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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

From Rust Belt City to a Living Phoenix

Victor colorI started writing this article a few weeks ago on my flight back from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had an opportunity to visit my little brother who lives just outside of Pittsburgh while on a business trip in Washington, D.C.. I only spent two days there but I made the most of it and can see why Pittsburgh aka the “Steel City” consistently ranks among the top places to live, work and visit in the United States.


I drove into the city from D.C. down the Pennsylvania Turnpike and as soon as I pulled into my downtown hotel located in their world-class Cultural District, I immediately noticed that the city was full of energy and life. Downtown was bustling with a ton of traffic. People were walking, running, and biking for work, play, exercise, and shopping along their streets and river.


Right outside my hotel was the 55th annual Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival, a production of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. This event is a 10-day celebration of the arts in Pittsburgh and is unlike any other in the county. This world-class, multi-disciplinary festival was free to attend and was open to the public. This event attracts over 400,000 visitors annually, the Festival begins on the first Friday in June and takes place at the confluence of Pittsburgh’s famed three rivers in Point State Park, throughout the Gateway Center, and in the city’s world-renowned Cultural District.


I quickly met up with my brother and we walked across the Sixth Street Bridge to PNC Park to catch an evening baseball game with the hometown Pirates taking on the Chicago Cubs. One cool thing that I noticed is that they completely shut down vehicular traffic on the Sixth Street Bridge and it was full of pedestrians, bikers, vendors and street performers. Some of the people were enjoying their walk to the game and others were just drawn to the life that was collecting on the bridge. The game was great, the weather was perfect and I was able to enjoy a few of the local favorites; a Primanti Brothers Sandwich and a Yuengling Beer.


The next morning I ran and walked through the city streets and along the Alleghany and Monogahela River and the point of confluence where these two rivers form the mighty Ohio River. I believe the best way to see a city is to walk or run its streets. Every time I get a chance to visit a new city I do my best to walk to as many places as possible. It helps me to get a good sense of the cities culture, streets, people, neighborhoods and modes of transportation. What I discovered was that the streets were well designed with bike lanes, bike racks, lots of trees, bridges, beautiful landscaping, water features, large open public spaces, squares, parks, unique street lighting and poles, hundreds of benches, sitting areas, artistic garbage cans and lots of public art. The density was also a great model with many mixed-use developments, three and four story housing structures with retail and office at the ground level and a great mix of high rise, mid rise, and row housing all integrating well with the streets, canals, parks, shops, restaurants, hotels, grocery stores and cafes.

After I returned home and researched the city’s history, I discovered it was named the most livable city in the U.S. in 2011 by the Economist Intelligence Unit an in-house research unit of the Economist Magazine. Their livability ranking examined the living conditions in 140 cities around the world and rated each city across five categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. In 2014 they were also named as the most affordable city in America and The Atlantic ranked Pittsburgh near the top of the list of the ten best places to pursue the American dream. The article stated, “the relative strength of the region’s economy, coupled with strong community and family networks throughout the region provides an economic climate that encourages intergenerational upward mobility.” Researchers from Harvard and Berkeley ranked metros where children do better economically than their parents.

Pittsburgh was founded in 1787 compared to Phoenix 1868. It has evolved from a great industrial giant that at one time produced half the nation’s steel to a down and out city that was devastated by the collapse of steel and their manufacturing industry. So what can we learn from this great rust-belt economic success story that they have become today? In the little that I have learned they did it with an economy that totally reoriented themselves around health care, technology, and education. They diversified their economy, kept a low cost of living, and built a rich infrastructure for education and culture. They have become a leader in green environmental design and have added Apple, Google, and Intel to the nearly 1,600 technology firms that have chosen to operate out of Pittsburgh.

One example of how organizations can be created to revitalize a city is the “Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.” This is a truly inspirational story. They have transformed a downtrodden section of Downtown into a world-class Cultural District that stands as a national model of urban revitalization through the arts. The best of touring Broadway, contemporary dance, family events and cutting-edge visual arts are among the variety of arts and entertainment the Trust presents and exhibits. Hundreds of artists, thousands of students, and millions of people expand their horizons in their theaters, galleries, and public art environments.


For over two decades, the Trust has led the cultural and economic development of Pittsburgh’s Cultural District by: presenting high-quality performing arts events and visual arts exhibitions, providing comprehensive education and community engagement opportunities, supporting and collaborating with Cultural District resident companies and hundreds of local arts organizations and artists, maintaining superior venues for resident companies, community organizations and promoters, attracting 2 million people to the Cultural District annually to over 2000 annual events and activities, managing over 1 million square feet of real estate, creating and curating public art parks and gallery spaces, and cultivating the city’s largest arts neighborhood. They are lauded as “the single greatest creative force in Pittsburgh because of its spirit of reinvention” by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. This Trust has been the catalyst behind Pittsburgh’s thriving Cultural District that continues to enrich the region’s vibrancy and prosperity.


So why have I shared this with you and what does this mean for you and me here in SoPho and Laveen? Well, it should gives us all hope for our own future. Putting all things into perspective I know our environments are completely different and they are located right off of three mighty rivers. But to that point our resources here in the Sonoran Desert are different and we need to harness all the technological advancements in building and development and integrate all the great planning that has occurred all over the county and world into our area of the city.


Our vision for SoPho and Laveen should be no less than that of a vibrant city like Pittburgh. We need to embrace that we live in a desert and start creating the most walkable streets and neighborhoods that we can to make it enjoyable for visitors, residents, pedestrians and bike riders to go to and from with ease.

The opportunity we have in our community is unlike anywhere else in Phoenix. We must develop, redevelop and plan well with great care in our choice of architecture, technology, public art, open spaces and the many things that I have mentioned.


I challenge all of our residents, leaders, land/business owners, and politicians to think long term. Broaden your vision and help make the changes necessary to develop Phoenix into a world class city. May each one of us take ownership of our neighborhoods, streets, public spaces and planning. We must get it right even if we don’t live to see it. It’s not for us but for our children and the many generations after us. Many mistakes will be made and it will take major sacrifices and a reallocation of resources to build our city into a livable, vibrant, and memorable place. We must commit ourselves to study, innovate, create and care more than any other community in the world. Together we can make Phoenix great!


Written by local resident and business owner, Victor D. Vidales




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