Paving the Wrong Streets

Our street seems to be changing. My wife and I bought our small red brick house on a non-descript, out of the way, street on the Northside of Pittsburgh just over 10 years ago. It shares a wall with the house beside it and is perched right at the top of a charming set of “City Steps,” something most Pittsburghers like because it saves us the time of going around the oddly shaped blocks and inconvenient little mountains in this “Paris of Appalachia.” Pittsburgh has always been an uncomfortable mix of nature and metropolis, leaving us all wondering “why the hell we hear coyotes howling at night.” Our house gets a nice mix of pedestrian traffic, kids playing in nearby yards, and the occasional deer passing through.

My own children often walk out to our porch hoping that the neighbor kids, who live on the other side of the wall, are playing in the front so they can join. If they aren’t, my oldest daughter will perch on the divider between our two porches and creepily gaze in their front window until somebody from their house acknowledges her or I notice that she is being weird and make her stop.

The street is getting younger, steadily shifting from an old Pittsburgh neighborhood where people drank Iron City Light, relaxed under carports, and used words like “yinz” and “dahntahn,” to the kind of place where we drink hipster boxed wines and craft beer while our kids dance in the 12x12 grass space that makes up our front yard. It feels like it shifted to a few more college degrees, a few more kids, and some shiny new renovations. The old wood-paneled walls and floral wallpaper has given way to things like filament light bulbs and exposed brick. Houses that cost 100k when we moved in are selling for almost double that, even making our own little Nick Carraway joint worth a few bucks. Our street probably has a few more homeowners, a few more people, and logically, a few more voters.

I sit on the porch a lot and chat with our neighbors while we try not to lose one of our kids. I look out over the yard, the uneven sidewalk, and I see a paved street that always kind of impresses me. Its held up well, with very few of the potholes or cracks that plague many streets in this city of temperature extremes. It has a nice peak in the center, pushing all of the rain from the torrential downpours we have had recently into the wide open storm gutters. This morning, when I left the house for a summer run, I noticed they were signs telling us that they were going to pave over our already well-paved street.

And this, I submit, is the problem with America. The problem with all of us. We pave roads that don’t need paved at the expense of some others that are in dire need of our attention.

It could be that my self-righteous tirade about the road paving is annoying and misinformed. There could be really intentional and legitimate reasons for why they pave certain roads this year and why some have to wait until next year. It might have something to do sewer replacements or things that they know that we don’t that makes their decision logical.

Or, it could be that that Mayor Bill Peduto and his administration tends to favor craft beer drinking bike riders and Amazon employees over some of our city’s residents who might be a little less… um… well… white. You win votes when you pave streets and fix potholes. Those kinds of things sell houses, raise values of homes, and make a city look more appealing.

Either way, whether the motives of the road paving are pure or tainted, my point remains the same: our street doesn’t need paved. 

My friend used to tell me all the time that “need is a tricky thing.” He would usually say this with just enough pompous ass-holery to make me want to punch him in the face. It would come right after I was making some passionate claim about something that I really wanted. He would wait until I used the word “need” and jump in for the kill.

“You know, Jase. Need is a tricky thing,” he would say with the kind of look that tried to remind me that ordering extra carnitas on my nachos seemed excessive when there were people going hungry in the world. Actually, that is a bad example. This particular friend would love extra carnitas, but he would use his phrase to condemn some idea of mine and tell me that my wife was probably right.

Back then, I just tried to find ways to ignore my friend, but I am starting to think that he just understood the “paved road” theory that underlies so many of our decisions. We make these kinds of decisions in housing, healthcare, and of course, education.

My mother laughs every time we visit her in Eastern PA and take our kids to the playground by their house at the local elementary school. About 3 years ago, the district she lives in decided to tear down each of their 6 elementary schools and build new ones. They crushed a building that was probably built in the late 70s in favor of their new school that is surrounded by acres of imported sod for state-of-the-art soccer fields. The playground is beautiful and my kids love it. My mom knows that there is a steady anger brewing inside me each time we sit there. I would have loved to give my students in Pittsburgh the school that they demolished. The high school in my neighborhood is over 100 years old, with 90 degree classrooms in the summer, chipping plaster, and walls that are painted to look like you mixed a Yoo-Hoo with mustard.

These two schools are in the same state. I can’t help but think that we paved the wrong road.

This year, we did a project with a neighboring suburban high school that is building a multi-million dollar steam lab in their high school. This is already a building filled with makerspaces and equipment, a functioning cafe for student use, and AP classes in almost every subject. Our students visited the school and looked in amazement. It was a different world.

“Why are you building the STEAM lab,” one of my students asked.

“I don’t know. We had the extra money,” the teacher replied.

We all knew they were paving the wrong road. It was just a reminder when we returned to our own building with broken equipment and leaking ceilings.

I know that these examples are oversimplifications of larger issues. But my hunch is that they wouldn’t be larger issues if we shifted our priorities to reflect actual needs rather than our wants or desires. Before we go about paving our own street, we should make sure that all the other roads are passable.

Before we go around adding layers to already high-performing schools, we should probably take care of the potholes that are causing students to fall.