Yesterday, I read the surprising news that the Strip District grocery store, Right By Nature, has started a delivery service in order to address the lack of grocery stores available to Downtown and Hill District residents. Don't get me wrong, I find the action by Right By Nature very kind, in a very Pittsburgh way--they're stepping up to provide a service to help their neighbors. But as a city, aren't we all sufficiently ashamed of the Hill District's situation (as Vanessa German quipped in her show "Testify," "If you live in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, you have to get on a bus to find a grocery store"), and as a city, isn't this a very outdated solution to an embarrassingly long-running problem (the Hill has gone decades without a real grocery store)?
When I say outdated, I'm talking about delivery service. I'm talking about individual cars on the road, and the oil we use to power those vehicles, and how that oil is getting more and more costly. I believe, and I'm not the only one, that the writing is on the wall for the car. No amount of electric power or corn oil is going to do; the car thing is just not sustainable for too much longer. We've got to start turning our cities into places of walkers and bikers and public transit riders.
The humane and green solution to this grocery problem is to provide grocery stores in neighborhoods. Period. Places we can each get to on foot, if we choose. But for that, we need to create and sustain neighborhoods that can support grocery stores, which brings me to my real fear for Pittsburgh: density. Will the city of Pittsburgh ever re-acquire enough density to do what cities do best--concentrate living and working and services in areas connected by real sidewalks, safe bike paths, and viable public transit? Just because we lost population in the steel industry downturn, doesn't mean we can afford to turn our city into a suburban carland indefinitely. Paul Krugman writes of a middle-class Berlin full of trains, bikes, and close local shopping, versus an "America stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas." What would it take to fill many more of Pittsburgh's beautiful old houses with residents, to make frequent, appealing light rail service reach many more outlying areas, to convince Southwestern Pa. to put less effort into maintaining the lifestyle of its suburbs and spend more effort to populate the energetic city those 'burbs revolve around?
Again, kudos to Right by Nature for their neighborly action. But in the larger picture, grocery delivery must be seen as a stop-gap solution to a problem of low-density, which threatens the long-term future of our city.