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Pittsburgh cleans up for All-Star game

| Wednesday, July 5, 2006

PITTSBURGH - City worker Bruce Buskirk whacked weeds off a highway leading into Pittsburgh last week as two of his colleagues removed debris and another ran a street sweeper.

Since March, crews have removed more than one million tons of debris, about 2,000 tires and several hundred abandoned cars from neighborhoods. They've also cleaned and cleared about 200 empty lots, and, in the last three weeks, boarded up about 200 abandoned houses, said Kevin Quigley, the city's customer service manager.

City officials even are considering moving homeless people into shelters, away from public view.

It's all part of a campaign Mayor Bob O'Connor calls "Let's Redd Up Pittsburgh. The goal: To spruce up the city in time for baseball's All-Star Game on Tuesday, which is expected to draw about 250,000 visitors.

"It's almost like company's coming to your house and in Pittsburgh we say, 'You redd up,'" O'Connor said, referring to an old Pittsburgh phrase that means to clean up.

Tourism and community officials like what they see.

"Everybody loves to see the community look clean," said Bob Imperata, executive vice president of Visit Pittsburgh. "It's absolutely magnificent, as far as I am concerned."

Formerly the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau, Visit Pittsburgh is "using PNC Park as a weapon, so to speak" to emphasize how the city has improved since it last hosted the midsummer classic in 1994 at Three Rivers Stadium, he said.

In addition to putting together an All-Star FanFest tourist package, the agency will host about 20 key business leaders at the ballpark — people who can influence decisions about where to hold a convention.

Imperata expects the event to pump $52.2 million into the local economy, up from $44.3 million from the 1994 All-Star game.

Banners showcasing the All-Star game and FanFest decorate lampposts throughout downtown. Giant All-Star Game banners hang from a hotel facing PNC Park across the Allegheny River and the nearby convention center, site of the FanFest. Red, green, blue and purple banners adorn the Roberto Clemente Bridge leading to the ballfield.

"I do like what they've done with all the banners," said 27-year-old Nick Crouse, as he walked across the bridge.

Crouse lamented the team's performance over the past decade — the Pirate have not had a winning season since 1992 and are off to a rough start this year.

"But the (All-Star) game itself will be a great showcase for the city," he said.

City leaders hope to erase any vestiges of Pittsburgh's former image as a smoke-filled steel town. Entertainment and shopping complexes now dot former mill sites, and new sports stadiums stand out on the North Shore, where many bars and restaurants have opened in recent years.

The next few years will give Pittsburgh several opportunities to sell its image to the nation.

The All-Star game follows the beloved Steelers' Super Bowl win in February. The U.S. Open golf tournament will be played in nearby Oakmont next year, and the city celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2008.

"It is fantastic timing that we have so many things going that keep our momentum and positive outlook on all the things we have to offer," O'Connor said. "You can never buy this much positive publicity."

His clean-up campaign isn't limited to the area near PNC Park and downtown. He's also getting neighborhood groups to volunteer to clean up their areas.

"You take pride in your home, your sidewalk, your community," he said. "It's something everyone can do."

The campaign has been a learning experience for the mayor.

"I was very disappointed to see how many communities that maybe have been ignored," said O'Connor, who took office this year after serving several years on city council. "There were abandoned cars that were sitting on lots for six, seven years."

Crews hauled away 440 tons of debris from just one street in the city's Beltzhoover neighborhood, Quigley said. "It's a quality of life issue. What we're trying to do is get the neighborhoods back in order."

Doing that is nothing new to Operation Better Block, which works in the city's Homewood and Brushton communities.

"We've been redding up since the 1970s," said Executive Director Aliya Durham. "We are fortunate that we have people who love their neighborhood."

She applauds and welcomes the city's clean-up effort, but wonders if the clean-up campaign will stop after the All-Star game.

O'Connor vowed to keep up the campaign. But he has his doubters.

"I think it's a thin coat of niceness," said Frank Kandcer, 33, who operates a street-vending company.

He sees the beautification effort as a stunt to hide the city's problems.

"They're painting whole blocks that are all shut down," he said. "They're getting the homeless off the streets. ... I've been dealing with the city for five years and nothing really shocks me."

Nevertheless, the All-Star game will be a boon to the city, he said.

As for O'Connor, he wants visitors to leave with a single image: "It's a very beautiful city, clean, well kept and very friendly, somewhere I would like to visit, live, work or play."

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