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National Politics Tue Aug 24 2010

Pittsburgh, and the Magic of Failure

In recent years, Pittsburgh has developed an almost exotic allure as a successfully reborn, recast city. Since its near complete collapse in the early 1980s, when 85,000 regional jobs were lost as the steel industry decayed, Pittsburgh has been shaking off demographic decline and slowly morphing into an updated version of its former self -- if not as a manufacturing colossus, at least in terms of having thriving street-life, dense, small-scale development supported throughout its neighborhoods, and a sense of economic vibrancy. This percolating renewal culminated, or at least achieved validity, with President Obama's decision to place last year's G20 Summit in Pittsburgh.

Obama's decision to do so set off a small media frenzy about Pittsburgh's determined grit and resiliency, with odes from Newsweek, The Atlantic, and Forbes all heralding the rejuvenation of one of America's most overlooked urban jewels. Of course, the G20 boost was just landing on the tail end of a long-arc of reformation, as the New York Times had noted even earlier in 2009. On a recent visit just a few weeks ago to the city nestled at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the amenities, vitality, and cultural options available seemed to be mammoth for a place of its size.

Walking through the Cultural District downtown, crossing the Sixth Street Bridge to the Pirates' PNC Park (adjacent to the Andy Warhol Museum), heading a bit north to the devastatingly beautiful Mexican War Streets Historic District (home to avant-art capital The Mattress Factory), crossing over to the hipster haven of Carson St on the South Side, exploring the teeming Old World-Bronx-circa-1950 feel of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, scarfing down the overwhelming deliciousness of the Saturday morning open-air food market that is the Strip District, or randomly stumbling into a milonga during the Lawrenceville neighborhood's First Friday evening artwalks, it isn't easy not to get caught up in the Pittsburgh reincarnation story. (Not even mentioned: Oakland, home to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh; Shadyside, the host to some of the most impressive homes anywhere in the country, and many other neighborhoods of the 89 distinct 'hoods that make up Pittsburgh proper.)

Like any place, the book on Pittsburgh is yet complete. Despite its successes, the city is saddled with a looming pension crisis in which more pensioners are due out money than there are currently city workers paying into the fund. The results of the 2010 census will again show a hefty population decline within the city limits, and the region has shown- up until recently- little growth in terms of international and domestic migration. But unlike places like Detroit or Cleveland, where a slow, spiraling decline of industry and population are exacerbating underlying dysfunctional conditions and dependency on old models of growth, Pittsburgh is undergoing a peculiar demographic turnover wherein more people are dying within the city than are being born and/or moving in at present.

Hence, the city is molting, literally discarding the remnants of its past. When the process is complete, which looks very close to occurring, the city left behind will be in some respects, a new, shining city on (many) hill(s). And an incredibly educated one at that, vying with Washington D.C. for the largest proportion of young adults aged 25-34 with post-graduate degrees. Pittsburgh booster and Burgh Diaspora blogger Jim Russell has been an incredibly insightful and influential voice when discussing Pittsburgh's structural strengths that bode well for its future. Noting the large amount of students from its universities and colleges moving in-and-out of town, Russell has posited that Pittsburgh's constant shuffling out-migration of students is actually an asset to the region. Much in the same fashion that cities like Chicago and New York consistently draw in and spit out people, Pittsburgh, on a smaller scale, now has the opportunity to do the same, keeping the homegrown ideas, businesses and most importantly networks, in place. After all, a globalized economy will lead to cities with a globalized network, regardless of actual population size. In other words, less could be more in this case.

This article however isn't intended merely to be a love letter to Pittsburgh and its champions. Nor is it to say that Pittsburgh is even necessarily an appropriate model for struggling, formerly manufacturing-oriented cities in need of what urbanist Richard Florida, a former Pittsburgher himself, has called "The Great Reset." The lesson to be gleaned from Pittsburgh isn't so much in what steps it's taken on its way to recovery. Rather, the lesson to be learned from Pittsburgh is what happened to it when its Great Recession hit in 1983.

It failed.

The steel collapse decimated Pittsburgh and its region, taking with it nearly 1 out of every 10 jobs there. Entire towns surrounding the city became obsolete. But it is because of that failure, that absolute bottoming-out, that Pittsburgh has been able to cast aside its past and emerge as a unique showcase of what a small, bustling, connected American city can eventually become. The example of Pittsburgh is to fail on the failures and invest in the attributes- granted, of which the 'Burgh had many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- that a place already has. It is a tale not so much for cities facing similar problems to the Pittsburgh of 30 years past, as it is for the country as a whole in this stage of national transmogrification.

Like Pittsburgh did, the country needs to realize that failure is an option. Failure can be a catalyst for movement and for action. Failure can be a paradoxical assertion of American greatness. It is time for great structural changes that reinvest in our national attributes- granted, of which America has many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- rather than band-aiding failed foreclosure prevention policies.

The current crisis could be used to rewrite the rules in regards to short-sales, allowing underwater homeowners to sell their properties without being penalized, as they are now by having the forgiven loan amount treated as taxable income. By freeing sellers from this penalty, in effect, the mobility of individuals to go where opportunities are increases, and the housing market loosens. As the aforementioned Richard Florida has mentioned, perhaps now is the time to get rid of the tax deduction for mortgage interest and enable the country to settle into new modes of habitation. Let's let Detroit shrink. Bring back the Public Option. We could radically alter the political landscape of the country for the benefit of all by adopting Neil Freeman from's Electoral Reform Map. By doing so, and combining logical population distributions into political constituencies, the increasingly marginalized communities that currently comprise our States could be eliminated, moving us past the versus mentality that simply infects the country and its politics to the point of stagnation.

There are many, many intriguing, innovative and encouraging ideas floating out there, and our collective fear of failure is the only thing preventing the nation from remedying itself anew. Maybe it's time to look towards Pittsburgh, a magnificent failure that now seems to be a wondrous place to do business in, a place to create in, a place to live. Riding the steep funicular incline to rest atop the city's Mt. Washington neighborhood, and taking in the vista of its Golden Triangle, some could even say a place of magic.

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spacephx / August 25, 2010 3:31 PM

I'm also a former Pittsburgher, familiar with Richard Florida's work and still part of the Creative Class. I grew up in Tarentum a mere blip on the map 20 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh. It was odd growing up in a working class small town that felt a tremendous blow by the failure of the Steel Industry at the Brackenridge plant. Odd in the sense that many of my friends' fathers that once made a great living, were soon janitors, roofers, landscapers, anything that would keep money coming in.

I lived and worked on the North Side, not far from the Warhol Museum. (In fact, I volunteered at the opening and still have a Campbell's Tomato Soup Can from a centerpiece.) The charming neighborhoods of the Southside, with the iconic Beehive & Dee's Cafe, and Shadyside, were my places of comfort. Walking down the street you can feel the artistic & entrepreneurial spirit in the most unlikey places. These neighborhoods are rich with history, characters & stories. Take the time to visit Pittsburgh, step away from the tourist traps, walk through a neighborhood and your life will change for the better.

Margaret Krauss / August 26, 2010 9:34 AM

Pittsburgh's motto "Benigno Numine," roughly translated, means "By the favor of heaven." From its beginnings as an outpost of the country's early standing army to its rebirth as a thriving urban center, Pittsburgh has alternately needed the favor of heaven or benefited from it.

When Pittsburgh "failed on the failures," the city's resources, financial and creative, could be allocated to creating sustainable growth. However, it is important to remember that it was a painful process. Pittsburgh's reinvention relied as much on individuals moving on and letting go as it did on economic development initiatives.

As late as 2007 I heard people ask when the steel industry would return. But as the above comment mentioned, many people created new space for themselves by taking on new work.

That spirit of resiliency and scrappy creativity continues to characterize Pittsburgh today. And though particular to Pittsburgh, the aptitude for creative change, moving out and up armed with a wry sense of humor, is a skill that can be learned.

It was never my plan to move to Pittsburgh; it found me, as it does many students or entrepreneurs or young families. Once you're in, it will capture your heart: It's a small city with room for big ideas. Its residents recognize genuineness, value it, and help it along. After all, we are the city of neighbors. Mr. Rogers sweatered statue sits on the North Shore, reminding us that it's a beautiful day.

Chris / August 26, 2010 10:11 AM

The vaunted 1983 cycle is only the latest of the rebirths. The more dramatic one came in the 1950s & 60s when the city rebounded from near- environmental collapse and managed to invest significantly in the infrastructure at the same time. My view is that these successes against all odds reflect the nearly unique ethnic and intellectual climate of the city, dating back to the coal miners, George Westinghouse, Carnegie, and literally, one of the greatest epicenters of American music (the Hill District and Westinghouse High School).

In fact, the city's unique character was well in evidence before the American Revolution. There is not another like it in North America.

Stephanie Gonzales / August 26, 2010 6:16 PM

Pittsburgh is yet again digressing due to Marcellus Shale FRACKING. And at a far more rapid pace than the Steel Era. Cancer-causing carcinogens are being placed in our land and water due to hydraulic fracturing for 'natural' gas. Forcing gas to the surface and pretending to collect everything good and bad is like causing a hurricane and telling people it's just wind energy. This is a national outcry for HELP!

Alan / August 28, 2010 11:19 AM

Hipsters avoid Carson St. like the plague; they moved on from there years ago. Now they mainly live in various parts of the East End, namely Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, and Friendship, and drink in Lawrenceville.

WebGirlPA / August 31, 2010 8:57 AM

I moved here from Alexandria VA 10 years ago - it was a job transfer and I was NOT excited. I had previously lived in San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, New York, and Boston - I thought this was a big step down in the world.

Fast forward 10 years and I love it. This is a great city or maybe really a very big small town.

Here's what I noticed that make a difference:

1. Strong roots and family ties - almost everyone I meet here has some family connection to the area. They grew up here, their spouse grew up here, etc. There is a real rootedness, so very unlike San Francisco or the DC area.

2. Common passion - this is one city where the sports teams pull the entire city together, especially the beloved Steelers, transcending race, economic class, education etc.

Neither of these are economic, but they give the city a unique flavor.

People from here want to stay here. People who have never lived here don't know what they are missing!

John Allison / August 31, 2010 2:29 PM

Ben: Say, many thanks for the very good piece. I am an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, writing for our experimental pay site called PG Plus. I just posted an item about your piece. (The site can be sampled so the link should work). All best, John Allison

Link text

Jim The Pittsburgh Native / September 1, 2010 12:46 PM

In your article, you say: "...the city is molting, literally discarding the remnants of its past."

It's not 'molting'; it's dying. The population of Allegheny County is amongst the oldest (in terms of average age) in the country. There is nothing to do here after 8pm but get drunk - which many people don't do. In order to pass from any neighborhood or high point you listed to any other you listed, you have to pass through some of the worst neighborhoods Pittsburgh has to offer. You'll pass houses (sometimes rows of houses) with boarded up windows, overgrown landscapes, abandoned buildings, and street corners with drug dealings going on in the open air.

Our "cultural district" amounts to little more than three stages and a parking garage. Dining in the Pittsburgh area is pathetic. Also, where in the city of Pittsburgh do you suppose I could find a movie theater? That's right. In the entire city of Pittsburgh, there isn't even a single movie theater. The Garden on Pittsburgh's North Side was the last remaining theater, which showed only adult films since before I was born. How cultural!

Pittsburgh will resemble Youngstown, OH or Sharon PA before too long. These cities were integral to the steel industry in this part of the country during the 20th century. Without the steel industry, those towns failed. The same will be true here. If for no other reason, Pittsburghers are proud of their mill town roots and heritage. We're predominately "progressive" democrats, yet we cling to the ideals of past generations. We refuse to grow. We complain about every aspect of local government, yet we continue to elect and re-elect the same politicians over and over. We are afraid to grow and adapt.

Let's face the facts. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers are now - and will forever be - the biggest draw in town. When the pulse of your city is determined by its professional sports teams, there is a problem. I was born and raised here. I still live here, but that is about to change. Because just like the other 21-45 year-olds from Pittsburgh, the grass is in fact greener on the other side of the fence.

Maria Mangano / September 1, 2010 3:10 PM

Jim, I'm a little surprised at your vitriol! We have some problems, but it's not as bad as you make it seem. I think things are improving. And I must say, there are several movie theaters in the city, many showing great independent films - the Harris downtown, the Cinema at South Side Works (in a pedestrian-friendly plaza, no less), Regent Square Theatre, and the theater(s?) in Squirrel Hill. ALL within city limits. I suppose our options for haute cuisine are less than, say, New York's or San Francisco's, but I've enjoyed many wonderful meals here, even from places as humble as a taco stand.

DBR96A / September 5, 2010 4:31 AM

Pittsburgh is indeed molting, shedding its economic dead weight, such as the elderly who managed to hang onto their jobs in the 1980's. Those people are not part of Pittsburgh's future. The future is the 25-44 age segment, which, in Pittsburgh, is college-educated at a rate significantly higher than the national average. (So much for all the smart people leaving.)

Andre / September 20, 2010 2:01 PM

Jim's post makes me recall an old slogan from Philadelphia's past..."Philadelphia, not as bad as Philadelphians say it is." Pittsburgh's problems are far from solved but unlike cleveland or detroit, it doesn't feel like it's dying, and unlike Buffalo, it doesn't feel defeated. There are signs of life much like the ones I saw in Philadelphia in the 90's. Dining options are improving (esp fresh and local, PA is an underachieving agricultural powerhouse). I'm going to bet that in ten years the downtown population will have doubled, tourism will be up, and there will be significant renewal in the core neighborhoods (north side, consol arena area, lawrenceville, etc). In other words, the city will begin to recover. Pittsburgh the region, OTOH, desperately needs the state of PA to address it's lack of competitiveness. the once great Keystone state is a shadow of its former self.

Bill Sherman / September 21, 2010 5:20 PM

Ben: An excellent piece. My friend John Allison lives in Pittsburgh, and earlier this year I spent a weekend with him and his family at their Mexican-War-District home. For me, Pittsburgh is vastly more livable than Chicago. The city's compactness and lack of traffic makes it easy to get around. This let's you be more spur-of-the-moment than in Chicago, where you can't just stop in at, say, the Art Institute, then shoot over to a favorite restaurant on the other side of town. Chicago is crowded and spread out at the same time -- it may take 45 minutes to get somewhere, and then there's no place to park. Both cities have terrible National League baseball teams, but at least in Pittsburgh not every home game is sold out. Which is all to say I've been very impressed with Pittsburgh.

DBR96A / September 22, 2010 5:51 AM

Well Chicago better feel more spread out and crowded than Pittsburgh -- comparing cities proper, Chicago is Pittsburgh x8, and comparing metropolitan areas, Chicago is Pittsburgh x4. More people means more crowding, and more crowding means more space is needed to spread out.

Be that as it may, it is easy to get from one part of Pittsburgh to the other. A friend of mine lives in Brighton Heights, the most northwestern neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and getting to the sports stadiums takes five minutes, downtown Pittsburgh less than 10 minutes, the South Side, Strip District and Uptown 10 minutes, and Oakland (the university neighborhood) 15 minutes.

On the other hand, Chicago is easier to learn -- it's flat and has an endless street grid. Pittsburgh is located among "river valleys" that are basically ravines on steroids, and the road system was drawn up by M.C. Escher on a cocaine bender. So I guess that Pittsburgh is easier to get around once you become familiar with it, but the learning curve is longer in Pittsburgh than it is in Chicago.

Mark / December 8, 2011 12:01 PM

Jim, I think you either A) aren't really from Pittsburgh, or B) are more than a little confused. You are correct that Alleheny County has an elderly population, but there is a host of things to do on evenings. Also, for a city of this size, there are relatively few neighborhoods that can be considered "bad". There are very significant positive changes happening in some of these neighborhoods, ie houses being renovated in the Northside, Lawrenceville and East Liberty Neighborhoods and selling for as much as $500,000. There is a huge boom in the renovate and sell/lease business right now, and apartment occupancy is currently 97% (one of the highest in the country). As far as theaters go, there are many movie theaters in the city, including southside works and regent square. And for your info, the Garden Theater is currently undergoing a transformation into mixed use street-level retail, with 2 upper-end restaurants taking occupancy next year. Our strong community groups and the URA make projects like this possible. I can speak on the behalf of other Pittsburghers that you will not be missed when you leave. This town has flourished with the help of positive and forward-thinking individuals, and your old-fashioned "Pittsburgh Pessemist" view is dying with the older population.

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