Cooper Long
Assistant ANDY Editor

When Tom Murphy was growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, his mother warned him that if he went near the city’s polluted rivers he would melt. Today, those same rivers are surrounded by 13 miles of continuous parkland and host one of the largest one-day rowing regattas in the United States.

As the mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2006, Murphy personally oversaw much of this remarkable transformation. Last Friday, he was in downtown Hamilton to share some of the lessons from his three terms in office.

Pittsburgh’s similarity to Hamilton gives Murphy’s insights particular weight. Indeed, the two are sister cities. Like Hamilton, Pittsburgh was formerly a centre of steelmaking. As Murphy put it, Pittsburgh’s steel mills were once so productive that “you didn’t know the sky was blue or there were stars at night.”

The city reeled when the steel industry began to collapse, but Murphy entered city hall insistent that he would not simply “manage decline.” Under his leadership, Pittsburgh turned to universities and hospitals as alternative economic engines. Today, more than forty percent of its population is employed in the technology sector.

There was another potential economic engine, however, that did not receive much attention in Murphy’s presentation. Given that he was speaking under the auspices of Supercrawl, I expected that Murphy would emphasize the role of the arts in urban redevelopment. Admittedly, he referred to the nebulous idea of  “vitality” and discussed building symphony halls in Pittsburgh’s former red light district. Yet, he never made an explicit link between civic prosperity and the arts.

I was left to draw such a connection myself.

In his address, Murphy repeatedly teased the audience about a surface level parking lot visible at James North and King William. Frequenters of Motown or Homegrown will know it well. Murphy described this type of lot as “the worst use of public space in a city.” In his opinion, however, the barren lot represented not just a failure of urban planning, but also a failure of imagination. According to the veteran mayor, those in charge of a city have to “know what you wanna be.” In other words, prosperous cities demand a comprehensive creative vision.

To me, this sense of imagination and possibility is also the essence of the arts. The mentality that allows a mayor to envision 13 miles of verdant parkland along once toxic rivers is the same impulse that compels someone to splash green paint on blank canvas. Indeed, the performers and artists at Supercrawl vibrantly showcased this creative spirit.

There is a lot of academic literature about how cultural workers contribute economically to the growth of cities. To me, however, civic prosperity and the arts have an even more profound connection. Fundamentally, both are exercises of the imagination.

This may sound somewhat starry-eyed. Urban redevelopment is almost always contentious, and I am not advocating that we transplant all of Pittsburgh’s strategies. Yet, if Hamiltonians and local government can keep up a bold, artistic mindset, then the city’s future at least has the potential to be a masterpiece.

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