Earlier this year, at the request of nearby restaurant owners, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership removed all of the tables and chairs from Market Square — a city-owned public plaza in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. The chairs, which had been the only public seating available in the otherwise barren space, were initially placed in the square in 2010 after a $5 million renovation eliminated benches and greenspace in the public square.
Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership President and CEO Jeremy Waldrup cited drug and alcohol activity as the reason for removing the chairs, arguing that removing the only available seating would help to, “make sure it’s a space that’s welcoming for everyone.” Waldrup did not, however, explain how eliminating the only available seating in the historic public space would make it more welcoming for anyone.
Other business representatives also complained about Pittsburghers loitering in the space. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mike Mitcham, head of the Market Square Merchants Association complained of people coming to the square in the morning and hanging out throughout the day. “There are certain people, individuals, who come down to the square and take advantage of the space, dealing drugs and drinking all day long.”
To be sure, drinking and drug use in Market Square has been a significant public health hazard. During this year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration — an event heavily supported by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership — drug and alcohol overdoses resulted in seven people in Downtown Pittsburgh needing to be transported for medical treatment. Last year the celebration, which was described by police as “well-behaved,” resulted in two arrests, two citations for public urination, eleven under-age drinking citations and 11 EMS calls in Market Square alone. By contrast, city records show only nine EMS calls to Market Square for incidents identified as overdoses in all of 2016.
The fact that the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership chooses to enthusiastically support Downtown Pittsburgh’s annual drinking binge while breaking up mid-afternoon chess matches in Market Square reveals exactly what PDP CEO Jeremy Waldrup means when he says he wants to make the space “welcoming for everyone.” Removing the chairs isn’t about dealing with drug use in the square; removing the chairs is about making the space less hospitable poor people, people of color, and high school students while making the area more welcoming for wealthy restaurant patrons.
Removing seating from Market Square isn’t the Downtown Partnership’s only, or even its most insidious effort to push poor people, people of color and youth out of Downtown. The move is part of the Partnership’s “Clean + Safe” program, a concerted effort to make downtown a playground for the wealthy. A key part of that program is the Partnership’s uniformed Street Team that “focuses on addressing and managing panhandling and homeless issues Downtown.”
The Street Team project isn’t cheap. According to PDP’s annual tax filing for 2015 (the most recent year on record) the Partnership spends $1.6 million per year on the Clean + Safe program.
In 2010 PDP’s Street Team went as far as bird-dogging panhandlers with flyers dissuading people from giving money to people on the street. In discussing the program, Clean + Safe Program Manager Paul Hochendoner told the Tribune Review, “giving money to people on the street more often perpetuates their problems…If you give money to a crackhead, will they seek treatment or further the addiction?” The Partnership reported intervening in 1,712 panhandling incidents that year.
As Pittsburgh continues to undergo a dramatic transformation fueled by the current tech boom and “eds and meds” economy we need to make sure that we are building an economy that works for all and that we’re not ignoring the real problems of poverty, homelessness, crime, and drug and alcohol abuse in our community. PDP’s ban on hanging out in Market Square and its panhandling police have nothing to do with addressing those real challenges; they’re about keeping these very real problems out of sight and making them easier to ignore.