Renaissance 3: The People

Everyone has been talking about the renewal of Pittsburgh, the city and region.  I don't buy the idea that there is a "renaissance" underway, but what interests me today -- and I have been wanting to post about this for a while -- is the absence of talk about the renewal of the people of Pittsburgh.

In short:  Whether or not the place is getting better (or bigger, or richer, or more diverse, or sexier, or financially stable, or whatever), an equally relevant question is whether the people who live in the place are getting -- what?  More?  Wealthier?  Happier?  Safer?   Better educated?  Presented with more opportunities?

Here is the always provocative Joel Kotkin, talking about cities on a larger scale than ours:

Since the beginnings of civilization, cities have been crucibles of progress both for societies and individuals. A great city, wrote Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, represented “an inventory of the possible,” a place where people could create their own futures and lift up their families.

What characterized great cities such as Amsterdam—and, later, places such as London, New York , Chicago, and Tokyo—was the size of their property-owning middle class. This was a class whose roots, for the most part, lay in the peasantry or artisan class, and later among industrial workers. Their ascension into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, petit or haute, epitomized the opportunities for social advancement created uniquely by cities.

In the twenty-first century—the first in which the majority of people will live in cities—this unique link between urbanism and upward mobility is under threat. Urban boosters still maintain that big cities remain unique centers for social uplift, but evidence suggests this is increasingly no longer the case.
Kotkin's argument doesn't quite map onto Pittsburgh, because the bulk of the migration from the American countryside into American urban centers is long past.  Pittsburgh as a destination for large populations seeking a better future was realized eighty to one hundred years ago and more.  What matters more today, at least on a first pass, is the idea that Pittsburgh might be a better place to realize one's vision of the future -- speaking at a family or small business scale --  than some rival city, using "rival" only in the "here or there?" sense and no other.  Cleveland, say, or Atlanta, or Dallas. 

But a second pass suggests that the embers of the city as incubator of a brighter future might still be warm in Pittsburgh.  We see that claim lurking behind the Pittsburgh Promise and behind efforts to attract and keep college grads, artists, and entrepreneurs.  Citylab's Six Percent Place proposal, for example (though I will have more to say about that shortly.)  The claim isn't enough to make an urban economy go, but it's a vision that helps to keep people coming back for more.

Come to Pittsburgh, as Napoleon Dynamite never said, and all your dreams will come true.

Is Pittsburgh today a vessel for that kind of optimism?  Or is it merely one of the better alternatives in a bleak landscape?


2 Responses to "Renaissance 3: The People"

BrianTH said... 1/06/2011 3:06 PM

I don't think the urbanization process has lost its salience for Pittsburgh. The U.S. is still urbanizing, but perhaps more importantly, so is the rest of the world (which only recently past 50% urbanized). So the next century is still going to see another big shift of people into urbanized areas, and Pittsburgh will likely get some small portion of that shift--not large in global terms, but likely more than large enough to be transformative of Pittsburgh, given that in recent decades it was bucking the general, ongoing trend.

Accordingly, I personally think being a decent city-like city with relatively reasonably housing costs and some natural room for growth will be more than enough to position Pittsburgh for future improvements in local welfare. "City-like city" is intended to convey that Pittsburgh offers the sorts of education, amenities, interactions, efficiencies, and so on that cities have traditionally provided.

rosemary said... 1/10/2011 1:12 PM

I think a lot of people think of Pittsburgh as a better alternative in a bleak landscape until they move here. Some people are very optimistic about Pittsburgh's future. But no one is pessimistic, despite the problems with the city you laid out in another post (which was great, by the way). In that sense, there's a lot of optimism that Pittsburgh will continue on an upward trend.

Everyone I know in my peer group (20-somethings) only has plans to stay. They love living in Pittsburgh, which I think speaks to what the future might hold. Retainment of the creative class is important.

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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] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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