Cutting Off Pittsburgh's Nose

Is there any other small city in the country that still suffers from as much city dweller resentment of its suburbs as Pittsburgh does?

Almost every day, it seems, there is a letter to the editor of the Post-Gazette that complains about the illegitimacy of suburban interest in the election for Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh. Today's installment, from Guy DeFazio of Greenfield, is relatively tame:
As current residents of the city of Pittsburgh, my wife and I take exception to Craig Conley's Oct. 11 letter ("City Voters, Change Your Ways on Election Day"). He claims that city residents have no common sense when it comes to our "woes" and the upcoming mayoral election. We'd like to know why this is of any concern to him, as a suburbanite. He apparently chose to leave the city to move to the suburbs. Maybe he should have stayed and fought for change.

It seems that the people who are most critical and judgmental of the city and its residents are those who no longer live here, or those who never did. Mr. Conley no longer lives here; he should not sink to insulting those of us who do.

I don't wish to insult City residents, plenty of whom are as disgusted by the antics and immaturity of the current Mayor as are my fellow suburbanites. It's the persistent us-vs.-them attitude that intrigues me.

There are some American cities that have every good reason to look down on their suburban neighbors. New York. Chicago. (OK, maybe there are two American cities that can do that.) There are other American cities that look down on their suburban neighbors because their egos would have it no other way, and they get away with it sometimes because they've got genuine urban charm that goes back centuries. Boston ("the Hub") comes to mind, and perhaps Philadelphia.

That brings me to Pittsburgh. I'm hard pressed to think of any other American city today where the city/suburb conflict is so stark, or where the persistent anxiety about the suburbs is so unjustified. Certainly, in the first half of the 20th century, the City of Pittsburgh was rich and powerful and important. In the latter half of the 20th century, increasingly the City was not, and increasingly the suburbs are wealthy, if not necessarily always important, or powerful. Historical hangovers take a long time to improve, if they ever do.

This plays out both materially (money and jobs) and conceptually (the energy and vision that drives the region). I'll leave the material details to Chris, who always does a better job with that stuff than I ever could do. But I do get the point that suburbanites who work in the City but don't pay City taxes are responsible for some portion of the City's fiscal woes. They aren't the only ones who might be paying taxes; there are plenty of big, needy fish in town who could pony up much more.

The conceptual point, however, is that the anxiety is backward-looking rather than forward-looking. (Ah, so what's new about that in Pittsburgh?) Economically and culturally the City of Pittsburgh needs its suburbs just as much as the suburbs need the City. The future of Pittsburgh is not merely a City issue; it's a regional issue. This is why suburban-ites care about the next Mayor of Pittsburgh, whether or not they are former City residents. There are pockets of economic vitality and promise in both City and suburb - and beyond. Leaders and members of political, business, educational, cultural, and community institutions live all over the place. Like a lot of people in Western PA, I'd like to find ways to engage more of them in regional solutions. I'd like to encourage in-migration of all kinds of populations, to all kinds of different communities. How do we engage them? Attract them? With the man that Chad Hermann calls The Boy Who Would Be Mayor?

Up in Boston, Tom Menino has been Mayor for a long time. He's far from perfect, but he's a great ambassador for and advocate of both city and region. Boston isn't the Hub of anything except in the minds of people who believe, and Menino has the maturity and stature and presence to get them to believe. (Pace Tug McGraw.) Unless the City of Pittsburgh lets go of its suburban anxiety, it runs the risk of becoming something else -- a hole in the Western PA doughnut.


21 Responses to "Cutting Off Pittsburgh's Nose"

Existential Type said... 10/24/2007 3:24 PM

Nationwide, as well as in Pittsburgh, the mentality of the suburbs is to exploit the advantages of living near a city without having to pay for them. Need heart surgery? It'll be done in Pittsburgh. Child have a serious illness? S/he'll be cared for in Pittsburgh. Attending a University? Pittsburgh. Catching a Steelers game? In Pittsburgh. Attending the opera? In Pittsburgh. All subsidized by the city dwellers, none paid for by the suburbanites. To make matters worse, the Repugnicans elevate this abuse to a false virtue; it's all part of their true "family values", namely "i've got mine, screw you".

Mike Madison said... 10/24/2007 3:31 PM

Thanks, ET, for a data point confirming my hypothesis.

Dave said... 10/24/2007 4:31 PM


The residents of the City do not and cannot sustain all of the City's resources alone. Where would the City's hospitals be without suburban doctors and administrators? Where would the Cultural District be without its many suburban patrons and benefactors? To employ your logic ET, don't even think about using either of the County's two airports for your next business trip or family vacation. Those are for us suburbanites based on location alone!

Last I checked, I pay an occupation tax to work in the City, and many business owners who live in the suburbs but employ people in the City pay much, much more to the City by way of taxes. These businesses could easily be located in the suburbs, but I'm not sure you (or your Mayor) would be quick to argue for them to leave "your" Golden Triangle. Also, when I buy a ticket to the opera or a Steelers game, I pay the City amusement tax and about 40 cents on the dollar for the City's parking tax. I can't think of any similar exchanges or payments that are made when a City dweller takes advantage of a suburban restaurant, mall or movie theatre.

And let's set the record straight while we're on the subject -- the stadiums (while located in the City proper) are not owned by the City. In fact, Heinz Field, PNC Park, Mellon Arena and the Convention Center are all owned by The Sports & Exhibition Authority (SEA). The SEA is a creature of a Pennsylvania statute and it is governed by a seven member Board of Directors appointed by BOTH Allegheny County and the City. As you know, most of the suburbs that support these facilities are in Allegheny County, and our tax dollars have been and will continue to be used to build, maintain and operate these facilities.

Mike's point is simply that we ALL have a vested interest in the future well-being of the City, regardless of whether we work in it, live in it, recreate in it or all of the above. I think a perfect comparison is how citizens of other countries generally take a greater interest in our Presidential elections than us Americans. Why? Because they appreciate the fact that the President of the United States will have a significant impact upon many issues that will directly impact their own governments, economies, families, jobs and freedoms.

While certainly on a much smaller scale, we suburbanites have a vested interest in who the City voters elect to be the face of the City. We all want someone whose credibility, performance, knowledge and overall presence will allow us to prosper as a region.

Jonathan Potts said... 10/24/2007 5:27 PM

Wow. Surbanites get free heart surgery? Free admission to universities? Mike, any houses for sale on your block? I'll make back the extra money I'll have to pony up for the mortgage in no time.

I did find it a bit ironic that Tom Murphy spent his last months in office blaming suburbanites for the city's woes, when he had spent the previous 12 years attempting to turn Downtown into little more than a suburban playground.

Mike Madison said... 10/24/2007 5:40 PM

JP --

The data point being the ineradicable anxiety, not the idea that I get free health care, higher education, or entertainment! Dave makes the corresponding point quite effectively. City residents "subsidize" suburban-ites only in a very technical financial sense, and even then to identify the nature of the "subsidy" you have to parse the economy on an institution-by-institution basis.

But that analysis looks at the problem through a very narrow lens. All of the suburbanites who work at and operate these City-based institutions could take their labor out to their hometowns, and then we'd see who is really subsidizing whom.

Which is exactly what should *not* happen, and which is why the obsession with City-vs-the suburbs is so misplaced.

Chad said... 10/24/2007 7:11 PM

A typically excellent and thoughtful post, Mike.

It's interesting -- by which I mean frightening -- to see all of this "city dweller resentment of the suburbs" in the pages of the PG. I remember, not all that long ago, seeing the exact opposite: scores of letters from the 'burbs, decrying our cess pool of a city and proclaiming that they could just as easily do without it. As if Mt. Lebanon could exist as we know it without Pittsburgh just up West Liberty Avenue, or as if Cranberry would anything more than Breezewood West without a major metropolitan area sitting just to its south.

This ugly pendulum seems to have swung back the other way, exposing a provincialism -- hell, almost a xenophobia -- that suggests we should just build a wall around the golden triangle, call in John Carpenter and the INS, and defy anyone to Escape From New Pittsburgh.

What both sets of letter writers -- and, of course, a whole hell of a lot of Southwestern Pennsylvania -- seems to forget is what you so neatly remember: that we are all in this together, that functional and political City/County consolidation, should it occur, will be decades behind the economic consolidation that has already occurred, and that the longer the city and suburbs shoot rhetorical spitballs at each other, the farther the region regresses.

Existential Type said... 10/24/2007 8:17 PM

MM: you're welcome, it was fully my intention.

There will never be any regional political consolidation, precisely because, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, living in the suburbs has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.

jet said... 10/24/2007 9:16 PM

I live just on the other side of the Squirrel Hill tunnels, yet my address is "Pittsburgh, PA".

I pay tuition to a university in Pittsburgh; we do most of our grocery shopping in Pittsburgh; my clothes are tailored in Pittsburgh; my shoes are repaired in Pittsburgh; my hair is cut in Pittsburgh; my mail drop is in Pittsburgh; pretty much every restaurant we eat at (other than Willow) is in Pittsburgh; I often buy gas in Pittsburgh; I shop for books, music, magazines, industrial supplies and art supplies and just about everything else in Pittsburgh.

You better believe I care about who the next mayor of Pittsburgh is: short of property taxes, the vast majority of my disposable income gets spent within the Pittsburgh city limits.

If the citizens of Pittsburgh don't want my money, please let me know so I can stop giving it to their businesses. I'll drive to Monroeville or Mt. Leb and give them my money instead. And as soon as there's no longer any need for me to live here, I'll gladly move to a part of the country that will be glad to take my money and treat me like a valued member of the community.

Jonathan Potts said... 10/25/2007 8:55 AM

You know, we can add up all the numbers, see who spends more money where on whom, but the bottom line for the city of Pittsburgh is that it would not be in such dire financial straits were it not for decades of mismanagement. Believe me, I'm happy to tick off a list of things I think are wrong with the American suburb, but it was not inevitable that (some) cities would decline so precipitously as the suburbs rose.

Jason said... 10/25/2007 9:43 AM

When I lived in DC and would go to the Pour House (old pgh bar) to watch the Steelers games ineveitably you would talk to somebody and ask where are you from "Pittsburgh" and then they would say "Mt. Lebo, Cranberry Monroville" As a city resident should I just walk away disgusted that they would claim to be from Pittsburgh?

Where is free will in this discussion? We can live where we choose. (Unless you are trapped in a city job that requires you to live in the city and you can't leave because where am I going to find a pension like this). I choose to live in the city (and pay the taxes)because I love living in the city. And if you love living in the suburbs more power to you. If you don't love where you live I feel sorry for you.

At the end of the day we are all part of Greater Pittsburgh and we all need a stronger economy, more jobs and a healthy city of Pittsburgh in the center.

Tom said... 10/25/2007 11:27 AM


Great post. I had this very discussion with a friend this past weekend. He lives in the suburbs, I live in the city. What struck me about our conversation was his adament opinion that the suburbs would exist just fine should the city financially collapse. (A very shortsighted viewpoint, IMHO).

I'm not sure why people in this region fail to see the symbiotic relationship between city & suburbs? Perhaps it has something to do with the way we were raised in this fractured county, and the identity that associates with that. Growing up, we thought our township was better than the other (125+) townships, our school district better than the (40+) neighboring school districts. I would easily bond with a person from the North Hills, more so that the South Hills.

In some sense, I almost suspect it is a type "not my fault" mentality that lets area residents feel absolved of the problems of the region, because those problems are caused by "someone else that they didn't vote for".

And a final note to ET - many "Repugnicans" (as you call us) are just as interested in the stability and success of the city. No one party has all of the answers, and Pittsburgh's current financial state is excellent proof of that.

Anonymous said... 10/25/2007 11:41 AM

It goes both ways. For every city resident I hear insult suburbanites, I hear a suburbanite insult city residents. The letters in the paper snip back and forth at each other from both sides.

This is a very fragmented region, so it's no wonder this happens.
I won't go into this too much, but Pittsburgh has one of the highest daytime influxes of population in the country. Meaning few places have a larger proportion of workers living outside city limits. This is bound to lead to animosity.

We all need to work together toward common goals instead of infighting. We also need regional government.

EdHeath said... 10/25/2007 4:54 PM

I think we have too many hills and rivers. Too many! That's what keeps us apart ...

I look at (and I am going to butcher some spelling here) Upper Saint Clair and Sewickley and think they would never support the idea of a true city-county merger. I suspect Wilkensburg might well be delighted to be a Pittsburgh neighborhood. But even then I guess there are some small hamlets around the county that still want to keep their one full time police officer (the Chief, with a star on each collar).

Antirust has a version of this debate every couple of weeks or so, like clockwork. Often it is couched in environment/energy footprint terms, but I don’t think that will have any effect on suburbanites until gas hits four or five dollars a gallon.

Clearly suburbanites get more value out or the city being here than they put in, but they do put a lot in, especially if they park downtown for a job. And as Jonathon said, One absolute truth is that the suburbs are not responsible for the city’s financial mess. We (the city) should have been more pro-active in the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s in making cuts to the city budget. But who knew we would end up with such an old population, which is a big part of why we are shrinking so fast (they won’t leave the region, so here they die). That is one problem the city and suburbs share.

Patrick said... 10/26/2007 3:28 PM

While we probably couldn't fit the entire suburban population of the area within the city limits, the fact is most people that live in the suburbs but work in Pittsburgh could easily live in the city. Of course, that would mean paying city taxes, and (gasp!) possibly sending their kids to city schools...

Would Pitt or CMU be solid national universities, or UPMC be as great a hospital, or USX be as successful a corporation, if the region didn't offer exclusive affluent housing zones - where residents are not required to support the city police/fire/EMS, as well as city road maintenance, etc.? Would all of those great doctors or professors leave for Minneapolis or Cleveland so they could wall themselves up in suburban cocoons? I'm not sure.

But those who work in the city while sleeping in the suburbs at night DO enjoy city services. The bill for those services should not be shouldered in such an unblanced way by city residents.

John Morris said... 10/26/2007 8:05 PM

This isn't some kind of false conflict with no basis in reality. It has a very real reason and it relates to land use and taxes. It's hard to make a case that people who are relying on the city for their jobs are putting much back in to pay for services.

It's a very accute problem here because the actual land area of the city is so tiny.

I think when one looks at the way the city has been developing in the last 50 years and you see a series of decisions that have worked out well for some of the surrounding suburbs but not the city itself.

The other big cause of conflict which is happening all over the country is about transportation. The primary mode of suburban transportation, cars, is not compatible with any kind of dense urban life. This means that sustainable, dense mixed use areas have to leave more and more of their space over to cars, which destroys the quality of life for city residents.

The older street car type or transit oriented suburbs did not cause these conflicts.

By the way, the hatred level in NY towards it's suburbs is at least as bad. Most of it is focused on New Jersey, which has man non tax paying residents with a lifestyle in direct conflict with Manhattan's.This is getting somewhat better as New Jersey is gradually improving it's mass transit links to the city.

YinzerBoy said... 10/27/2007 3:37 PM


I'm not so sure this is unique to Pittsburgh. It's a sentiment I've heard from communities across the country - Chicago, NYC, Seattle, Boston, etc.

The bigger issue is the divide betwen the suburbs and the cities period. Both think they don't need the other, and the other is holding them down/back.

It may be a bit more acute here than (some) other places, but let's not kid ourselves that this is uniquely 'Pittsburgh.'

Mike Madison said... 10/27/2007 8:10 PM

And, YB, you'll note on re-reading that I don't come close to suggesting that the city/suburb anxiety is unique to Pittsburgh. For New York, Chicago, and Boston, I even suggest that it might be justified!

It's curious to hear that there's an echo in Seattle. I've got both city friends and country friends there, and neither have ever reported that to me.

Dave F said... 10/29/2007 9:47 AM

Perhaps I'm misinterpreting Patrick's comment, but I believe his willingness to make light of (or at least dismiss) the school situation in Pittsburgh is one of the single largest factors in pushing people to the suburbs and/or discouraging their return to the City. As was reported in August, the Pittsburgh Public Schools missed federal achievement benchmarks for the fifth year in a row, thanks largely to low reading scores.

The young families that this City desperately needs and rightfully craves will always be reluctant to make a long term housing investment in the City if it means settling for underperforming City schools or tuition payments at Shadyside Academy, Ellis, Winchester Thurston or Central Catholic (on top of taxes). I realize that Mr. Roosevelt is moving the City schools in the right direction, but so long as people like Patrick think it's OK to settle for less when it comes to public education and the City's wealthier residents continue to send their kids to private schools, don't expect others to take the risk with their own kids.

Patrick said... 10/29/2007 5:06 PM

In response to Dave f.,
I wasn't making light of the problems in the city schools. I think it is the number one reason why the cities are emptying, and the greatest success that cities have in re-vitalizing neighborhoods are with groups that don't have kids: empty nesters, gays, and young singles.

But I always have to ask: are he schools underperforming, or the students? The school buildings don't take the SAT, neither do the teachers or administrators - the kids do. The kids in the city do poorly on the tests - why?

Is it the system, or the parents? Do Mt. Lebanon kids do well because they've invented a better educational mouse trap out there, or is it because only successful, well eductated people (for the most part) live in Mt. Lebanon? Personally, I think it's the latter.

I remember Roosevelt talking about merging schools at a community meeting in the South Hills. He dismissed out of hand the notion that bringing in kids from an underperforming building [read: poor black kids] into a school that was already successful [read: somewhat middle class white kids] could possibly harm the progress of the kids that were already doing well.

The underperforming kids would be raised up by the succeeding children, but those doing well would NOT be brought down by the underperfomers.

All I could think of is that if Roosevelt is right, then what suckers those suburban parents are for paying all that money on bigger houses, gas for their commute, and high suburban property taxes when what they feared the most - their kids being dragged down by the city kids - was in the words of our infallible superintendent Roosevelt "not supported by the data" in study after study.

No matter what Roosevelt says, people still believe their kids will be worse off in city schools, making the prophesy self-fulfilling, since those who might need a good school system - poor kids who didn't get to pick their parents - are financially locked out of those supposedly great school systems. We'll never know if the school is any good, or just the parents.

Mark Rauterkus said... 10/30/2007 11:09 AM

The RAD TAX fixes the 'regional assets.' Those that live in the burbs pay plenty every time they come here to park. The "none paid for by suburbanites" claim is crap.

We need to de-bunk the hate and those roots of poor reasoning.

For me, the city resident, I get yanked off at the media. Who on the P-G editorial board lives in the city. Yet they sway (or try) elections.

The city life conversation isn't being shared by Marty Griffin and Honz Man.

Plenty are way out of touch. Yet they have the soap box and microphones.

Jon Delano is a fool when he reports on the city. Fool! Clueless.

With out a doubt, the schools are what pushes the city into its deep problems. And, it is much more than just the schools. It is the afterschool activities (and lack of them). Weekends and summers too. Our parks and afterschool efforts within the city are UNLIKE what they have in the burbs. That is a big contrast and it needs to be fixed.

Eric Rogers said... 11/04/2007 11:09 PM

"I'd like to encourage in-migration of all kinds of populations, to all kinds of different communities. How do we engage them? Attract them?"

The best way to sustain a city's population is through immigration and gentrification. Succeeding generations will inevitably move to the suburbs so a city needs replacements if you will, to begin the cycle all over again. Unlike big coastal cities, Pittsburgh has lacked any kind of sizable immigration for quite some time.

Search Pittsblog

About Pittsblog

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.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

Comments are moderated.
Subscribe to Pittsblog comments


Blog Archive

Header Background

Header background images licensed from (left image) lemonad and (right image) plaskota under Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 2.0 Generic licenses.


Copyright 2003-2010 Michael J. Madison - WP Theme by Brian Gardner - Blogger Blog Templates,