The Brookings report is new, but the news is not. Pittsburgh has been overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly native-born, for a long time. For an equally long time, the commentariat has been wrestling with what to do about that, if anything. From 2001: Chris Briem on the economic impact of low in-migration rates. From 2003: Eric Miller at The New Colonist about local attitudes about new immigrants to Pittsburgh. Gary Rotstein, who wrote today's PG story, tried to put a helpful spin on the issue, quoting the author of the Brookings report to the effect that the slow pace of change in Pittsburgh has given the region time to "prepare." Prepare for what? People with different skin colors -- people we go nuts for on local football and baseball teams -- living next door? I am sure that the Brookings scholar was trying to be kind, but really: After decades of this stuff, local leaders, at least, should put down the kinder-and-gentler rhetoric. Pittsburgh's lack of diversity is actively hurting the region.
One: Pittsburgh's non-white populations are disproportionately poor. Larry Davis, Dean of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, was quoted in Gary R.'s story; he has a benign comment about cultural stagnation. Not long ago, however, Dean Davis co-authored a scathing report about the economic conditions of Pittsburgh's non-white population. I blogged about the report, and characterized those populations as defining a Third World Pittsburgh, here. No region can cure income inequality simply by encouraging more people to move in. But historically, population churn itself has tended to help people move up the income and class ladder. Pittsburgh saw that as a benefit of the waves of immigrants who came to the city to work in the coal mines, and later in the mills. Today, that phenomenon is expressed differently, by different populations. Specifically:
Two: Latino immigrant populations tend to have higher rates of entrepreneurship than local populations do. I blogged about that data here. If Pittsburgh is serious about innovation and entrepreneurship and about trying to grow its way out of the serious economic hole that the region has dug for itself over the last several decades (I wrote about that here. And I wrote about it here.), then the region should be trying to import as many potential entrepreneurs as possible. I expect that some current Pittsburgh entrepreneurs might grouse that this would add to the pool of competitors for the local base of risk capital and other resources. To which I would reply: Yes, it would! Pittsburgh would have what it has long needed more of: Competition! Capitalism! And capitalism would lead, in principle, to ...
Three: Growth. A more diverse population can help Pittsburgh re-build a more diverse and more robust economy. Harold Miller wrote in Sunday's PG about his regular topic: rebuilding manufacturing in Pittsburgh. (A slightly more detailed version of Harold's piece is online here.) On a related theme, I wrote the other day about the resource infrastructure that is required to rebuild what I referred to as "Pittsburgh's Industrial Commons." Let's tie together these three pieces -- a more diverse population, the interest in rebuilding manufacturing, and the need to develop a robust resource infrastructure. What you get, I think, is an argument that looks something like this piece from yesterday's New York Times, by a writer for The Economist: "One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities." That piece pointed out:
“HELL is other people,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. He nonetheless spent much of his life in Paris, the better to interact with other French intellectuals. Cities have long been incubators and transmitters of ideas, and, correspondingly, engines of economic growth.And it goes out to spin out the economic logic of growth, based on labor economics: larger, denser cities support not just a richer array of producers of products and services, but also a richer array of suppliers and sources for those products and services. A dense urban economy becomes a virtuous, Chinitz-ian, circle. Around the world, rural populations are migrating to newly-industrializing cities because of the opportunity and wealth (and opportunities for wealth) that they offer. In the US, that rural-to-urban migration is mostly complete. Cities such as Pittsburgh, which are in the process of re-inventing themselves in a post-industrial world, need to offer comparable opportunities.
Four: Immigrant populations tend to shake up the conceptual status quo. They make people uncomfortable, psychologically speaking, and that discomfort can be a source of productive innovation. I blogged about that research here. Somewhere, long ago, I picked up a fascinating statistic: that a greater percentage of the Pittsburgh population is living within 50 miles of their birthplace than is the case for any other decent-sized US city. I looked around this morning but couldn't pin down the precise statistic or its source. It's one of those statistics that certainly *sounds* true, and it *sounds* like it contributes to the immigration / diversity challenge for the region at least in the sense that a sizable percentage of the Pittsburgh population accepts the region's white-ness as entirely normal. Except for trips to (just about anywhere outside of Pittsburgh), and excluding the rebounders (gumbanders, some call them), they've never known life in a more colorful place. I grew up in California and spent a good part of my adult life living in one of the most diverse cities in the US. That city has a lot of challenges; complacency is rarely one of them.
A city's and a person's need for psychic comfort (or discomfort with discomfort) varies widely. I tend to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable, but I probably inhabit a far end of the broad spectrum. Californians often look at life as constant change, for better or for worse. Pittsburghers as a group, I suspect, cluster around the opposite end. The region is notoriously smug, at least when talking to outsiders, about the consistency of its virtues, which is one of the reasons that the Pittsburgh Diaspora loves it so -- and that Ravens fans and Browns fans so revile it.
What's my takeaway? Pittsburgh can embrace demographic change, in some respects more aggressively than it has done so far, or it will have change thrust upon it. Vibrant Pittsburgh (VP) is a nice little start, but recognize the modesty of its ambition. VP can recruit "talent"; the region still needs a deeper and broader economic infrastructure. Other countries (not just other cities, or US regions) have developed labor and capital capacities that Pittsburgh needs to leverage in order to pursue several of the paths that economic revivalists have sketched out. There is lots of talk today about investing in China and about exporting to China. The Chinese can be Pittsburgh's partners and customers. Can they also be Pittsburgh's suppliers? The US higher education system is about to be swamped by a generation of Chinese college students looking for further education and economic opportunity here. (Did you know that China now has more students enrolled in its colleges and universities than the US has enrolled here?) If Pittsburgh can make even a fraction of these people feel comfortable (!) in the region, then it can build a bench of world-beating entrepreneurs, engineers, investors, etc. etc. etc.
Updated (2:45 pm, Sept 05 2011):
This post got picked up on the City Data board, and a commenter there wrote:
I find it annoying that people blame Pittsburghers for the lack of diversity here. It's not like Pittsburghers have blocked people from moving here. This region has simply not been desirable for uneducated immigrants because the economy wasn't appropriate for them.That is an entirely predictable and conventional response to the claim that Pittsburgh is suffering from a lack of diversity. If you read Eric Miller's column from 2003 (linked above), for example, you will see that he reports, and responds to, very much the same attitude. Our whiteness is not our problem; it is their problem.
But that's changing now that Pittsburghers are becoming more educated and the economy is relatively stable. We'll see more immigrants in the coming years.
It's insulting for people to assume that Pittsburghers won't be able to embrace change. For the most part, Pittsburghers are very tollerant [sic] people. I don't see that changing. If anything, I anticipate that diversity will be a much smoother transition here than other parts of the country experienced.
Should anyone wonder why race relations in Pittsburgh are so poor?
"It's not like Pittsburghers have blocked people from moving here." That's right in the literal sense there have not been guard stations on the turnpike or toll booths at the airport. But it's wrong in the larger sense, because it focuses only on the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum. The insignificance of Pittsburgh's Asian/Asian-American and Hispanic/Latino populations extends across the the full range of income levels. I remember the mini-firestorm that my former colleague Richard Delgado ignited with this column in the PG in 2005. It's not just uneducated low-wage populations that haven't moved to Pittsburgh, or that should. It's highly-educated, well-trained populations, too -- the folks for whom Pittsburgh's new economy is perfectly suited. It is certainly true that Pittsburghers are not keeping them from moving here. Live and let live. If that is Pittsburghers' attitude -- we don't care if you come, and we don't care if you don't -- then they won't. At any income or education level.
"It's insulting for people to assume that Pittsburghers won't be able to embrace change. For the most part, Pittsburghers are very tollerant [sic] people. I don't see that changing. If anything, I anticipate that diversity will be a much smoother transition here than other parts of the country experienced."
I can only assume that the author of the comment has never spent much time as a resident of any place other than Pittsburgh, because if there is one thing that Pittsburghers simply cannot abide, as a community, it is change. (Individual Pittsburghers change all the time, of course, and in the aggregate, all of that individual change adds up to a lot over time. But collectively, Pittsburghers still mourn the loss of the steel industry, and today are actively resisting the demolition of one of steel's last icons: The Civic Arena.) Are Pittsburghers tolerant? One never knows exactly what message is lurking behind that word. If "tolerate" means "endure," which it might, then yes -- Pittsburghers can endure a lot, and they have demonstrated their endurance (pun intended). Pittsburghers tolerate concentrations of African-Americans in Homewood and the Hill District and small African-American communities in other neighborhoods and in a handful of towns outside of the City. If "tolerate" means "embrace and accept," which it might, then Pittsburghers sometimes do better, and sometimes do worse. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Pittsburghers have seen a lot of acceptance around the Pittsburgh community in the last several years. African-American, Latino, and Asian/Asian-American Pittsburghers -- not so much. But do not take my word for this! Talk to your African-American, Latino, and Asian/Asian-American Pittsburgh friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Ask them (I have): In their day-to-day experience, do they experience tolerance by the broad and full Pittsburgh community? Acceptance? I know what they've told me: No.
Pittsburgh's "transition" to diversity may be smooth because, as the Brookings study author noted, we are so well "prepared." In my book, "preparation" means that Pittsburghers have had the luxury of postponing the emergence of a truly diverse population here for as long as they have liked, and of not caring about the consequences.