Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Downtown Leaders From Around the World to see "My Tale of Two Cities: A Comeback Story"

This Sunday I will be heading to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where our film, “My Tale of Two Cities” will be shown at a keynote session of the 55th Annual Convention of the International Downtown Association, representing over 650 downtown organizations from around the world. We have been asked to show the film there because the organizers felt that the movie, a “funny and heartfelt” comeback story about my hometown of Pittsburgh-- a once great industrial giant, which built America with its steel, conquered polio, and invented everything from aluminum to the Big Mac, and is now being challenged to reinvent itself for a new age-- might have something to say to a lot of cities (and their downtowns) that now are facing similar struggles. This screening comes in a year when Pittsburgh is on quite a roll—having regained its nomenclature as “The City of Champions” with victories by the Steelers and Penguins, been named “America’s Most Livable City” by The Economist, and with Pittsburgh being chosen to play host later this month to President Obama and 19 other world leaders for the G-20 Economic Summit.

Upon hearing of my upcoming trip, a friend of mine in Pittsburgh who used to anchor Milwaukee’s WITI news, was quick to point out the parallels between these two cities, which both have long histories as blue collar manufacturing towns and where when a football game is on, nothing else is happening in the city-- and which both have worked hard to redefine themselves and their images in a post-industrial world. I have only been to Milwaukee once before, with my friend comedian Louie Anderson, who has a hilarious riff in “My Tale of Two Cities” busting me for calling our documentary not a “Roger & Me,” but a “Mister Rogers & Me.”

Ironically, our movie is being screened just as Michael Moore’s new film, “Capitalism: A Love Story” is making headlines, as he apparently points fingers at the evil folks on Wall Street and one percent-ers (the rich) who Moore feels have caused the downfall of this country. By contrast, our film aims not to find bad guys to blame, but to use the metaphor of Pittsburgh being home to the real-life “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to try to show that in order for cities like Pittsburgh to comeback, it will take every neighbor, rich, middle class and poor, doing their part.

So in “My Tale of Two Cities,” we went looking for people to emulate rather than to blame. And thankfully, we found many of Fred’s real-life neighbors worthy of emulation. In the film, we go cheese shopping with Teresa Heinz Kerry, who reminds us that cities need “an infusion of dreams…. because dreaming is contagious.” We eat breakfast at a local diner with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’ Neill, who acknowledges that change can be painful, but points out how transformation does happen—citing Pittsburgh’s rivers, which “were once used as sewers for industrial waste and are now the central attraction point for new investment.” We also toss a football with Steeler legend Franco Harris, who believes for a city to be complete, you need everything to work together like a team.

But even Franco, the recipient of the “Immaculate Reception” who was credited with helping to turn the Steelers around in the 1970s, could not have predicted a comeback like we were able to document with this film. When we began rolling cameras, Pittsburgh was still reeling from being the first major city of the new millennium to declare itself “financially distressed.” Since then, the city has had a turn-around that even a Hollywood screenwriter would have trouble scripting. Last October, Time Magazine cited Pittsburgh as “The one bright spot on Main Street” and this month, Forbes Magazine wrote that President Obama chose the city to host the G-20 because “he sees in Pittsburgh a way forward for the American City in the 21st Century.”

Indeed, the city that bet on Dr. Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine is now a thriving medical powerhouse and a front-runner for becoming this country’s new leading vaccine manufacturer; the city that attracted a young George Westinghouse with his ideas for long distance electrical lines is now the home of a brilliant young Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis Von Ahn who co-invented CAPTCHA, the squiggly encoded letters email users type in 200 million times a day, and whose company ENCAPTCHA has just taught computers how to accurately read every “New York Times” issue since the 1880s in less than a year; the city that created the first community-supported public television station is now fertilizing “modern day Fred Rogers” with a “Kids & Creativity” initiative aimed at revolutionizing the way kids learn through digital technology; and the city that was once “the silicon valley of the industrial revolution” is now a place where companies are leading the way in computer, robotics and solar technologies.

I am sure Michael Moore’s film will be both entertaining and thought-provoking—but in the meantime, “My Tale of Two Cities” will continue to proffer, in its own “humorous and delightful” way, that the best chance for our future is not vilifying capitalism - or by contrast, calling others “socialists” - but by resisting labels and empowering each of us as neighbors to do what we can to re-invigorate our communities and our country. For as Fred Rogers’ reminded us, there are good neighbors everywhere and we all have something to contribute.