Pittsburgh Withdrawal

I'm in Pittsburgh detox.

I've been traveling a lot over the last few months -- both here and (just recently) abroad -- and in my travels I have utterly and completely failed to hear any of the Pittsburgh props that I've been accustomed to over the last decade. From Washington, DC to New York to Boston to London, introducing myself this Spring as a Pittsburgh resident has yielded precisely zero "I've heard that Pittsburgh is a nice / neat / great place" comments. I haven't picked up anything negative, either. In January, in the Silicon Valley, the desk clerk at my hotel volunteered that he had heard that Pittsburgh is wonderful. Since then, in my experience Pittsburgh has quickly and quietly become ... a non-person.

This adds up to precisely nothing, because it's one anecdote involving one person, except that the positive feedback and reinforcement about the region that encouraged me to keep blogging over the last six years has faded. I'm no less of a Pittsburgh partisan, and I am not suspending the blog, but I'm looking for Pittsburgh economic development, arts, and tech tidbits a bit less enthusiastically these days. Let us not say that I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid (I would love to banish that particular metaphor, by the way; I remember its origins all too well), but let us say that my eyeglasses, which may have been a bit rose-colored at times, have me seeing clearly these days.

The NHL playoffs, and the weird frenzy that Pittsburgh whipped itself into over the possibility of another Stanley Cup, didn't help. I have never followed ice hockey (I grew up in California, after all, long before the marketing regime that is the San Jose Sharks were invented), don't understand ice hockey, and am not impressed by the enthusiasm and intensity that "playoff hockey" allegedly brings. During the last Winter Olympics, I got into one ice-based team sport and one team in particular: the Norwegian curlers. (I liked their pants. As tragic heroes, competitively, the Swedes wrenched my gut.) My opinion on the one truly major Pittsburgh issue of this Spring is this: The Igloo should go. It is not the Pantheon; it is not Penn Station. It is an eyesore. The space occupied by that building represents an opportunity to re-create and re-invent a big slice of Pittsburgh's urban fabric. (Of course, given Pittsburgh's history with redevelopment over the last 50 years, the city might well blow its big chance.) But that's just me.

I'm not knocking Pittsburgh parochialism. Pittsburgh's low cost of living, due largely to the fact that so few people want to move here, means that the city is again a "most livable" place, and while we pat ourselves on the back over that notice, other places -- places that are genuinely far more cosmpolitan than Pittsburgh has ever been -- display their fair share of parochialism, too. I just came back from London, and the tribal quality of London's neighborhoods (as well as the rest of England) was in rare form over the last week, between the FA Cup final a week ago Saturday (Chelsea 1 - Portsmouth 0) and the Football League Championship Play-Off Final the day before yesterday (Blackpool 3 – Cardiff City 2). Let's just say that you don't want to get on the Tube with a bunch of football fans after their side has lost a final, especially if you are wearing the wrong color shirt.

The Blackpool - Cardiff City match was so compelling, both as sport and as urban storyline (Blackpool hasn't played in England's top division since 1971, and its stadium holds just over 12,000 people) that it deserves a further look. If American sports wants to produce something really interesting, Major League Baseball should relegate to Class AAA the bottom team in each division in the National League and the American League at the end of the season, and have a playoff for those six spots among the top twelve teams in Class AAA. This wouldn't work today, of course, because of affiliate relationships. But that sort of thing could be adjusted; details would have to be worked out. It would be a kick in the pants for the Pirates to be sent down -- something that the team richly needs and deserves -- and for the Buffalo Bisons, say, to be called up.

Maybe that would get people talking to me again about what kind of place they think Pittsburgh is.

Comments

14 Responses to "Pittsburgh Withdrawal"

MH said... 5/24/2010 9:57 PM

It is an eyesore. The space occupied by that building represents an opportunity to re-create and re-invent a big slice of Pittsburgh's urban fabric.

Pittsburgh collects old buildings the way those people who have to be pried from their over-stuffed house by firemen collect copies of Newsweek from the 60s.

Mark Arsenal said... 5/25/2010 10:37 AM

I rarely hear very poor people or native blue collar workers complaining about how parochial they think Pittsburgh is. This complaint comes almost universally from well-traveled and generously-paid professionals who want Pittsburgh to be something it never was.

Pittsburgh is a cheap, blue-collar, mid-size city. It's been that way for over half a century. Some of us are attracted to that, believe it or not.

Jonathan Potts said... 5/25/2010 12:13 PM

Amen regarding the Igloo. Everything old isn't worth saving. It's a hideous-looking structure that wrecked the street grid. Tearing it down won't change the past but it will let us create more usable, livable, human-scale space there.

Adam said... 5/25/2010 12:26 PM

I think it's ugly. And I like street grids. But tearing it down wont bring back the Lower Hill as it was in the 1950s. And the underlying logic of those who want to tear it down actually seems quite similar to those who wanted to build it in the first place: it's ugly; we have a better use for the land; and it's impeding the great future that we envision.
Before it gets torn down, I'd like some assurance that I am not going to see a sea of parking lots for the next 30 years.

(Every place I have ever lived is parochial and that list includes Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston.)

Mike Madison said... 5/25/2010 12:29 PM

"Parochial" is often a proxy for "no growth and no prospects" -- for "me" (the hypothetical, abstract me) and for the city and/or region. It's a proxy for "the city doesn't care" -- about itself as well as about the rest of the world. Is that a problem? Maybe not. Is it a defensible world view? That's more complicated. Pittsburgh has been a cheap, blue-collar, mid-size size for over half a century not because it chose to be that way but because the city lost its defining economic engine, beginning in the early 1950s. A century ago, Pittsburgh was a major city. Now it's not. Defending the current parochialism is OK, but it's a mistake to believe that Pittsburgh made some choice to be this way. Pittsburgh's parochialism, such as it is, evolved out of the city's failure as an international industrial economy. As I said, I'm often struck by parochialism everywhere, even in New York and San Francisco. Some cities choose parochialism. Pittsburgh had parochialism thrust upon it, so to speak.

MH said... 5/25/2010 12:29 PM

I saw something in "The Radical Middle" that kind of undercut the arguement that the igloo wrecked the street grid. Apparently, you could redo the grid without touching the actual structure. It is still hideous and, since we decided on equal welfare payments to all athletic millionaires, unneeded.

Ross said... 5/25/2010 9:38 PM

Interesting comments, although I'm failing to see how the fact that hockey isn't your thing affects your views of the city's economic development prospects. It doesn't seem to me like Pens fans have a collective stance that the arena should be preserved.

Mike Madison said... 5/25/2010 9:45 PM

The ice hockey thing doesn't have anything to do with my view of the Igloo/Arena/whatever.

As to economic development generally, the observation is only that ice hockey-related Pittsburgh boosterism does nothing for me; in fact it tends to reinforce in my mind -- briefly -- the sense that the city's or region's economic momentum, whatever it is, has stalled. Pittsburgh ice hockey is sort of like the bright, shiny object that distracts us from the fact that nothing in particular is happening in town these days.

BrianTH said... 5/26/2010 7:42 AM

So how should one evaulate the "economic momentum" of a particular region during the course of the worst national recession since the Great Depression?

A few interesting things to consider: since the beginning of the recession, the Pittsburgh metro's labor force has grown by around 30,000 people. Using a crude back-of-the-envelope method, this may have added around 2% to the local unemployment rate--which remains lower than the national unemployment rate nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh had a higher rate of job growth in April than any other major metro.

The rest of this story has yet to be told. But I wouldn't count out Pittsburgh's "momentum" quite yet, once you have established an appropriate baseline.

One technical point: the price of housing is, of course, a function of both supply and demand. Considering the supply side, our past population declines are not directly proportional to declines in occupied housing units, and instead have partially taken the form of a decline in average people per housing unit, even relative to rhe national downward trend (this is all a side effect of the youth diaspora associated with the steel bust). Meanwhile, even vacant units and lots can be considered a reserve to the extent they are embedded in transportation and utility networks, proximate to established amenities, and so on. For that matter, we have a number of centrally-located brownfields serving as a supply reserve as well.

All of this is in support of the simple point that today's relatively low Pittsburgh housing prices aren't necessarily solely a function of contemporaneous demand, but can also reflect excess supply from prior eras. Indeed, you can look to cities in Texas for a similar situation: overbuilding in the oil boom era combined with lots of land available for development have kept Texas housing prices relatively low despite steadily growing demand.

None of this is to deny that the steel bust put Pittsburgh on a different track than other historic cities which started experiencing a slow population recovery in the 1980s/90s, which in turn is the fundamental explanation for relatively low housing prices in Pittsburgh. Again, my point is just that in light of that history, housing prices are not a great proxy for contemporaneous demand trends, and will not be until all those reserves have been used up.

Mike Madison said... 5/26/2010 8:38 AM

It is surely true that Pittsburgh's economic fortunes are embedded in larger narratives, some short-term (the current recession) and long-term (the de-industrialization of the American economy). Pittsburgh has had a slightly better recent bounce than the rest of the country. Is that sustainable? And how does it translate (if at all) into PR zeitgeist?

The point about housing supply and its impact on home prices is an interesting one, but it needs more explanation.

The nature of the Pittsburgh housing market (like the housing market in any metro area) is important. My observation is that Pittsburgh housing prices are low across the entire range of housing stock, relative to other metro areas. They are low at the low end, and they are also low at the high end. That is, where I live, in Mt. Lebanon, home prices are quite low relative to prices for comparable properties in other metro areas. (Even factoring in the tax burden, the cost of living is still pretty low.) Housing at the high end, on the whole, does not compete with the low end, so that low prices at the high end can't be explained by the existence of legacy supply in low end markets. Is there hidden legacy supply at the high end? Maybe.

Also, if the legacy supply of housing is represented largely by under-occupied units (older singles or older couples, I suspect, rather than younger families), how does that translate into lower prices?

Let's assume that most of the demand is likely to come from younger move-ins, with families or expecting to develop families. (That is going to be more accurate with respect to the sales market than with respect to the rental market.) If the under-occupied units regularly come onto the market, then I could imagine that prices would stay relatively low: four people move in to larger units previously occupied by two; those four people don't need to hold out for the smaller number of larger units previously occupied by four.

If, on the other hand, these under-occupied units don't regularly come onto the market, or (more likely) they come onto the market with different frequency than other units, then that legacy supply isn't doing as much work; a smaller pool of units is being turned over more frequently. Or not. And in that last case, lower prices are more closely related to lower demand.

Ultimately, it's an empirical question -- the overall frequency of turnover, across the range of housing units, is also a key question -- that requires some modeling of the housing market. And I am not the person with the data.

Mark Arsenal said... 5/26/2010 9:00 AM

"Pittsburgh had parochialism thrust upon it, so to speak."

Fair enough. But that was 50 years ago. This means just about the entire population still in Pittsburgh doesn't remember it being a major city, so the Parochialism, at this point, is native.

Mike Madison said... 5/26/2010 9:28 AM

In the dozen years that I have lived in the region, I have always been impressed by the strength of the vision of the city's greatness (major city-ness) that persists across a broad range of the population. Remember that the regional population skews quite old, to start with. Also remember that the popular account of the city's decline holds, more or less, that it began with the bust of the steel industry in the early 1980s. My reference to 50 years was to the underlying economics of steel; the first Pittsburgh Renaissance got underway back then partly because the Allegheny Conference could see, in part, that steel was already in decline. More than a year ago, I wrote a post titled "Styx" that tried to capture a little bit of how Pittsburgh's view of itself trails its economic realities.

BrianTH said... 5/26/2010 11:19 AM

On the PR question: the wave of "Pittsburgh, not as sucky as you think!" stories in the national and international press was bound to die down quite a bit. I think the long term issue is more what happens when some person or entity is approaching an important decision (locating a plant or office, choosing a place of residence, or so on). Will they dismiss Pittsburgh out of hand, or will they investigate further? If they investigate further, what will they find? And so forth. My sense is that we have made progress with respect to such circumstances, but that is hard to prove and won't necessarily show up in conversations with random people around the globe.

On housing prices: I also don't have enough data (nor the skills) to build a full-blown model, but I do know a few of the relevant concepts. I believe that elderly singles/couples occupying large, at least potentially very nice, houses in decent neighborhoods do in fact typically operate as a pricing constraint on the higher end. That is because if housing prices increase, more such people will cash out (moving to a smaller place, or maybe to Florida, or so on). In that sense, the marketing frequency of these units is a variable, in part dependent on price.

Well-located vacant/brownfield properties also serve as an all-purpose price constraint, because developers can use those properties to respond to whatever part of the market is experiencing appreciation. This is one of the points where the Texas comparison is really helpful: the relevant cities have similar across-the-board low pricing, and they also have abundant developable land (and light development regulations in some relevant ways, but that is a whole different issue).

At the end of the day, these are very tough issues to model because residential housing is a classic example of a differentiated product market. Still, I think the broad consensus is that in situations like Pittsburgh's, you would expect enough of a supply-side response to keep appreciation modest, absent an unexpected and relatively large spike in demand (which could get out ahead of the supply-side response, since it is far from instantaneous).

In other words, continued low prices and relatively modest appreciation would be consistent with any demand dynamic up to a modest upward trend. And so to detect such a trend, you would really need to look at volumes and not prices.

BrianTH said... 5/26/2010 11:37 AM

An unrelated thought:

I long ago developed the habit of more or less mentally blotting out any discussion of successful sports teams in the context of discussing broader positive trends in the relevant locality. The point being made in such cases almost never holds up to much examination (note this applies to the teams and their competitive fortunes, not bonafide economic issues such as stadium developments and such).

On the other hand, in blotting them out I also don't derive any particular negative implications from the mere presence. For whatever reason, many people seem unable to avoid the temptation to make these dubious points, so I really just treat it as more or less a nullity.

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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.

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.

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