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2 Mayors Share More Than A Title: Civic Revivals and a Deadly Disease : Low-Profile Caliguiri Has Put Pittsburgh Back on the Map

February 21, 1988|TARA BRADLEY-STECK | Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — Over the din of chatter and clattering dishes at a senior citizen's center, Richard S. Caliguiri raises his voice ever so slightly from an undertone to gain the attention of several hundred lunching men and women.

"If you wake up in the morning and you need a mayor, call me," he says.

A stout, elderly woman promptly races toward him, shouting: "I don't need a mayor, I need a man."

Blushing but not missing a beat, the normally restrained Caliguiri, his diminutive frame exaggerated by the cavernous room and boisterous crowd, sweeps the woman in his arms for a one-minute waltz among the chuckling lunchers.

In a city where people speak their minds, laugh heartily and complain loudly, the soft-spoken, self-effacing Caliguiri is something of an enigma.

In Post for 10 Years

As Pittsburgh's chief executive for 10 years, Caliguiri is credited with engineering the city's metamorphosis from a wilting steel giant into a progressive, technically oriented metropolitan core of 365,000 and earning it an award as the nation's most livable city.

He meets regularly with some of the country's top business, academic and labor leaders and has cultivated a partnership with the private sector that would be the envy of any big-city mayor.

But he maintains the low-profile savvy of a corporate chairman instead of a politician.

When he needs rejuvenating, Caliguiri, proud of his Italian-American heritage, turns not to the exclusive clubs, but to one of the city's 55 mostly ethnic neighborhoods and to the people who have voted him into office three times by landslide margins.

Within two weeks of each other last October, Caliguiri and Mayor Louis J. Tullio of Erie disclosed that they were suffering from amyloidosis, a rare and usually fatal disease--usually found only in men of Mediterranean descent--that attacks the body's vital organs. It was promptly dubbed the "mayors' disease."

Talks With Residents

Since then, Caliguiri has revived an old practice of visiting one neighborhood each week to talk to residents about their problems.

Caliguiri, 56, a slight man of 5-foot-6, is a Pittsburgher through and through, with roots as deep as any steelworker's.

He isn't known for his impulsiveness or quick wit. Indeed, he seems restrained and cautious at press conferences or while being interviewed.

But there is a spontaneity revealed in special moments--when he entertains a fifth-grade music class with a tap dance, cajoles an elderly man about his Pittsburgh Steelers watch, or holds the hand of a stroke victim struggling to pronounce the words, "I'm praying for you."

Caliguiri, who lives with his wife and two sons a short distance from where he grew up in a working-class neighborhood, worked for 15 years in the city parks department, first as a supervisor in 1956 and later as director.

He says he never intended to make public service his career.

'Temporary Position'

"This started out as a temporary position for me while I was going to night school," he says. "Thirty years later, I'm trying to make it more permanent."

In 1971, Caliguiri ran for City Council as an independent, leading the ticket over the endorsed Democratic candidates in a city overwhelmingly Democratic. As council president in 1977, he was tapped to take over as interim mayor when then-Mayor Pete Flaherty joined the Jimmy Carter Administration.

Caliguiri ran for Flaherty's abdicated post in November, 1977, again as an independent, beating a popular Democratic candidate, Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster, by barely more than 5,000 votes.

Since then he has won reelection twice, garnering more than 76% of the vote each time during a rocky period in which the region lost more than 75,000 jobs, including the Gulf Corp. in 1984, and experienced unemployment rates as high as 19% in 1982.

Former Mayor David Lawrence had initiated a Renaissance I program in the 1950s to clean up the air and water and refurbish the downtown area. But Caliguiri felt more needed to be done to prevent stagnation.

Expands Renaissance

Upon taking office, he launched Renaissance II, an ambitious economic revitalization program to attract more diverse businesses and industry. At the same time, he pumped millions of dollars into the city's colorful neighborhoods in an effort to stop urban flight.

Over the last decade, $2.4 billion in building permits have been issued, more than a third of which went toward turning the city's skyline into an impressive display of ultramodern skyscrapers and refurbished historic buildings. In addition, about $250 million in low-interest housing loans were awarded to low-income homeowners to help purchase or refurbish private housing, according to the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Improvements in mass transit, which had languished in previous administrations, took off under Caliguiri.

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