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Investigative Reporting

Some final thoughts for 2002

| Sunday, Dec. 29, 2002

Ah, the end of another year. And with it, the need to clear my desks and tables and bookshelves and windowsills and file-cabinet tops of the flotilla of flotsam that hasn't quite made the cut for full columns but that which deserve at least some mention before 2003 bows:

  • Karl Marx seems to be enjoying something of a comeback among the "intellectual elite." And though uttering Mr. Marx's name in the same breath as that phrase should trigger most people's Automatic Oxymoron Alarm, many are eagerly re-studying the Marxist morass that manifested itself in so many "wonderful" ways, communism and socialism being two.

    The real eye-popper is the current edition of The Economist magazine and the article on "Marx after communism."

    "Although dictatorships throughout the 20th century have distorted (Marx's) original ideas," the magazine quotes an October 1999 documentary from the state-financed BBC, "his work as a philosopher, social scientist, historian and a revolutionary is respected by academics today."

    Well, that certainly explains a lot, now doesn't it?

    The Economist certainly doesn't praise Marx — after all Marxism and all its ugly offshoots have been proven failures, time and time again. "Where it mattered most (private property, liberal political rights and the market) Marx could not have been more wrong," the magazine reminds.

    Nonetheless, the concluding sentence of the article is quite chilling: "(Karl Marx's) religion is a broad church, and lives on."

    You'll find no "Amens" from this quarter.

  • The upstart New York Sun, which I admire greatly for its attempt to give New Yorkers yet another voice, this month began offering an eight-part series on "A Realistic Approach to Urban Planning." So why did it rely so much on the fantasy of revisionist history?

    Pittsburgh and Portland were among the major American cities cited by Alexander Garvin, the vice president for planning, design and development at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, as reasons that the current "disillusionment with planning is far from justified."

    "Pittsburgh would not rank sixth in the nation as a major corporate headquarters center if it had not virtually rebuilt its downtown during the 1940s and 1950s," Mr. Garvin writes.

    Gee, where do I start?

    Well, Pittsburgh used to be third in the nation for corporate headquarters. And if Renaissance I (and II and the pseudo-III now supposedly under way) was as great as central planners hold it up to be, why has Pittsburgh's population steadily declined • And why is Pittsburgh is such a financial pickle today?

    "Portland, Ore., would not be a lively retail and employment center if during the 1970s and 1980s it had not enriched its pedestrian environment, built a light-rail system, and reclaimed its riverfront," Garvin also notes.

    Portland, of course, is the central planners' utopia. That means it's a nightmare for just about everybody else. Planning has left Portland with more congestion, more pollution and astronomical housing prices that are outrageous enough to warrant a house gastroenterologist.

    Not all of what Garvin writes is buncombe. "(M)y definition of planning refers to public (rather than to government) action." Wonderful. But that's certainly not been the Pittsburgh experience. Renaissance is not a top-down phenomenon; true renaissance starts at the bottom.

  • The Menckenian "buncombe" and its origin-unknown cousin "balderdash" are , however, quite apropos words to describe the $200,000 effort of that blue-ribbon group of guys and gals working to develop a new "brand" for Pittsburgh.

    Here's the rough draft:

    "Just as the steel from which it draws its roots, Pittsburgh has an authenticity and durability that provides a strong foundation, yielding new opportunities to grow and succeed. The amalgamation of our resources draws people together to a place where ideas are invented and transformed."

    Huh• This is pure gibberish. It's elitist mumbo-jumbo. Call the EPA, there's been a foul discharge! "Hey kids, let's brainstorm !" I can only guess was the impetus for the above "prose." Sorry, but it reeks of brain flatulence to me and most people I know.

    But it's also instructive — Pittsburgh's supposedly "best and brightest" show an astounding lack of focus with this draft mission statement. And even if they had any focus, they certainly appear to have neither the niche nor the knack for enunciating it.

    "Whatever the brand essence ends up being, it should end up being something we are comfortable with for a long, long time," Laura Gongos of the Burson-Marsteller ad/flack agency, and leader of the effort, told a reporter. "A brand essence should be able to live forever."

    But this sucker's dead on arrival. And it's an embarrassment.

    Pittsburgh, the city, and Pittsburgh, the region, is an incredibly cosmopolitan place. It could have a great future. But first, government needs to learn how to facilitate instead of direct . And, second, well-meaning groups such as Gongos's need to do two things — get their eyes checked and brush up on their basic communications skills.

    Happy New Year, everybody.

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