Pittsburgh Love Stories
For a Time We Wanted Something New
From the Editors
April 13, 2005
Salinas, a city in Northern California, is the birthplace of John Steinbeck. In many of his novels, especially East of Eden, it sits gently behind the narrative and glows like heaven. Salinas has been in the press lately for its library system, which, like many systems in the nation, has been facing budget problems. The Salinas City Council voted to reduce the library hours and to promote a fundraising effort aiming to pull in $500,000 in donations by the end of the year. If that effort fails, City Council will close all three facilities, and that would make Salinas the largest city in America without a library.

Without Steinbeck to use as an ironic element, the story would not be getting the same level of press. Perhaps it’s a blessing, then, similar to a celebrity endorsement on a common disease. Salinas will probably get the added donations as a result of this exposure, but that only solves the immediate financial problem. It does little for the local economic tension that perpetuates the problem, and it does less for the similar problems affecting city and state budgets across the country that allow for serious reductions in a major city like Detroit. It also does nothing for an odd situation like Pittsburgh.

The Carnegie Library System has an operating budget and a capital budget. The former is for general funds that keep the library working; the latter is for building improvements, renovations and repairs. In 2001, the library decided to pursue a major renovation project and issued a public bond to raise the funds. Law requires that funds raised from the bond can only be used for the capital budget, which originally would have been fine, but because of the economic decline that accelerated after the attacks on September 11, the state reduced operating funds by 50 per cent. Since 2002, that has manifest in more than $50 million lost. On Tuesday, the Squirrel Hill branch of the library will celebrate its grand re-opening in a particularly bittersweet fashion: a “revitalized” building facing an economic crisis.

The library is a public equalizer. Like the bus and the radio, it allows those who “don’t have” to maybe, possibly find a way to “get.” That’s obvious. Citizens and governments don’t need to be told that the creation of a great American writer is dependant on libraries, and they don’t need to be told that buses, public radio and public television provide those same opportunities. The Steinbeck/Salinas irony is a reminder, though. And the strange legal flaw that will be celebrated with great fanfare on Forbes Avenue is an ironic reminder as well.

–Eric Lidji

April 7, 2005
I have backyard envy. It intensifies every spring, on the first day that I contemplate slipping on flip-flops, and it’s been a constant issue for the last two-and-a-half years, since we bought our house in Lawrenceville.

We live on the third busiest street in the neighborhood, right in the middle one of the steepest grades. Lots of things happen in front of our house: If a car is going to sputter and die, it’s probably going to happen while driving past our door. Same thing with sliding off the road—if a driver is going to lose control of their car in the ice and snow, it’ll probably skid onto our sidewalk. Since we’ve moved in, five people have been arrested in the middle of the night on the sidewalk across the street from us, three from their cars, two on foot. Two people died just this year alone—one morning, a mother didn’t wake up, and on another, a dead body was found in a house about seven doors up.

As entertaining as it has been, our front porch isn’t a place where you go to unwind, even if we do have a swing. In Lawrenceville, it’s the backyards where we all go to relax. Except for me. In my mind, my yard has constantly been the loser in an unspoken competition with my two neighbors.

When we bought the house, our backyard was a mess of gnarly rose bushes, overgrown wildflowers and weeds, and old rusty railroad spikes. It needed work, to say the least. So I bought a weed-whacker and went to town, but two weeks later, my handiwork was covered with the remains of our gutted bathroom and building supply trash (it was cheaper to rent a Dumpster for just the last days of construction and pile the trash in the yard).

Our neighbors on both sides never said anything to us about our growing, stinking trash heap, but I could see the disapproval in their eyes. It didn’t help our case that both of them had lovely groomed and planted gardens.

Neighbor-On-The-Left, a homemaker and mother of three little girls, doesn’t have a lot of space to work with, but she’s managed to grow a small patch of grass with a border of marigolds for the girls to play on, and a plot of green, pink, and purple variegated coleus plants surrounding a gurgling pond and fountain. I almost maimed her water garden during construction when I threw a twin mattress off the back second-floor roof, missing the trash pile by inches. I didn’t even wait to watch it bounce off the top of the fence and land in her pond—I was down the three flights of stairs and through the house into the backyard in mere seconds. When she came outside to yell at me, I blamed it on the workmen.

Neighbor-On-The-Right, an art teacher at a local college, has spent the last seven years transforming her yard into a brick-lined oasis. Eschewing the natural inclination to mimic the rectangular shape of our twin homes, Neighbor-On-The-Right created a zigzag pattern of planting beds, complete with a raised island in the middle. Her garden is at first glance wild and untamed, but upon closer inspection is a carefully planned crop of cultivated perennial flowers and shrubs. I’ve watched her sit on her walkways under the shade of an old patio umbrella anchored in a jug of sand and dig out the weeds growing between the bricks with a spoon. Last summer, she managed to grow a sunflower taller than the roof on my back porch. The flowers were bigger than my head.

And then there’s me. Last year I spent the warm months readying my little retreat for some big changes. I ripped out all the rose bushes by hand, bleeding and cursing the entire time, and I dug up all the old mangy hollyhocks and geranium left over from the former owner. I redistributed all the early spring bulbs—my daffodils are just about to start blooming—and mulched and weeded like a crazy woman. A lot of the women in my neighborhood share plants (though none have really offered to swap with me), and by July everyone’s yards are sprouting the same thing. To be different, I ordered lilacs, pink pampas grass, and a weigela bush. I even made an Excel plan of where I’m going to plant things.

I’ve given up on the idea that I can single-handedly install a patio, and so I’ve decided to embrace my lawn and have already aerated and fertilized it. I made a pooper-scooping schedule for my fiancé and me to which I’m strictly adhering. No longer will our yard be known as just our dog’s toilet.

But best of all is that both Neighbors haven’t even touched their yards yet. Neighbor-On-The-Left’s children are one year older and liable to do even more destruction this year than they did to the pond last year. So I think she’s playing it safe. Neighbor-On-The-Right has recently started dating a guy who lives in Ohio, and so she’s been spending a lot of time entertaining him indoors when he comes to visit.

It’s great—I’m winning, and it’s only the beginning of April. I just have to watch out for Neighbor-On-The-Right’s secret weapon. Her new boyfriend is a landscaper. I’ll really have to up my game if they move in together.

–Jennifer Meccariello


From the Editors:
April 13, 2005

Salinas, a city in Northern California, is the birthplace of John Steinbeck...