Even on Some of the Most Progressive Porches in America, Foreclosures Not Well Understood
If you’ve never been to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then you probably don’t know a whole lot about the place… it’s not at all what most people who haven’t been there think it is. I grew up there… so I understand.
A few weeks ago, we took a family vacation to visit friends and relatives living on the East Coast. It was our daughter’s first visit to New York City, which couldn’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 say… Pittsburgh, PA.
It was a wonderful trip that I’m sure we’ll all remember forever, but there was one event in particular that I knew I’d be compelled to share when I returned to my desk.
But, first… 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 country’s most powerful and productive centers of industry… 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 city’s mighty rivers, and “robber barons” ruled the land. But those days were over by the time I graduated from High School at the end of 1970s, and today it’s universities and high-tech medical centers that dominate the City of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh today is a multi-cultural and scientific center of influence… an intellectual mecca for those in fields like bio-med, robotics and nuclear engineering… a city filled with research facilities and top-ranked museums, including one dedicated to Andy Warhol… and a town framed by three industrial rivers that absolutely adores its Steelers, Pirates and Penguins sports franchises.
It’s a city where ballet and symphony are accessible, but also a place with a long tradition of jazz, blues and bluegrass music. It’s where you’ll find the country’s first all African-American opera company, the long-running Three Rivers Arts and Film Festivals, and the world famous Duquesne University Tamburitzans, a multicultural academy dedicated to the preservation and presentation of folk songs and dance.
In 2014, a National Bureau of Economic Research report named Pittsburgh the second best U.S. city for “intergenerational economic mobility or the American Dream,” and I was not the least bit surprised to hear it. In 2005, 2009 and 2011, Pittsburgh was named most livable city in the United States by The Economist magazine, and the Economist Intelligence Unit named Pittsburgh the top place to live in the United States in 2011,behind only Honolulu for 2012. In addition, CBS Money Watch and U.S. News named the city among the “10 best U.S. places to retire in 2012,” and in February 2013, Forbes Magazine listed Pittsburgh among its “10 most unexpectedly romantic world locations.”
Undoubtedly, these sorts of accolades are based on factors like cultural and economic opportunity, but it’s also Pittsburgh’s relatively low cost of living that makes the city a place where people don’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 Pittsburgh’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 feel… the sort of place where no one is surprised to learn while out for dinner that their server is a post-doctoral research fellow. 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 it’s fair to characterize Pittsburgh as a city where most people are thoughtful and caring… empathetic to the plight of the workingman… fundamentally concerned with fairness… I don’t even think “protectors of the American Dream,” is going to far when describing much of Pittsburgh’s population. And I’m sure a large part of that heritage is the result of the city’s tumultuous history as the battleground upon which the American Labor Movement would be born.
Labor goes into labor…
Perhaps the most significant event in the history of organized labor in America is known as “The Battle of Homestead,” 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. 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 relations… a stark and ugly demonstration of how wealth’s power could be wielded to control the lives of workers.
You see, Pittsburgh wasn’t just a town of mill workers… it’s also where the “Robber Barons” 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 laborers… attracted some of the best and brightest to its academic institutions and research centers… and survived the turmoil that comes with cultural diversity and that arrived again with the loss of America’s steel industry, to become a city where it’s quite clear that things are working.
I’m by no means implying that everyone in Pittsburgh agrees on anything or is any sort of model citizen, but I think it’s undeniable that in part, it’s because people in Pittsburgh for the most part do care and do get involved.
I didn’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. He graduated from Harvard University in 1952, and ultimately became a Professor of Water Chemistry & Environmental Health at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, the Associate Director of the Center for Environmental Epidemiology, a visiting lecturer at Harvard… 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 & Prevention… and the National Park Service. In 1987, he was the lead editor of the book: “Health Effects from Hazardous Waste Sites.” (I’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 it’s safe to describe my parents as caring and thoughtful people who were often involved and empathetic… not having anything to do with me, of course, but about the plights of others, you understand… lol. (Okay, I’m kidding… sort of. If my father were reading this today… and who knows, maybe he is… I think he’d quip that it’s just a matter of “picking your plights.” Funny, Dad… very funny.)
I grew up on one of Pittsburgh’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. Carnegie’s pre-OSHA steel mills. No, Squirrel Hill is a part of Pittsburgh where the professionals live… 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 Kippur…. and that you might as well call for take-out on Christmas Eve, because you’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, Mineo’s, in case you’re interested, when I found my wife and daughter playing their own little game of “count the yarmulkes,” and my wife commented: “It’s a regular Little Israel around here, isn’t it?” She’s not always that funny, so I thought I’d share.)
And, not to put too fine a point on it… but Jews are generally thoughtful, compassionate, caring and if anything… too involved in the plights of others. Remember Peter, Paul & Mary? Jews, except for Paul. Bob Dylan… a Jew too. Barbara Streisand… Billy Joel… Paul Simon… Harry Chapin… Arlo Guthrie… do you even need to ask? Jews… in fact, you throw out an injustice… and I’ll tell you which Jew is outraged by it.
Squirrel Hill’s progressive porches…
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 snacks… even playing a little ukulele and singing a couple of Beatles’ 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. A couple of other neighbors were there as well… 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 “progressive,” I’m talking about slightly left of Mao Tse-Tung. In fact, I can remember this home holding a big political fundraiser for Dick Gregory, who I think was a presidential candidate for the “Listen Up, Whitey” party in ’72, and 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 ’74.
And I’d bet you any amount that every single person on the porch those nights voted for Obama twice, mostly because he’s black… but also because they weren’t allowed to vote for him a third time. It made me wish I had worn my “Palin for President” campaign shirt… or my other favorite: “Quayle in ’95.”
I don’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? These people were caring, thoughtful folk… some of Pittsburgh’s finest… people who would be more likely to be able to tell me what’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. 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? There’s not a Republican within 6-7 miles… there’s no way any of them has trusted a bank since the mid-60s… in fact, if any of them on the porch weren’t already credit union members, I’ll eat the toaster you get free when you open a new account.
Okay, so I decided that I would do it… I’d bring up the topic of the ongoing foreclosure crisis. These were my peeps and it’s not like I don’t know a thing or two about the subject matter… maybe they’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.
“So, what have I been doing lately? Funny you should ask…”
I think I got two sentences out about the injustice… one about the failure of government… 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 homes… and I was just about to bring up eminent domain, when I heard people around me saying…
“Wait a minute here, why should someone who bought a home they couldn’t afford…”
“There needs to be some personal responsibility…”
“Investors deserve protection here too, what about them?”
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 “just world hypothesis,” which refers to our tendency to want to attribute someone’s misfortune to that person’s own behavior in order to support our belief in a just and fair world where bad things simply don’t happen to good people. And they were nodding along, so maybe we would end up having a productive conversation about how foreclosures are being handled to-date and I’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 again… and they all pounced. People should not have bought the house if they can’t make the mortgage payment, and that was all there was to it, as far as Pittsburghers were concerned.
Pittsburgh nooooooo, say it isn’t so. What happened to caring about the working man or women… reading, thinking, learning… taking action? No? Nothing? Make your payment or you’re an irresponsible borrower who should be shunned like an Amish caught with an iPod attached to his plow handle? Seriously?
But, wait… I had to try one more time… what about my friend’s little brother who lost a home in San Fran and was back living with his mother as a result… 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 bathroom… damn it. 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 possible… so they could see what my place would be selling for at the auction. They looked almost bloodthirsty as they started talking about owning a rental or two.
Oh my God… 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. 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. I couldn’t quite make it out, my ears were ringing by that point, but she seemed to be saying…
“Dad, if you don’t get me within 10 feet of someone under the age of 45 fast, I may start hemorrhaging.”
And, under the principle that any port in a storm is better than drowning out at sea… I took her lead and started saying things like… well, it is late, I know… are you tired baby?” YAWN… and it worked… two other yawns followed mine. My wife stood up and went to start cleaning up… YES! 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 weather… and the next thing I knew it was morning and I was waking up in a cold sweat. Had the whole thing been a dream?
No, it wasn’t a dream. It was a nightmare.
Politicians aren’t going to fix something that will get them thrown out of office for fixing. 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 be saying.
And I went back to bed.