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(DV) Rajiva: The Burgh, Downsizing







The Burgh, Downsizing
by Lila Rajiva
October 26, 2005

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Habits should shed themselves like decayed petals at the right season. This is the right season for shedding in Pittsburgh: fall. It’s chilly but not bitterly so. But urban habits die hard. It’s time to let go of my car. I live close to work and with gas prices mincing back and forth, I ought to. Like everyone, I tell myself I will just drive less and talk vaguely about the new hybrids. But like everyone else, I don’t mean it. My Honda is now a habit, a new one.

She came late into my life. And saw me through divorce, relocation, financial losses, and then relocation again. There is no chance that I will let her ago. She’s my last tenuous link to the stability I once had.

Ricardo, who lives on the third floor of our dark, draughty Victorian, is the car expert. He details them on the side to make money. He’s going to Iraq later this week to drive a convoy truck. “One of the sitting ducks,” he says flashing a grin. His dad, a Dominican immigrant, is going to Afghanistan as a flight surgeon and on his way through Pittsburgh might stop to take the Audi off his hands. Too expensive. Ricardo is about 26, muscular, friendly and with enough energy to fuel several cars. Fifteen years younger than me but the oldest of my housemates. Melanie and Roger are 23, from the countryside outside Pittsburgh and a couple. Sam, an artist, is 20 and almost blind. He rarely comes out of his room. This is his first time living away from home.

Ricardo hates George Bush and the war but he doesn’t mind going. He thinks the odds are good he’ll return. “I know plenty of guys who got through,” he says stirring six chicken legs in a pan of peppers and examining them meditatively like a soothsayer in imperial Rome. “They’re paying me. I’ll be able to save up some dough. No stress. I’m looking forward to it actually.”

“I thought you hated the war.”

“Yeah -- I do, but then, shit happens, you know. So maybe, we do something good, we build some schools. Something good comes out of it.”

He’s been training now for months. He likes the clothes, the talk, the feeling of getting close to the dirt. Only a few months ago he was like us. Now he’s a grunt.

“You get used to it. It becomes a habit,” he says, wolfing down the sauce.

“You forget what it was like any other way.”


It was a habit having a house, now I see. An expensive one.  Time, money, energy. The kitchen roof that leaked every other season. The plaster that never stopped snowing down on the attic stairs, the slate floor in the solarium like ice in the early morning.

But for years I couldn’t leave. Easier to leave a man, it seems, than a house.

Men after all can be replaced easily, found anywhere. And if not, they can be moved. They’re bipeds. Like cars, they follow you where you go. Or you follow them. Houses on the other hand are harder to uproot. Which is why the French classify them as immobilieres, unmovable property. Finding the one you want is never easy. And then when you leave, your memories stay behind like abandoned pets prowling obsessively for their vanished owners.

But in Pittsburgh, leaving home is almost a habit. People have been leaving their homes steadily for decades. There was the huge flight of young people in the 1980s when the steel industry collapsed. It was steel after all which first built the city in the 19th century and sustained its bleak image for years as a provincial working class town, smug and smog-ridden. So when the factories folded up, everyone thought the city would fold with it. It didn’t. Instead, it reinvented itself in the ‘90s as a hub of technology and created a flurry of employment. But it was brief. By 1998, Pittsburgh’s new businesses too were ailing. They were only canaries in the tech coalmine. Two years later, the technology market in the rest of the country collapsed. It was followed by manufacturing in 2001.

Then the jobs really hemorrhaged. The city lost 1% of its population every year thereafter. Still, in good Newtonian fashion, this action created an equal and opposite reaction. The universe supplied a gain for the loss, a little upside for the downside. The homes the migrants left behind transformed Pittsburgh into an island of modestly priced living in the frothing seas of east coast real estate. And other migrants, exiled from the big cities by prices, began flocking here to nest.

Ricardo thinks I should buy the house we live in. Or something like it.

“You’re gonna make yourself shitloads of money, you know. So, probably these guys won’t sell it. They know it’s gonna go up. City is putting shitloads of money into this neighborhood.”

I can see why. Munhall is a quiet middle-class neighborhood relatively unknown to visitors and with none of the panache of the more upscale areas like Shadyside with its florid stone mansions, lavishly fountained gardens, and elegant shopping, or like Mexican War Streets, lined by meticulously finished brown stones in an eclectic mix of styles from Greek Revival to Queen Anne. But like a modest wife, Munhall too has its secret charms.

Our rooms look out to billowing green hills behind and only ten minutes down the slope, past ornate yellow brick churches and the majestic façade of the Carnegie Public library, a little beyond the train tracks are the placid waters of the Monongahela. Once the most polluted of the three rivers, today it is visibly healed. Mayfly nymphs, too delicate to live in dirty water, are hatching here again after 150 years. Shops fan out at the foot of the water and on the opposite side clustered in the forested hills near Squirrel Hill are hives of bright new town homes. Somewhere in Munhall I tell myself I will find a home to replace my old one, one that I will be able to afford without a mortgage as bloated as a Halliburton contract.

Just next to Munhall, on the left bank of the river is the borough of Homestead, the legendary steel town whose unsteady fortune rose with the behemoth Carnegie Steel. Habit and change collided here dramatically one summer in 1892. Thousands of union workers locked out by management sealed off the town from scab workers. Carnegie sent down Pinkerton men in barges across the river. With the whole town solidly behind them, the workers let fly with dynamite and fiery oil slicks, ancient muzzleloaders, a cannon, a burning raft, even a railroad car. Four times the Pinkertons tried to surrender and were shot down and savagely clubbed in the head. Seven died as well as three workers. Finally the Pennsylvania National Guard was sent in to take control. Wages were slashed, 12-hour day imposed and 500 skilled workers making over four dollars a day were eliminated. Carnegie replaced them with unskilled eastern Europeans and African-Americans making well under two. For forty years the unions were crushed. But Homestead itself grew, fed by wartime demand for steel. Pittsburgh became America’s Gibraltar.

But then once again, after the war boom ended, change arrived. First coal, then the railroads declined. By the ‘60s, it was the turn of steel. Management and labor had turned corrupt and inefficient. They could not longer compete with the leaner factories in Germany and Japan. In 1986 the Homestead mill closed leaving behind a rash of suicides and desolate homes. Twenty years later, despite the worn beauty of the old Slavic churches, the borough still has a dreary, unkempt air as it struggles to raise its head again.

Ricardo doesn’t understand all this fuss about moving and homes. He used to rent in Philly and there were houses there he claimed that were cheap even with real estate booming. He had a whole floor in a town house for about 350.

If you’d lived in the Bronx, he said, you could live anywhere and he had -- Baltimore, San Francisco, LA, Boston, Chicago. He liked Chicago the best, but Philly was the most convenient. He could drive up to New York to see his family and still be only a few hours from D.C. and Baltimore. Actually, he lived a lot in the Audi, he laughed. He was going to miss it more than any place he’d lived.

People who live in their cars a lot must not love their homes as much. That could explain why, though gas prices creep up insidiously, they stubbornly refuse to let go of their SUVs and pay down their mortgages instead.

In Pittsburgh, for example, cars and homes seem inversely related. Even as the population trickles out and houses lie everywhere as vacant and abandoned as half-witted mutts, the city roads, already fractured by tunnels and bridges, have grown congested and aggravating. Commute times have increased by almost a third during a decade when population has shrunk by a tenth. Yet the lengths of the commute have not increased.

The most visible explanation of this paradox is urban sprawl. While pockets of the city are depopulating, rural land outside is being developed with a vengeance and attracting a new middle-class. Virgin land is being turned for new housing on the interstates. Tractors have cut down the trees that line the road to the airport.  Everywhere there is the pall of incessant demolition. The old steel mills, warehouses, churches, theaters, and homes are disappearing not just in Pittsburgh but in the older towns around. A history is being erased. Memories are being deleted like so many files on a hard drive.

Or can memories be toted along with you on a floppy waiting for a new hard drive? Are memories rooted like houses or do they travel like cars?

“You do wotcha gotta do,” says Ricardo, peacenik turned philosopher grunt, wiping his hands and going out to the patio for a smoke.

For the young it’s easy. You delete the old habits and program new ones. But when you’re older, habits turn out to be more like squatters who refuse to vacate. Take them to court, they claim user rights. You have no title to separate them from the soil in which they live. Abandon the soil and you forfeit them.

The old republic knew that. It was founded on the values of the land, rooted in sprawling estates. But in the new America even houses are a tradable commodity. Immobilieres have become mobile. No time for memories to take root. And here in the hills, on the three rivers, they have learned that.

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, iGate Corporation was outsourcing in the ‘80s long before the term became a call-to-arms for American computer professionals and just around the time the steel mill closed. Like Carnegie, who was the son of a Scottish weaver from Dumferline, iGate’s founder, Sunil Wadhwani, is an immigrant. He came to Pittsburgh to study in the 1970s and has made his home here ever since, but iGate has at least half of its 5,000 employees in India. Wadhwani argues that he also provides well-paid jobs to some 1,500 Americans, 300 right here in Pittsburgh, pays a $100 million in taxes every year, and gives a million more in charity. It’s Americans who have benefited most from outsourcing, he claims. And anyway, who would grudge a little prosperity to impoverished Indian workers?

It’s hard for someone like me, who emigrated fifteen years ago, to object to that logic. Outsourcing has to be a good thing. Every red-blooded American corporation worth its salt has taken to it like a delegate to a call girl. Buyers and sellers can no more be pried apart than Rogers and Hammerstein or moon and June. The things go together with a lyrical swing. And it would take a particularly jaundiced eye to ignore the delicious irony of the rich and the powerful nosing around feverishly in third world bedlams like pot-bellied urchins in a garbage can.

Market share sings out like a Lorelei to much-millioned CEOs weary of labor costs, OSHA, the EPA and the rest of the regulatory alphabet soup.

Unhampered by any real innovation or streamlining for the last several decades, they reckon that letting their behemoth corporations graze on cheaper grass abroad will forestall the moment when the top-heavy creatures keel over defunct like the dinosaurs they’ve long become.

Bangalore, once a small dusty college town in the south of India, is prime grazing ground for the dinosaurs. Texas Instruments was the very first, followed by a quick succession of some of the biggest names in American business. General Electric, Microsoft. And the majority of Wadhwani’s employees also are from Bangalore. And I too. I grew up in Bangalore. Coming to Pittsburgh, home of tech outsourcing, I’ve only completed a circle.

Melanie and Roger have come into the kitchen with beer to celebrate Ricardo’s last days stateside. Melanie’s father was one of the factory workers who lost his job in 2001. He’s found work since then but nothing as good. Once, when his daughter came home from college with an Indian friend, he was furious at what he saw as her treachery. Later, he changed when he got to know the boy. Melanie claims that children are responsible for raising their parents.

Roger calls out to Ricardo and Sam to join us. Roger’s voice is thin and muted but Sam has especially sharp hearing. A compensation for his weak eyes, I suppose. Nature gives, nature takes away. When the steel mills vanished, biotechnology came in. Just don’t resist.

But in between there is Melanie’s father who is 62 and can’t reprogram himself anymore.

It is expecting too much of poor men to stand by and see their work taken by others, said Andrew Carnegie who spent the end of his life giving away what he had struggled to amass.

The boys come in and the beer flows. Ricardo tells us about training. Four-mile runs, 200 pushups every morning, wall climbing. “They break you, man,” he shakes his head.  “They make you tough.” I said I hoped so, considering where he was going. But Melanie, who studies the theology of the medieval anchoress Juliana of Norwich and sells papers on a corner in Oakland for the Socialist Worker, is more worried about his getting into what she calls killing mode. I ask her if a mode is the same as a habit. It takes time after all to form a habit. A mode on the other hand sounds like a gearshift on an Audi. And if you can shift into a gear, you can shift out. Maybe it’s really a question of what sort of habits. Learning, retraining, moving need effort. They don’t come easily. But war is a machinery that moves on its own and bloodlust, like a winter flu, might be easy to pick up and impossible to get rid of.

War and demolition come too easily to human nature. And take away too much. Anything worth pursuing, on the other hand, needs to be stalked through the years with the patience and vigilance of a hunter, cultivated through seasons of scarcity and remembered in times of forgetting. In our sophistication we laugh at those who buy dear and hold dearer. Who stay when they should have left. Bag holders. Fools. Who step into the river and expect the waters to stay the same. The immobilized in our mobile society. What is the value of an abandoned church, an obsolete mill, an aging worker? Flux, we shrug, is the only certainty. Change is the first law of nature.

“People talk about joining but they don’t,” says Ricardo,  “I’m the only one who did.” He sounds proud. I ask him if he thinks good health insurance and tuition money are worth risking his life for.  He laughs. “Look -- I ain’t gonna die. Most of the guys who teach me, they’ve been there. They got through. More chances I’d get shot in a ghetto. So some guy’s lost an arm...or a leg. So what? All this new technology now, reconstruction...they can make you another leg… it’s really no big deal.”

At 26, you can think of that as a good trade.

An amputation of the body or the mind is all it takes to keep up with change. Like those translucent lizards which shed their tails seasonally as they wait immobile and vigilant for flies on dusty window sills, we might grow new limbs just as good. New memories to replace old ones. Here in the hills, at the confluence of three rivers, we have learned not to resist the laws of nature.

But perhaps we don’t live by nature alone. Perhaps, as Juliana of Norwich said, we also need mercy and grace.

Lila Rajiva is a free-lance writer in Baltimore and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005). She can be reached at: Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva

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