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.