Part of the reason Anya was so unhappy during our lunch was her punishing work schedule.

For the previous five days, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., she had stood behind an Intourist information booth at the Soviet exhibition, smiling sweetly, handing out pamphlets, answering questions and explaining what ordinary life was really like in the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev.

The exhibition was the first of its kind in the U.S. since 1959. It was a major news event in a town known for movies and rock ‘n’ roll. Heavily protected by police and primitive metal detectors, it was besieged each day by hundreds of anti-Communist protestors and activists from across the political spectrum.

soviet exhib -- exterior

Outside the convention center it was a circus of demonstrators, activists and cops.

Demonstrators waved Armenian and Ukrainian flags, held up “Free the Baltic States” signs and shouted epithets like “Bolshevik Murderers.” Socialists, Jews and “Save the Whales” environmentalists pushed newspapers, pamphlets and fliers into the unwilling hands of disinterested Americans.

The exhibition was free to the public. It was designed to impress Americans with the glorious scientific, industrial and cultural achievements of 60 years of Communist Party rule, but it often     looked like an unintentional self-parody of the Soviet Union.

It was a crazy jumble, half government science fair, half flea market. Shiny Soyuz spacecraft, Kosmos satellites and arts and crafts from Russia’s 15 captive republics shared the floor with silk-screened banners celebrating the fall of the tsar and scale-models of shopping malls, hydroelectric dams and BN-600 fast neutron reactors. There were few consumer items — television sets half the size of American refrigerators and piles of poorly printed travel brochures for places like Armenia and Ukraine.

Though crudely ideological and a fat target for derision, the Soviet exhibition was grossly over-praised by the Los Angeles Times as “splashy” and “seductive.”

Apparently the newspaper didn’t notice the dearth of consumer goods, the fixation on industrial production statistics or the huge silk-screened banners carrying Orwellian slogans like “Guaranteed Employment for Everyone,” “Space Serves Peace and Progress” and “The Welfare of the People is the Goal of Socialism.”

The exhibition’s main brochure itemized how many lives, towns, villages, mines and large factories the heroic Soviet Union had lost in World War II. An Intourist handout aimed at potential foreign travelers to the U.S.S.R. included useless statistics about electric power capacities, rolled ferrous metal output and 10-year plan goals.

The best example of how helpless the Soviet Public Relations Ministry was in trying to appeal to Americans was a cheap 32-page booklet containing a speech that Leonid Brezhnev had recently given at a Communist Party gala marking the 60th anniversary of the “Great October Socialist Revolution.”

Unrolling a string of wrong predictions, Brezhnev droned on and on about the  political accomplishments of the party, the superior socioeconomic achievements of socialism and the already clearly evident death spiral of capitalism.

The Soviets made another PR mistake when they scattered guest books around the exhibition space for visitors to write in their comments. Many entries were naive love notes to the Soviets for their dogged pursuit of mutual East-West understanding.

Other Americans could see through the Soviet smokescreen. “Very interesting, but stupid,” one wrote. Several quipped, “This is almost as impressive as the Berlin Wall.” Another asked, “No toaster, no microwave?” Another wondered where the SAMs and AK-47s were. One wise guy said, “Your planes kill more people than any other airline in the world — so do your disastrous space missions. P.S.: Lenin needs a hair transplant.”

While I was copying down these all-American comments, a deadly serious Soviet staffer asked me what I was doing and expressed concern that I was taking down names for “the police inspector.” “No,” I told her. “I’m writing a newspaper article, and I thought some of the entries were really funny.”

I showed the woman the “Berlin Wall” quip, but she didn’t laugh. “I don’t like that humor,” she said. “It is not friendly.”

She disappeared but returned with the deputy manager of the exhibition, who somehow managed to be even more humorless. As I explained myself and asked him a few innocent questions, the woman picked up the guest book and took it away.

For those seeking sanctuary from the onslaught of Soviet-style boosterism, there was a small, somber but powerful counter-exhibition on the convention center’s second floor.

It had been mounted — despite formal complaints lodged by Soviet officials — by Soviet Jews to protest the denial of their human, religious and political rights in the Soviet Union. Called “Soviet Jewry: Six Decades of Oppression,” it focused on the plight of thousands of “refuseniks,” the Soviet Jews who were denied the right to immigrate to Israel and elsewhere.

Little more than panels papered with black-and-white photographs and letters from refuseniks, it told the stories of the Soviet Jews who filed for exit visas and subsequently lost their jobs, had their apartments taken away and were sometimes dispatched to the gulag. It drew 62,000 visitors, 30 at a time.

For the next few days, while I hoped Anya would find the courage to risk a night of illicit freedom in Los Angeles, I played journalist/spy.

I went across the street from the convention center to the Holiday Inn, where two Soviet security men in bad suits sat in the lobby pretending to read newspapers.

The hotel manager said the FBI ordered him not to tell anyone how many of the “Russians” were staying there (nearly all 200 were) or what floor they were on (the seventh).

He said the guests were quiet, polite, patient and well-behaved. They didn’t loiter in the lounge and definitely weren’t allowed to go out at night.

A maid on the seventh floor said the Russians were neither especially clean nor dirty, and — despite the stereotypes — they didn’t do any heavy drinking or partying in their rooms.

If this were a Russian fairy tale, my story would end with Anya sneaking out of her motel room, us dancing till dawn in the surf at Zuma Beach and then falling in love and living happily ever after under assumed names in Malibu.

If this were a bad American TV docudrama, it would end with me helping Anya defect, getting in a shoot-out with KGB assassins on the Santa Monica Pier and creating an international incident that discredited the Soviet propaganda show and hastened the collapse of the evil Soviet Empire.

But this is a true story.

The Soviets National Exhibition — an unflattering but accurate microcosm of the U.S.S.R. and its sociopolitical and economic failures — was deemed a success. It drew 310,000 people in 18 days and closed without any acts of violence or a single defection.

I went on to become a modestly successful newspaperman at the Los Angeles Times and two Pittsburgh newspapers. As for Anya, she never did have to risk sneaking out of her motel.

Her boss finally responded to her lamentations about being tired and unhappy in Los Angeles. He let her go back to New York early. And before she left, he took Anya to the Universal Studios movie lot and to the beach at Santa Monica, where she got her wish and swam in the Pacific.

I said goodbye to Anya Ryukhin on Nov. 21, 1977, on my final trip to the convention center. She wrote her name and New York business address on my notepad and later I mailed her some of the best photos I had taken of her. She never wrote back.

Six years ago I tried to find her. I Googled Anya’s last name, visited web sites in Moscow and sent e-mails asking for help from people at Moscow State University, The Moscow Times and Sistema, the private company that now owns Intourist. No one responded.

At the Moscow bureau of the Los Angeles Times, reporter Sergei Loiko did some checking around for me, but it only deepened the mystery. According to Intourist’s personnel records, Loiko said, no person named Anya Ryukhin ever worked at Intourist in the 1970s or later.

 

anya hair down

So did Anya befriend me, tell me details of her personal life, expose her fragile emotional state to me and consider sneaking out of her hotel to meet me for a midnight joyride — and then give me a phony last name? Maybe, but not likely.

Today Anya would be 64 years old. I don’t know if she lives in Russia or even if she’s still alive. I don’t know if Ryukhin is her last name. Was it her maiden name? Her alias? Was she KGB, as her husband probably was?

Anya has become my personal “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” For obvious personal and journalistic reasons, I want to find out what became of her. Maybe someone in Moscow who reads this will tell me. But for now, Anya’s trail is as cold as the global propaganda war that brought us together for lunch in Los Angeles.

Bill Peduto, a grown-up,  will be Pittsburgh’s next mayor and he clearly has a better brain than his predecessors, which, unfortunately,  isn’t much of a compliment.

But instead of seeing if he can break the modern mayoral record for getting laid in office, Peduto is doing some thinking/hinting/promising about what he might do when he becomes the 734th straight Democrat since 1934 to take over Pittsburgh’s City Hall.

Peduto has been talking about tinkering with the bus stops downtown to relieve congestion on the sidewalks. Businesses are complaining about all those unsightly humans standing around on corners waiting for a government megabus to lumber along. (I suspect that the skin color of many of those bus riders might have something to do with the bizmen’s concern, but that’s because I am a cynical ex-newspaper guy.)

Now that I don’t have to slave at a job at the PG or Trib, I rarely see downtown. (I hear the Twin Transit Tunnel to Nowhere is done. And that Market Square has been rejuvenated and its population of drug salesmen, homeless and mentally disturbed people has been reduced to a just a handful so that everyone can go to the fancy new restaurants.)

The City of Pittsburgh — like so many rust belt towns — continues to be crippled by the bad politics, poor leadership and stupid ideas that helped its decline. As far as I can tell, that isn’t going to ever change in my lifetime or my kids’.

Let’s hope Bill Peduto proves me wrong.

Meanwhile, as part of my never-ending quest to bring more human and economic freedom to a shrinking city population that has been tortured for decades by too much government, I offered Mayor-to-be Bill this advice on Facebook about what he should do about the transit scene downtown and elsewhere:

Please, Mayor-to-be Bill.

Don’t tinker with the Port Authority bus stops/schedules. Blow up the city’s current government public transit monopoly (figuratively, of course, dear NSA). Get the county/state/feds to deregulate it, privatize it, defund it, outlaw it, whatever, in the long run. But first ban all of its gargantuan lumbering 40-foot-plus buses from the city limits and then declare Pittsburgh an open transit city. Open up the taxi and bus markets in downtown and Oakland and especially in the neighborhoods that are poor and have been un-served by Yellow Cab for 75 years. Invite anyone with a valid driver’s license and insurance to operate a minibus or a cab or a rickshaw downtown — without subsidies or privileged territories. Decriminalize and publicize the jitney drivers, who have served the city’s citizens far far better than Yellow Cab’s obscenely expensive and religiously awful “service.” Praise and encourage and welcome transit entrepreneurs, not transit bureaucrats and intermodal planners who should be working in Moscow, circa 1983, not Pittsburgh 2013. Tell the county and state lawmakers that you want Pittsburgh to become a model city that wants to break up the clumsy, expensive, inefficient socialized transportation systems U.S. cities take for granted and perpetuate. Encourage maximum economic freedom for transit. It’s radical. But if the market can give us all the shoes we need, all the bad TV we can watch and $30 Megabus rides to New York, it can give Pittsburgh a decent ground transportation that doesn’t include $70 cab rides from downtown to the airport and too little cab service to poor people. The transit unions, the pro-government transit media (especially the PG and City Paper), the transportation “experts” and other entitled government bus interests, including riders, will cry. But in a year there will more affordable ways to move around in the city than anyone can imagine. It’ll take balls, Mr. Mayor-to-be, but it might make the city famous for something other than having North America’s slowest light rail system …

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Unless a comet strikes Market Square, Pittsburgh’s next mayor will be Bill Peduto. Mr. Peduto, who will get to impose his will, values, biases and plans on the future of Pittsburgh, is already talking/musing about what will happen to the Strip District under his reign: Peduto looks for alternatives to Buncher’s Strip District development plan.  Of course, I’d like to see the mayor-to-be promise to do or plan nothing of significance to the Strip, or any other city neighborhood. I made my case for a hands-off City Hall in this updated Pittsburgh Trib op-ed about DeLuca’s restaurant 11 years ago, when Pittsburgh was still in the grip of Mayor Murphy and his grandiose urban development schemes. As far as I can tell, it’s still good advice for any new Pittsburgh mayor — especially one who already seems to understand how his predecessors and their misguided urban planners wrecked East Liberty, the Hill and the North Side. — Bill s

DeLuca’s Paradox

It’s not easy to fall in love with DeLuca’s.

It’s 62 years old and looks it. Its cramped booths are made of Formica. Its water glasses are plastic. It’s got a long, low counter with round stools that spin, a big, ugly painting on the wall and cheap cigars for sale at the cash register.

But DeLuca’s restaurant in the Strip District — a humble eating place for the hungry common man and woman – is one of Pittsburgh’s great treasures.

In a tiny but invaluable sociocultural way, it makes Pittsburgh a more interesting, more livable and more colorful city. Noisy, real and incapable of being duplicated, much less franchised, DeLuca’s is one of those unique, home-grown places that helps to differentiate Pittsburgh from everywhere else.

But its value transcends its unique character and fame as a purveyor of good, cheap diner food. DeLuca’s history – what it is and where it came from — can help us understand why some good things just seem to sprout naturally in certain parts of the city.

More important, DeLuca’s contains lessons in city planning for the folks in power in City Hall who, despite more than 60 years of failed urban renewal projects, still don’t understand the inherent limitations of large-scale, government-dictated redevelopment.

FUNKY AMBIENCE

I love DeLuca’s.

It is the closest thing I’ve seen in these parts to my all-time favorite restaurant, the Pantry, an equally funky, equally unique steak-and-eggs factory in downtown Los Angeles that is so popular it literally has never closed its doors in more than 86 years.

Not long ago my wife and I went to DeLuca’s for breakfast. It was a typically crowded, noisy, smoky Saturday morning. As a short line of patient customers stood outside the front door, we sat at the long counter and watched a tireless trio of sweating short-order cooks do their stuff.

Squeamish or uptight people might be put off by the crazy-messy food-and-platter-slinging scene at the grill. But as I looked around at the frantic waitresses and the happy mob of yakking customers, I began thinking about the greater meaning of DeLuca’s.

DeLuca’s is one of those many little pleasant miracles of everyday existence we usually take for granted, I stipulated to myself. It is a good, Pittsburgh-only place. Few would deny that life in the city would be improved, albeit minutely, if there were a DeLuca’s in every neighborhood.

So how do we make that happen? Can City Hall do it? No. McDonald’s? Nope. No one — not the smartest developer from Columbus, Ohio, not the brightest mayor or urban planner — could ever make a single new DeLuca’s appear in Pittsburgh, much less a dozen.

To understand why not, you have to know where DeLuca’s came from in the first place. Who planned it? Who ordered the DeLuca family to start a restaurant in 1951? Who foresaw that in time it would fry, scramble and poach 1,200 eggs every Saturday?

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Of course, we all know that no one from on high did any planning, ordering or foreseeing 62 years ago.

WONDERFUL CHAOS

DeLuca’s is like most successful businesses in a relatively free marketplace. It came into being and succeeded for a whole bunch of subjective, uncontrollable, unpredictable entrepreneurial/idiosyncratic reasons known only to the DeLuca tribe and Drew and Chris Mikrut, its owners since 1988.

In a literal sense, DeLuca’s sprang spontaneously from the wonderful chaos and organic commercial complexity of the Strip District, a vibrant, wildly popular, truly 24/7 part of the city that itself has evolved spontaneously – and has been mercifully left alone by city planners, regulators and zoning officers.

That’s Part 1 of DeLuca’s Paradox: DeLuca’s restaurant only exists in the first place because no one on high deliberately or consciously set out to create it 62 years ago.

Part 2 is equally paradoxical: If, by some miracle, City Hall’s chronically misguided planners decided they wanted to bring a new DeLuca’s or two into being, there’s only one sure way they could make it happen – by doing nothing.

Unfortunately, however, doing nothing is not in City Hall’s playbook. Few city halls anywhere have understood the counter-intuitive benefits of “planning” by deliberately doing nothing and letting nature — i.e., the marketplace — take its course.

Doing nothing doesn’t mean letting old city neighborhoods rot. It means having the wisdom to let neighborhoods – even poor ones — evolve naturally, incrementally and unpredictably over time and in market-sensitive, nurturing ways, with a minimum of government intrusion and subsidy and planning.

For more than half a century the Planning Industrial Complex’s preferred way of doing business – as practiced to a “T” in Pittsburgh — was to use federal money to destroy old, poorer neighborhoods in the name of renewal or make them disappear by aiming interstate highways at them.

You don’t have to be a straight-A student of the great and wise urbanologist Jane Jacobs to notice the horrid effects of this crude brand of planning in Pittsburgh: The parts of town people like to live in or play in the most are the parts where the clumsy, trampling foot of government has not stomped.

Neighborhoods that City Hall and its planners have largely ignored — the South Side, Squirrel Hill, the Strip District, Bloomfield and lately Lawrenceville – are vital, healthy urban communities, juicy with people and local commerce.

Neighborhoods that City Hall has spent hundreds of millions to “redevelop” or “renew” – the Lower Hill, East Liberty, the North Side and huge chunks of Downtown – are, decades later, still slathered in cold concrete, conspicuously uniform and unable to support little commerce and housing that is not subsidized.

A 50-plus year parade of arrogant, all-knowing mayors and their corporate cheerleaders are responsible for these conspicuous failures. Several generations of public and private powerbrokers should be hauled before a tribunal, or at least held up to public ridicule for their stupidity.

But they have not paid in any way for their sins. Nor have they learned from their mistakes. Their descendants no doubt gathered around a long conference table even now, formulating ambitious master plans for “redeveloping” the parts of Pittsburgh that were wrecked decades earlier.

Whatever they have up their sleeves, it won’t include a place where anything simple and small like a DeLuca’s could take root.

SLOW EVOLUTION

The lesson of DeLuca’s Paradox – that the way to assure good things happening is to do nothing — applies to both the Strip District and the whole city.

Like DeLuca’s, the Strip evolved on its own over decades. The Strip grew unpredictably, crazily, unattractively, practically – and virtually free of government interference or guidance — as thousands of business owners and property owners made decisions based on what they saw or thought or dreamed.

It should be obvious, but it needs to be said: No powerful mayor, no brilliant city planner, no big-bucks developer, could have imagined or wanted the Strip, much less have created it. They can only kill it.

What you get when a mayor, a planner or a big developer gets their hands on 95 urban acres is the Lower Hill, at worst, or the Waterfront, at best. The Waterfront is a roaring commercial success, thanks to its fancy mix of shopping, entertainment and heretofore-unseen-in-these-parts chain restaurants.

As far as malls go, the Waterfront looks very good. But it is a shopping theme park, not a city neighborhood. It is only going to become what its developer wants it to become, which is fine.

It will evolve only in ways its developer/owner will allow or can imagine. No matter how many condos are sited there, it’s never going to be another Squirrel Hill or another Strip District, where a baby DeLuca’s might someday sprout in a low-rent niche of real estate.

The Waterfront is a carefully contrived, artificial construct – and always will be. The Strip – like DeLuca’s – is an organic human and commercial mess, which is why citizens in search of genuine character and surprises go there in crowds.

The Strip is broken into thousands of controlling pieces. Therefore, it can evolve in countless, unimaginable, incremental ways that are not based on the whims or politically skewed directives of an unenlightened City Hall or its favored developers.

All of which begs a big, important question that no one ever asks: Why should a mayor or the city planning director or any single mega-developer they choose get to decide what happens in large swaths of the Strip, in Oakland or Downtown?

They and all their commissions and public-private partnerships don’t possibly know enough to make informed, rational choices about what to do with whole city blocks – though they think they do.

This blind arrogance is a local version of Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit” – the mistaken belief that a few experts and government people at the top are smarter than the market and its thousands of participants and infinite social and economic possibilities.

Our local urban redevelopment czars think they know what they are doing. But they don’t – as evidenced by where they have been and the urban ruins they have left behind in the Lower Hill, East Liberty and the North Side.

Mayor Murphy’s original Marketplace at Fifth and Forbes project in the heart of Downtown in the early 2000s would have clear-cut two city blocks and replaced it with little more than an unenclosed suburban shopping mall. It was a primitive, crude reprise of the worst of 1950s urban planning – only City Hall was too clueless or too ambitious to understand it.

It’s a miracle Mayor Murphy and his wrecking crew didn’t get their way with Fifth and Forbes. It took an odd coalition of doomed Downtown merchants, façade lovers, maverick politicians and defenders of property rights (plus an upcoming primary election) to stop him.

During the 2000s a new and less awful plan for Fifth and Forbes was implemented. Thanks to tens of millions in subsidies and tax breaks to big banks and well-heeled developers, two streets that had been deliberately neglected and abused by City Hall for 20 years were resuscitated and renewed.

New office buildings, condos and restaurants have bloomed in and around Market Square, where a kinder, gentler, more suburbanite-friendly nightlife thrives.  Everyone in the professional booster and planning communities agrees the Market Square redevelopmenit is a perfect example of a successful public-private partnership.

It was a far better, more incremental and less authoritarian redevelopment plan than Mayor Murphy’s eminent domain-abusing urban mega-folly. Which wasn’t hard. But it still violated the truth of DeLuca’s Paradox – that the best way for planners to revitalize what’s left of this city is to leave it alone.

 

Seymour Hersh is an honest lefty, a nonpartisan journalist who’s just as willing to give Obama and the Democrats the trouble they deserve as the Bushes and Republicans.

The Guardian interview with Hersh, “Seymour Hersh on Obama, NSA and the ‘pathetic’ American media,” is tough on journalists at the NY Times and the Post for being ball-less, lazy and partisanly selective in their investigations.

Among the commentators was someone from another planet who said he worked at the Post pre-Watergate.

The commentator said:

 

Having worked at the Wash Post 40+ years ago, I can say the change in the basic nature of journalists has been dramatic. Today most journalists lack significant life experience, few have served in the military which they still mis report because they don’t know how to challenge it. Woodward and Bernstein led to journalists wanting to have star power, get invited to the best Georgetown dinner parties and be best buddies with the political heavyweights, people you don’t want to piss off. This post-Woodward and Bernstein class of journalists, conservative, flag waving, people who stick to the government line that is fed like pablum have become the editors Hersch decries. The post 9/11 rally-round the flag mentality has invaded newsrooms across America. Serious readers must rely on papers like the Guardian to bring us the unvarnished truth.

 

I said:
Sorry. After my 35 years of journalism, hearing that post-Watergate journalists are “conservative and flag-waving” is laughable; they stick to the government line, it’s true, because most of the editors and reporters I worked with or for at three big-city papers were liberal, big-government poorly closeted partisan Democrats. They loved government, hated business, didn’t understand economics, loved regulation, high taxes, government coercion, public transit, public schools, public anything … They didn’t/don’t understand that government regulation invariably benefits established businesses and hurts upstarts …. I could go on and on…. The only time journalists challenged the government — state, federal or local — was when it was a Republican administration or idea or program. Bush War Bad. Obama War Good. Both are bad; both parties are interchangeable threats to what’s left of the freedom of Americans they’ve both been destroying for 100 years. If more reporters were like Hersh and did their jobs honestly and without a partisan or ideological bias, we wouldn’t have the welfare/security/warfare state we have now.

Since 2000 Pittsburgh’s downtown population reportedly has quadrupled to about 10,000. How all those people could be living in subsidized (tax-reduced) penthouses, lofts and studio apartments at places like the old Otto Milk plant in the Strip or the former Lazarus store downtown is a mystery.  I did not advocate government subsidies as a way to pump up Pittsburgh’s plummeting population, which as of this morning is about 306,000. But apparently lots of old farts — empty-nesters, mainly — read my cutting-edge satire in the Pittsburgh Trib in January of 2003 and called the moving man.

 

Wrinkle City North

 

Sunday, January 5, 2003

Before I reveal my modest proposal for reversing Pittsburgh’s long economic decline, I have an important news flash for our region’s professional boosters and movers and shakers:

YOUNG PEOPLE ARE NOT

COMING TO PITTSBURGH. EVER.

And short of erecting a Pittsburgh Wall around the city where a six-lane beltway should be, there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to keep the youth of the city’s neighborhoods or suburbs from seeking their fortunes in more dynamic area codes.

It doesn’t matter how many quarter-billion-dollar sports playpens or Downtown entertainment complexes you guys build. Or how many new bike trails or boat docks or outdoor skating rinks you create on the riverbanks and at lonely Point State Park.

And you PUMP punks can stop asking for any more of those pathetic $1 million marketing campaigns to sell Pittsburgh to young people. No matter how many more laughably clueless PR execs and ad firms the region’s economic development agencies hire to find the city’s “brand essence,” the young and unwrinkled of America will never believe Pittsburgh is the hippest/trendiest region this side of Austin.

By the way, why is Pittsburgh’s 50-year exodus of youth automatically a civic tragedy? What’s so great about young people anyway? Most are poor as dirt and live with their parents or rent apartments in packs. All they do is blow their paltry service-sector wages on CDs and pizza. They drive too fast. They drink too much. They commit most of the violent and nonviolent crimes. They spit. And they don’t read newspapers.

So give up that tired Chamber of Commerce ghost. Let’s let our young people go. What Pittsburgh really needs if it is to grow and prosper in the 21st century is lots more of what we supposedly have too much of already – old people.

 CALLING ALL OLDSTERS

Seniors. Fogies. Geezers. Old-timers. Coots. Seasoned citizens. Retirees. The aged. AARP-heads. Call them what you want, Old people are Pittsburgh’s best hope for a better, prosperous, rust-proof future. We just need to figure out how to get half a million more of them to immigrant here.

That will take a sharp, honest national marketing campaign, a real challenge for Pittsburgh’s ruling booster class. But we could realistically promote Pittsburgh as the perfect retirement place for “The Greatest Demographic” — the oncoming waves of aging baby boomers who already are scouting for places other than Florida to move to and die in peace and quiet.

We can’t do anything about our winter weather, except pray for cheap natural gas prices and more global warming. But thanks to a cruel combination of unstoppable global and national economic forces and a century of high local taxes, public mismanagement and broken big-city politics, Pittsburgh today is made to order for old people.

Since 1950, the city’s fiscally challenged policy czars have brilliantly, albeit unwittingly, done their best to make room for 500,000 new old people to live within its borders.

The city’s population – once a thick, industrious stew approaching 700,000 – is now a thin gruel of 340,000 and still evaporating. Downtown sidewalks are empty of bustling shoppers and dangerous/scary street vendors. The city’s park benches are virtually unused. And there are so many pigeons to feed.

Our leaders’ failings have made the erstwhile Smoky City a kinder, gentler place for old people. Along with driving off most of that annoying 18-to-35 mob — which, by the way, no longer is the darling demographic of national advertisers — our leaders have cleansed the region of the noise and dirt of industry that would rattle and offend fragile seniors.

It’s true, local wage and school taxes are hyper-high. But that’s no problem if you want to attract old people. Old people don’t work, so they don’t earn or spend wage income. They spend stock dividends, 401(k) dollars and Social Security money. Old people don’t particularly care if the city schools are failing, either, because their kids are grown and gone.

Pittsburgh’s private sector also has been unconsciously preparing the region for a tsunami of elderly immigrants. A solid old-people infrastructure already is in place; it’s no coincidence the National Senior Games Association chose Pittsburgh from among 19 contenders to be host city of the 2005 Senior Olympics.

We have all the senior centers, reasonably priced family restaurants, enclosed malls, bingo parlors and golf courses we need. Oldies have been Pittsburgh’s most popular soundtrack for decades and WQED is the flagship of PBS’ Doo-Wop renaissance. We have all the health-care facilities, nursing homes, hospices and cemeteries ready. We have gorgeous empty churches and multiethnic funeral homes in every neighborhood. All we need are a few score miles of wheelchair trails.

Plus, the institutions that only old people really support anymore – the shrinking and fiscally bleeding symphonies, museums, operas, ballets, art galleries, libraries, lecture series, VFW halls, ethnic clubs, etc. – are desperate to reverse their subscribers’ high mortality rates. Imagine how a mass migration of hundreds of thousands of retirees will resurrect and sustain them.

 BEFORE THE SALE

But before we put out the official invite to the world, there are a few minor things our civic leaders need to do to really sell America’s old people on the joys of dying in Pittsburgh:

· Our political leaders should seize control of the city schools and begin cutting budgets by 50 percent each year while simultaneously raising real estate taxes on single family homes. In no time, no family with a kid will be left within city borders and the suburbs will be alive with children again.

·  The city should use eminent domain power to begin the process of making Pittsburgh America’s most elderly-accessible city. Abandoned Downtown corporate headquarters towers – especially the Gulf, Koppers and Alcoa buildings – should be stripped of their commercial tenants (mostly lawyers and government bureaucrats) and converted into affordable condos and apartments.

·  The city, in cahoots with Gov.-elect Ed Rendell, should speed up their plans to legalize gambling and finalize all the option deals with Harrah’s and every other gaming industry interest-in-waiting. This will keep the city’s existing old people population from busing to Atlantic City and Niagara Falls on weekends.

·  The city should scotch its not-so-secret plans to gentrify Oakland. Instead, assuming the U.S. Supreme Court will not rule “age apartheid” unconstitutional, Pittsburgh officials should use target zoning to maintain Oakland as a urban youth preserve for college students and the minimum-wage work force old people need for reliable pizza and pill delivery.

·  Lastly, before the current regime resigns and turns the city over to Sophie Masloff, it can ensure its legacy by officially renaming it — i.e., branding it — “Wrinkle City North.” Don’t forget the trademark.

OH, THE POSSIBILITIES

Economically, there’s no reason Pittsburgh could not thrive by serving the future specialized needs of America’s old people. With the right guidance and planning from our crack regional economic redevelopment experts, our industrial remnant could be retooled to make elevators, wheelchairs, iron railings and artificial hips. Our bio-medical labs could mass-manufacture body parts. We could become the gateway to the fall leaf tour industry, a sector sure to grow as the national population continues to age.

We lost our best chance for resurrecting Pittsburgh through orthodox means in the early 1990s, when we didn’t invite the entire colony of Hong Kong to move here (with their fat savings accounts) when the Chi-coms took them over.

But that’s so much spilt milk. Pittsburghers have a new chance to guarantee their own future growth and prosperity – from the bottoms up — if we dare.

If we all pitch in, we can make it happen. Encourage your kids to declare their independence and leave town at 18. Let them sow their wild oats, get their MBAs, pay off their $1.5 million townhouses, raise their kids, fatten their 401(k)s and strain the over-taxed infrastructure in some boomtown in the Sun Belt.

Then, when they are older and richer and childless again, do everything you can to get your late-50-somethings to move back to Wrinkle City North, where old people come when they’re ready to die in peace and quiet.

 

 

In the spring, as part of my never-ending saturation PR bombardment to get the MSM — and even NPR — to pay a little respect/attention to my Pulitzer Prize not-winning literary expose “Dogging Steinbeck,” I sent a pathetic plea to the producers of the always clever but mostly lefty-liberal radio hour, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

I’ve since sent moderator Peter Sagal, who looks like he could be my younger balder brother, several equally pathetic emails trying to get me and my road-tripping pal and fellow author Ethan Casey on the show. Peter Sagal seems like a nice guy on my kitchen radio, but apparently he is incapable of responding to emails that come his way, no matter how pathetic.

Here’s the original email I sent to WWDTM to alert them that I was going to be appearing on C-SPAN with everyone’s hero, including mine, Brian Lamb.

 

 

Hello WWDTM producers —

Sainted CSPAN Founder Brian Lamb liked “Dogging Steinbeck” so much he booked me for his Sunday, March 3, 8 p.m. “Q&A” program.

My fellow libertarian Nick Gillespie of Reason mag loved it and called my 11,276-mile, coast-to-coast celebration of America “Whitmanesque,” which I think was a compliment.

Supreme Travel Master Paul Theroux liked it almost as much as my 95-year-old mom.

PJ O’Rourke has a paperback copy of it at his N.H. redoubt and he knows who I am.

The Weekly Standard glowingly reviewed it.

The New York Times editorial page and NPR’s “On the Media” endorsed my findings that Steinbeck had pretty much lied his butt off in “Travels With Charley,” which for 50 years was sold, marketed, reviewed and taught to be the nonfiction, true, accurate and honest account of what he did on his iconic road trip in 1960, who he met and what he really thought about America and its people.

It wasn’t nonfiction. Not even close.

To put it in academic terms, Steinbeck’s last major work was a big crock of fiction and lies — and Penguin Group admitted the fiction part last fall by having Jay Parini insert a disclaimer into the introduction to the latest edition of “Charley” that says the book is so fictionalized and dramatized that it should not be taken literally.

I’m a little sorry I came along and spoiled everyone’s fun. But Steinbeck’s beloved book — 1.5 million sales, nonfiction best-sellerdom in 1962 — is, as I bluntly say, “a literary fraud.” Don’t tell Oprah, but it’s in the same fact-fudging league as “Three Cups of Tea,” “A Million Little Pieces” and Mr. Capote’s increasingly besmirched “In Cold Blood.”

“Dogging Steinbeck” is an Amazon ebook and the listing there contains everything you need to see that I’m a real journalist who retraced Steinbeck’s original route around the USA, slept in my car 20 nights (10 Walmart lots, a pier, a beach, a riverbank, a used car lot ), lucked into a 50-year-old scoop and ticked off the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex — a synopsis, blurbs and sample chapters. I’m beginning to think I should be a movie.

Below is the adult press release I’ve written (this is a DYI book of quality drive-by journalism — from idea to reporting and writing and editing and photographing to email pitches and distributing paperback copies of my book to local bookstores in Pittsburgh, where my aging TV sportscaster brothers and I operated a powerful family multimedia dynasty.

Thank you for your time. I’m better on radio than TV, though I guess I wasn’t as bad as I thought with Brian Lamb because they still have the show set for March 3 at 8 on CSPAN’s “Q&A.”

The release:

Dogging Steinbeck

Discovering America and Exposing
The Truth About ‘Travels With Charley’

First Bill Steigerwald took John Steinbeck’s classic “Travels With Charley” and used it as a map for his own cross-country road trip in search of America. Then he proved Steinbeck’s iconic nonfiction book was a 50-year-old literary fraud. A true story about the triumph of truth.

“Steinbeck falsified his trip. I am delighted that you went deep into this.” — Paul Theroux, Author of “The Tao of Travel:”

“No book gave me more of a kick this year than Bill Steigerwald’s investigative travelogue…” — Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com

Bill Steigerwald discovered two important truths when he retraced the route John Steinbeck took around the country in 1960 and turned into “Travels With Charley in Search of America.” He found out the great author’s “nonfiction” road book was a deceptive, dishonest and highly fictionalized account of his actual 10,000-mile road trip. And he found out that despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, America was still a big, beautiful, empty, healthy, rich, safe, clean, prosperous and friendly country.

“Dogging Steinbeck” is the lively, entertaining, opinionated story of how Steigerwald stumbled onto a literary scoop, won praise from the New York Times editorial page and forced a major book publisher to finally confess the truth about “Travels With Charley” after 50 years.

But it’s also a celebration of the America he found and the dozens of ordinary Americans he met on his 11,276-mile high-speed drive from Maine to Monterey. Despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, Steigerwald’s expedition into the American Heartland in the fall of 2010 reaffirmed his faith in the innate goodness of the American people and their ability to withstand the long train of abuse from Washington and Wall Street.

Part literary detective story, part travel book, part book review, part primer in drive-by journalism, part commentary on what a libertarian newspaperman thinks is right and wrong about America, “Dogging Steinbeck” is entirely nonfiction. True Nonfiction.

‘Dogging Steinbeck’ is available at select bookstores and at Amazon.com as an ebook.

Bill Steigerwald is a well-traveled Pittsburgh journalist and a veteran libertarian columnist. He worked as an editor and writer/reporter/columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Post-Gazette in the 1990s and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. He retired from the daily newspaper business in March 2009. He and his wife Trudi live south of Pittsburgh in the woods.

In the hot August of 2010, before global cooling began turning our summers into fall, I spent several days in the fabulous Morgan Library & Museum in downtown New York reading the original handwritten transcript of “Travels With Charley.”

My comparison of the manuscript with the published book — something no Steinbeck scholar bothered to do in 50 years — proved illuminating. Here, in this free excerpt of “Dogging Steinbeck,” is how I describe my visit to Mr. Morgan’s treasure house of art and artifacts:

 

DSC_1033

 

‘Discovering’ ‘Charley’s’ First Draft

My pre-trip research ended with a bang three weeks later in New York City when I did something no one in the world had done in four years. I went to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan and read the first draft of “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”

The handwritten manuscript – along with a typed and edited copy – had been stored at the Morgan like a holy relic for almost half a century. Few scholars, graduate students and critics had bothered to study it. If they had, the “‘Travels With Charley’ Myth” might have been debunked decades ago. To be fair, the manuscript is not something anybody can just pop into the Morgan Library and paw over. John Pierpont Morgan’s gift to posterity holds one of the world’s greatest collections of art, books and music. Security is Pentagon-tight, inside and out. You’ve got to first establish that you are a legitimate researcher or writer and make an appointment. Once you make it past the security checkpoint, you’re escorted to the reading room. You have to wash your hands, use pencils only and handle research material like it’s sacred nitroglycerin. You can’t take photos or make photocopies because of copyright restrictions.

For three days in late summer I sat in the Morgan’s reading room like a monk. The “Charley” manuscript, kept there since Steinbeck donated it in 1962, is broken up into five or six handwritten chunks. Written entirely in his barely decipherable scribble, with hardly a word crossed out or changed, each page is filled from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge. It’s mostly in pencil on carefully numbered yellow or white legal pads. Taking notes in longhand, I compared the first draft of what Steinbeck had given the working title “In Quest of America” with the copy of “Travels With Charley” stored on my smart-phone’s Kindle app. According to Declan Kiely, the Morgan’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, fewer than six people had looked at the manuscript since 2000.  I was the first since 2006.

I learned important clues that helped me fill in some blank spots about Steinbeck’s actual trip. I also saw how much the manuscript had been edited. There were dozens of minor and major edits. The most important ones entirely removed his wife Elaine’s presence from the West Coast and stripped out 99 percent of his partisan political commentary. Given what I was learning, the most ironic edit deleted Steinbeck’s thoughts about what is really real and the writer’s struggle/duty to straighten out the “chaos” of reality and make it understandable and “reasonably real” for a reader. The most justifiable edit removed a paragraph of filth and racial hatred that would have given “Travels With Charley” an X-rating, outraged the public and crippled its sales.

The manuscript was the big smoking gun – the smoking artillery piece. Reading it was shocking and exhilarating. I couldn’t believe what I had found – or that it had been just sitting there in Manhattan for 50 years waiting to be discovered. It confirmed and reinforced my suspicions about the dubious veracity of much of “Travels With Charley.”

The first draft also explained the book’s persistent vagueness about time and place. It was not due solely to Steinbeck’s aversion to writing a travelogue or his lack of note taking. It was a result of wily editing by Viking’s editors, which hid the frequently luxurious and leisurely nature of Steinbeck’s road trip and made it seem like he spent most of his time alone.

After my last day of deciphering Steinbeck’s handwriting, I left the cool quiet of the Morgan Library and popped back onto the baked streets of Manhattan. It was 4:05. I set out for Penn Station to catch a train back to Secaucus, where my car was parked and ready to take me home. New York had so much pure city packed into a small space it was hard for someone from Pittsburgh to believe. I’d never want to live in NYC. It was 40 years too late for that adventure. But it was amazing to see the crazy energy and throbbing humanity of a real city at work and play. It was nothing like the open street markets and anarchic traffic of Lima or Guatemala City, the only teeming Third World madhouses I’d ever seen. But the sidewalks were thick with commerce and hurrying streams of people of every lifestyle and color.

Near the corner of Madison Avenue and East 33rd Street, two miles from the apartment Steinbeck died in, a prim matron with a plastic bag in one hand and a leash in the other waited for her toy poodle to take a dump at the base of a baby tree. On 34th Street a homeless man with a wild beard and dirty white shirt suddenly lunged out of the passing throng and rammed his bony shoulder hard into mine. It was no accident, it hurt, and it taught me a lesson to keep my eye out for trouble in the oncoming flow of humanity.

DSC_1035

Closing in on Madison Square Garden and its basement of train tracks, I began tail-gaiting a hotshot in a blue blazer with a cell phone to his ear as he weaved through the crowd. He was young but had gray hair and carried a man bag swelling with paperwork. I didn’t know it, but like me he was hustling to Penn Station’s Track 11 to catch the 4:32 to Secaucus. On the un-crowded train I deliberately sat across the aisle from the hotshot so I could eavesdrop on his end of the conversation, which he made no effort to suppress. “At two billion dollars,” he said, as if he were talking about the price of eggs, “we’re going to make 800 k. I’m OK with one basis point…. We’d still be above two billion. Do me a favor. Check my math and fire me an email.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but it wasn’t how tough it was to make a living on Wall Street in the Great Recession. During my brief ride to Secaucus I scrawled what I had learned from reading the Steinbeck manuscript in my Professional Reporter’s Notebook: “Charley’s a fraud. Steinbeck himself provided the details of his trip – the real ones – and betrays ‘C’ for the fraud it is.” It was the first time I had used the f-word to describe his beloved travel book. It wouldn’t be the last.