Michael McGough

Yesterday was to have begun for me with an appointment with a physical trainer at a health club, where, at my doctor’s suggestion, I have signed on for a regimen to reverse the effects of 25 years of literally sitting in judgment of politicians and other less sedentary folk. I postponed the appointment when I got an e-mail from Sean Donahue, a student at the University of Virginia and Post-Gazette Op-Ed contributor who said he would have a two-hour layover at the Pittsburgh airport. Sean is the Doogie Howser of political journalism. He reported on the 1992 New Hampshire primary for a Boston radio station when he was still in grade school.

Over bagels at the “air mall,” I bored Sean with a little local aviation history. The old Greater Pittsburgh Airport was configured for the convenience of Pittsburghers: You could drive up to the entrance and expeditiously check in or pick up a visitor. The new airport, a hub for US Airways, is designed for the convenience of people who fly to Pittsburgh so they can fly somewhere else. To get to most of the gates, you have to jump on a people-mover and endure a disembodied, HAL-like voice announcing that “the transit” is approaching the station.

Our connector-friendly airport is a metaphor–eveything’s a metaphor to a journalist–for a political debate about the future of Pittsburgh and the rest of Allegheny County. The erstwhile Steel City now sees its salvation in medical, high-tech, and airline jobs and in a generalized aspiration to be “world-class.” To a lot of paleo-Pittsburghers still traumatized by the implosion of the steel industry, the lusting after world-class status is a preoccupation of a Downtown elite (including my newspaper) and a betrayal of the area’s heavy-metal history.

It doesn’t matter to the paleos how many software engineers are attracted to the area by spinoffs from Carnegie Mellon University or medical marvels at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Nor is the new-style diversity that accrues to Pittsburgh universally prized. (One of the movers who installed me in my apartment in Oakland, the university neighborhood, had this comment about the large number of Asian tenants in the building: “Ah, the New World Order.” I didn’t tell him that, like the connectors at the airport, many of these people were just passing through Pittsburgh.)

Oddly, the fissure between the old and new Pittsburgh almost swallowed up an icon of the Steel City era–the Pittsburgh Pirates–two years ago. After a campaign that united right- and left-wing populists, the voters in Allegheny County and several surrounding counties voted down a half-percentage-point add-on to the sales tax to help pay for, among other things, a new baseball-only stadium to keep the Bucs from bolting. Opponents of the tax pooh-poohed warnings that their negativism could cost Pittsburgh an asset that was world class even in the Smoky City days. Better that devastation than any public subsidy of “millionaire ballplayers.”

Local leaders and the Legislature contrived to find another way to help support not only a new Pirates stadium but a new Steelers stadium as well, but the bitterness lingers. There are echoes of the stadium struggle in the current race for Allegheny County executive, a new position that, along with a County Council, will replace the three-man board of the commissioners that now governs the county.

Both county-executive candidates in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary supported a public role in stadium funding, but the issue divided the two Republican candidates. The aginner, County Commisioner Larry Dunn, is celebrated in a letter to the editor in the Post-Gazette today as “the only man who has the interest of the little guy–the taxpayer–at heart.” Interestingly, however, even Dunn supports an investment of public funds to induce US Airways to build a $604.5 million maintenance facility at the Pittsburgh airport (though he insists he wouldn’t have to raise taxes to do so).

The maintenance facility would produce “good-paying” jobs for local people, rather than line the pockets of millionaire ballplayers, which makes it attractive to paleo-Pittsburghers. But it’s also a neo-Pittsburgh project. Like those away-team ballplayers, a lot of the passengers on those planes will be just passing through–though they might have a bagel at the air mall.