Out of Step?

I was out of Pittsburgh for most of last week, and now that I'm back, I'm feeling out of sync, whipsawed among Pittsburgh's past, Pittsburgh's present, and Pittsburgh's future.

In Portland, I had a snack at Voodoo Doughnuts ("The Magic is in the Hole!") and realized that I need to dial back my obsession with the local "Cupcake Class." I browsed Powell's Books and was reminded of the observation that if Pittsburgh is "one of America's most literate cities," it's because Pittsburghers borrow books. Pittsburghers surely don't support independent bookstores. Sign of utopia? Or sign of the apocalypse?

Stuck in the Newark Airport for an extended period last Thursday, I bought and read most of H.G. Bissinger's fabulous and troubling Friday Night Lights, about the American pathology that we call high school football. This morning, the college decision faced by a local high school superstar is front page news in the Post-Gazette. Will it be top school number one, or top school number two, or local underdog number three? It would be refreshing to read that Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor is deciding between MIT and Caltech, with local underdog Carnegie Mellon still in the running. But this is a football issue. Nowhere in the P-G's report will you find a glimmer of the notion that this high school senior is deciding where to get an education. Fortunately, Terrelle Pryor seems to have some wisdom about him, and he is surrounded by advisors who genuinely seem to have his best interests in the fronts of their minds. But it's a long and risky road from Jeannette to pro ball, and even if he makes it, an NFL career is itself usually a fleeting thing. In some ways, and more ways than Pittsburghers might like to acknowledge, Pittsburgh today is uncomfortably like Odessa, Texas.

Closer to my usual interests, the PG this morning carries an upbeat report about growing exports by local manufacturers. "[T]he value of exports from the Pittsburgh area increased 20 percent from 2005 to 2006 -- the 14th largest jump among U.S. cities and a better year-to-year improvement than New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla.," writes Dan Fitzpatrick, following Harold Miller's more detailed report on this topic . Is this really good news? Or is Pittsburgh growing manufacturing exports at precisely the time that more globalized economies in the U.S. are moving away from export dependency? I always appreciate a "glass half full" view of Pittsburgh's regional economy, but I worry about hints of creeping nostalgia. It's a good thing that manufacturing never went away in Pittsburgh, because when times get tough (as they are getting now), manufacturing will help see Pittsburgh through. That's a ground for optimism. But it can also be an excuse for not innovating and diversifying the economy.

Pittsburgh nostalgia plays a big role in Chad Hermann's Post-Gazette elegy for hard work. It's no surprise that the piece is perfectly crafted:
To give our best effort in that great, tedious, persevering work of getting things done, a 250-year-old Pittsburgh needs leaders of wealth and ideas and influence who are willing -- we already know they're able -- to make a real difference. Which is to say, leaders who are willing to care deeply about something other than themselves, their next election, or their next annual report. We need the public service of true public servants, not the lip service of cynical self-preservationists. We need to summon the pride and courage and fierce determination of all the generations of Pittsburghers before us who, when told they could not possibly do any better, vowed that they would, and did. And we need to demand, starting right now, more than just the simple, numbing mediocrity we've come to expect, and to accept, from our leaders.
So true, yet so self-evidently romantic, nostalgic, and ultimately indeterminate. When I first moved to the Pittsburgh region and started to read and talk and learn about its history and its potential, I thought much the same thing. "The people" need to expect more of themselves, and "they" will extract more value from the extraordinary raw resources that the region possesses. I had more than one conversation with colleagues that was premised on the question, "How do you change the psychology of a city?" Relucantly, and finally with determination, I've come to the conclusion that you can't. The Pittsburgh region is determined to be dominated by big institutions, to expect the worst from change and the best from the magic bullets masquerading as economic solutions, and to be risk-averse and hierarchy-obsessed. Not that there's anything wrong with that; Pittsburgh's social and cultural stability over the decades owes much to those traits.

If my diagnosis is correct, however, then if growth is in Pittsburgh's future, that growth won't come from within. It won't come from hordes of existing Pittsburghers realizing that they've erred by placing their trust in Luke Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato and Jim Rohr. It will come from new Pittsburghers realizing that Pittsburgh can succeed, both locally and globally, by making its government and its symbolic central economic planning irrelevant, or at least benign. Pittsburgh faces a regional version of Clay Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma. So long as Pittsburgh works really hard and focuses on what it has always had the potential to do really well, it is doomed to failure. As Cher said to Nick Cage in Moonstruck, "Snap out of it!"

There. That was better; I've written something provocative enough that almost everyone can disagree with it. I'm back in sync for a while.

Comments

4 Responses to "Out of Step?"

Chad said... 2/03/2008 12:34 PM

Great stuff, Mike. As always. And thanks for the kind words about the craft.

That said: this was, by definition and solicitation, a piece in which I was supposed to tie Pittsburgh's past to its present and to its future with a big, bold, attention-getting essay. All in 1,000 words. Which doesn't leave a lot of room to get determinate. Or overly prescriptive.

That sort of true, romantic, inspirational stuff is pretty much my stock-in-trade, as you know. I like to leave the determinate, nuts-and-bolts-and-cupcakes stuff to people more interested -- and much better-suited -- to those tasks. Like you.

Jim Russell said... 2/03/2008 4:46 PM

Pittsburgh doesn't control its own destiny. No city has that power.

Jefferson Provost said... 2/04/2008 10:34 AM

I think spending too much time in the Burgh blogosphere induces a false sense of optimism through sampling bias. For every blog voice advocating progress and change, there are hundreds or thousands of voiceless "rank and file" Pittsburghers who'd prefer that everything stay the same forever. It's this blog-silent supermajority that controls the fate of Pittsburgh, by voting -- both at the polls and with their dollars and feet -- for maintaining the status quo.

Bram Reichbaum said... 2/05/2008 1:02 AM

"It won't come from hordes of existing Pittsburghers realizing that they've erred by placing their trust in Luke Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato and Jim Rohr."

I would not dismiss the possibility. Remember there is a magnetic polar inversion taking place, that may coincide with the turning of the Aztec calendar. At any rate, public opinion may reach something like a tipping point, and it may come about via self-knowledge.

We're so focused on our Renaissances, we're overlooking the Enlightenment.

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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]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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