Thanks to Pittsburgh

Is it possible to be optimistic and pessimistic about Pittsburgh at the same time? It's not only possible; it's absolutely necessary. "Believe in it? I've seen it done!," as the joke goes, or as the White Queen said in Alice in Wonderland: "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

On the eve of Thanksgiving 2007, how about six reasons to give thanks to Pittsburgh -- that is, to be optimistic and pessimistic at the same time?

Painting with a broad brush:

One: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. History and tradition are fabulous things, and respect for them is increasingly rare in American society. Pittsburgh has both in abundance. Perhaps too much abundance. "Respect for tradition" is too often equated with "inertia" and "complacency." Pittsburgh is a nice place. Can't it get better?

Two: Raw materials. Specifically, intellectual raw materials. Pittsburgh has them. It has technical and artistic innovation and creativity coming out of the metaphoric ears of labs and studios all over town. What Pittsburgh lacks is (to hear some describe it) a broad-based established business and marketing infrastructure for taking novelty and building products and companies, and/or (to hear others) a cultural norm within that infrastructure that prizes and rewards risk-taking. Has Pittsburgh overinvested in basic research?

Three: Success. Pittsburgh is in many ways a victim of its own (historical) success. A century ago Pittsburgh was filled with risk-takers of most sorts, who succeeded brilliantly and built giant industrial enterprises. So well, in fact, that today it's difficult to imagine any pursuit other than sustaining or replicating that success. Sports and business have a lot in common on this score. Our cultural institutions still happily feed off the charitable proceeds of Pittsburgh's past. Both business and cultural institutions might consider competing on contemporary terms, rather than competing against historical benchmarks. How about this? Instead of worrying about graduates of Pittsburgh universities who relocate to other regions to start their careers, why not compete aggressively to recruit top university grads to relocate to Pittsburgh from other regions? If a Wisconsin alum is more capable and a better fit than a Pitt alum, then go get the Wisconsin alum. Right?

Four: It's cheap to live here, and it's going to stay that way. Sure, real estate taxes are insane, but across the region as a whole, the cost of living in Southwest Pennsylvania is pretty low, and and it's not rising quickly if it's rising at all. That's great if you're already here. It's not particularly appealing if you're looking to move in, if you have a choice of destination (Pittsburgh or somewhere else?), and if you're evaluating your options from the standpoint of building assets. The low rate of increase reflects low demand. After you, then who?

Five: The Laurel Highlands are beautiful and accessible. Too bad about the air quality. Bill Peduto's green building initiative is a step in the right direction. How about the carbon footprint of the city's (and county's) existing buildings? What are Pitt, CMU, and UPMC doing to reduce the environmental impact of their operations?

Six: The Pittsburgh Diaspora. From the ruins of the 1980s, Pittsburgh has an underappreciated jewel: The good will of Pittsburghers -- both natives and emotional offspring -- everywhere. Smart trademark owners know how to monetize good will. How can Pittsburgh extract real value from the Diaspora?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


12 Responses to "Thanks to Pittsburgh"

Jefferson Provost said... 11/21/2007 11:12 AM

[Pittsburgh] has technical and artistic innovation and creativity coming out of the metaphoric ears of labs and studios all over town. What Pittsburgh lacks is a broad-based established business and marketing infrastructure for taking novelty and building products and companies, and/or (to hear others) a cultural norm within that infrastructure that prizes and rewards risk-taking.

Maybe this is just another way of saying the same thing, but another thing Pittsburgh needs is to find a way to develop a local market for local talent. It reminds me of Pittsburgh's live music scene [at least, the scene when I last paid much attention to it, which was 10-15 years ago -- maybe it's changed?]. Back when Rusted Root was coming up, we used to lament that the Burgh had such a great music scene, but somehow it couldn't get any national attention. But the true fact was that we didn't really have a great scene. What we had was lots of good bands and not very many listeners. There were a bunch of good bands playing original music in the city, and yet most of the potential customers were listening to top-40 and heavy metal cover bands and their local bars in the suburbs. If Graffiti and Nick's Fat City had big local original acts on the same night, that would exhaust the entire market for original rock for the weekend. Not coincidentally, both those clubs are closed now, as are almost every other club or bar that tried to make money on live original music back then. That's a great scene?

The same thing is true with Pittsburgh's high tech "scene". You don't have to go very far from Oakland before you start running into lots and lots of business owners who still see the internet as some newfangled thing they don't understand, and who don't even have a simple static website, because they don't believe that investing in technology will actually help their business. To them it's all just a series of tubes. Is it possible to change this dynamic? Or is the Burgh just doomed to be the city of the late majority?

Jonathan Potts said... 11/21/2007 11:34 AM

I'm not arguing your overall point, which I think is good, but I would add that Graffiti closed because David Scaife purchased the building and decided to store cars there. That's not to say it wouldn't closed anyway. Same with the Beehive in Oakland -- it closed over a landlord/tenant dispute.

Jefferson Provost said... 11/21/2007 12:57 PM

That was the nominal reason, but I'm still skeptical that Graffiti's ownership really wanted to continue. In my experience dealing with Tony at the Graffiti, I got the sense that there was very little about his business that wasn't under his firm control. He could've reopened Graffiti somewhere else if he had wanted to, and it was obvious that Graffiti's business in the late 90's was much less than it was in the late 80's.

However, regardless of the particulars of the case at Graffiti or Beehive, there are almost no original rock clubs left from that era. I think Moondog's in Blawnox might be the only one.

Anonymous said... 11/21/2007 5:06 PM

I'm not sure if what follows is optimistic or pessimistic...but I'd like to make a prediction.

A young marketing-savvy college kid who has never been to Pittsburgh discovers a way for this kid and the Pittsburgh diaspora to make money from Pittsburgh's history and diaspora. The diaspora and entrepreneur gain notoriety worldwide, spawn imitators and many business and social entrepreneurs...and pay taxes in the towns they now reside while waving terrible towels.

John Morris said... 11/21/2007 5:54 PM

Your advice falls into the category of self evident and that's the main reason to be pesimistic. This is an old dog with no intention of learning new tricks-- at least until the food bowl gets more empty.

Pittsburgh stands out like a sore thumb for it's lack of imigration.

I used to think that what whould happen was that people from outside would see the oportunity and just sort of take the place over. But, I don't feel that way now. The overall market oportunity just isn't big enough to overcome the cities huge cultural flaws.

ChrisP said... 11/23/2007 10:46 AM

Anon 5:06- if someone could just make a chain out of the "Steeler's bar" concept...

Anonymous said... 11/26/2007 9:18 AM

I see a lot of comments (not just here, but all over) about Pittsburgh's "culture" (meaning something akin to the city's personality, as I see it). But I think to myself, cities don't have just one personality. There are so many people here who *aren't* "late majority." Obviously, because if there weren't then we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

So what we need to do is stop lamenting the city's "cultural flaws" and instead emphasize and empower the forward-thinking people. I'm oversimplifying a bit, but perhaps if the forward-thinking people spent less time lamenting and more time acting, we'd see great things happen.

What kind of action do I mean? Well, we already see a lot of grass-roots stuff going on; new galleries and artsy events. But we need more people to go out and vote (for people like DeSantis and Peduto). Get active in government, write to city counsil members, start a business (instead of just talking about it). Obviously not every business will succeed (and certainly it needs to be easier to start one), but if 100 people try and only 10 succeed, we still have 10 new businesses.

I'm going off on a tangent here. But my point is, Pittsburgh the city doesn't have a personality. Pittsburgh is made up of people, and there are all kinds of people here. Change starts with people. Nothing happens if no one acts. (This is not to say that no one is acting, but maybe not enough people are acting).

Frank said... 11/27/2007 10:35 AM

I think Anonymous' statement is on the right track. We have a lot of motivated, innovative, and frustrated young people (myself included) in the area, and a lot of them are trying desperately to find a way to vent their creative energy in the city. The problem is that they, we, need some guidance, and that's where Pittsburgh is lacking. If the framework were there to take advantage of that, a lot more young people would be staying around.

And that fact, along with the low-cost of living, should be used as big marketing tools for getting investment from people in the Diaspora located all over the country. I'd be much more excited about investment along the lines of venture capital, though...the last thing Pittsburgh needs are more Starbucks or Best Buys.

Anonymous said... 11/28/2007 9:11 AM

Frank, can you elaborate on what you mean by framework? Do you have an example from another city that you think does this better? (I'm not sure precicely what "this" is, and I'm not sure if anyone knows, which is why I ask).

As for young people not sticking around... That's not exactly true. People leaving isn't Pittsburgh's problem, if you look at the census. We don't lose more people than your average city (including young people). What we need is to attract more people from outside the region. We don't have enough in-migration. Some good, focused marketing, as you hinted at, would probably help with that.

Frank said... 11/28/2007 9:27 AM

Anonymous--by framework, I mean an occupational infrastructure capable of developing young talent. I know way too many creative and talented young people whose only option was to become a temp or work at Starbucks after college. Innovative companies doing innovative things--that will keep people here and bring people from outside.

Anonymous said... 11/29/2007 9:18 AM

Ok, so how does the city encourage that? I think that's the main question here. CAN the city encourage that? Is it the city's job? How does it happen elsewhere?

These are the questions that always go through my head during discussions like this one.

Frank said... 11/29/2007 12:12 PM

Anonymous--I all honesty, I can't imagine what can be more important for the city than to encourage future prosperity and growth. The degree of the city's involvement, however, is the real question. I realize it's not something they can necessarily "make" happen; there are a lot of elements out of its control. A couple things the city can do, though, are:

- engage the local universities in discussions about how they are contributing to the city's job opportunities. How do they incubate innovation? How do they, or maybe just do they, encourage entrepreneurship related to research in their institution? How can the city help?

- leveraging investment from the Pittsburgh Diaspora. How can the city take advantage of the many Pittsburghers around the country who still have ties here? I don't necessarily know the answer, but I believe the question needs to be asked, and it being actively asked by the city would carry a lot of weight.

On another note, though, I also think it's in no one's interest to wait for the city to tackle these things. Individuals and community organizations need to take more initiative, and I realize that is something that's easier said than done.

All I can say is that I am one individual who wants to take initiative, and I'm looking for more!

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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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