Pittsburgh’s longtime Parks and Public Works employee Mike Gable reflects on a half-century city career

Just over 47 years ago, a young city laborer sat in his work truck and worried that he was going to be fired for crossing municipal lines to buy doughnuts, when really he should have been sticking close to his Highland Park job site.

“We got in the truck instead of going to Lawrenceville [and] we ended up in Penn Hills. … The supervisor said, ‘These are great! Where’d you get these?’ He didn’t know we took that extra trip. I’m thinking ‘I’m going to get fired. I’ve only been with the city a month or two, and I’m going to get fired.’ In the end, it’s funny now because I’m well past that,” said Mike Gable, the outgoing city Public Works director.

Mr. Gable can laugh now after clocking nearly a half-century in Pittsburgh government, where he started part time in 1973 cutting grass, blowing leaves, plowing snow and “picking litter.”

With his last day, Jan. 8, quickly approaching, he and those around him are taking stock of his impact — particularly his focus on the parks — and the challenges his department continues to face, including recent issues with snow removal and trash collection.

Mr. Gable, 66, of Morningside, climbed the city government ladder, becoming a full-time laborer with the Department of Parks and Recreation from 1974 until 1979 — a time when he says he learned “all aspects of parks operations.”

He moved through various administrative roles with Parks and Rec until 1993, when the city moved parks maintenance under the Department of Public Works.

“It was a department I didn’t know much about. We helped to support them a lot of times when there was snow removal back in the ’70s and ’80s. We had to help send our tractors and trucks over,” Mr. Gable said. “I loved plowing snow. I can’t say I like snow now, but I liked it then.”

In 1998, he became assistant director, allowing him to “spread my wings” into street operations and environmental services.

From there, he became the deputy director of Public Works in 2005 until incoming Mayor Bill Peduto appointed him as director in 2014.

Elected official and those working in the community credit Mr. Gable with making parks maintenance a top priority.

Meg Cheever, retired CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, said Mr. Gable was instrumental in establishing the Public Works’ parks division in the late 1990s as well as working in partnership with the nonprofit on the city’s parks master plan.

Ms. Cheever, now a senior adviser for the conservancy, recalled working with Mr. Gable to restore Highland Park’s entry garden and fountain in the early 2000s. She said he worked with the nonprofit to split the financing and labor between the outside group and the city.

“We’d have our meetings together with the landscape architect and contractor. The project worked beautifully and still does today,” she said.

Ms. Cheever also credits Mr. Gable for the park’s “standard bench.”

“Nobody was paying much attention to anything after the [city’s early 2000s] financial crisis,” Ms. Cheever said. “Mike had seen old photos of the parks and saw a bench that would provide design consistency.”

She said Mr. Gable tested materials, including oak, hickory, the native black locust and a recycled composite material. So far, composite and oak are the frontrunners for the black-framed benches that residents can see in Highland Park.

Other colleagues described him as “a gentleman” and “professional.”

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said she and her husband met Mr. Gable in the mid-1990s — several years before she was elected — when they were running the Westwood-Oakwood Athletic Association and needed help to make sure that the baseball and softball fields were kept in good shape.

More recently, Mr. Gable took charge when Dilworth playground in her district was “torn apart” by a contractor that did not finish the job roughly four years ago, Ms. Kail-Smith said.

“Gable found a way to restore it and then later collect off the contractor so that the children didn't have to wait for all the legal processes to take place,” she said.

Ms. Kail-Smith and council members Bruce Kraus and Anthony Coghill have been working with the director to re-open a Public Works division in the city’s southern neighborhoods after five years without one. They expect to finally break ground on a “campus” in Knoxville in the spring.

That’s important to Mr. Coghill whose constituents in Brookline, Carrick and Overbrook criticized the Public Works response to the Christmas snowstorm.

“By this time next year, I hope sincerely that [the new division] is up and running, fully staffed with, most importantly, the right vehicles,” Mr. Coghill said. “I wish it was done before this winter.”

Snow-covered roads in the city’s South Hills weren’t the only Public Works issue over the holidays. Trash was left on sidewalks for days, untouched by environmental service crews.

Mr. Peduto issued a statement Tuesday night saying he was “beyond disappointed” with the delays and that he “issued a clear directive” to rectify the situation.

On Wednesday morning crews snaked through Mount Washington streets — and other neighborhoods — throwing bags of trash and recycling into a Public Works pickup truck and dump truck, respectively.

“We’re a team. We’re not just one bureau. … Any truck that could haul something, hauled rubbish. They got it done,” Mr. Gable said.

Both he and the administration attributed the snow and trash delays to a “perfect storm” of staffing issues over the holiday weekend and because of COVID-19. In other words, not enough roads being cleared meant that large refuse trucks couldn’t traverse the tertiary streets to collect the increased holiday trash load, they said.

The city plans to announce new holiday snow removal and salting protocols Monday.

Still, Dan Gilman, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Mr. Gable “comes from a generation of dedicated public servants that I don’t believe we will see again. These are men and women who worked for cities for decades and were true bureaucrats in the best sense of the word.

“His heart was always in the maintenance of our parks,” Mr. Gilman said. “I think one of the great accomplishments we will see in Mike’s legacy is our parks rankings.”

The city’s parks rose from 80th place prior to 2014 — what Mr. Gable called “a rude awakening” — to 15th in 2020, according to survey rankings by The Trust for Public Lands, a national nonprofit.

The administration touts improving parks and publicly backed a campaign by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to increase property taxes as a way to fund investment in the city’s 165 green spaces, playgrounds and recreation areas. The tax narrowly passed a voter referendum in 2019 and will be collected starting in the new year. City Council spent 2020 in contentious debate over how the funds should be split.

Mr. Gable said that “in the end, I think people will see the benefit from the parks tax.”

“[The tax] will allow us to make more capital investment, building more tennis courts, pickleball courts, basketball courts. These things have a lifespan,” he said.

During this most unconventional year, Mr. Gable said he turned to the parks — particularly Highland Park.

“When we weren’t allowed to do anything, I went up to the park and got to appreciate the green space, the pond. ... I even walked some of the trails, all the down to Washington Boulevard, places I hadn’t seen in years,” he said. “I have a real connection to Highland Park simply because that’s where I got my start in the city.”

Ashley Murray: amurray@post-gazette.com

First Published January 4, 2021, 6:00am