Gateway Station, downtown Pittsburgh. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Jerry Paytas looks out his oversized conference room windows in remade industrial Chateau Street and likes what’s there.

“We’re starting to see the benefits of the reinvestments we’ve made diversifying our economy,” he says. “The technology base, and other industries, are spurring a lot more revitalization around the city.”

Paytas ought to know. As vice president of Fourth Economy, a consulting group, he spots trends, guides and counsels. “I’ve been working in economic development for 25 years,” he says. “I spent the first 20 looking for the silver lining in the economy. Now I don’t have to search for it. Pittsburgh has population growth. Job growth. A healthy economy overall.”

Paytas pauses to consider. “However,” he begins.

As an American city, Pittsburgh is clearly the Comeback Kid, first inventing modern urban redevelopment, then brilliantly rebounding from the demise of heavy industry, remaking itself into a world leader in technology, medicine and education.

Yet a closer look reveals that we’re not there yet. For Pittsburgh to grow from good to great, a number of areas need to be improved.

From a laundry list of must-dos, here are NEXT’s top five.

Shippingport. Brian Cohen photo.

Air Quality

Sure, Smoke Control cleared the skies, and they look great. But looks can be deceiving. Are deceiving when it comes to air quality.

As someone who’s taken the lead on this vital issue, the Heinz Endowments’ Grant Oliphant reminds us that “breathing is not optional. “We all do it. What we’re doing now is playing the lottery on whether we’re going to be one of the lucky people who don’t get sick breathing this dirty air.”

“We need to educate people that the problem still exists,” Oliphant adds. “The myth in Pittsburgh is that because air is better it’s OK. It’s not. People are suffering because we need to do a basic clean up.

“Tougher regulations are part of the answer,” he says, “but so is greater enforcement. We have polluters in the county who are paying for the right to pollute.” He shakes his head. “That shouldn’t be. Can’t be.

“Aside from a health issue,” Oliphant argues, “clean air is an economic development issue. Google, Rand — what you hear from them is that one of their top priorities is clean air. Their workers can live anywhere in the country. They want to live in communities where the air they breathe is safe.”

“Bottom line,” Oliphant avers: “if we are not astute about this, if we cling to the polluting industries of the past, we will lose out on the economic growth industries of the future.”

To take the fight to the street, the Heinz Endowments have created the Breathe Project. Headed by Phil Johnson, Breathe, he says, “pulls together a diverse group to talk about air quality — future, livability and image. Sometimes it boils down to something as simple as ‘can we go to sleep with windows open and wake up without coughing?’”

Transportation

Just as particulate matter is not entirely of our own making, so are our transportation challenges not entirely home-grown.

“One emerging area,” Jerry Paytas says, “is air service. It’s not unique to Pittsburgh. All second-tier cities have seen big declines in air service. The old hub system has broken down. Airlines want to be in cities with an indigenous, large-traffic base. The solution to a lack of direct flights isn’t necessary local. It may be beyond our ability to fix.”

Locally, however, we have miles to go–and ways to get there.

So says Ken Zapinski, Allegheny Conference senior vice president for energy and infrastructure.

“While Pittsburgh topography gives us wonderful neighborhoods,” he says, “and stunningly beautiful vistas, it makes transportation difficult. People can’t go the way the crow flies. And roads are never as wide as you’d like them to be. So physical constraints are big defining factors in moving around people and goods.”

“Our question is how can we take control of our own destiny?” Zapinski adds. “Not Harrisburg. Not Washington. How can we create a regional vision around connectivity? That communities are connected in the best way possible. That roads and highways, transit systems, bicycles, walkways all stand side by side? Transportation is a network, and all pieces of the network need to work together.”

Easier said than done, he admits, but “let’s get started. Let’s make it easy to live in the region without a car. That’s very hard now.”

“It won’t happen this year,” Zapinski warns. “Or next. But now conversations are taking place about what the future should look like. What should things look like 20 years from now?

“What’s most important,” he says, “is never to lose sight of the human element. That the region offers transportation opportunities regardless of education, background, race, or socio-economic status.” Read more about transportation issues in this article that features Ellen McLean of the Port Authority.

Larry Davis of Center on Race and Social Problems. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Equity/Diversity

“Race is America’s defining social problem,” says Larry Davis, Dean of Pitt’s Social Work School and head of its Center on Race and Social Problems. “It’s the most endemic. And we have the greatest reluctance to address it.”

But address we must, he says, for an equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. “Our challenge is to include all of our citizens in the growth and rebirth of Pittsburgh. Not just some of them. All of them. The major question facing us today is are we defining, re-creating and re-inventing ourselves in such a way to do that?”

“To do that,” he continues, “we need to be sensitive to the implications of what we do. We need to acknowledge that we haven’t done it in the past. And we need to identify the advantages of including people–a more attractive city; a safer, less violent world; a just society.”

Top-down leadership will help, Davis adds. One way is to replicate the Rooney Rule, the NFL requirement that applicants for any significant hire include at least one minority candidate. “We know we need diverse people in the room,” he says, “so let’s do it. To say ‘we can’t find anybody qualified’ is nonsense!”

To that end, his Center on Race and Social Problems provides a forum to investigate such challenges and solutions. “It’s a place where civil-minded people can discuss race,” Davis says. “In 2010, 1,000 people came here, to the biggest conference about race in American history.

“In order to persevere,” Davis says, “we must say, ‘I’m not at the end. I’m somewhere in the continuum. I’m part of the process.’ Because seeing that it’s protracted keeps us from becoming completely disillusioned. Completely defeated. ‘This is my part of the struggle.’ If we say that, we can sustain ourselves.”

Carey Harris of A+ Schools. Brian Cohen photo.

Education

“We’re facing a global economy,” says A+ Schools executive director Carey Harris. “But public education is not designed to deal with the future. It is slow to respond. What it takes to thrive is a much higher standard of education. Currently, our public schools are not up to that standard. Meaning that a high school diploma will no longer translate into a living-wage job.” She pauses. “It’s as simple as that.”

Joined in the struggle by such organizations as Communities in Schools, the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, Propel, the Neighborhood Academy, and others, A+ Schools was formed in 2004 to provide objective oversight and support for school improvements.

“While we expect everyone to be educated,” Harris adds, “we haven’t built the system to serve the students. We don’t serve poor kids well. They get fewer enrichment courses, fewer books and fewer advanced courses. They experience higher teacher and principal turnover. Higher absenteeism, higher drop-out rates.

“Having said that, there are good things happening,” she says. “Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane is an amazing person. She really gets it. There are great teachers doing amazing work. We’ve engaged parents in high-poverty schools. But we still have big challenges. We need a way to achieve better outcomes.”

Finish Line

Jerry Paytas sits back and reviews it all. Air quality. Transportation. Equity. Diversity. Education.

What’s the timetable? he’s pressed.

“In truth,” he says, “it never gets done. We always have to go back and fix something. We always need to re-invent ourselves. Technology changes. People’s choices change. Economies change. So a city has to understand when the game has changed and be nimble enough to adapt.”

Paytas folds his hands, looks out the window at the evolving industrial wreckage of Chateau Street, a landscape that is rusting and sluggish, but still alive.

“There’s no finish line,” he says.

Look for more in-depth coverage of  each of these issues in NEXTpittsburgh soon and please feel free to comment below or here.

Abby Mendelson

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh:...