Even on Some of the Most Progressive Porches in America, Foreclosures Not Well Understood
Â If youâ€™ve never been to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then you probably donâ€™t know a whole lot about the placeâ€¦ itâ€™s not at all what most people who havenâ€™t been there think it is.Â I grew up thereâ€¦ so I understand.
A few weeks ago, we took a family vacation to visit friends and relatives living on the East Coast.Â It was our daughterâ€™s first visit to New York City, which couldnâ€™t help but be exciting all around, and from there we drove down to the sweltering swamp that is Washington DC to visit Uncle Walter… and we wrapped up our travels by spending a few days in my old stomping grounds, as they sayâ€¦ Pittsburgh, PA.
It was a wonderful trip that Iâ€™m sure weâ€™ll all remember forever, but there was one event in particular that I knew Iâ€™d be compelled to share when I returned to my desk.
But, firstâ€¦ allow me to offer a brief introduction to what the city of Pittsburgh is all about because I think it’s important that you understand the city to understand the significance of what I’m about to tell you.
Pittsburgh was once one of this countryâ€™s most powerful and productive centers of industryâ€¦ at one time the steel capital of perhaps the entire world… a time when barges loaded with lumber, oil, coal and coke literally clogged the cityâ€™s mighty rivers, and “robber barons” ruled the land.Â But those days were over by the time I graduated from High School at the end of 1970s, and today itâ€™s universities and high-tech medical centers that dominate the City of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh today is a multi-cultural and scientific center of influenceâ€¦ an intellectual mecca for those in fields like bio-med, robotics and nuclear engineeringâ€¦ a city filled with research facilities and top-ranked museums, including one dedicated to Andy Warholâ€¦ and a town framed by three industrial rivers that absolutely adores its Steelers, Pirates and Penguins sports franchises.
Itâ€™s a city where ballet and symphony are accessible, but also a place with a long tradition of jazz, blues and bluegrass music.Â Itâ€™s where youâ€™ll find the countryâ€™s first all African-American opera company, the long-running Three Rivers Arts and Film Festivals, and the world famousÂ Duquesne University Tamburitzans, a multicultural academy dedicated to the preservation and presentation of folk songs and dance.
InÂ 2014, a National Bureau of Economic Research report named Pittsburgh the second best U.S. city for â€śintergenerational economic mobility or theÂ American Dream,â€ť and I was not the least bit surprised to hear it.Â In 2005, 2009 and 2011, Pittsburgh was named most livable city in the United States byÂ The Economist magazine, and theÂ Economist Intelligence Unit named Pittsburgh the top place to live in the United States in 2011,behind only Honolulu for 2012. Â In addition, CBS Money WatchÂ andÂ U.S. News named the city among the â€ś10 best U.S. places to retire in 2012,â€ť and in February 2013,Â Forbes Magazine listed Pittsburgh among its â€ś10 most unexpectedly romantic world locations.â€ť
Undoubtedly, these sorts of accolades are based on factors like cultural and economic opportunity, but itâ€™s also Pittsburghâ€™s relatively low cost of living that makes the city a place where people donâ€™t feel the same sort of unrelenting pressure to earn more at all costs, as they clearly do in places like New York or Los Angeles.
I also think that Pittsburghâ€™s historical support for organized labor, higher education and cultural diversity, combine to make it a decidedly liberal city, politically speaking, with a very intellectual feelâ€¦ the sort of place where no one is surprised to learn while out for dinner that their server is a post-doctoral research fellow.Â Since the Great Depression, Democrats have been elected consecutively to the mayor’s office with the exception of only two years, 1973 and 1977, and the city’s current ratio of registered voters stands at 5 to 1 in favor of Democrats.
In a nutshell, I think itâ€™s fair to characterize Pittsburgh as a city where most people are thoughtful and caringâ€¦ empathetic to the plight of the workingmanâ€¦ fundamentally concerned with fairnessâ€¦ I donâ€™t even think â€śprotectors of the American Dream,â€ť is going to far when describing much of Pittsburghâ€™s population.Â And Iâ€™m sure a large part of that heritage is the result of the cityâ€™s tumultuous history as the battleground upon which the American Labor Movement would be born.
Labor goes into labor…Â
Perhaps the most significant event in the history of organized labor in America is known as â€śThe Battle of Homestead,â€ť which erupted just after dawn on July 6, 1892, when locked-out steelworkers of the Carnegie Steel works at Homestead, along with citizens of the town, broke into the closed mill on the banks of the Monongahela River.
As the workers attempted to secure the mill a private army of well-armed and highly trained Pinkerton agents confronted them, and the resulting battle would take the lives of three Pinkerton agents and seven workers, with countless others wounded.Â Finally the Pinkerton agents were forced to surrender and as they were led away they were literally beaten as they passed through a gauntlet of townspeople, enraged and grieving women, and even children.
It would become a watershed event for U.S. labor relationsâ€¦ a stark and ugly demonstration of how wealthâ€™s power could be wielded to control the lives of workers.
You see, Pittsburgh wasnâ€™t just a town of mill workersâ€¦ itâ€™s also where the â€śRobber Baronsâ€ť came to work… entrepreneurs with names like Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, Vanderbilt, Morgan and Gould, who became inconceivably wealthy industrialists in large part because they were free to build their enterprises without being hindered by things like competition, child labor laws, collective bargaining by organized labor unions, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, among others, which Congress passed in 1890 in order to bring an end to monopolies, cartels and trusts in this country.
So, there you have Pittsburgh… a city that learned from the wealthiest managers and the poorest of laborersâ€¦ attracted some of the best and brightest to its academic institutions and research centersâ€¦ and survived the turmoil that comes with cultural diversity and that arrived again with the loss of Americaâ€™s steel industry, to become a city where itâ€™s quite clear that things are working.
Iâ€™m by no means implying that everyone in Pittsburgh agrees on anything or is any sort of model citizen, but I think itâ€™s undeniable that in part, itâ€™s because people in Pittsburgh for the most part do care and do get involved.
I didnâ€™t grow up as the son of a steel worker…
No, my father was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh for 34 years, before he passed away this past year just shy of his 82nd birthday.Â He graduated from Harvard University in 1952, and ultimately became a Professor of Water Chemistry & Environmental Health at the University of Pittsburgh’s Â Graduate School of Public Health, the Associate Director of the Center for Environmental Epidemiology, a visiting lecturer at Harvardâ€¦ and a visiting faculty member at University College London.
My father conducted research on the hazards of wastewater, drinking water, air pollution and building interiors for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, the Centers for Disease Control & Preventionâ€¦ and the National Park Service.Â In 1987, he was the lead editor of the book: â€śHealth Effects from Hazardous Waste Sites.â€ťÂ (Iâ€™d say wait for the movie.)
My mother, on the other hand, who earned her bachelors at NYU and her masters in Special Education at Hunter College, went on to spend over 30 years as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood.
So, I think itâ€™s safe to describe my parents as caring and thoughtful people who were often involved and empatheticâ€¦ not having anything to do with me, of course, but about the plights of others, you understandâ€¦ lol.Â (Okay, Iâ€™m kiddingâ€¦ sort of.Â If my father were reading this todayâ€¦ and who knows, maybe he isâ€¦ I think heâ€™d quip that itâ€™s just a matter of â€śpicking your plights.â€ťÂ Funny, Dadâ€¦ very funny.)
I grew up on one of Pittsburghâ€™s beautiful tree-lined streets, where many of the homes were built 100 years ago, give or take, by those who would never work a day breathing coal mine air, or spend even an hour facing the blast furnace found in the bowls of one of Mr. Carnegieâ€™s pre-OSHA steel mills.Â No, Squirrel Hill is a part of Pittsburgh where the professionals liveâ€¦ doctors, lawyers, academics and other chieftains of one type of enterprise or another.
While I was growing up, I think I remember Squirrel Hill as being about 60 percent Jewish, which means that when I was a kid, not even the teachers showed up for school on Yom Kippurâ€¦. and that you might as well call for take-out on Christmas Eve, because youâ€™ll never get a table at a Chinese restaurant.
(We had only just driven into town a couple of weeks ago, and were making a bee-line to my favorite Pittsburgh pizza purveyor, Mineoâ€™s, in case youâ€™re interested, when I found my wife and daughter playing their own little game of â€ścount the yarmulkes,â€ť and my wife commented: â€śItâ€™s a regular Little Israel around here, isnâ€™t it?â€ť Â She’s not always that funny, so I thought I’d share.)
And, not to put too fine a point on itâ€¦ but Jews are generally thoughtful, compassionate, caring and if anythingâ€¦ too involved in the plights of others. Â Remember Peter, Paul & Mary?Â Jews, except for Paul.Â Bob Dylanâ€¦ a Jew too.Â Barbara Streisandâ€¦ Billy Joelâ€¦ Paul Simonâ€¦ Harry Chapinâ€¦ Arlo Guthrieâ€¦ do you even need to ask?Â Jewsâ€¦ in fact, you throw out an injusticeâ€¦ and Iâ€™ll tell you which Jew is outraged by it.
Squirrel Hillâ€™s progressive porchesâ€¦
We lucked out with the weather and showing my daughter around Pittsburgh was a blast in many ways, but it was how we spent our evenings there that you might find interesting, because we spent our evenings in Pittsburgh sitting on the porch with friends and family for hours, talking about old times and the events of the day, drinking red wine and having a few snacksâ€¦ even playing a little ukulele and singing a couple of Beatlesâ€™ songs.
One evening we were sitting on the porch of my best friend growing up… his mom was there, along with his younger brother and his wife, who have moved back home in their 40s, after losing their home in San Francisco to foreclosure a couple of years back.Â A couple of other neighbors were there as wellâ€¦ one guy who I remember growing up with, although he was at least a decade my senior.
It was a very PROGRESSIVE and intellectual group of Pittsburgers… and when I say â€śprogressive,â€ť Iâ€™m talking about slightly left of Mao Tse-Tung. Â In fact,Â I can remember this home holding a big political fundraiser for Dick Gregory, who I think was a presidential candidate for the â€śListen Up, Whiteyâ€ť party in ’72, and Â I had no trouble remembering every single person on this porch being against the War in Viet Nam, hopelessly in favor of the ERA, and so mad about Nixon they were ready to storm the castle in â€™74.
And Iâ€™d bet you any amount that every single person on the porch those nights voted for Obama twice, mostly because heâ€™s blackâ€¦ but also because they werenâ€™t allowed to vote for him a third time. Â It made me wish I had worn my â€śPalin for Presidentâ€ť campaign shirtâ€¦ or my other favorite: â€śQuayle in â€™95.”
I donâ€™t know if they make them yet, but if they do, I’d bet the home’s kitchen to have a hybrid dishwasher, and although it was dark outside, I think the guy I was playing uke with was driving a Toyota Pious and emitting only clouds of smug.
Have I made my point yet? Â These people were caring, thoughtful folkâ€¦ some of Pittsburghâ€™s finestâ€¦ people who would be more likely to be able to tell me whatâ€™s gone on in Darfur on a monthly basis since 2002, than they would be able to tell me whether the Dow has ever broken through 11,000.Â And none would cross a picket line regardless of just about anything.
So, where else could it possibly be safer to bring up the foreclosure crisis than on this Pittsburgh porch, right?Â Thereâ€™s not a Republican within 6-7 milesâ€¦ thereâ€™s no way any of them has trusted a bank since the mid-60sâ€¦ in fact, if any of them on the porch werenâ€™t already credit union members, Iâ€™ll eat the toaster you get free when you open a new account.
Okay, so I decided that I would do itâ€¦ Iâ€™d bring up the topic of the ongoing foreclosure crisis.Â These were my peeps and itâ€™s not like I donâ€™t know a thing or two about the subject matterâ€¦ maybe theyâ€™ll be interested in learning more about the unconscionable situation related to foreclosures that we continue to let fester and f#@k with our economy in large part because of a bond trader on CNBC named Rick Santelli.
â€śSo, what have I been doing lately?Â Funny you should askâ€¦â€ť
I think I got two sentences out about the injusticeâ€¦ one about the failure of governmentâ€¦ a mini-point about the larceny of the mortgage servicers and foreclosure mill lawyers and their fraudulent document factories that have been used to kick almost 8 million American families out of their homesâ€¦ and I was just about to bring up eminent domain, when I heard people around me sayingâ€¦
â€śWait a minute here, why should someone who bought a home they couldnâ€™t affordâ€¦â€ť
â€śThere needs to be some personal responsibilityâ€¦â€ť
â€śInvestors deserve protection here too, what about them?â€ť
It was like getting kicked in the head and all of a sudden I was reeling against the ropes like Rocky in the last five minutes of his first fight with Apollo Creed.
I started explaining what behavioral economists refer to as the â€śjust world hypothesis,â€ť which refers to our tendency to want to attribute someoneâ€™s misfortune to that personâ€™s own behavior in order to support our belief in a just and fair world where bad things simply donâ€™t happen to good people.Â And they were nodding along, so maybe we would end up having a productive conversation about how foreclosures are being handled to-date and Iâ€™d end up having converted a few to the side of American homeowners.
But, my confidence was short lived the moment the word foreclosure came up againâ€¦ and they all pounced. Â People should not have bought the house if they canâ€™t make the mortgage payment, and that was all there was to it, as far as Pittsburghers were concerned.
Pittsburgh nooooooo, say it isnâ€™t so.Â What happened to caring about the working man or womenâ€¦ reading, thinking, learningâ€¦ taking action?Â No?Â Nothing?Â Make your payment or youâ€™re an irresponsible borrower who should be shunned like an Amish caught with an iPod attached to his plow handle?Â Seriously?
But, waitâ€¦ I had to try one more timeâ€¦ what about my friendâ€™s little brother who lost a home in San Fran and was back living with his mother as a resultâ€¦ were they all blaming him for his predicament as well?
He must have seen where I was gong, and before I could even finish my sentence, he was off to the bathroomâ€¦ damn it.Â All alone again, clutching only facts about foreclosures to protect me from angry hoards only interested in getting me moved out of my home of twenty years as fast as possibleâ€¦ so they could see what my place would be selling for at the auction. Â They looked almost bloodthirsty as they started talking about owning a rental or two.
Oh my Godâ€¦ they were turning into slum lords right in front of my eyes.
There was nothing I could do, I had to make a run for it.Â And luckily my daughter looked like I was forcing her to sit and wait while I appeared as a guest on the Lawrence Welk Show for three straight hours.Â I couldnâ€™t quite make it out, my ears were ringing by that point, but she seemed to be sayingâ€¦
â€śDad, if you donâ€™t get me within 10 feet of someone under the age of 45 fast, I may start hemorrhaging.â€ť
And, under the principle that any port in a storm is better than drowning out at seaâ€¦ I took her lead and started saying things likeâ€¦ well, it is late, I knowâ€¦ are you tired baby?â€ťÂ YAWNâ€¦ and it workedâ€¦ two other yawns followed mine.Â My wife stood up and went to start cleaning upâ€¦ YES!Â We would be in the car driving to our hotel in a matter of minutes.
And then it started raining and the conversation switched to the weatherâ€¦ and the next thing I knew it was morning and I was waking up in a cold sweat.Â Had the whole thing been a dream?
No, it wasnâ€™t a dream. Â It was a nightmare.
Politicians arenâ€™t going to fix something that will get them thrown out of office for fixing.Â And if this is what people on progressive porches in Pittsburgh are thinking and saying about foreclosures, just imagine what those in the right wing red states would Â be saying.
And I went back to bed.