At the Ace Hotel a group of 10 people, most of whom had never met before, gathered for brunch. Later that day, several groups got together at various Carnegie Libraries for lunch. Meanwhile, the Mayor hosted a group of 5 at his office for tacos and talk. That night, the East End Cooperative Ministry took over a space in East Liberty with dinner for 80. And that evening, in homes and restaurants all over town, hundreds got together for dinner with one purpose in mind: to engage in a community-wide discussion about how we can improve our city.

200 Dinners Pittsburgh, a bicentennial event on May 14th hosted by NEXTpittsburgh and Vibrant Pittsburgh, was a hit based on the firehose of feedback we received, some of which we will share with you here.

“Thanks for making civil discourse cool again!” said Douglas Florey, executive director of the Laughlin Children’s Center. He was one of nearly 100 hosts who held dinners, inviting guests of his choosing and in his case, coming up with questions ahead of time for guests to think about. (If we do this again, we want him on the organizing committee.)

The group, reports Douglas Florey who hosted eight people on his patio that evening, “was a great mix of age, gender, orientation, and professional background, which led to lively, but very respectful, conversation.”

As one guest said: “It was so nice to have a real discussion with people that included various points of view, without the whole thing devolving into name calling and baiting. It proved to me that we can still be civil and respectful to one another, even when we disagree.”

That comment alone might have made it all worthwhile.

Not only were meals held throughout the city that day but many took the opportunity to hold discussions in other venues and at other times the week prior. The Pittsburgh Technology Council held a breakfast in place of their usual meeting on Friday morning and had a rousing discussion about the future of the city.

Others hosted a coffee roundtable or dinner out for a small group. Those who wanted to take part in a dinner but didn’t want to host met with others at various places, including Bill’s Bar and Burgers and Savoy.

Here are some of the comments we got from various groups, including a third grader who loves all our of bridges, and more than one group which reported a mention of the Pittsburgh Left as proof that this city is gracious to a fault. Even the mayor chimed in on that one.

200 Dinners Pittsburgh

At Ace Hotel, the discussion was lively over brunch.

  • What makes you proud to call Pittsburgh home?
  • Lots of historic places and references. A great heritage.
  • The opportunity to develop projects and make your mark. Entrepreneurship is encouraged.
  • The Mayor is accessible.
  • Affordability.
  • Ability to learn from diverse people.
  • Friendliness; the people, the Pittsburgh Left!
  • Relative safety.
  • Big city/small city feel
  • The vibrant food scene
  • The tech scene—lots happening here in the way of innovation.
  • The architecture!
  • The parks and the many bridges.

What are some challenges you would like to see addressed?

  • The need to switch mindsets in order to manage growth—instead of decline—and avoiding gentrification in the process.
  • How about rent control?
  • Equity. African-Americans are not riding the wave of prosperity that Pittsburgh has enjoyed of late. There’s been a loss of affordable housing in places like Lawrenceville and some question the pricing of new housing developments.
  • Diversity. We need to make Pittsburgh a more welcome place for all.

At the Mayor’s table, the nearly two-hour discussion (and tour) was largely focused on equity. The Mayor talked about efforts from the City around affordable housing and reminded the group that, given the shrinking population of the City, we need more people, especially dual-income couples without kids who aren’t a burden to the system, to move to the city and support the tax base.

Another topic, raised by a teacher, was the tremendous effort around the remake learning movement and how effective it has been for many students who have had access to resources. And now? It’s time to get the same opportunities for all our kids.

What is one idea that would solve a problem in your neighborhood to make it better?

  • Develop Herron Avenue in the Hill District to connect it to the growing Strip District.
  • Develop housing that attracts a mix of incomes and encourages ownership rather than rentals.
  • Address the issues in our pubic school system, specifically college prep.
  • Teach entrepreneurship to our youth.
  • Infrastructure improvements are greatly needed.
  • More thorough paving of roads and fixing potholes will make biking safer in the city.
  • More frequent tax assessments could help avoid abrupt affordability issues in some neighborhoods.
  • Making wi-fi free and accessible could address educational and public health inequalities.
  • Housing! It has to be affordable and retain the sense of place that makes this city so great.

    200 Dinners Pittsburgh

    At the Mayor’s table for a two-hour discussion about the future of Pittsburgh.

  • More people should use the waterways—they are amazing and underutilized.
  • A bike trail from Sewickley to downtown.
  • Get more tech companies into underserved neighborhoods. Tech workers want to be in neighborhoods and patronize local food/entertainment/music.
  • More and better afterschool programs; create more safe spaces for children.
  • More open spaces, trees, lights, sidewalks for walking.
  • How can we increase awareness of Black History and make it integrated into Pittsburgh History? Does the August Wilson Center have a role in this awareness/integration?
  • Intentionality in revitalization. Increase walking communities and access to public transportation.
  • Race problems must be addressed. Let’s challenge ourselves to step out of our comfort zones and make way for new connections and friends.
  • Infusing arts and entertainment enjoyed by all races in specific locations to promote integration.

    200 dinners

    Preparing for 200 Dinners at the home of Douglas Florey.

While there was plenty of critical self-examination, we heard much praise and love for the city, such as this:

“Pittsburgh is a one-of-a-kind city that genuinely cares about residents, visitors and everyone in between. I’ve yet to find another city that is as responsive and friendly as Pittsburgh. When visiting a new city, visitors will look for the big name institutions and attractions; Pittsburgh has that in spades, but also has an enormous supply of small-scale culture that would typically only be available to Pittsburgh residents and insiders. Would an outsider know about the City of Asylum houses, gallery crawls, Bayernhof Museum, Pop-Up Improv Nights at Arcade, or local gems like Better-Maid Donuts or the Center for PostNatural History?

And this:

“That it is so friendly! At our table, everyone was a non-native. We had all found that the city had welcomed us in and had stories of residents helping us find our way.”

How can Pittsburgh attract and retain the best and brightest to continue creating opportunity here at home?

  • This is a good time for young people: start-ups and resources like Urban Innovation21 are available to encourage entrepreneurship.
  • Higher pay scales; salaries are higher in other cities.
  • Increase ability for young African-Americans to find employment and promotion opportunities in their fields; other cities are more welcoming of Black professionals.
  • Break down barriers to access. Pittsburgh is still led by the “old guard” where connections are needed and “who you know” matters.
  • Pittsburgh should retain its diversity of activities (“something for everyone”) and its authenticity (“grit,” “unique individual neighborhoods”). Technology should remain an attractor along with affordability.
  • Diversify industries. We are too focused on sports, healthcare and banking.
  • More entry-level positions! Employers need to commit to hiring fresh talent without 3-5 years of experience, or without dismissing less experienced candidates in favor of someone who “better meets our qualification needs.” A younger, less experienced employee will be more adaptable and able to learn. Better to create new habits than to unteach the bad ones.
    Carole Lampe made a new friend while waiting for others at Savoy.

    Carole Lampe and Mary Jo Sonntag got acquainted at Savoy.

    “Another BIG component to attracting people is a comprehensive public transportation system.  . A Pittsburgh with a light rail system that matches our population and growing needs will propel Pittsburgh to the platinum status it deserves.”

“Pittsburgh needs to do a better job of selling itself, and it needs to make its case from the perspective of people who don’t already live here. That way newcomers can see themselves fitting into this fantastic city.”

  • More programs like the CMU UDream program.
  • Innovative education—this is KEY to our region’s flourishing—Not just at the university level (although that’s good), but starting at pre-K levels.
  • Increase quality of our primary public education system (or reputation of Pittsburgh Public Schools).
  • Support local and independent business, including grocers.