Clean Air & Sunshine

14 Dec 2007

[This is way longer than I intended. Feel free to skip this and return Monday for some kind of brief, absurd joke relating to pop music. ]


"Smoke, smoke, everywhere smoke! Smoke with the noise of the steam hammer, and the spouting flame of tall chimneys ... On the evening of this dark day we were conducted to the edge of the abyss, and looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld. The entire space lying between the hills was filled with the blackest smoke, from out of which the hidden chimneys sent forth tongues of flame, while from the depths of the abyss came up the noise of hundreds of steam hammers ... soon the wind would force the smoky curtains aside and the whole black expanse would be dimly lighted with dull wreaths of fire ... .if any one would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburgh and looking over into -- hell with the lid taken off."
~ James Parton, Atlantic Monthly, 1868.

So Mr. Parton infamously branded Pittsburgh, whose steel days would end a hundred-plus years later. By our peak, I'm told, we reportedly held the distinction of America's third largest corporate headquarters city (after New York and Chicago). We'd grown as the country and its infrastructure grew; we churned out all of the metal for world wars, and the booms for years thereafter ...

And then came the demise. Some blame the unions, others blame poor management, others blame an inferior product as compared with foreign steel (where mills destroyed during WWII sprung back to life retooled with better technology than America's existing mills). Whatever the cause, the industry fizzled out here. People left the depressed area en masse.

This partly explains why, even today, housing in Pittsburgh is so surprisingly inexpensive compared with the rest of the country. With a surplus of heyday-built homes, prices plummeted.

By 1997, when I moved here, we purchased an enormous 70-year-old four-bedroom brick home in a nice, quiet, safe neighborhood for $96,000. In fact, the house was listed at $92,000, but we paid $96,000. We actually talked them up (provided they'd make a few improvements, which they did, prior to our moving in). Even today, my mortgage payment here is roughly the same as my rent was in a rather mediocre enclave of Alexandria, VA, (D.C . metro area) in 1995.

Pittsburgh is interesting to me because of the whole reputation issue. The rest of the country still identifies us (largely because of our football team) as a blue-collar town. Of course, that's utter bullshit, as I've explained in depth before. Here's a snippet from an old blog post of mine :

I'm also proclaiming the death of the original blue collar worker. Truly hard working people are a rarity in our society; we're now workaphobic. I've seen these people up close ... Today's "blue collar" workers are, at least where I live, generally fat fucks who stand around puffing Marlboros and downing McGriddles faster than you can look up "coronary bypass surgery" on Wikipedia.

While Pittsburgh's citizenry generally prides itself on our Steely McBeam toughguy reputation, our leaders have mixed emotions on the issue. On the one hand, no one wants to lose our prized pugnacity, our (falsely) implied work ethic. Yet our leaders cringe about the general grime associated with our city's name. So, they tout initiatives beginning with the prefix "re-" -- concepts such as rebirth, revitalization, retooling. And they've sold this to anyone who'd listen for years. No one can deny, for example, the many brownfields reborn as big-box shopping destinations, the miles of new bike trails, and other great amenities.

But there's a twist. See, outsiders still believe we're America's dirtiest region. What they don't know is that they're absolutely right, only for the wrong reasons. They believe the soot still lingers from the steel industry's former dominance here. Not true. That's largely cleaned up. What we haven't cleaned up is our air.

Permit me to enter into evidence Exhibit 1, a study by the American Lung Association of America's most polluted metropolitan areas. Observe the rank of Pittsburgh and/or Allegheny County (Pittsburgh's home) in these charts.

In the nationwide list of Metropolitan Areas Most Polluted by Short-term Particle Pollution, Pittsburgh ranks #4. In the list for Year-Round Particle Pollution, Pittsburgh ranks #3.
In the nationwide list of 25 Counties Most Polluted by Short-Term Particle Pollution, Allegheny ranks #5. In the accompanying list for Long-Term Particle Pollution, Allegheny also ranks #5.

Not so great for a region that prides itself on "rebirth" from the age of steel production. Most people shrug those statistics off, remarking between deep drags on their unfiltered Camels, "Yeah, but in the 60s and 70s, we used to run street lamps in the daytime."

I shouldn't bitch. It's still a great town. And, don't infer from this that I'm some kind of enemy of industry. That's not the case; I fully enjoy the benefits and products our industrial society has to offer. I simply think we can do better. To me, individual life and liberty are the most cherished, sacred things in existence. I believe that, just as we place a value on the goods we produce, we should place a value on the air we breathe, the water we drink, etc. Because these things sustain healthy life.

You may not think about this issue too often, but you also may not live near a coke plant as I do. It can get nasty on nights when there is an inversion, which traps emissions into the valleys. Here's a drawing of the plant, owned by U.S. Steel:


Logically, there's another perhaps more practical approach: If you don't like living near a coke plant, move ! ... Actually, that's not a bad idea. Besides my job at Horn Dog Enterprises (HDE), I really have no ties to Pittsburgh other than home ownership.

So, if we did decide to move, we would need to determine what else besides air quality is important to us. It turns out there's one biggie -- and, coincidentally, it's another aspect of Pittsburgh about which our community seems to be in collective denial: Sunshine.

Quick example: Fifty-odd years ago, someone came up with the idea to build the world's largest dome here in da 'burgh. The plan was to build an enormous amphitheater with -- get this -- a roof that opens! If you're a hockey fan, maybe you've heard of our "igloo," The Civic Arena (now called the Mellon Arena ), home to the Pittsburgh Penguins (so named because of the igloo moniker, which predates the team). A pic for you:


If you're a hockey fan who thinks it'd be awesome to watch a game under the night sky, you're out of luck, though; they've never opened the roof for a hockey game. In fact, they haven't opened it all since 1995 or so. If you'd like to know why, it's because (1) it cannot be opened now because scoreboards are attached to the roof, (2) no one cares that the scoreboards are there because they rarely opened it, anyway, and (3) they rarely opened it because, according to this history site: "The roof couldn't be opened if there was a greater than 60-percent chance of rain, or if wind was blowing more than 7 mph."

Now, to understand the whole "denial" thing I was getting at, I would point you to the National Climatic Data Center of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Specifically, here. This is a chart of sunshine statistics for U.S. cities. Some highlights:

Yuma, AZ - 90% sunny (328 sunny days/year)
Las Vegas, NV - 85% sunny (321 days/year)
Albuquerque, NM - 76% sunny (277 days/year)
[ ... skipping way to the bottom ... ]
Seattle - 47% sunny (172 days/year)
Pittsburgh - 45% sunny (164 days/year)
Nome, AK - 42% sunny (153 days/year)

Yes, you read that right; Seattle is sunnier. Honestly, I don't know if we called our arena the Igloo because it's a large dome or because our climate is nearly as dismal as Nome, Alaska. It's baffling to me why a city that's overcast more than half the time would construct a giant retractable dome that requires clear skies for opening.

So, I'll (finally !) get to my point. Here's what we did: We cross-referenced the air quality charts available on the Internet in various places with the sunshine indexes. Also important to me, as a star marketing executive, is living within commuting distance of a city in which I can earn a decent salary. (And there were other more minor factors I'm skipping here.) We fed all of this data into a supercomputer and breathlessly awaited the results.

Turns out we'd be happy in a few interesting pockets of the country. Right now, we're looking into a few of them. At the top of the list are some areas north of Denver -- Fort Collins or Loveland in particular. I'm a bit partial to Loveland as it seems a closer commute to Denver. Another interesting result is Albuquerque, which seems utterly foreign to me. Honestly, I always thought Albuquerque was a desert. Turns out people live there, and quite happily. Who knew?!

So, we'll see. Fortunately, we're on no specific timetable. Once I complete the contract-based writing work I'm doing now, I may actually be almost debt free (aside from my mortgage and an outstanding loan on my 401k). Sure, I might have simply posted, "Maybe we should move away from Pittsburgh," but I needed to make up for bearing such soul of wit lately, none of which you'll find above. For anyone who made it this far, any reactions to Fort Collins / Loveland or Albuquerque? Or any other areas we might consider?

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On December 14, 2007, Leonesse wrote:

Lion King says Albuquerque is flat and smells funny. I do love the desert, though, and loved Phoenix, but would be more partial to Loveland, methinks.

On December 16, 2007, M@ wrote:

Running street lamps in the daytime! LOL.

I just realized how much I love to put my headlights on at the first sight of a cloud in the sky w/ my new car.

Makes me feel extraordinarily affluent.

On December 16, 2007, Evil Genius wrote:

Hey you know what city I really like? Pittsburgh! Oh, wait a second ...

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