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FEATURE

PITT 'S IMPACT ON THE COMMUNITY MAY BE AS PERVASIVE, AND AS SUBTLE, AS THE BLADES OF GRASS ON THE CATHEDRAL LAWN.

LEAVES OF GRASS
WRITTEN BY MARK COLLINS
It's a rite of spring. Every year, sometime in May, workers from facilities management re-seed sections of the lawn around the Cathedral. During the rest of the year, scores of tag football matches, rugby games, and lacrosse practices wear down the grass. Every year, like swallows returning to Capistrano, the grounds crew puts in the stakes and string and seed and reclaims the balding turf.

The grounds crew, however, adds slightly more seed than prescribed. Although they carefully cover what they've sown, birds (robins, not swallows) still find some seed to eat. By the end of May, when the new grass has taken root, robins the size of small children can be seen wobbling around campus. Of course, the robins repay Pitt's kindness by providing fertilizer, some of which actually falls on the lawn.

What's odd about this annual rite is its subtlety. At first, the new grass shoots are a startling kelly green; by late summer, everything will blend. By freshman orientation, as new students feast on boxed lunches and cookies (leaving more tasty scraps for the birds), no one will notice the new lawn. It's unlikely that anyone will appreciate how the lawn stays, well, a lawn -- except maybe the robins. The University of Pittsburgh moved to Oakland in 1908, forever changing the neighborhood, forever changing the city. Though many of its accomplishments have received national and international attention, the University's everyday impact is far more telling, if subtle. The relationship between Pitt and its environment moves forward by quiet, almost immeasurable inertia, unnoticed until the next research breakthrough or next commencement or neighborhood tiff.

Assembled here are rarely seen snapshots of University life beyond the classroom, beyond the football field and the headlines. The shutter speed has been purposely slowed to capture all of those faces and places normally missed.

Staked out near the lawn stakes are the collective English classes of Hampton High School from Pittsburgh's northern suburbs. One hundred students are waiting in line to see the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival's Merchant of Venice. The Hampton contingent will join hundreds of other students for a special matinee of one of Shakespeare's most complex and difficult comedies.

This production takes place in 1930s Italy and is replete with the military garb of Mussolini's fascists. This modern restaging heightens the tension between Shylock, the Jewish money lender, and the rest of the cast. A Festival study guide, which was sent to the students prior to the performance, explains the acting challenge in playing Shylock as a sympathetic villain. (Aware of its audience, the study guide includes photos of one-time Shylock Patrick Stewart, better known currently as Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) For many students, this is their first exposure to Shakespeare; it may well be their first exposure to live theater.

While waiting, some of them will wander over to the 7-11 on Forbes Avenue for a Slim Jim. Others grab a bag of chips from the vending machines on the ground floor of the Cathedral. It's a scene that will be reprised hundreds of times over the next few weeks, as more than 700 students will see the Merchant of Venice, not to mention the thousands of regular Festival goers who will descend on the Stephen Foster Memorial this summer, as they have every summer for the past 15 years.

In Shakespeare's time, the audience members in the cheap seats (the ground around the stage) were known as groundlings. To Eileen McLaughlin of Pitt's Office of Institutional Research, theater goers in Oakland are known as ELV Variable 4. There were 14,060 ELV-V4s in 1992. On average, each spent about $20.50 (or E4V=20.50). McLaughlin and director Jim Ritchie can compute economic estimates for most aspects of University life. (Like most colleges, Pitt uses the Caffrey-Isaacs economic model, a formula first field tested at Pitt in the early '70s and now accepted as standard.) If you ask nice, McLaughlin and Ritchie can estimate the amount spent by business travelers to the University, by sports fans and parents, by cultural visitors and prospective students. Add it all up (that's E1V+E2V+ E3V+E4V+E5V +E6V, if you're keeping score at home), you're talking about $10.6 million spent by visitors to Pitt.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. According to McLaughlin's numbers, Pitt's faculty and staff spend $200 million on housing, food, and other essentials in the local economy (variable ELF), still leaving $73 million in disposable income (DIF). Students spend nearly $40 million in local housing (EHS), plus another $100 million on other items (ENHS). That's a couple thousand ENHS dollars per student spent on U2's newest CD or an EP by UB40. Add up this numeric alphabet soup-money spent on and by faculty, staff, and students, plus University-related expenditures -- and you could buy, well, let's just say several billion Slim-Jims from the Forbes Avenue 7-11.

But even these staggering figures aren't the whole picture, Ritchie says. (Pitt's figures, for instance, do not include the huge impact generated by the hospitals and staff of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.) Take the young woman who sells you the Slim-Jims from the Forbes Avenue 7-11. Part of your purchase supports her wages, which she probably spends locally -- a haircut at Cimini's on Craig Street, or perhaps a lava lamp from the Hemp Hour store on Oakland Avenue. It's an economic phenomenon called the "multiplier effect." In Pitt's case, as with most urban schools, wages tend to stay in the area, thanks to the large number of local students and the proximity of products and services. The theory is called the "gravity model" of spending: Money tends to fall close to where you pass your time -- in the sofa cushions, for example. Because Pitt students are likely to live year round in Western Pennsylvania, more money stays locally than in, say, State College, where most students leave for the summer.

But that's the single exception. For the most part, Oakland and State College and Ann Arbor all benefit the same way -- from money spent by students simply because they're on campus and not somewhere else. "Graduate students, especially, generate a lot of spending," Ritchie notes. "They tend to be older, have families and therefore spend more. That's money that would be gone otherwise. If they didn't go to grad school here, they'd be somewhere else."

Eighteen stories down from McLaughlin's office, on the Cathedral's first floor, walks Nancy Reck of Raleigh, North Carolina. Reck, a sales representative from Xerox Corporation, is visiting Oakland on business. To fill in a two-hour layover between appointments, a client of Reck's suggested she tour the Nationality Rooms on the Cathedral's first floor. She walks slowly among the specially built classrooms, brochure in hand. Although her own roots are "pretty much Anglo-Saxon," she says, "these rooms still speak a reverence for the people who came here." Reck is one of 30,000 annual visitors to the Nationality Rooms, part of ELV Variable 5 (visitors-cultural sites).

Two floors above Reck, Mike Gisoni, a lather, is hard at work on Room 304. Gisoni and his fellow workers from J.J. Morris & Sons (subcontractors to Volpatt Construction Corporation) are renovating this and 18 other Cathedral classrooms, adding cabinets suspended from the ceiling and installing remote control wiring to the professor's area in front of the class. The goal is to make video and slide machines a permanentpart of the classroom, which is better (and safer) than hauling slide projectors and VCRs from Hillman Library. Gisoni's job is to match the Cathedral's original plaster from the 1920s with the newer plaster around the video cabinets. He uses a process called "veneer plaster," which is only an eighth of an inch thick but still matches the texture of the original. "There's a lot of construction work in Oakland," Gisoni says as he works. "Between the hospitals and the University, there's a lot of work." (It's variable JL9 on McLaughlin and Ritchie's model: University-related construction -- $40 million a year on average, providing paychecks for an estimated 1,100 laborers.)

The whole question of community impact is of specialinterest to Louis B. Schwartz, president of the Oakland Business and Civic Association, a local business promotion group. Although his parents, uncle, and siblings are all Pitt grads, "somehow I strayed from the fold," he says. Schwartz attended Michigan and Harvard, both in classic college towns: Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"What I'd like to see for Oakland -- and some might disagree with me --is to complete its transition to a college town," Schwartz says. "I think that a college town business district would benefit the community tremendously. That's why we're trying to attract businesses like Going Greek or Tuscany Premium Coffees -- merchants who are found in places like Ann Arbor and State College. It takes a diverse mix -- specialty shops, some upscale eateries, service-oriented groups like copy centers, plus traditional businesses...and not just one bar after another. I think that kind of mix brings out the richness of the community, and I think that's what works well in a college town -- a cosmopolitan feel. The University offers that richness. It's not uncommon to hear a foreign language on the street here, and that's because of Pitt's presence. I think that really benefits the community."

But, in Schwartz' other life as a principal in Oakland Real Estate (a local landmark formerly managed by Schwartz' uncle, the late Louis I. Schwartz, Law '47, Business '41), he understands the uneasy alliance between the neighborhood and the University. "There's always been some tension between Pitt and the local community, but the contentiousness escalated in the '70s when growth began to change Oakland from a distinct neighborhood into a college town," Schwartz says. "After a while residents had trouble parking in front of their own houses. New neighbors seemed distant and unfamiliar. There's no question that businesses are more attracted to Oakland because of the University's presence than any other single reason -- more than location or other factors. But there's a difference of opinion in how the University can grow in a way that doesn't impinge on neighborhoods or the business district."

Schwartz is asking a sensitive question of local and political loyalties -- and, in the words of the late Tip O'Neill, all politics is local. The maxim rings true for Pitt trustee and Pennsylvania State Representative William Robinson, whose 19th district includes part of Pitt's campus and much of the surrounding area. He is well aware of the often intense relationship between these two constituents. But, he says, "I see no conflict," calling them instead "competing interests." If there's tension, it's inevitable in a district as diverse as his. "You have a business area, a university, a medical center, a cultural area, and a housing project all located in close proximity to each other. Whatever it is you want, we have it in the 19th district."

Robinson says that Pitt's enormous reach is often underappreciated. He cites, as just two examples, the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, which brings in world-renowned musicians and thousands of fans, and the University's large employment base -- the largest employer in the city. But, he adds, such influence requires accountability. As a state-related school, Robinson says, Pitt owes Pennsylvania a return on the state's investment: "We should work together on deciding not only what is best for Oakland, but what is best for the commonwealth."

Robinson's favorite metaphor for this yin-and-yang of influence and accountability is that of an elephant. "You must have some appreciation for its size and power because you don't want it to get loose and stampede. Instead, it can be a beast of burden, capable of doing amazing work, capable of moving whole mountains. You want to be able to harness that strength. Besides," he adds, laughing, "better an elephant in the middle of Oakland than a dinosaur."

But the "community impact" cannot be measured simply in money or metaphors. For instance, just blocks from Robinson's Hill District office is Annie Daniel's house. Daniel is neither a statistic nor a concept, but a quiet neighbor who sits on the porch of her Bedford Avenue home, enjoying the summer sun or the people passing by. She can't really enjoy the sights as much anymore; a decades-long fight against diabetes has taken a toll on her vision. Her battle became more difficult since Daniel began suffering memory lapses several years ago. At times, remembering even simple, crucial daily habits -- like taking insulin -- becomes a chore.

"Nobody knows what it's like unless it happens to you," Daniel says about memory loss. "It's really depressing."

As her memory worsened, Daniel became withdrawn, spending more and more time indoors. Several years ago, her doctor referred Daniel to the Alzheimer's Outreach Center, part of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC). (Although geared toward aiding those living with Alzheimer's and their families, the center also serves non-Alzheimer's patients like Daniel, whose main complaint is memory loss.) The Outreach Center's most helpful advice to Daniel was also the simplest: Get out of the house. "They told me to go to the senior citizens' center, to take a bus ride, to take a walk -- anything to get me outside," she remembers. "And they're right, because it's more depressing to be inside."

Recently Daniel had her annual examination at the Alzheimer's Center, done each year to chart the progress of her memory lapses. The good news was also the bad news: Daniel's condition is unchanged. Like many people fighting complicated, chronic diseases, there will be no magic cure, no simple solution. "I've learned to live with it," Daniel says. "As long as I keep functioning, it's not too bad. I've made up my mind that this is how it's going to be."

Daniel's resolve isn't an unusual trait among the clients at the outreach center. The center typically provides the combination of referrals and direct help that Daniel received. What's difficult, says Angela Ford (Social Work '91), director of the outreach program, is getting people -- especially African Americans -- to trust an institution like Western Psych.

When WPIC's Alzheimer's study first opened in 1985, she says, only two percent of the patient population was black -- this despite evidence that Alzheimer's is at least as prevalent in the African-American community as it is in the white community. Ford's goal was to find whatever barriers kept African-Americans from seeking treatment and support services and to provide education and crisis intervention for patients who seek it.

"I play down the WPIC connection," Ford says. "There's a perception that WPIC is the last stop on the way to the mental hospital."

When she was growing up in Columbus, Ohio, hospitalization for a mental health problem meant "being sent up the hill." "That's how everyone referred to it," she recalls. "I never knew the name of the hospital. It was always, 'Well, she was sent up the hill because of her nerves.' Her nerves? I didn't know what that meant; it was never discussed. There was too much shame and embarrassment."

Ford spent her first year at the center knocking on doors, explaining the center's purpose to whomever would listen, and showing up at community events. After a while, she recalls, "People started coming to me, asking, 'Aren't you the lady that has something to do with Alzheimer's?'"

While the Outreach Center's main purpose is to provide referrals, support services, and education, sometimes more direct help is required. Ford recalls one Hill District client who was struggling with her husband's failing health. "It turned out he was a veteran and was eligible for all sorts of Veterans Administration benefits," Ford remembers. "I asked why she didn't pursue the benefits; she told me that she felt too intimidated to go there alone. So I took them up there myself. When we got to the hospital, there seemed to be a problem with the paperwork. When I asked the wife what was wrong, she said that the hospital staff asked a lot of questions about her husband's wartime service. 'How should I know?' she said. 'I wasn't in the war -- he was.'"

TheWoman and her husband eventually received help from the VA, though it's unlikely you read about them in the paper. There are no news clips about Annie Daniel, either -- how she moved from North Carolina at age 12, raised nine children while working full-time until diabetes forced her to quit her job. And no one knows how much Mike Gisoni's lathing job means to him and his family, nor can anyone measure the ineffable awe Nancy Reck felt in touring the Nationality Rooms.

When you think about it, everyone has a story, and most stories are written out each day in a language so subtle that we cannot stop to decipher the plot. There are dramatic stories worthy of Shakespeare; then there are quiet stories, stories of high school students watching their first play, or the woman selling Slim Jims at the 7-11, or the algebra of letters and numbers that give meaning to the sheer power of influence, or the ever-sensitive balancing act of a University and its neighborhood. These unheralded stories are about as exciting as watching grass grow.

Which is fitting, because by the time you read this, the grass near the Stephen Foster Memorial will have completely covered the random bare spots in the lawn. Here, in the shadow of the Cathedral, a community of new shoots, each blade unique, has taken root. The leaves of grass compete for space, enjoy their daily dose of sunshine, and grow a little each day -- all crowded together, for better or for worse, in a few small acres of Oakland.


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