His column includes one particularly interesting nugget. Recounting a recent panel that included WTAE anchor Sally Wiggin, he writes:
Ms. Wiggin commented that the plant closings of the 1980s were so sudden the community was unprepared. "There was no time to fix things. Everyone left; no one came back in." That led to a discussion of Pittsburgh attitudes, as reflected in Steelermania. Did the sudden need to change foster nostalgia and a reluctance to change? Has there been a continued resistance to what is happening in the rest of the world, summarized in the term "globalization"?
There's a narrative nugget worth chewing on. "[T]the plant closings of the 1980s were so sudden the community was unprepared." The plant closings of the 1980s were sudden? They must have been sudden from the "jobs here today, gone tomorrow" point of view, and they had an immediate and dramatic impact on all of the people who lost their jobs. In that sense, individuals were unprepared. But the closing weren't sudden in the context of Pittsburgh's 20th century industrial history. Steel had been on the decline regionally for decades leading up to the 1980s; anyone who was suprised by its actual demise was, in historical terms, either not paying attention, not privy to what was actually happening over the prior decades, or ignoring it.
I should emphasize here that I am not blaming anyone for what happened. What I'm interested in here is the idea (to paraphrase Sally W.) that the region still senses that it woke up one day in the 1980s and the world had changed entirely. True? Let's assume that it is. What are the implications?
In my view, one implication of the "sudden disappearance" theory may be that the region's legendary fatalism and risk-aversion may be less difficult to overcome than is commonly believed. As a non-Pittsburgher, I've tended to assume that the region's nostalgia and resistance to change weren't prompted by the sudden disappearance of industry (pace Wiggin) but by its presence, that is, by the accretion of tradition-laden attitudes over a period of many decades. Local attitudes are so difficult to change because they have such a long pedigree. I've had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues over the last several years that start from the following premise: How do you change the psychology of a city?
Maybe we've been asking the wrong question; maybe Pittsburgh's fatalism isn't so hard-wired after all. If the narrative arc of the city includes "the world stopped turning circa 1982 [give or take a few years]," then maybe what we have here isn't deeply felt fatalism so much as grieving for a death in the family. And not just any death; to mix metaphors slightly, steel was literally and figuratively the heart of the region. The patriarch and matriarch, if you will, rolled into one.
What Pittsburgh has seen since that time may be less a reluctance to let go of a decades-old psychology and instead more a collective version of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I'm not going to speculate on where Pittsburgh now sits in the context of those stages (have fun in the comments!), and I'm not going to claim that I'm the first to draw the analogy that I'm working with (help out in the comments: where has this point been made before?).
Still, if this is the right version of the story, then that may be grounds for optimism. There is no need for collective therapy or for some kind of urban personality transplant. Resistance to change and fatalism aren't part of the city's DNA; they are at least partly responses to a traumatic event. If that's right, then those attitudes may evolve and improve organically; acceptance should arrive eventually, and with acceptance comes opportunity and possibility.