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September 23, 2009

People's Summits at the G20

Scott Stockdale

Scott Stockdale(Pittsburgh, September 22, 2009) Public works crews placed barriers and civic banners over the weekend, while activists started marching and demonstrating, ahead of the G20 Summit, scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

When leaders from 19 countries and the European Union meet at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, in downtown Pittsburgh, protesters concerned about issues such as job creation, the environment and health care, among other things, will be there to greet them.

Volunteers passed out fliers in the Hill District to get the word out. Steve Kirchbaum, one of a half-dozen school bus drivers from Boston who arrived here Friday, took a few minutes' break from distributing flyers to explain why he's here.

"People are getting sold out, and it's the height of hypocrisy. While they're busy bailing out big banks, they don't think about the jobless and the homeless. We want to make sure the focus is where it should be."

In another part of this city of 350,000, about a dozen people attended a session to train street medics, who will be there to assist the injured throughout the week.

Charles Schiovone, 39, a volunteer firefighter from Conneaut, Ohio, who claims he's an anarchist, said he and about 120 street medics will be able to recognize life-threatening conditions and either treat people or get them help from licensed professionals. He added that most injuries he's seen at past events were either accidental or weather-related. Few injuries, he said, were inflicted by other protesters or police officers.

Fresh plywood could be seen around the glass windows of the Huntingdon Bank at Seventh and Smithfield. A shield hiding the construction work on the Hilton is now in place, along with a huge banner that reads "Pittsburgh Welcomes the World."  In addition trees, that will help spruce up the downtown for the world visitors, can be seen along Fifth Avenue.

Aside from these additions to the landscape, downtown Pittsburgh seemed like a ghost town, Monday morning.

It was hard to imagine so few cars and pedestrians in a city of this size. Among the few people downtown, a security guard in front of the Planned Parenthood office on Liberty Avenue, pointed out a van with high tech equipment and men in suits.

"That's the Secret Service," he said. "You'll be safe down here this week." He added that many downtown businesses are closed this week, due to the G20. As he was talking it occurred to me that I've never heard of security guards at Planned Parenthood offices in Canada.

Pittsburgh Police claim they have no idea how many protesters have arrived in the city.

In an effort to provide an outlet for constructive criticism of the G20, People's Summits, which began Sunday, are scheduled every day before the G20.

The People's Summits are a crash course on some issues that await the G20 delegates, not a call to arms, said People's Summit organizer Paul LeBlanc, a history and political science professor at La Roche College.

Topics of discussion early on included squalid conditions in Third World farming communities, proliferation of nuclear power plants in India, the spread of greenhouse gases and the validity of the G20's composition.

Interestingly enough, on the issue of nuclear power in India, Bill Clinton confided to his reporter friend Taylor Branch, in taped interviews while he was president, that Indian officials told him they had calculated that they could win a nuclear confrontation with Pakistan because, while they estimated 300 to 500 million Indians would be killed, India's nuclear arsenal could kill all 120 million Pakistanis. Mr. Branch used these taped interviews to write the recently released book The Clinton Tapes.

It's unclear exactly why Pittsburgh was chosen for the G 20 Summit.

Rumors have it that Chicago and other unnamed cities rejected it. At a news conference in early April French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the G20 Summit would be held in New York City.

Shedding its enduring image as the "Smoky City", Pittsburgh has become a center for environmental innovation. In the first half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh iron, steel and related industries pumped so much soot into the air that streetlights were on in the middle of the day and businessmen had to change their white shirts at noon hour because the pollution had so badly soiled them.

The city led the nation in pneumonia death rates, with 172 people dying of pneumonia for every 100,000 deaths in 1932, according to mortality records.

Today, pneumonia is responsible for less than 23 of every 100,000 deaths, which is slightly below the national average. Urban renewal projects, led by Mayor David L. Lawrence and financier Richard King Mellon, began transforming the city after World War II.

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which will be the venue for the G20 Summit, is the first and largest convention center in the world to earn the U.S. Green Building Council's Gold Rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

The convention center uses less than two-thirds the electricity of ordinary buildings its size and buys one gallon of water for every five gallons it uses.

This is accomplished by such things as making use of daylight pouring through well-positioned windows, recycling water in an on-site treatment plant and cooling and heating through architecture rather than fans.

While the Steel industries presence here plays only a minor role to what it used to in the region's economy, it's still far from inconsequential.

U.S. Steel, the world's eighth largest producer, continues its operatation and Pittsburgh retains many steel industry suppliers. In 2003 these suppliers employed 12,000 people. However, international journalists are now busy writing about the city's turnaround from heavy industry to high-tech and medicine magnet.

President Obama said Pittsburgh will provide an example for the world.

"As a city that has transformed itself from the city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation - including green technology, education and training, and research and development - Pittsburgh will provide both a beautiful backdrop and a powerful example for our work," President Obama said.

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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