What NetRoots Nation Can Learn From Pittsburgh

As Ratso Rizzo might have said, I'm working here, so I don't have the time to engage in person with NetRoots Nation, which gets underway in Pittsburgh today. Still, as the sometime consigliere of the Pittsburgh blogosphere, there are NetRoots things for me to say and share.

I don't know why, precisely, Pittsburgh was chosen to host NetRoots Nation (though I'm not one of those people who is surprised that conventioneers want to come here), and for most purposes, including mine, it doesn't matter. Major conventions like this one are opportunities for communities to learn from each other.

What can NetRoots Nation learn from Pittsburgh?

There is good, bad, and ugly.


Something that NetRoots Nation has learned over the last few years is on display in Pittsburgh as they will see it almost nowhere else: Institutions matter. And by "institutions" I mean not only traditional, formal things like companies and professional sports teams and governments but also less traditional and only sometimes formal things like neighborhoods, community associations, Pittsburgh's entrepreneurship, arts, and technology communities, the Pittsburgh Diaspora and even Pittsburgh Bloggers. These things are the backbone of Pittsburgh's future, whatever it is, and these things (institutions generally, not necessarily these examples) are what kept Pittsburgh from falling permanently into the abyss during and after the meltdown of the steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

Grass-roots and bottom-up activism can be fantastic things, but they flame out quickly if they are not institutionalized. NetRoots Nation is itself an example of this, of course; it has a long way to go before it can be said to be a permanent or semi-permanent fixture of the socio-political landscape, even just in this country, but it is headed that way. And "how to institutionalize" something -- how to give it heft and momentum and stability -- is the great mystery of sociology and anthropology. How did Pittsburgh get this way? Many of us know the threads of economic and social history that brought the region to the cusp of the 21st century without looking or acting like, say, Detroit. In both respects, Pittsburgh benefited from and suffered from a monochromatic, one-large-company-dominated economy and society to a degree unmatched anywhere else in America. But the details of how those pieces came together, and precisely how they influence contemporary Pittsburgh, matter at least as much as the overall scheme, and just about no one knows exactly how our current fabric came to look or feel like this, let alone precisely how to make it durable for the next 20 or 50 or 100 years. So we keep plugging away, as a region and in our respective parts, the most optimistic among us trying to build and rebuild institutions as well as we can.

Oh, and did I mention six Super Bowl wins and another Stanley Cup? Or the fact that the men's *and* women's basketball teams at Pitt are now among the best in the country, year-in and year-out? Pittsburgh is again a City of Champions. Today is the day; football begins. Pens sweaters into the closet; Steelers jerseys on display. Here we go!


Institutions have their dark side. They impede and obstruct; they are often more backward-looking and rigid than forward-looking and flexible. The fact that Pittsburgh officialdom is bending over for the G20 but is largely ignoring NetRoots Nation bothers me only in the sense that it reminds us of the City's official and unofficial priorities: Traditional hierarchies and communities here are validated and reinforced by government and by the mainstream media to a degree that at least matches and may exceed comparable dynamics elsewhere. (The PostGazette again this morning referred to NetRoots Nation as a bunch of "liberal bloggers." If you're attending NetRoots Nation, be sure to leave your bathrobes in your hotel rooms!) For decades in the late 19th century and 20th century, Pittsburgh was a one company and big company town. Both practically and symbolically, political, economic, and social power here were concentrated among a small number of white men with offices in Downtown Pittsburgh who ran steel companies, banks, and newspapers. The region prospered. By and large, the people were happy.

In many respects, not much has changed. There is still a small number of white men with offices in Downtown Pittsburgh who imagine that they do, or should, control most political, economic, and social power in the region. The region is at peace, if it isn't really prosperous. By and large, the people accept the status quo.

At the edges, new faces have started to appear -- different ages, different colors, a different gender, both in the corridors of power and in venues that challenge the status quo. But what you read on the front page of the newspaper is symbolic of the struggle between old and new that characterizes almost everything that you read and see and experience here. Take note of a seemingly trivial incident over this past weekend, when Pittsburgh's new casino opened and bicyclists rose at once, and loudly, to protest restrictions that the casino owner had put on access to a riverfront trail. The cycling community immediately protested to local government; local government quickly and rightly saw what should be done; the problem was fixed. But why was this ever a problem in the first place? Why didn't local government protect riverfront access from the get-go? Pittsburgh accepts change very, very slowly, when it accepts change at all.

The ugly:

Despite its reputation as a great, livable city, Pittsburgh suffers from some dramatic and tragic urban ills: Most of the Steel Valley (up the Monongahela River) has never recovered from being crushed when the steel industry evaporated. Pittsburgh's homicide rate is far higher than it should be, and when you map poverty and lack of opportunity onto Pittsburgh's geography of race, a cruel and bleak picture emerges. What's left of Pittsburgh's manufacturing economy, once critical to its economy, has been decimated in the current recession. A long standing lack of in-migration to the region, especially among non-white and lower-income populations, threatens to starve Pittsburgh of economic and social juices that have been vital to growth in other mid-sized cities. Drivers slow down needlessly when they approach tunnels. And Pittsburgh is the home of a professional sports team that long ago set a record for consecutive losing seasons, whose ownership and management have committed the ultimate sin in sport: They have caused local children to lose their faith in the redemptive power of baseball.

Tomorrow: What Pittsburgh Can Learn From NetRoots Nation


1 Response to "What NetRoots Nation Can Learn From Pittsburgh"

Anonymous said... 8/15/2009 12:06 AM

Excellent post, very insightful and astute with regard to understanding Pittsburgh and Netroots... look forward to reading more from Mike....

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]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, 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, ThemeLib.com