Thursday, January 22, 2004

Life in the Hills

As Pittsburgh's financial woes continue, life is apparently not much better in the suburbs either. There are (famously) three major rivers in Allegheny County, which in turn divide the county into three fairly geographically definable regions:

  • North which lies north of the Ohio and the Allegheny rivers
  • South: which lies south of the Ohio and the Monongahela rivers
  • East: which lies between the Allegheny and the Monongahela

For the most part the City of Pittsburgh starts at the intersection of the three rivers and travels to the East, between the rivers. (This is a simplification, but a fair one, I think).

I live in the north suburbs and after a year or so, I still haven't really figured out the difference between a town, a city, a village, and a township, but I have figured out that there are lots of them around here -- 48 different municipalities in North Allegheny County alone. Added to that are cities that just don't exist -- such as Wexford and Allison Park. They seem to be imaginary constructs of the Post Office in order to shoehorn extra ZIP codes into this area, so everyone knows where they are, but they don't have police or fire departments of their own, or any government for that matter.

This fragmented (sub)urbanscape has some unfortunate effects on its residents. In particular, while zoning is allowed, a municipality cannot zone a type of business out of its borders, only control where it can be situated. So there are no true bedroom communities in the state. Additionally emergency services can be very hard to coordinate when there are so many arbitrary bouandaries lying across the map. (When our car radio was stolen, it required a debate with the 911 operator, a store clerk, and my wife before they could figure out which police department to dispatch!) . One of the local paper's columnists has proposed a solution to this situation. Unfortunately the online article doesn't include the map that was in the paper, which showed both the current and his proposed new boundaries. The idea makes a lot of sense, and would probably also help in providing a framework to start negotiating a way for the suburbs to keep the city alive, so it ain't gonna happen. He promises and implementation plan for next week, but it seems that there are too many petty fiefdoms for this kind of change to be generated internally. Furthermore, any external change would have to come from the state legislature, who appear to be not only large-C Conservative, but also small-c conservative, and are unlikely to recognize that the situation is broke and should be fixed.