Baseline problems and Pittsburgh exceptionalism

One general difficulty in posting about Pittsburgh's problems and potential is what we could refer to as a baseline problem:

As a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh, I see a mid-sized city with modest industrial resources, a well-endowed and relatively sophisticated not-for-profit and higher education sector, and a well-educated population, and a beautiful location. I see under-developed exploitation of entrepreneurial resources, of regional resources, and of international connections, and I see a publicly complacent pool of young professionals. In total, I see an enormous amount of energy waiting to be tapped.

Many people who have lived here much longer, or who lived here in earlier generations, moved away, and returned, see a shadow of a much larger and more powerful city, where industry was king and Downtown thrived. They see only the dimmest echoes of the Pittsburgh of 100 years ago, or the Pittsburgh of 50 years ago, or even the City of Champions Pittsburgh of 25 years ago. They see Pittsburgh in a (nearly) irreversible decline, and they struggle to figure out how to restore the former glory.

We're working from different baselines, in other words.

Often, we're also working from different presumptions about Pittsburgh's place in the world. What I sometimes pejoratively refer to as Pittsburgh parochialism is more charitably characterized as Pittsburgh exceptionalism: the idea that if you're not from here, and if you don't live here, you can't understand the city and its issues and don't have anything useful to contribute. Pittsburgh is special.

I start from the premise that Pittsburgh today isn't all that different from a large number of similar communities around the country, and that its future depends on understanding its relationship to other places, both in the US and abroad. Pittsburgh shouldn't blindly emulate "success stories" from elsewhere, but it should welcome thoughtful input from everyone.

Did I get up on the right side of the bed today, or what?

On that note, a response to Amos the Poker Cat, who replied to yesterday's post about computer programming, that the California software market is just different from the Pittsburgh market: I just don't think so. I grew up in the Silicon Valley (before it was the Valley), went to school there, and as a lawyer there represented a lot of software companies (large and small) and individual entrepreneurs, programmers, and VCs. The differences aren't technical -- programming is programming and CS is CS. What a Californian CMU Dean has to say about the discipline applies in Pittsburgh, in Austin, in Cambridge, in Europe, and in the Middle East.

The differences between Pittsburgh and Palo Alto are structural, or cultural. A metaphor might apply, for the technically inclined: Palo Alto is an open (source) system. It has its customs and its traditions, but at its core, it welcomes input from the outside. Pittsburgh is a closed (proprietary) system. Where do you want to go today? Answer: Dahntahn.


1 Response to "Baseline problems and Pittsburgh exceptionalism"

temi.a said... 5/19/2007 2:29 AM

What more can I say than I agree with everything you say. Although the wheels are in motion with various city projects, there is still much to be done. Sorry it took 3 years for someone to respond to your post.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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