A Primary Pittsburgh Post: Pittsburgh as Place

Lindsay Patross at iheartpgh.com suggested posts on the good things that are happening in Pittsburgh, to be collected at The Primary Pittsburgh Project. Here goes:

The great strength of the Pittsburgh region -- and its great weakness -- isn't the people, or the neighborhoods, or families, or working class traditions, or Steelers football. I can't point to one best example of a good thing happening right now that locals, and politicians, and the media should latch on to as distinctly positive or good. Instead, I point to a good thing that was here before we were, and that will be here after we're gone.

The great strength of the Pittsburgh region -- and its great weakness -- is its profound and overwhelming sense of place. Great cities are great in large part because their citizens invest in the wealth of place. Pittsburgh was founded 250 years ago at an aquatic confluence that gives it enduring and uncommon wealth. If Pittsburgh has been a great city, that's because those who have lived here and those who visited were stewards of that wealth. They drank deeply of Pittsburgh's hills and valleys and rivers, molding their lives to the land and the water rather than molding the land and water to their lives.

Pittsburgh hasn't always followed that formula. At times, the region has squandered the wealth of place. But if Pittsburgh is going to be a great city again, it needs to rebuild that wealth and reinvest in it -- and it needs to do that metaphorically as well as literally:

If a City/County merger proceeds, then planners need to revive and restore local communities at the same time that they integrate and streamline public services and taxation. The City of Pittsburgh needs to do even more to promote and sustain the city's neighborhoods. The institutions in Oakland -- Pitt, UPMC, and CMU -- have displaced the institutions of Downtown as economic motors for the region, which means that the region has to acknowledge and build on the distribution of technological capital, financial capital, and labor across wide areas, where they were once concentrated in a few. The Pittsburgh Diaspora can thrive, if continues to thrive, by building on the metaphor of Pittsburgh-as-place that Burgh ex-pats carry with them everywhere. Pittsburgh 2.0 can thrive, if it will thrive, by reversing the polarity of the Diaspora and using the metaphor of Pittsburgh-as-place to attract new in-migrants as well as rebounding natives.

The risk inherent in this -- the region's great weakness -- is that place and our metaphors of place can be fixed and inflexible. The hills and valleys and rivers don't change, or don't change much. Attachment to place often means attachment to the past. I love and hate the images of molten steel that flow through Monday Night Football broadcasts; those images are intense reminders of Pittsburgh's past but only modestly representative of its present -- let alone its future. If Pittsburgh uses the wealth of place as a foundation for growth, rather than as a ceiling imposed by history (block that metaphor, as The New Yorker sometimes writes!), then Pittsburgh can turn weakness into strength. The Detroit Free Press quoted me last week: "People love this city like no other city in the world." To borrow and adapt a phrase that I've heard in other contexts, Pittburghers need to turn the best of Pittsburgh -- themselves -- into the best for Pittsburgh -- the place.


5 Responses to "A Primary Pittsburgh Post: Pittsburgh as Place"

Anonymous said... 4/21/2008 3:02 PM

"People love this city like no other city in the world." - what a great statement. Thanks

Anonymous said... 4/23/2008 3:32 PM

Pittsburgh has looked to it's non profit legacy for support and growth in many areas of social, economic and environmental wants and needs.
Do we as a city and region look to our local political leadership to spearhead a drive to capture the great possibilities, or do we look to the non profits for this leadership. I'm not impressed with the up side potential of Pittsburgh political leadership. So who takes the lead ??

Anonymous said... 4/23/2008 10:01 PM

Isn't there something to be said for DE-emphasizing the hoary old definitions and narratives of "what Pittsburgh is"? The only people they seem to appeal to are the Pittsburgh natives themselves. Most others find them to be puzzling at best, since they don't really line up with any sort of contemporary reality.

We want to hang on to Pittsburgh's idea of itself as a "special place" with a distinct character, but it might be a better idea to try to cast it as a blank canvas with the capability to change and become something new over and over. The self-definition of "strong" cities (New York) has always been one of no set definition at all.

Mike Madison said... 4/23/2008 10:23 PM

I agree that Pittsburgh exceptionalism is misguided, at least when it relies excessively on history. But "Pittsburgh is special" in the sense that it is distinct, and in that sense it is essentially impossible to treat the city or region as a blank canvas. The place-ness of Pittsburgh is an asset, not a liability, and not because Pittsburgh has been or should become "like" New York or any other "strong" city.

In the end I think that you and I share a core premise: Every "strong" city is "strong" in its own way, and the sooner that Pittsburgh leaders and residents accept that they have to build and re-build their own place-dependent identity rather than borrow an identity from elsewhere, the sooner the tide will turn in the region's favor.

Anonymous said... 4/25/2008 9:44 AM

So, Mike, what do you think about this merger? I was all for it initially, but now I am unsure. The reason I'm unsure is that someone on a message board made a really good point that I hadn't thought about: If the city is dissolved into the county, but all the other municipalities remain intact, would the suburbs suddenly have an unbalanced amount of control over the city? Could it be that the only good way to do a merger is to dissolve all municipalities into the county at the same time?

I realize that the current plan might be the only way a merger would ever pass. But I do have to wonder if we know what we're getting into. Then again I don't know all the ins and outs of how this would work.

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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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