I start with the premise that Pittsburgh is an insanely nostalgic place. Most fading Rust Belt cities wallow in their fair share of nostalgia; perhaps all do. I've long wondered whether Pittsburgh's nostalgia industry is more powerful than its Cleveland and Milwaukee cousins, that it might be so insidious, so pervasive, and in the end so corrosive that it's a nearly absolute bar to meaningful economic, political, or social progress. The names sometimes change, but the underlying stories never do. Pittsburgh may well be way, way too caught up in validating its own history -- and I'll include individuals and institutions alike in this claim -- to see its way to writing its future.
A month or so ago, in an email conversation with a new acquaintance here, I talked about the stories that the new Pittsburgh might tell. Here's an abbreviated version of my end of the exchange:
I've come to believe that letting go of the past isn't the right narrative [for Pittsburgh]. The narrative should be to let the past influence the future, but in different ways.
One possibility is to change the narrative of the past ("Back to Pittsburgh's Future"). We've seen a little of this with stories that re-invent Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse as proto-modern entrepreneurs, but I think that those stories aren't credible. "Pittsburgh was first in innovation before and it can be first in innovation again" ... is another "Back to the Future" narrative; again, I think that it doesn't quite work, largely because being first to invent something doesn't count for as much as people think. First to build a market around something that someone else invents (often, elsewhere) is much more important.
A second possibility, not entirely inconsistent with the first, is to essentialize the narrative of the past so that it evolves seamlessly into the future ("Citizen Carnegie," a la Citizen Kane, whose life turned out to be a search for the lost innocence of youth, or ... Star Wars/ Wizard of Oz: you have to discover the power of change in yourselves ..., and that's the power of "home"). ... Pittsburgh's modern life sciences sector builds directly on Jonas Salk's program to develop a polio vaccine. ... [There is a powerful] narrative of scientific enterprise that Salk's research created at Pitt, and that largely remained behind even after he left. ... Pitt may have been stupid to left Salk leave, but it was brilliant to let Salk's research out into the world, where it could do the most good. The current "patent everything" climate is crushing a lot of potentially useful academic research, at Pitt and elsewhere.
There are other narrative possibilities, of course, but the culture of Pittsburgh, when it looks inward, is generally defensive and backward-looking, rather than open to the new -- new ideas, new people, new anything. "Critical engagement" is hardly a Pittsburgh watchword (or a pithy Pittsburgh phrase, which would be better, syntactically speaking). Instead of "Back to Pittsburgh's Future," we have "Building a Better Past." I borrowed that last phrase from a Pittsburgh expat that I met recently, who left years to ago to find a career in San Francisco and who now lives in Connecticut. To him, Pittsburgh is warm and fuzzy memories, but it's basically cooked.
I'm hardly the first person to point this out, but it's been a consistent theme of this blog since I started posting early 2004. Trying to turn lemons into lemonade, colleagues and I concocted the idea of the Pittsburgh Diaspora as a social movement and posted the ambitious but little noticed Manifesto for a New Pittsburgh. Has the needle moved, even just a little? Bill Toland has picked up the theme, and a few in Pittsburgh's tech communities (more on those in a future Wrap Up post) but elsewhere, I have my doubts. Consider today's valedictories in the Post-Gazette:
Valedictory #1: Chad Hermann, late of Teacher.Wordsmith.Madman, posts a blistering explanation of his abrupt departure from the blogosphere:
I expected people to disagree with me and, when those disagreements came in the form of impassioned, respectful e-mail exchanges, always appreciated that they did. But as those responses gradually gave way to bunkered assaults, as my posts began to fuel not thought or reflection but the very sick, sad opposite of them, it became clear that the reach of my efforts had exceeded the grasp of readers willing and able to engage them. As my reputation grew, the caliber of my audience precipitously declined. And much of what I'd hoped to achieve with TWM no longer seemed possible.
I had my share of vituperative rose-goggled critics (search the blog's archives for the keyword "yinz"), but nothing ever rose to the level that Chad experienced. For more on this theme as it relates to the blogosphere in particular, see Saturday's post by the Hon. Peckham, J., at the Pittsburgh Men's Blogging Society. And don't miss the Comments there.
Valedictory #2: Barry Balmat, who founded and ran the RAND Corporation's outpost in Oakland, is returning to California. Comments that I noticed:
When you experience Pittsburgh versus a place like Silicon Valley, [Pittsburgh] people hold their cards close to the vest. They're not quick to say, "Let's partner and do this together." ...
People in the region should appreciate the change that has taken place and the progress the region and the city have made. It needs to continue to be open to change.
There are a number of key people in town who are bringing change and I think the population needs to be supportive of that. One is [Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent] Mark Roosevelt. It's not just outsiders like him. There are other people who have been here for a long time and have been working to change the area like one of our trustees, [PNC Financial Services Group Chairman ] Jim Rohr. I don't want to get into naming names because I don't know everybody in town. There's a mix of people who have been here for quite a while as well as some fresh blood.
Right on the merits, disappointing on the tactics. Note that Barry Balmat (who I've never met) is leaving Pittsburgh, never to return -- and he's still not willing to name names. Who's in the way, Barry? I hear things, I hear names -- but I'm just a guy with a keyboard. (Cf. Hermann, Chad, supra.)
Valedictory #3: The most poignant and tragic valedictory of them all, Michelle Massie's "Loving/hating Pittsburgh: It's not easy being black in my hometown," by a native who is in many ways more comfortable living a healthy distance away:
While Pittsburgh is being rebuilt as a technology hub and health-care mega-center brimming with jobs and opportunities, I can't help but wonder if that insightful gentleman from the bar might be a hiring manager charged with deciding a jobseeker's fate.Pittsburgh's social disgraces have existed since its founding 250 years ago. It's so ingrained in the psyche that most people don't realize it when they say or do something offensive.
Like a neglected child, I want to love Pittsburgh and I want it to love me. In fact, I think I love the city more than some self-proclaimed die-hard Pittsburghers because I am willing to recognize its flaws and challenge others, as well as myself, to do something to fix them.
I'm not going to pretend everything is fabulous when black neighborhoods remain blighted until developers feel they are ripe for gentrification or when the social and economic conditions of blacks remain unchanged or have worsened over the past 30 years. The only time we genuinely come together as a city is to rally around the Steelers; then we return to our segregated neighborhoods.
This echoes a Pittsblog post from 18 months ago on the different Pittsburghs out there, what I called First World Pittsburgh (the Allegheny Conference, the SEEN section, the corporate and emerging high tech communities); Second World Pittsburgh (our working class forbears, Steel Valley communities); and Third World Pittsburgh (communities, largely but not exclusively black, cursed by structural poverty and crime).
What do I make of all this? When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1998, I had lunch with a colleague (since departed for other pastures himself) and talked about what might be labeled the "Rocco Mediate Rule": Pittsburgh's obsession with its place in the world, and especially with its former place in the world, and its hypersensivity to reasoned criticism (again, cf. Hermann, Chad, supra). He and I agreed that the Rule could be compared to what I had once observed about San Jose, California, which passes as the largest urban center in the Silicon Valley (which is not to say that it is the heart or the HQ of the Silicon Valley), which in the 1970s and 1980s was home to the San Jose Mercury, and the San Jose News (two newspapers then, one newspaper now). Back in those days, the San Jose newspapers of record behaved like Pittsburghers today often do: They lashed out at the real and imagined enemies of what had once been great and good about San Jose and what they believed was still great and good. To those who know San Jose's history, you might justifiably wonder just what that was, exactly. The answers were the small town bankers and businesses that built San Jose into the center of a vast agricultural economy, into which some techno-upstarts -- HP, IBM, Xerox, Ford, Westinghouse (Pittsburgh is everywhere!), Lockheed, and this thing called Fairchild -- had in recent years injected themselves.
Today, Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley. San Jose is a part of it but by no means the hub. Agriculture has been mostly but not entirely extinguished in the Valley. (Think steel in Pittsburgh.) And the San Jose Mercury News is a real newspaper, at least most of the time, not an apologist for the ancien regime. What happened? Newcomers. The Valley is overrun by them, and it has been for several decades now. The new is welcome. Ideas, and money, and people. The past is respected but not venerated. On the whole, and with some interesting and important exceptions, ancient tribal affinities (that is, neighborhoods and towns, not just ethnic, national, and religious identities) are not. In many ways, Southwestern PA should not want to emulate that part of the United States, but in some crucial respects -- this willingness to accept novelty and to put the past in perspective -- I wish that it would. Back to Pittsburgh's Future. Coming anytime soon?