Everything is (Not) Awesome or “Is This Good Enough For Pittsburgh?”

pgh

I don’t care for Kevin Sousa as a chef. And what I really mean by that is this: I haven’t enjoyed my dining experiences at his restaurants. I have never met the man personally. I’ve sold him things and he was perfectly pleasant. I have friends who love him personally & professionally and friends who hated working for him professionally. He’s a polarizing figure in Pittsburgh, and I already spent too much time on Facebook today talking about him and Superior Motors, the restaurant he’s opening in Braddock. So really, this post isn’t about Sousa (who again, I have never met and have been assured is a lovely man), but about what happens when people try to talk about him.

I lived in New York for almost fourteen years, where being bitchy and mean about anyone and everyone was de rigueur, to the point of exhaustion. Someone would open a bar or exhibit or restaurant and it would be hot for six weeks and then garbage after that. It was terrible and not a good way to live. And for every good food critic or journalist, there were ten snarky assholes who wrote bad reviews of everything, because it’s easier and more fun to be a dick than to think about what art, music, or food actually means to you.

I don’t ever want Pittsburgh to become like that.

That said, I feel that Pittsburgh is way, way too far in the other direction. When I first moved here, I am not exaggerating when I say that it took five years for me to read a single bad restaurant review. Every broadway show that the Cultural Trust put on was touted as an event when really, it’s just a matter of touring schedules and contracts. In short, there was little to no critical voice. And why is that important?

I can understand that in past decades, when Pittsburgh was down on her luck, we needed boosterism. And there’s something to be said for that. But Pittsburgh is back on her feet now. We’re becoming a hip (some would say too hip) city. Steel City is becoming a destination, and people are not just staying here after college but starting to move here on their own, like I did in 2008.

And good, constructive criticism is necessary. For restaurants, visual arts, theater, architecture, virtually anything people create as a social experience. It helps raise a higher bar for everyone involved, and doesn’t let people get away with sloppy work. Good criticism is borne of a love of what you critique, because you want to see people do their best work. The Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself dealt with this, and Ebert’s response was always that he loved movies and wanted the best for them, even if it meant offending friend Martin Scorsese by panning After Hours.

So let’s look at Kevin Sousa (the professional chef, not the person) as an example. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article today  that was somewhat critical of Sousa, or at least investigative. Sousa was interviewed and had time to respond. In a post on his own blog, Sousa defended himself & his business but also never claimed that he was misrepresented. The headline of this article referred to Sousa as a “visionary.” In short, I felt it was a fair appraisal of a very public project. Sousa’s blog post seemed to be aimed towards assuring Kickstarter funders of his due diligence, which made total sense. Everything’s cool, right?

Instead, people online reacted with insanity. How dare the Post-Gazette attack the beloved Kevin Sousa? Countless tweets and messages reproaching the writers for daring to challenge Sousa. It was craziness (A fair complaint about the Post-Gazette article is that the webmaster at the PG site was at some point deleting comments that they found to contain personal attacks. This was misguided of the webmaster, but shouldn’t have a bearing on the article itself. It’s fair to criticize the paper for taking down comments, but it’s a logical fallacy to dismiss the article and its points out of hand, just because the Post-Gazette webmaster got nervous).

And again, this was such a mild critique of Sousa. If you want to read a real critical takedown, check out some of Frank Bruni’s scathing reviews in the NYTimes or our old friend Roger Ebert’s legendary review of the film “North” (which at this point is probably more famous than the film itself). 

But as fun as these negative reviews are, they’re also smart. They don’t just trash talk; they site specific critiques and back up their pithiness with well-reasoned knowledge and experience. For instance, Frank Bruni isn’t mad because a bartender spilled white wine on his date; he’s mad because he waited almost an hour for a reservation and the food was bad.

And yet Pittsburghers still get upset if you write anything negative about anything in Pittsburgh. Countless times I’ve heard “well they’re a good person” or “they mean well,” or “they’re really nice.” I’m sure they are. To return to Sousa (who is getting the brunt of it today, but really he’s just an example here), if I don’t enjoy my dining experience at one of his restaurants, or express doubts about his Kickstarter project, people instantly respond with stories of how nice he is. Great. Fine. That has no bearing on what I’m talking about.

I can judge Sousa’s work professionally without commenting on him personally. The same goes for critics. When Melissa McCart’s poorly-researched piece on Conflict Kitchen ended up contributing to an already volatile and potentially violent situation, I was outraged and said so publicly. But again, people went after me as though I was attacking McCart personally. She works in the public sphere, and attacks on the quality of her work are valid, just as criticisms of Sousa’s work in the public sphere are equally valid.

Critics should be critical. And in doing so, they open themselves up to dialogue as well. If you’re just parroting press releases or singing everyone’s praises, then nothing ever gets better. “Everything is Awesome” is a great song in the Lego Movie, but it’s a poor model for any kind of criticism.

And let’s address one more topic: an issue that people brought up time and time again with Sousa specifically but also something I hear about a lot of restaurants, artists, and new businesses: “At least they’re trying something.” Yes, that’s true. It takes courage to put your art in front of people, or share your cooking, or jump up on stage and perform. But it also doesn’t grant you a magic immunity pass that means no one can have an opinion about your work.

The “At least they’re trying something” argument isn’t good enough anymore. There are lots of people trying things. Hundreds of them, thousands of them. If you don’t believe me, go to Soup N’at to hear those ideas. Or startup weekend. Or the library’s new “Show Your Work” series. Or talk to your neighbors or just walk down the street – things are happening. But they need cultivation. And they need work. And they need responsible people who are willing to sing their praises when they have a great idea, or speak frankly when an idea isn’t quite fleshed out or needs work. That’s what makes us all collaborators in society at large. It’s what encourages people to try harder or not rest on their laurels. It’s what makes good people great.

I don’t want to see Pittsburgh descend into thoughtless criticism where everything is snark and bullshit. But I do think we can embrace the idea that dissenting opinions and constructive criticism can be useful and don’t need to be taken personally. Pittsburgh is strong enough now; we can take it. If anything, we should expect more. I don’t want people thinking “well, this is good enough.” We should be asking “Is this good enough? Is it good enough for me? Is it good enough for Pittsburgh?”

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27 thoughts on “Everything is (Not) Awesome or “Is This Good Enough For Pittsburgh?”

  1. Annie D. March 2, 2015 / 12:12 am

    Good piece and I agree with you completely. I just read the PG article and am having trouble understanding how it could even be viewed as negative, unless the PG is misreporting facts. It reads as completely factual, not skewed, and contains input from Sousa himself. If anything, the transparency surrounding his previous debt problems sheds light on how passionate he is about Superior Motors and how much more likely he is to do things right (and on his own terms) this time around. He comes across as very human and deeply connected to his work rather than some money-grubbing celebrity chef stereotype.

    I love Pittsburgh as a city, but the insularity and deep-seated need to believe that everything here is perfect as is, even at the expense of acknowledging facts, is a serious problem. I work in the arts and the lack of informed, objective criticism inhibits the quality of theater here monumentally. It’s gotten to the point where I refrain from saying anything remotely critical about the city because it’s so often taken as a personal attack. I kind of gave up when someone equated Sienna Miller’s dislike of Pittsburgh (she doesn’t have to like it, guys; you can still love it) with her taking a stance against gay marriage.

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  2. Ben March 2, 2015 / 2:01 pm

    Technical point: Roger Ebert panned “The Color of Money”. He gave “After Hours” a four star review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mattbuchholz March 2, 2015 / 2:27 pm

      Curses! Hoisted with my own pitard! Thanks for the clarification, Ben!

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      • mattbuchholz March 2, 2015 / 6:26 pm

        Literally hoisted on a petard by a pitard. 🙂

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  3. Luke March 2, 2015 / 2:20 pm

    To be fair, the North dialogues had plenty of posts defending defensive comments from New Yorkers. New Yorkers aren’t somehow above backbiting back and forth. You can’t paint Pittsburghers with such a broad brush. The critical critics may be quiet comparatively at the moment but things are changing. Calling for boosters to swallow dissent from the critical perspective is no different than the boosters telling you to stop being a dick.

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    • mattbuchholz March 2, 2015 / 2:29 pm

      Luke, absolutely New Yorkers aren’t above backbiting – that’s why I said that New York was kind of awful because of this attitude, and I never want Pittsburgh to turn into that. And I’m not asking anyone to swallow dissent – my apologies if it came across that way. What I’d hope is that people can start engaging in critical dialogue, instead of defaulting to arguments that have no bearing on the issue at hand, or taking umbrage that you’ve insulted someone’s character because you found fault with their work. Thanks!

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  4. Josh Aronoff March 2, 2015 / 3:51 pm

    I think you make a fair argument. I dont even think that most people who create things are against criticism per se. I think that yes, it’s valid to critique. In what I saw in the PG article, I didn’t really see an intent, or a point. I get that there’s loans, or not, I read both sides and don’t really know which is true. I like to side with the creator of a thing, because i know the hard work it takes and the guts to just get out of bed and create something from nothing.

    There’s lots of businesses that have loans, or sell a business and then transfer the existing loan along with the business. Starting a business needs capital. Its fine to critique that, but that is seriously something that needs to happen in terms of starting these ideas. Its a form of validation that your idea is good.

    And i think that that is why Mr. Sousa went to Kickstarter to a) validate interest and b) raise capital.

    Whether or not he’s successful rests entirely on his own shoulders. He’s overcome a lot, and I think he has a vision for what SM can be and I welcome the success.

    Tastes are something completely aside from that. The vision is one thing. The food is the other.

    Everything isn’t for everyone.

    I think you make astute observations about the scene in general, being somewhat too positive to the point of, whats the point of what you’re saying… but I also don’t feel that Mr. Sousa or others who create things can’t weather the storm of a poor review either.

    Creating something is born out of a internal desire to birth something externally. A part of you is in it, but you also have to have the strength to kick it out of it’s nest and let it live on it’s own.

    I think Mr. Sousa is doing that with making the decision to sell those other restaurants.

    I’ll wrap this circuitous comment up by saying, I’m fine with criticism if it’s pointed and clear. I didn’t see a real clear point to that PG article. It just seems somewhat rambly….

    Kind of like this comment. Ha. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • mattbuchholz March 2, 2015 / 4:07 pm

      Totally fair points! In some ways, I probably shouldn’t have used Kevin Sousa as an example for this piece, because he does inspire strong reactions in people. I personally don’t like his cooking and have questions and reservations about Superior Motors, but I didn’t want that to be the piece.

      I will say that, to the best of my knowledge, this is the FIRST time that anything even vaguely critical has appeared about Kevin Sousa in any of the major newspapers in town. He has been Pittsburgh’s golden boy, right or wrong, for years. And I do think that, had the critical voices in this town been more measured along the way and not placed him on such a high pedestal, there might not be this craziness when something semi-critical appears. And it’s not like the PG article is perfect either – I was just surprised to see it at all!

      All of that said…I am just using him as an example here. Maybe at some point I will substantially get into my issues with Sousa, but that didn’t seem fair right now, especially since Superior Motors is still a work in progress and hasn’t opened yet. I would cite this more as a cautionary tale of why level-headed and fair criticism is necessary. Thanks, Josh!

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  5. ro'b March 2, 2015 / 4:28 pm

    THANK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU

    this highly correlates with my pittsburgh “hype” issues (no projection or deflection, i wholly own this). in my attempt to embrace needing to head back to pitt weekends (for family reasons), and to maintain mental, emotional, social sanity because of it, i have (attempted) taken mindful temporary (re)integration measures. take this from one who spent her entire college weekend life hot off the burbs in the strip. (i wouldn’t and still won’t touch southside). this embrace/reintegration endeavor includes subscribing aka “liking” its local publications to stay on pulse with man-about-town haps.

    unfortunately, much of what i see is hyper-hype with some boisterous posturing. these proclamations “we’re this; we’re that best new this, best new that” read like false bravado and propaganda and are laughable at best. “you” (publication, not this blog) guys aren’t nymag, timeout, fill-in-blank. stop trying to compete. and acknowledge the scale. because it just feels so fake. no one likes a poser.

    but guess what? people are buying it! and they don’t want to hear anyone proclaim otherwise. believe me, i know this cause i am the one in the line of fire.

    pittsburgh has come a longggg way. i don’t want to discredit or detract from this. but the mere fact that there is a “affordable” (pitt says f no, its pricey but PALE in comparison to large city housing at double the costs) booming condo/apt in development and completion (beyond that of the defunct/dilapidated chatham apts up on the down-hill) speaks volumes.

    BUT when i am in downtown proper after work hours or ON A WEEKEND no less OUTSIDE the bustle of a sports event or theatre hour, and i see NO sidewalk life (cept MAYBE penn/liberty ave and market square) and dead tumbleweeds is cause for MUCH NEEDED criticism for change.

    there’s no signs of life and that is crazy??!!!

    2 streets, a few blocks and a square and no shopping (boutique OR chain OR thrift/consignment) isn’t enough to sustain an entire city. at least right downtown. (i’m not talking the downtown neighborhoods (yes, all cities have them and here they are of no consequence to me) “new ‘up and coming'” L-ville, bloomfield, east lib, shady, S hill etc. how can you have a “downtown” with no people wandering around??!!

    here’s what i will say. pittsburgh is sooooo rigid (uncool) and old school and it doesn’t behoove itself. that it simply won’t even honor, much less value any pitt-related criticism or diversity unless you are running around in gold and black face paint on game day or all “dolled up” for for a night at the byham or benedum (this ain’t lincoln center). hello backwards. no city’s inhabitants like to hear someone dogging on their city, but i have lived all over and i find pittsburgheesers to be even more resentful and scathing of naysayers than even nyers–and i’m proudfully the lattter. i can take the hammering, but such further reinforced my options about the “hype”. don’t believe the hype.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    “We’re becoming a hip (some would say too hip) city”. WHAAAATTT? someone is getting hip confused with hipsters. please see williamsburg (or bushwick and bed-sty for some much needed schooling)

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    • mattbuchholz March 2, 2015 / 6:36 pm

      Thanks for your comment! Maybe we are talking semantics when it comes to hip/hipsters/whatever, but I understand your point!

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  6. will March 2, 2015 / 5:35 pm

    Its very obvious that the authors of the article about Sousa use as a hook in early paragraphs seemingly unresolved financial woes only to then bring those same financial concerns up near the close of the article to mention that they are in fact resolved. Critique is healthy and yes Pittsburgh is very small town and thus lacking in real criticism. Lets not confuse that issue with this type of authorship which is manipulative of the reader and rambling in its focus. Why not discuss the resolution in the same paragraph as the problem right at the top of the article which is what most readers take in? Because then the article becomes an “ok, who cares its over” instead of a “Wow what an unprofessional guy.” Only those who complete the article learn that there was resolution.

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    • mattbuchholz March 2, 2015 / 6:34 pm

      Hey Will – I’m not sure I understand your point, and I’d love to hear more. What do you think is manipulative about the article? I think the point of the article is not that these problems are resolved, but that they existed in the first place. Superior Motors is a big process with lots of moving parts and tons of financial pieces – I felt like the article was trying to say that Sousa might have a problem managing restaurants, and expressing concern for this new venue. Is that now how you read it? I am legitimately curious about your point of view, not trying to start a fight or anything! Thanks for your comment!

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      • mikecaps March 2, 2015 / 10:07 pm

        Despite being one of the most aggressive and unabashed Pittsburgh boosters, I agree with your post wholeheartedly. I do think we could ease up on celebrating every-single-new-thing. If every new restaurant/gallery/coffee shop is the best ever, none of them can really be remarkable.

        That said, I share Will’s reaction to the article, which is not about critiquing a restaurant or even reviewing a chef. It definitely seemed to be crafted to stir up controversy around a public figure (this guy owes so many people money and your kids could be next!) by burying some of the facts (he no longer owes said money; your kids will probably be fine) at the end of the article. Yes, I suspect the point was to say that Sousa isn’t the best businessperson, but it seemed designed to mislead us into thinking he was shady and irresponsible, too.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. C Zurawsky March 2, 2015 / 5:40 pm

    Insightful commentary Matt. One thing that strikes me about the outrage over the Sousa story, or Conflict Kitchen, or the Mt. Lebanon deer, bike lanes, etc., is that each story seems to bring a different crowd out of the woodwork. If only all this anger and energy could be consolidated and directed toward a really important local issue. At least they’re reading.

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    • mattbuchholz March 2, 2015 / 6:30 pm

      Interesting point. I’d love to see a Venn diagram of the overlap between commenters. Maybe we should be glad that, at least, a lot of people here are willing to speak up. Pittsburghers may be many things, but we’re not apathetic!

      Like

  8. laurabentrem (@laurabentrem) March 2, 2015 / 6:01 pm

    Exactly. Down with “snark and bullshit,” and up with critical thinking, transparency, and the journalism that supports them in an informed, open society.

    “Yay” to the challenge of showing your work; “Boo,” to collecting accolades for just showing up. (Maybe unlike you, though, I am inclined to give Sousa at least some credit for taking a challenging path and putting his heart in the work. That goes a long way with me, as it probably does with my fellow native Pittsburghers.)

    I think you are spot-on about the tone of the PG article about Sousa and agree with you about the earlier Conflict Kitchen article.

    One additional point: the public and nonprofit organizations involved (Braddock, Braddock Redux, Heinz Endowments, etc.) should expect if not welcome public scrutiny and the opportunity for transparency and dialogue.

    Like

    • mattbuchholz March 2, 2015 / 6:28 pm

      Good point about the non-profit organizations – hopefully they are doing their due diligence as well. Thanks!

      Like

    • mattbuchholz March 3, 2015 / 4:40 am

      Feeling nice!

      Like

  9. Tevo March 3, 2015 / 1:10 pm

    This is the most honest thing I’ve read about Pittsburgh in 20 years. And it’s great (and perhaps not surprising) that it’s coming from someone outside of the nonprofit/government/philanthropy sphere. Bravo.

    Like

    • mattbuchholz March 3, 2015 / 5:31 pm

      Thanks! Although in the interest of disclosure, I did work in the non-profit arts (The Brooklyn Academy of Music, BAM.org) for almost eight years in New York, and briefly in the arts here in PGH. But that’s a story for another time!

      Like

  10. Tara March 3, 2015 / 10:46 pm

    “But they need cultivation. And they need work. And they need responsible people who are willing to sing their praises when they have a great idea, or speak frankly when an idea isn’t quite fleshed out or needs work.” Well put, sir.

    Your blog post was just pointed out to me by our Director of Digital Strategy — thanks for mentioning the Show Your Work program at the library! I’m glad that we can act as a space for thoughtful debate and healthy criticism.

    My question for you: Is the Internet a good place for this kind of thoughtful, and fair-minded criticism? Or should most sites just turn their comment threads off? This particular article comes to mind when I think about the limitations of online debate: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2014/12/the_year_of_outrage_2014_everything_you_were_angry_about_on_social_media.html

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    • mattbuchholz March 3, 2015 / 11:06 pm

      It’s hard to say – certainly the default mode of Internet expression is “slams” or “best ever” or worse, resorting to personal attacks. What seemed to outrage a lot of people about the PG article was the fact that they were deleting comments.

      To be fair, it looked like most of those comments were one of derogatory nature towards the writer(s) of the piece, which PG commenting policy forbids. Also, most of the comments were directed towards Melissa McCart, not Jonathan Silver, the other credited author, which does speak to an unfortunate gender divide (women, sadly, seen to be more subject to personal attacks than men). Nonetheless, would it be better if the comments were left? Maybe so. Or just no comments at all! I don’t know if comments on a newspaper article could be considered free speech, but I do think that we should strive for civil discourse. Unfortunately, maybe some trash-talking just comes along with that.

      I’m pretty happy with how the comments on this article have gone – and for the record, I’ve approved all posts. The only reason I have it set to be approved is to prevent spam.

      Still, maybe an actual human conversation would be a better way to discuss this type of thing. I hope it inspires debate and discussion!

      Like

  11. Critic March 7, 2015 / 12:38 am

    Does this mean we can all stop kissing Peduto’s butt every time he puts socks on in the morning and honestly critique him too? Please please please!

    Like

  12. JNSM April 12, 2015 / 6:55 pm

    I rarely comment on “things” online because it seems like every discussion just descends into polarizing perspectives, but this was just such a refreshing read! Knowing none of the players involved, I’m just pleased to see a defense of well-reasoned critique!

    Like

    • mattbuchholz April 12, 2015 / 8:08 pm

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the article!

      Like

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