Monthly Archives: April 2011


The “cities vs suburbs” trope prompted me to muse about another term that we often misuse in the United States  – urban area.

The ancient term –Urbs – referred to a walled in town characterized by cohesion, population density and to an extent size. And as the story goes, when Constantine re-built Byzantium into  Constantinople he knew exactly what he wanted. And his directions were closely followed by its planners, engineers and builders. This is why, from all the kingdoms and  their mighty Urbis , Constantinople was the  last to fall to the successive invasions of the  middle ages.

Uban area, as it is understood today is mainly defined by density and to an extent size, while the core requirement of cohesion has been long lost in the United States.  What we call today an “urban area” is in fact a multitude of fractured municipalities located in the immediate vicinity of a major city – a high density area with a relative administrative unity that is playing an important role in local economics and in certain cases could be defined historically.

Consider the city of Pittsburgh and the suburbs in the nearest vicinity that are the Allegheny County municipalities. The actual urban area stretches further than Allegheny County’s borders, but in order to simplify the argumentation we shall limit ourselves to the places that are within its borders.

The map featured above paints the diversity of the sa-called Pittsburgh Urban Area .

Imagine yourself as the person in charge of developing a functional transportation network. Transportation , the brick-and mortar infrastructure of an urban area , is as important as your body’s circulatory and nervous systems.  A good flow is vital – any clogging, any interruptions in each of the systems will lead to illness.  A good transportation flow is equally vital for the urban area you are living in -if people and businesses cannot achieve  the  mobility/access they desire , they are very likely to move on and move out…

To achieve this steady, healthy flow in the Pittsburgh urban area , the planner needs to deal  first with an unfriendly topology –rivers, streams and  high steep hills, the need for bridges and tunnels.

The second challenge —  having to deal with each individual municipality – and there are 130 municipalities “all with a strong tradition of statutory municipal independence and self government.” One hundred thirty fragments that do not make a whole is a serious problem for someone who is trying to build an uninterrupted, functional transportation flow through the area.Especially as each place holds to its history, its rules …


You have 88 neighborhoods in the city and 130 municipalities in the county, therefore  you would have to deal with 218 individual communities,  some that are so obsessed with preserving their identity that they are now  enclaves among larger communities.

And only 305,704 of the 1,526,006 county residents live in the actual city –that is only 20%. The rest 80% live in communities as diverse as

  • old cities -McKeesport , Borough of Leetsdale
  • walking suburban areas -Mt. Lebanon, Crafton, Bellevue, Avalon;
  • suburbs that are very similar with  the city neighborhoods they border – Dormont, Beechview, Brookline or Brentwood, Carrick, South Baldwin ;
  • suburbs  with an older, walkable core sprawling into the new driving only type –Baldwin Borough, Ben Avon, Shaler  and surrounded by sprawlites – Bridgeville.
  • Typical sprawling suburbs – North Fayette , Monoreville, Pine, McCandless etc.
  • Typical suburbs that are yet still close to the city borders –O’Hara, Whitehall (the South part of it)
  • Enclaves – Mount Oliver (that’s a sore spot) , Oakdale, West View, Bridgeville, Bradford Woods, Pitcarin

Some municipalities are actual old cities , that were in the old  times cribs of prosperity and growth. Old, walkable cities  outside of the actual city with their own  satellite boroughs and townships that had once sprawled from their prosperity. With their own customs, traditions and the desire to preserve themselves as independent entities (one example is MonValley).

Some municipalities combine the old borough with sidewalks and mom and pop shops with sprawling areas of the  typical drivable suburban sort -they look like snakes uncurling their tails towards  the borders of the county , stealing space between other boroughs and townships.

Some municipalities sprawled in the typical American way – that is towards the outskirts and beyond. Some municipalities found themselves enclosed by borders  and took advantage of the topology to sprawl towards higher altitudes. Some municipalities are enclaves that resisted the growth of neighboring boroughs and found themselves encircled by those.

How can you achieve that healthy transportation flow when some will encourage cars, some public transit and you have to pass through one municipality to get to another. Plus you cannot build highways in the older boroughs and a transit system grows ineffective because the sprawl. Not to mention that a municipality your transit system has to pass through can make its roads quite unfriendly for it….

Admit it , there will be no solution to the transportation flow without the cohesion of the Urbe.



The Village

When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates, who had an undergrad sociology degree, told us about this village in Romania he had to visit and study [1]. The village, somewhere in the hilly Sub-Carpathian region was able to preserve its wealth during the communist years. People had orchard gardens surrounding their houses that couldn’t be nationalized; they sold fruits in the free farmer markets for generations and made a decent profit for all those years. Some were also shepherds, another private enterprise that prospered in spite of the communism, as no one cared to track the growing herds as they moved from lower to higher pastures and back, part of the traditional transhumance customs.The prosperity of the inhabitants of that village was apparent in the size and quality of their homes, the richness of furnishing and decorations inside, their ability to develop their individual septic sewage systems. From this point of view, it was as five decades of communism never happened. Yet, something was lost – their civic conscience. The roads between houses were crumbling in disrepairs, the common grounds were abandoned to weeds and wild vegetation, the common forest resources were often abused and whilst each afforded and individual septic system, it never crossed their minds that a systems of aqueducts and sewers would’ve been more efficient.

The Country

The United State reminds me of that village. Pennsylvania reminds me of that village. The Pittsburgh Urban area reminds me of that village.

The United States economy, even after the recession, still justifies the greatest expectations for individual prosperity. But when it comes to civic wealth, or common wealth, the United States is constantly sliding down in what it has to offer to its citizens.  As in that village, Americans are richer or potentially richer than every other nation. Yet the roadways are crumbling, the education system is underfunded, public transit services are shrinking since the sixties, public libraries close doors and millions of people cannot afford the most basic healthcare services.

Now I do not know how to explain the state of facts – no place in the United States suffered through five decades of that totalitarian regime called communism. But perhaps is the opposition, the fear of a communist like regime that made people to reassert their individualities to the point that they forgot they are all residents of the same Civitas. [2]

And if civitas sounds foreign , or old and forgotten, let’s try Commonwealth – common wealth. This principle of commonwealth does not try to make the rich people poorer, but stresses a well known historical fact. When only a few individuals can enjoy a region’s wealth, its resources and the products of the community’s hard work, their prosperity will not last long. Because the handful of wealthy people will drain those resources and they will force everybody else to revolt or leave.[3] Plus is the Christian thing to do.[4]

The State

Returning to Pennsylvania, to Western Pennsylvania to be more precise – the value of common wealth and the needs for a civic conscience became even clearer in the light of the last budget cuts. As the newly elected state governor bragged about the potential wealth from shale gas extractions he also started to cut down funds for all civic programs and projects.


State colleges and public schools. The impact is not limited to education quality for children from families with low and middle class incomes. As the state university with the largest campus in Pittsburgh saw its budget cut in half started to evaluate those expenses that can be cut. One expense is its yearly contribution to the local provider of public transportation services, the Port Authority of Allegheny County in exchange for free rides for its students and employees.[5]

The Port Authority, which saw its own funding shrink during the last years, struggles to avoid crippling cuts without going over budget. Hopes to see more funding coming its way are low, the whole transportation sector suffers from lack of funding. And that means not just fewer buses or fewer new roads, but also unsafe bridges and less work for civil engineering and contractors, therefore less business opportunities for local small businesses. [6]

Of course the state government has to deal with a billion dollar budget shortfall. Of course they have to cut down expenses. Of course they believe that taxing shale gas extraction to fund public transportation, state colleges, roads, bridges etc.  is bad for business. They tell us that taxing shale gas extraction – as they have told themselves – will lead investors to lose their interest in exploring this new resource of wealth. Even if I would not doubt their statement, how does keeping the shale gas business justify the loss of bus driver jobs, tuition paying students and research possibilities, local civil engineering and contracting businesses?

Because the Commonwealth, Civitas is not about welfare as Temporary Assistance For Needy Families and Dependents. It is about the subtle foundations, the framework on which the wealth of the community is built. And a wealthy community holds more possibilities for individual wealth.

Deficit Causes

One can blame it on the high costs or retirement benefits for public transportation and state employees. One can blame it on the recession. One can also blame it on the misadministration of wealth by the state and local governments and argue that, for this reason, the wealth should stay in the hands of those who are able to exploit it. Which could very well be, and in fact some actually are out of state companies, out of state investors or out of state workers exploiting the local resources, i.e. shale gas. Companies, investors and workers who have no interest to invest in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

And  no one will be wrong, all of the above are justifiable explanations. But no one will be right either. Because the root of our problems lays on the fact that we had lost our civic conscience, we had somehow forgotten that we are all citizens of the same Civitas.

This has to be the correct explanation, lest is no other way for me to understand why the wrong solutions are sought in all the wrong places.


 [1] I cannot recall the name of the village. I can recall the name of my classmate in case you want to track him down and verify the authenticity of the story

[2] Civitas. Civitates: « concilium coetusque hominum jure sociati « (Cicero, Somm.Scip. ) =a political community sovereign and independent.  Linguistic root for the word “civic”= regarding that community.Source:*/Civitas.html

[3]That is something even roman emperors knew when they gave free corn to the residents of the City.

[4]” Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” Andrew Carnegie



Easter Egg Hunt

Spring is finally in Pittsburgh.  And it is here to stay…

How can I tell?

Because  Pittsburgh is the city of rain. Morose, continuous, trickling down your nerves in  the fall and during the wintry weather stretching out through the spring months . Capricious when  spring has settled  and during summer… And the time of capricious rains and thunderstorms is here. So spring must’ve been settling around on the hills.

Do you recall my excitement for the planned Venture Outdoors hiking and egg hunting trip for this Saturday. Well as the end of the week approached the weather people on TV  seemed to come to an agreement, in spite of a sunny Thursday and Friday, Saturday’s weather will  not be inviting anyone to venture outdoors.  You can imagine my disappointment…

I did not want to disappoint the children too. I promised them a fun day this week-end so I offered them one. Just that it was yesterday and it was inside.

South Peter’s Episcopal Church in Brentwood offers one Friday month babysitting service from 6pm to 10.30 pm.The program is run by a church member and fourth grade Pittsburgh Public School teacher Mrs. K. – who is closely supervising a group of high school students :the babysitters.

The babysitters, most in their late teens , most already experienced and some CPR, First Aid certified. Young and full of energy , they will lead the younger children in fund activities whilst keeping a close eye on them.

…and there is always something to do. From crafts – we made Easter cards yesterday and solved number puzzles – to racing balls through hoopla hoops. There are free playtime periods as well as “circle time” where the younger children will improve their social skills and the teens will act as facilitators. I was taught how amazing is  their imagination when we got to choose our round or oval thing and share it with the group. From the most common choices :circle and tire to the most unusual : Oreo cookies and Olives through a thematic group : Earth, Moon and Sun.

The adults had also organized an ad-hoc egg hunt. By the end  we all crashed on couches and chairs in the Y2A classroom.

The Imperfect Haiku

First in bloom this spring

white flowered trees. Brides adorned

for  the fruitbearing  seasons.

The Apostle Paul and Planned Parenthood (or why do conservatives want to defund PP)

 Why do conservatives want so hard to defund Planned Parenthood?


First, they told us that it was about the abortions.  As good Christians, our elected conservative leaders, raised an ethical objection and opposed the use of tax money to fund a service that is unethical from their point of view . And, as a Christian, I did get their point of view because even though abortion is legal it is a questionable ethical decision. And the Apostle Paul would agree with the conservatives, I think, in 1 Corinthians 5-6 he is quite clear about expelling the ethically questionable from the community even though their acts were permitted in the world, i.e. legal by Roman law. Now, not that I agree with the conservative faction, but I can understand their reason – they are considering the taxes paid as their contribution to the broad community of American residents and they believe to be their duty to oppose anything that may force them to contribute to an act that they are condemning from an ethical standpoint.

 Yet only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortions and not even a penny from the federal fund opposed by conservatives is  used  towards this service. And it was said “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” (1 Corinthians 5 -9,10). Therefore as long as Planned Parenthood only offers legal services and does not use these good Christians money to fund unethical services, there should not be any objection to its federal funding.


But the argument did not stop here. Now these good Christian conservatives, who were elected as our leaders, are telling us that cutting funds for Planned Parenthood is not about abortions, but about “making sacrifices” to reduce the $14 trillion budget deficit. Yet there are many other ways to reduce the deficit that should be at the top of the list, long before Planned Parenthood is even mentioned. Not from a conservative or liberal point of view but from the same Christian point of view that was used when funding Planned Parenthood was first opposed.

[Some other ways to reduce deficit: close corporate tax loopholes – $400 billion over a 10-year period (1); stop big oil subsidies – $3.6 billion (2) reduce the fleet of new F-35 fighter jet by one – $304 million (3).]

Yet, all I hear in reply is that we have to sacrifice Planned Parenthood. That there is no reason for a program designed to help those single moms working for $8 an hour with no benefits to feel entitled to our generous giving. But it is the Apostle Paul who said: “A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7- 10, 11) Interestingly, since the only way for most women to remain unmarried once separated and yet survive was to receive support from the community. So the Christian community has the duty to support the single woman and the woman who had to separate from her husband is entitled to expect their support.

Therefore, it is in the virtue of the Christian Ethics invoked by our elected conservative leaders when they first opposed funding Planned Parenthood that most women who use its services are entitled to them. It is just that when you ask our elected conservative leaders to dip their hands in their pockets or those of their rich supporters that they are suddenly blinded and are unable to recall what is asked from them…And it was said to them “You give a tenth of your spices –mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law –justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Mathew 23-23)

Yet, in spite of the argument above, our elected conservative leaders will continue to oppose the funding Planned Parenthood. Why? They cannot ask their rich supporters to give up their bountifulness for the single working mothers. They cannot support those women who are independent enough, brave enough to ask what is due to them. Because without the submissive women who came to accept their husbands abuse as the “Christian thing to do”  and their rich buddies to pay for their campaigns they’d end up in the ditch (or pit).

This is why there is nothing more I can add, but accept that no matter what I say or how their position would be unchanged.

“Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind both with fall into a pit” ( Mathew 15-14)


Note: All bible quotes are from the from the NIV edition.