G-20 dispatch: Pittsburgh muddles through

Note: I’ll be blogging here today and tomorrow from Pittsburgh, which is proudly hosting the G-20 summit. I’ll mostly be writing about the goings-on of this global confab, but first, some background on this gritty city where I grew up. Pittsburgh is a town that seems to be in perpetual rebirth. Mayor David L. Lawrence, ...

Note: I'll be blogging here today and tomorrow from Pittsburgh, which is proudly hosting the G-20 summit. I'll mostly be writing about the goings-on of this global confab, but first, some background on this gritty city where I grew up.

Note: I’ll be blogging here today and tomorrow from Pittsburgh, which is proudly hosting the G-20 summit. I’ll mostly be writing about the goings-on of this global confab, but first, some background on this gritty city where I grew up.

Pittsburgh is a town that seems to be in perpetual rebirth.

Mayor David L. Lawrence, for whom the city’s celebrated "green" convention center was named, first began clearing out its downtown warren of slums, railroad tracks, and slaughterhouses in the late 1940s, installing the wedge-shaped park that stands at the nexus of the city’s three mighty rivers: the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio. At the same time, Pittsburgh became a pioneer in enacting pollution controls to bring its choking air pollution to heel. This is known locally as "Renaissance I."

The population nonetheless began declining in the 1950s due to a combination of white flight to the suburbs and job losses. Then, when the city’s steel industry finally, and spectacularly, collapsed altogether in the 1980s as a result of aging technology, high labor costs, and competition from places like Japan and Germany, Pittsburgh launched "Renaissance II." This time, the city began reinventing itself as center for services like banking and health care, rather than heavy industry (and now, the longtime headquarters of global steel conglomerate USX, the tallest building in town, says UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). And it started a slow, grinding drive to complete and broaden the environmental cleanup that made Lawrence a hero.

For all its economic traumas — more than 150,000 mill workers in the area were laid off after the 1981-1982 recession — the city has somehow stayed afloat, even thrived in some respects. New visitors always express shock and awe when they emerge from the tunnels that divide downtown from the airport highway and see the city’s breathtaking skyline, or when they walk its quiet leafy streets or expansive parks (one of which used to be "robber baron" Henry Clay Frick’s personal hunting grounds). Reporters traveling to Pittsburgh for the first time always write the same story about how the city is nicer than outsiders imagine and how the city’s officials wish everyone could visit so that they could see the "real Pittsburgh," not the smoky hellhole of yore (and photo editors usually choose the same picture of a quaint cable car in the foreground above the downtown "Golden Triangle").

But the city’s residual image is hard to break. Never mind that only one major steel plant, the 19th century Edgar Thompson Works, is actually still in operation. Having a much-loved (or hated, if you live in Cleveland or Baltimore) football team called the Steelers means that the portrait Pittsburgh projects on the world stage is one of blue-collar toughness, even as its business community tries desperately to persuade investors that the city is a Mecca of high-tech innovation and human capital. (Fun trivia fact: Steelers owner Dan Rooney was recently named U.S. ambassador to Ireland.)

It’s true that Pittsburgh has made great strides. But there’s somewhat less to its latest renaissance than meets the eye. The city is a medical powerhouse, relatively speaking, in large measure because the county that surrounds it is the second-oldest in the United States, filled with thousands of elderly people who need a great deal of medical care. Its universities are, as the city’s boosters like to put it, "world class," but the vast bulk of top-notch students from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh head elsewhere after graduation in search of a deeper labor market. Pittsburgh prides itself on being a leader in green technology, but so far such activities have not been driven  by market considerations but heavily subsidized, either by the deep-pocketed foundation community, of which John Kerry’s wife Teresa Heinz is a prominent member, or various government branches. Civic leaders have often had to strong-arm local politicians to do the right thing, often after trying everything else (that famous green convention center, for instance, was in large measure a Heinz project).

Still, merely sustaining what’s here has been a hard-fought achievement. Yes, this town has generally shrunk while other U.S. metro areas boomed. With risk capital hard to come by, Pittsburgh’s tech industry has never really had a breakout success like Massachusetts’ I-90 corridor or Silicon Valley in California. But compare Pittsburgh with other post-industrial American cities, such as Baltimore and Detroit, and what’s happened here looks like a downright miracle.

The city, ironically, has suffered less than others from the financial crisis because it never had a boom, let alone a housing bubble, in the first place.  Today, Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate is just 7.7 percent, compared with a national figure edging toward 10. Muddling through has its upside.

Tag: G20

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