Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Take a Look, Its in a Book...

What is a Carnegie Library worth? How about Ohiopyle State Park or a tidy business district? France, perennial economic loser but global champion of chic cultured life, believes quite a bit. The cities of France are heralded as the most beautiful in the world; their gilt facades and baroque design polished to a high gloss by 300 years of public subsidy. From the Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to the lavishly appointed buildings in Oakland, Pennsylvanians have tried their hand at instilling a Parisian touch on cities otherwise developed a la lazziez faire. But in the great Anglo tradition, we did it on the cheap. The beauty of our grand boulevards is marred by filthy streets, sickly trees, and empty flower beds. I need not invoke Paris as a clean counterpart; Radnor, Ardmore, Mt. Lebanon and Sewickley will do just fine. The clean streets and manicured public spaces so meticulously guarded by healthy communities are all that stands between Oakland and... well, somewhere you'd want to live.

In the wake of the Congressional pork-binge, every oversized check photo-op looks like a vote-buying stunt. But is this too cynical an approach? A fitting question following an article entitled "Riding the White Elephant": have we become so phobic of government spending that we can’t recognize the difference between a sorely needed investment and a bridge to an uninhabited island in Alaska? As our cultural and physical infrastructure crumbles around us, we end up cash rich but civically bankrupt.

This week Ed Rendell stood in the drab interior of the Carnegie Library in East Liberty holding a check for $7.5 million. Rendell challenged the community to match the grant dollar for dollar to build our neighborhood a new library, while promising less subsidy for the development of Fifth & Forbes downtown. Both projects speak to imporant issues- both are deserving of some public support. But Rendell's approach, of challenging investors and neighbors to ante up, will help even those most squeamish of public spending to sleep at night.

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