The New, New Pittsburgh

Next in my recently-initiated series on who stays, and who grows, in the New Pittsburgh:

Six (in a list of institutions and communities that will, or should, become more important in the region) -- the Latino community. Simply put, without Latino immigration to Pittsburgh, and without an embrace of the Latino population by the current community -- business, culture, neighborhoods -- the region will continue to stagnate.

There are a number of business and community organizations in Pittsburgh that serve the Latino population:
The Pittsburgh Hispanic Center
The Pittsburgh Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Latinoamerican Cultural Union (LACU)
Chilean Community in Pittsburgh
Venezuelan Community in Pittsburgh
El Coro Latinoamericano de Pittsburgh

Easier said than done, of course. This is a disparate group of not-particularly-visible institutions, which needs coordination and salience and respect from local government, local business, and local media. And the immigrants themselves -- where will these people work? (Actually, looking at the job postings at the Chamber of Commerce, it seems to me that there are jobs to be filled.) Why encourage in-migration when Pittsburgh today doesn't do a particularly good job of serving its existing residents? Because Pittsburgh has tried two alternative strategies -- rely on the existing population to drive the local economy (doesn't work; the existing population gets old, and innovation inertia takes over); and try desperately to keep "young people" from leaving the region (doesn't work; they leave anyway, as they do everywhere) -- and those strategies don't work. The Latino community is the fastest growing part of the fastest growing American cities. More than a century ago, Pittsburgh relied on immigrants to build its world-beating economy. It's not likely that Pittsburgh will be world-beating again. But immigration can give Pittsburgh a heartbeat.

Who (or what) goes:

One -- The Old Pittsburgh. This doesn't go without saying, though I add that I'm not pushing anything or anyone out the door; The Old Pittsburgh is long gone already. What I mean by The Old Pittsburgh is a city dominated by strong central government, a big-business economy centralized financially in the Downtown core and with employment concentrated in large integrated plants and works. Old Pittsburgh had lots of successful civic organizations, and churches and other congregations, all of which had close ties to their neighborhoods and communities and lightened the load on that strong central government, which could be strong precisely because it didn't have to do all the things that we now expect government to do. (I'm reading Doug Rae's fantastic book City: Urbanism and Its End, which describes this late 20th century dynamic via a case study of New Haven.)

Pittsburgh's neighborhoods and communities and civic associations are much weaker than they once were [the point of the link is this sentence: "A consortium of nonprofit groups has said it doesn't plan to give the city money after 2007, but the city's plan counts on $5.7 million a year from such organizations through 2011."]. City government is both poor, and deeply factionalized, and quite weak. It is simply incapable of doing things like building or rebuilding Pittsburgh. The financial end of Pittsburgh's economy is now distributed across the region, and large plants and works are almost entirely gone.

It is customary in conversations like these to recognize the historical importance of Steel and the Honest and Hardworking People Who Made Steel and Who Made the Pittsburgh Region Great, so that anything that Pittsburgh does today builds on strength and character and recognizes its continuity with history. Old Pittsburgh, in other words, is sometimes equated with Pittsburgh's Glorious Blue Collar Past [PGBCP], and the code of public conversation requires Respect for the past. The flowering of affection for Mayor Bob O'Connor was, I think, largely an effort to recognize that continuity in a single, very genuine human being. Bob O'Connor was what we wanted the best of Pittsburgh to have been, so that Pittsburgh could be that good again.

That version of Old Pittsburgh is a myth, in both the backward-looking and forward-looking senses of that word. The backward-looking mythology is this: The contemporary view of Old Pittsburgh often has an unjustified rose-colored hue. The forward-looking mythology is this: Whatever the glories of Pittsburgh past, rose-colored or otherwise, it is not true that Pittsburgh can grow and become great again by doing the things well that it did well for a century. Innovate like Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse innovated? Be steered by the wisdom dispensed captains of industry and government? That's not going to happen. The peak of Old Pittsburgh -- the first half of the 20th century -- was a historical moment that has simply passed. We can honor it, but we shouldn't (and can't) try to repeat it.


2 Responses to "The New, New Pittsburgh"

Anonymous said... 11/22/2006 9:41 PM

Pittsburgh has a love-hate relationship with its past that is fascinating and vexing. On the one hand, many political, civic and corporate leaders are constantly trying to revive the past by chasing the one big thing they think will save the region. (Pharmaceuticals, biotech, chemicals, etc.) Among the many facts they seem willing to ignore is that overreliance on a single industry is what doomed the region to begin with.

On the other hand, these same people often seem embarrassed by the city's history. They insist that our former reputation as a (polluted) manufacturing center is what holds us back now, part of their whole obsession with the region's image. They are ashamed of the city's blue-collar heritage.

In other words, they do the opposite of what you suggest--they try to repeat the past while failing to honor it.

Anonymous said... 1/10/2007 4:55 PM

Very salient points.

A gentleman is trying to energize the Pittsburgh diaspora via weblinks at As you say, immigration is key. Latin American certainly, but I would also emphasize the 2nd and 3rd worlds too. We could create marketing materials and streamlined processes at US Cultural Centers and Embassies in places like Poland, Hungary etc. etc. where the 1st generation of Pittsburghers came from and to tap into their natural talent. The universities could take the lead in developing educational ties. Economically, we should work with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and the business community to bring diplomats in from Washington and to explore/develop commerical ties worldwide.

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