What's behind Pittsburgh's revitalization or alleged "renaissance"? That's the question that I'm exploring in this series of posts. There is no doubt that Pittsburgh, as both city and region, looks cleaner and brighter and has a hipper and more positive cultural tone than it did even a decade ago. Its problems are far from behind it, but Pittsburgh has undoubtedly come a long way. And compared to the state of the city 20 or 30 years ago, the changes are even more dramatic.
It's important to scratch the surface of this story, however. This post is about the now-vaunted "livability" of Pittsburgh.
PR supplied by the local G20 partnership sums up the recent news this way:
Chosen as the most livable city in the United States for the fifth year in a row - and the 29th most livable city worldwide by The Economist, Pittsburgh offers economic stability, culture, educational opportunities and natural beauty to residents. Forbes.com also named Pittsburgh as one of the most livable cities in America, noting the city's low cost of living, crime rates and unemployment.
Pittsburgh's reputation for livability depends on two key, related factors: its "economic stability" and its "low cost of living." I put those phrases in quotation marks because they are quotations, not because they aren't true. They are true, and they are important. But they are weaknesses at they same time that they are strengths. Livability is a great thing; Pittsburghers are justly proud of the recognition of the city and region as a measure of just how far both have recovered since the collapse of steel. But "livability" based on "economic stability" carries some big risks.
First: Pittsburgh shines today partly because its peer cities continue to suffer so badly. By comparison with places like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, Pittsburgh is doing pretty well overall, and by comparison it was doing pretty well overall even before the recession that began last year. Pittsburgh's proud place is partly a version of the old joke in which a volunteer is called to step forward from a lineup -- and all but one member of the line take a large step backward. Pittsburgh took its big step backward back in the 1970s and early 1980s and since then has crept forward -- perceptibly but ever so slightly. In the main, its peers have taken those big backward steps more recently. But Pittsburgh has yet to make a substantial move forward.
In that context, Pittsburgh's "stability" may be a recipe for complacency rather than progress. Through a painful and unplanned process of natural "rightsizing" of population, economic activity, and resources, Pittsburgh may have reached some "optimal" scale and be content to remain just the way it is. Is Pittsburgh complacent today? I don't think so -- but there are as many "complacency" ingredients in the contemporary social and political mix as there are "progress" ingredients. The last Pittsburgh politician to push an aggressive "progress" agenda was Mayor Tom Murphy. He was responsible for at least as many spectacular failures (Downtown redevelopment) as successes (attention to the riverfronts), but the city ultimately rejected him. His successors survive in power via popular support for an approach better characterized by the maxim, "Don't just do something; stand there." Which Pittsburgh largely does.
Second: Because "livability" depends significantly on stable property values, it owes much to the relative lack of dynamism in the local real estate market over the last several decades. While markets in places like Southern California, the desert Southwest, and Florida have gone through repeated boom and bust cycles, much of Pittsburgh's market has just motored steadily and quietly on. Western Pennsylvania doesn't smile on speculators, on the whole. Mortgage lending here never got out of hand; foreclosure rates in Western PA are lower than they are in much of the rest of the country. Right now, and from the perspective of real estate values, many homeowners in Pittsburgh are reaping the benefit of the region's inherent good sense. (The property tax system here is a separate question.)
But low and slowly moving real estate values also owe their stability to the fact that demand for real estate is relatively low, and relatively fixed. In this second sense, "livability" means that Pittsburgh is highly livable for the people who already live here, because not that many people are aching to move in. If demand were higher, real estate values overall would move higher -- and Pittsburgh's livability ratings might well decline. Business Week magazine recently ranked the nation's cheapest real estate markets -- places where it may be cheaper to own than rent. Pittsburgh was ranked #2. #1? Detroit. Not exactly a community that's en fuego from a "revitalization" standpoint.
Moreover, to the extent that there is meaningful demand for real estate in Pittsburgh, that demand is distributed unevenly across the region. Like most urban areas, Pittsburgh features its share of upscale, even outright rich communities. And some communities in the city and the region feature real estate that is astonishingly cheap by national standards -- partly because the surrounding economies are all but defunct, partly because of punitive tax laws that discourage sale and development. In this context, "livability" isn't necessarily a good thing -- because of the structure of Pennsylvania's tax laws, cheap real estate translates into poor public services. The Post-Gazette said it well the other day in its report on real estate appreciation across the county: "'House rich' got richer, poor got poorer."
The bottom line is that "livability" is of limited value as a measure of Pittsburgh's revitalization. Pittsburgh has some really interesting choices ahead. Downtown Pittsburgh may be safe and walkable and far more full of interesting things to do, places to live, and sights to see than it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Many of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods are livelier than they have been in a long time. All of that is a great thing, and Pittsburghers are justifiably proud. But low demand is a sympton of things that are worrisome: demand is linked to growth, to wealth creation, and ultimately to the other (expensive) things -- infrastructure reconstruction, for example -- on which the region's continued "revitalization" depends. Even stability -- staying the way that Pittsburgh is now -- requires change. It requires money; it requires investment; it requires new people and new capital to replenish the well as other people and capital leave, as we know they will and do. If these things remain low, Pittsburgh may remain "livable" but struggle in other respects.
Next: Pittsburgh's Green Revolution