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Single-Minded Activists

Pittsburgh's weaknesses may be its biggest strength

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So after three years of calling Pittsburgh the worst city in the country for singles, Forbes magazine now says we rank 29th out of 40. Predictably, a chorus of self-congratulation went up from the usual suspects -- the Post-Gazette editorial page and advocates for “young people” -- for whom finishing 29th has apparently been a long-cherished goal.

 

Just as predictably, the celebrations ignore the very things that make Pittsburgh worth celebrating.

 

It should go without saying that the Forbes survey is idiotic. When determining each city’s “cost of living alone,” for example, Forbes says it weighed the cost of the following items: “a Pizza Hut pizza, a movie ticket and a six-pack of Heineken.” Apparently, this is what Forbes staffers think of as a big night on the town. Even seemingly straightforward data, like the population of singles in each city, is dodgy. Forbes says it counted as a single anyone “above the age of 15 that has never been married.” Hot divorcees don’t count, in other words, while Forbes thinks of 16-year-olds as eligible material. You might want to lock up the kids during next year’s survey.

 

The real problem, though, is that the things that make Pittsburgh worthwhile -- like the things we seek out in a mate -- are impossible to quantify.

 

Just ask the League of Pissed Off Voters: As you’ll see elsewhere in this issue, the organization chose Pittsburgh as the site to hold their convention this year -- even though they could easily have passed over Pittsburgh as lightly as Forbes did. The group is unapologetically progressive, after all, and specializes in mobilizing young voters. Pittsburgh would seem to have little to offer on either score, especially compared to the cities who finished high on the Forbes list. Boston, San Francisco, New York, L.A., Austin … the cities that finish in the Forbes top dozen are also notable for leaning left.

 

But it’s as easy to be a leftist in Boston as it is to get laid. Pittsburgh, by contrast, attracts those looking for a challenge.

 

Singles take note: To borrow from Frank Sinatra, if you can make out here, you can make out anywhere. And the same is true of politics.

 

Lefties often roll their eyes and say Pennsylvania is “Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in between.” But America itself is rapidly becoming New York on one end, San Francisco on the other, and a whole cluster of Alabamas in between. Western Pennsylvania is a microcosm for the country. Our political travails -- a fossilized Democratic Party and social conservativism on issues like gay marriage -- mirror those of the entire nation. That’s partly why one of the League’s luminaries, William Upski Wimsatt, says the League hopes to make Pittsburgh “a pilot project and national leader in progressive governance.”

 

After last year’s presidential election, progressives in other cities were talking about trying to survive as an “urban archipelago” -- with Democrats huddled behind city walls, secure from the rampaging suburban and rural GOP hordes. “By focusing on the cities the Dems can create a tribal identity to combat the white, Christian, rural, and suburban identity that the Republicans have cornered,” wrote Savage Love sex columnist Dan Savage and his colleagues at Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger last year.

 

No disrespect to Savage, but only somebody who lived in a Forbes top-10 city could ever buy that strategy. Pittsburghers know the right-wingers will come for the cities sooner or later … because in Pittsburgh, they’re already here. Better to learn how to combat them now, before the fundamentalists start catapulting cow carcasses o’er the ramparts of Boston. We’re a one-party town with a strong union heritage, sure, but those institutions are crumbling all around us. Seeing that process first-hand gives us a better idea of those institutions’ weaknesses -- and how they might be rescued from themselves.

 

For the League of Pissed Off Voters, then, Pittsburgh can be a kind of lab experiment. A handful of political activists can do what new stadiums, a new convention center and countless tax incentives for biotech have so far failed to accomplish: make Pittsburgh a cutting-edge city.

 

Maybe we don’t screw as often as the cities favored by Forbes. But come the election of 2012, those cities may have us to thank for not getting screwed over.

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