Tube City Almanac

July 22, 2009

Guest Commentary: State of Affairs

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

The following is a reader's commentary. It does not reflect the views of the board of directors of Tube City Community Media Inc. or contributors to Tube City Almanac.

The writer has asked that his name be withheld; with his permission, we are calling him "Joe Lysle."

He is a resident of the Grandview section of the city.

. . .

State of Affairs

or, Are We Living in 1980s Colombia?

By "Joe Lysle"

My wife and I are beginning to move forward with our plans to move out and live someplace else. We've both had our fill with this city.

We're essentially giving up on McKeesport as a viable place to live and raise a family.

If you're surprised, you either don't actually live here (White Oak, I'm looking at you) or you've never been someplace else and realized that what passes for "normal" here is disgraceful.

. . .

The original footprint of my house was built in 1870, and various additions over the years have brought it up to circa-1930 standards. I do have a breaker box instead of fuses, but I don't have insulation in my walls or attic.

There is literally nothing between my family and the inevitable street shootout than a piece of vinyl siding, about three inches of plaster and some "lumber" that was likely stripped from orange crates. That's not enough for me.

You could say "oh, our city isn't as bad as Duquesne, or Homewood, or Wilkinsburg or Carrick" and "there are good places to live here, and good people, too."

You'd also be wrong.

. . .

Remember that shooting on Easter morning? I heard it happen from my home office window. I heard some small explosions, and I thought "great, the idiot neighbors are launching fireworks again." When I didn't hear the enormous boom that always follows, and instead heard screaming in the street, I knew it wasn't fireworks.

The next morning, the neighbors and I had a quick chat over the fence, and it was generally agreed upon that it was just a matter of time before something like that happened over there. It had been common knowledge for years that either the guy or his wife were dealing drugs from the house.

They didn't make any attempt to hide the fact. They always had nice electronics delivered to the home, and a steady stream of cars that would sit idling in the street for a few minutes while someone ran in and out. Everyone (including the police) knew what was happening.

. . .

In the other direction, three houses away, there's another dealer. He does his trade on my sidewalk while he's taking his dog for a stroll, usually in the middle of the afternoon. Sometimes he waves to me when I come home for lunch.

He looks like a decent enough guy, so I've considered telling him that I know what he's doing, and in the larger scheme of things, I don't really care --- I just want him to do it someplace other than my sidewalk, right next to the backyard where my toddler plays.

Two houses down another street, there's a family operation that's been dealing ever since we moved here, about nine years ago. We call the police each summer, usually because their arguments spill out into the street at 3 a.m., and they escalate into 12-person brawls.

Their business is by far the most well-established, because there has been a 24-seven steady stream of traffic back and forth to their house the entire time we've lived here. There is always (literally) a car idling beside their house, only to be replaced by another after it leaves.

. . .

Four years ago, a large, mentally handicapped man was stripped naked and beaten by a group of teenagers outside our window. When the group heard me say I was calling the police, they said "go ahead" and then ambled away.

Last summer, a four-inch slab of concrete was thrown through my kitchen window, causing it to explode inwards, tiny shards of glass everywhere. I was standing next to it.

As I ran outside (barefoot) to give chase, I passed a group of teenagers who were standing near my porch. They hadn't "seen anything" even though I heard one of the girls yell "Don't! There's a baby who lives there!" a split second before the rock came through the window.

. . .

Why am I sharing these anecdotes? Why do I think this information matters?

Because it's the only way to save this city.

I used to be one of the people who thought that an influx of money from state or federal government, along with some wise planning, and perhaps some social re-engineering was the prescription to cure the disease.

Now I know it isn't. The only way to save this city is to leave it behind. Move out, if you can. If you don't have the means, struggle to get your affairs in order, and then run away, as far as you can.

If enough of the "good" people leave, then perhaps some entity besides our ineffectual local government will finally take notice.

. . .

Maybe we'll become the next great success story, and we'll get a reality series on HGTV, and we'll finally get to see the Penn-McKee restored to former glory, and the eyes of the country will shift this direction.

Or maybe the military will step in and build a wall around us, to keep the disease from spreading.

Neither outcome matters to me, because we're leaving. I'm not going to put any theoretical "renaissance" above the importance of my family's safety.

. . .

The preceding was a guest commentary. Responsible replies are welcome.

Tube City Community Media is committed to printing viewpoints from residents of the McKeesport area and surrounding municipalities. Commentaries are accepted at the discretion of the editor and may be edited for content or length.

To submit a commentary for consideration, please write to P.O. Box 94, McKeesport 15134, or email jtogyer -at - gmail -dot- com. Include contact information and your real name. A pen name may be substituted with approval of the editor.

Your Comments are Welcome!

OK, the editor here.

“Joe” and I went back and forth over email over the weekend, and I asked him to write this commentary.

I have to tell you, when I got to the end of it, I was ready to slit my wrists.

My biggest beef with what he wrote is that it’s not a McKeesport problem. It’s the same situation in West Mifflin, North Versailles, Duquesne, Clairton, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, I had breakfast a few days ago with a close friend who grew up in the West Mifflin Area and now lives in the Cranberry Area.

He told me that he felt that if his neighbors saw someone breaking into his house in Cranberry, they’d call the cops. If they saw someone breaking into his house in West Mifflin, they’d stand around and watch.

People think of Washington County as rural; I can take you through parts of Washington or Canonsburg that would scare the crap out of you.

That’s not to make excuses for McKeesport, or to suggest that people should accept things — in fact, I’d like to slap the apathy out of a lot of people in the Mon Valley — but this is probably a widespread problem in the “Rust Belt.”

So, seriously, what the hell are we supposed to do? Give up?
Webmaster - July 22, 2009

P.S.: And please, spare me homilies.
Webmaster - July 22, 2009

I think of it this way:

If the Titanic is taking on water, and I’m one of the lucky ones sitting in a lifeboat, about the last thing on my mind is “I hope everyone else found a lifeboat.”

I try not to be bothered with the plight of the other rust-belt towns, because I don’t live there. If that makes me one of the apathetic ones, then so be it.
John - July 22, 2009

The drug trafficing is very difficult to control, even affluent communities have drug dealers living amongst them. But the situation with the teenagers is really troubling. We need to take an interest in our youth and get them involved in worth while activities.
John M. - July 22, 2009

So, John #1 …

I’m not trying to be a smart-ass, but if we’re on the Titanic, what does that make this website, for instance? Are we painting the deck chairs? (We can’t be the orchestra, because McKeesport already has one.)

I ask in all seriousness because some people around here are busting a nut. To quote “Blazing Saddles”: “Are we all just jerking off?”
Webmaster - July 22, 2009

I’m not really sure. I suppose each person has to decide for themselves if their efforts have been worthwhile.

We’ve already established that there are more than enough people here that think the city is a perfectly fine place to live and raise children, and a growing minority who think otherwise.
John - July 22, 2009

And to respond to John M.:

People sell drugs because it’s good money, doesn’t require a diploma, wearing a silly uniform, or working on a schedule – not because they’re lacking worthwhile activities. And in this city, it’s incredibly easy to do because the police force is so ineffectual.

There will continue to be a drug economy in McKeesport until there are better ways to make money. Right now, selling weed is about the best you can get, from an effort/payoff standpoint.
John - July 22, 2009

McKeesport and its environs are an area that the world’s economy passed by in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I saw that happen as I grew up in a steelworkers’ family not far from McKeesport. My generation worked in small business, transportation, the old Union Switch & Signal and the media, most of them staying within an hour’s drive of McKeesport. Some in the next generation have set footholds in the communities I still call home, while some are seeking a better life in places as diverse as Madison, Wisc., and France, with degrees from Carnegie Mellon and other Western Pennsylvania universities. I do not begrudge anyone who wishes to move on, and wish them well. I do not see myself leaving this area, though my perspective has changed, especially given my in-laws who lived in the shadow of other old industrial towns not so far from here. Still, that only means I now know some towns east of McKeesport as well as I know those west of the old Tube City. Godspeed to those who feel they have to move, but I ask God’s blessing on those who feel they can stick it out.
Does it matter? - July 22, 2009

> We’ve already established that there are more than enough
> people here that think the city is a perfectly fine place to
> live and raise children, and a growing minority who think
> otherwise.

I think “perfectly fine” is overstating it. Anyone who does not see that our communities have serious problems is blind or delusional.

Yeah, some people seem to enjoy being ignorant and living like slobs, but even they see the problems, right? They just don’t care. Selling drugs, being stoned and letting your kids run wild is easy.

The question is, should anyone else stick around and fight?

To use your example, is the Mon Valley the Titanic, and doomed?

Or is it the U.S.S. Pittsburgh, and should we try to lash the bow back together and bring the damn thing into port?

My biggest beef is that too many of us seem to feel 1.) the boat is sinking, but 2.) they are perfectly content to sink with it.

That’s just nuts. Either jump overboard or bail water, damn you, but don’t just stand around with your finger up your butt.

I can’t take apathy and malaise. Do something, dammit.
Webmaster - July 22, 2009

McKeesport’s problems are not unique, you can walk 1 mile southeast of our nation’s capitol and be in a very dangerous and rundown part of town. There are good people there though too. God bless those who stay and try to make things better. Also God bless those who make the right decision to remove their children from an obviously dangerous environment.
Dan - July 23, 2009

Well said Jason – keep up the good work! Apathy and malaise are 2 of the cancers that has ran the Tube City down to a third world country. Sadly, many of us remember McKeesport as a vibrant city with a proud population – now, take a walk down Fifth Avenue and ask yourself “how did this happen?” Blame US Steel for leaving? Maybe – Soon, National City Bank will leave the corner where WPNB once had it’s headquarters. So who do we blame and where was/is the leadership needed to bring the city back? Where is the much sought after Stimulus money and the “good paying” jobs that were promised? It may be just too late!
Donn Nemchick - July 23, 2009

It’s tough. The Mon-Valley from Homestead to Brownsville is almost ideally suited for disaster. Small towns impersonating cities. Crappy housing stock, lousy topography and lousier roads.

I think we have to talk seriously about shrinking these cities. Their footprint is too big for the population they serve. Mr. Gorbachov, tear down these houses!

If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d also highly reccomend the third season of the Wire.
Paz (URL) - July 23, 2009

Paz has a valid point. I’ve read here that the city is doing it’s best to tear down condemned structures. But it’s probably not enough, and granted it’s a money issue. On a recent visit back to the Mon Valley, I was struck again at the natural beauty of the place. Wonderful (and now clean!) rivers, striking vistas. So, why not turn the place into a series of small mountain towns like the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia? Get tough on enforcement for landlords and rental properties…get creative and basically force the undesirable element to leave town. Tear down the houses…start over. The area has a lot to offer, but getting stuck in what it once was and will never be again probably isn’t the answer. But to quote another alert reader of this blog, “what do I know?”
Dan - July 23, 2009

Making smaller towns would be a big step in the wrong direction. They need to merge smaller boros and cities into larger ones. This is the whole reason Allegheny County is behind the times. Small boros can’t afford their budgets as is. Mergers and consolidating services are a step in the right direction. Would it be a good thing for McKeesport? I honestly can’t say or begin to speculate.
John Doe - July 23, 2009

I think the Mayor is doing his best to make small improvements like the demolition of broken down structures, paving streets, and creating more traffic on 5th Avenue through downtown. But City leaders need to encourage and help create neighborhood coalitions in places like Grandview. Call on residents to be vigilent of crime. Convince them that their neighborhoods are worth fighting for and call on them to be involved. I understand the frustration with the apathetics, but can you blame them? Look at the way local news portrays McKeesport. There are reports on fires, shootings, and any other crazy story that confirms this notion that McKeesport is all bad news. People see this on the news and read it in the papers and begin to believe that they are all in a rut. Its going to take a tremendous effort to turn that image around, several years maybe. But putting the house up for sale is not the answer. Its a decision that thousands of property owners decided to make as the City’s population and property values began to slide. You can’t move into a McKeesport neighborhood and expect life to be perfect. You need to do more than chat with your neighbor over the fence. It takes a strong committment to work with other neighbors to take back the neighborhood.
John M. - July 23, 2009

Anyone know how we can get ahold of Ms. O’Leary’s cow? That would be the only viable solution…as far as our city budgets are concerned.
Adam - July 23, 2009

John M. —

If you live in McKeesport, is your neighborhood worth fighting for? Do you have a spectacular view of the river? Do you have a nice, big yard, filled with trees? Do you absolutely love all your neighbors?

If you’re happy with what you’ve got, by all means, do what you can to stay where you are.

Myself? Well, I don’t have a nice view, a big yard, and I can’t stand half my neighbors. I’ve traveled around a bit, and I’ve come to realize that there ARE better places to live. Our house is falling down, and so are most of the others in the immediate vicinity. Do I spend $50k to fix it up? All my elderly neighbors are dying off, and they’re not planning to leave the house to their kids. If we stay, we’re faced with the reality of being surrounded entirely by Section 8 dirtbags after a few years.

Or do I spend a little more, find a better place to live, and get my kid into a school district where he’s got a chance to succeed?

You may be happy to live here, but just because YOU are doesn’t mean the rest of us should have settle for less, or feel guilty that we don’t want to.
"Joe Lysle" - July 23, 2009

With apologies to Woody Allen:

A city is a lot like a shark, in order to survive it must continually move forward, or it dies. What we have on our hands here in McKeesport (and most of the Mon Valley) is a dead shark. I don’t blame you at all Joe Lysle.
Bob - July 23, 2009

Joe Lysle,

Good luck to you. As a parent myself, I know the struggles that we go through each and every day in making sure that our kids have the best childhood that we can provide them. Perhaps if you were single, or married with no children you could invest more of your time in making McKeesport a better community. But, as a parent you know that your primary responsibility is to your child, at the most basic level to protect him from harm. Community building can come later…child rearing is now.
Dan - July 24, 2009

I just spent the last week in Dearborn, Michigan for a wedding. If it wasn’t so flat you would think you were in McKeesport. Ten years ago when I was there Michigan Avenue was packed with car dealerships, restaraunts, hotels,etc. Now, you’re lucky to find one restaraunt per block. With the auto industries in trouble eveything has shut down. Also, along route 80 in Ohio at the Lordstown exit it’s really weird to see the GM plant sitting totally idle, with the parking lot empty. They can pump stimulus money into these areas but they aren’t coming back, just like McKeesport isn’t.

Bart Caudill
Bart Caudill - July 27, 2009

We have only lived here in West Mifflin a couple of years now, but having transferred from the Detroit/Dearborn area all I can say is Pittsburgh is so much better! As for the bouroughs outside Pittsburgh, it is a tough call. We seem to be in a “decent” area of WM, but have friends in Munhall, McKeesport, etc…and it is not pretty what we see happening. It reminds us so much of Detroit and how bad it is there. I am really not sure what can be done other than suggest the good people move and remove their tax money from the till. However it sounds like the council members in McKeesport will find a government answer for that as well. How can we change what is happening if we do not have backup? If the police don’t care and won’t do their jobs, how can we expect businesses to stay or want to help the economy in an area? Businesses are leaving West Mifflin due to the taxes, I can’t blame them. If we had someplace else to go, we would.
Adelita - August 03, 2009

Smaller government and more personal responsibility is what is needed. Merging boroughs isn’t going to fix the problem, it will cause further issues. Just like tossing more money at education hasn’t fixed that problem…Natural Selection and evolution work for towns/cities—the strong survive, the weak are weeded out and the feds shouldn’t be involved.
Adelita - August 03, 2009

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