Fresh Eyes on Pittsburgh, Part 1

Some time back I promised to take a look at Pittsburgh with Fresh Eyes. When I wrote that post I was inspired by what turns out to have been an all-too-brief run of great play by the Pitt Panthers football team. But I’ll follow through anyway. Who knows? With the right players, the spread offense may have a future at Pitt. My Fresh Eyes series is intended to be similarly open to the proverbial possibilities.

Here is my premise: What if I put myself today in the position that I was in during the late Summer of 1998: fresh to Pittsburgh, with young kids and just about zero knowledge of the city and region? Well, not me, but someone in more or less that position. What does Pittsburgh look like to a newcomer in 2011?

I’ll skip over answers to some important, interesting questions, such as where would this person be coming from, and what that person’s backgrounds and interests would be, and why that person is coming to Pittsburgh? In 1998 the “why Pittsburgh?” question might have been asked – both here and elsewhere – with a serious look: What sane person would give up a life in (New York) (Boston) (Washington DC) (Chicago) (Seattle) (San Francisco) (Los Angeles) (Denver) (Topeka) (Memphis) (Pierre) and move to the heart of the Rust Belt?

I had a good job waiting for me in 1998, but I had my doubts about Pittsburgh. I knew that Pittsburgh had a hub airport for USAir, a football team that was an arch-rival of the Oakland Raiders (and I was something of a Raiders fan when I was young), some surprisingly cheap if relentlessly grey real estate, and an extraordinary small-town chip on its collective shoulder. I figured out a couple of things pretty quickly. I learned about the essential family-friendliness of Pittsburgh and its community-based sensibility. I noticed that Pittsburgh is home to some extraordinary economic and cultural resources. And I puzzled over the continuing stagnation. I remember an early lunch with a colleague at Pitt, who arrived in the early 1990s, where I expressed some wonder at an obvious disconnect. Why did Pittsburgh, a city with so many things going for it, beat itself up in public? Why wasn’t Pittsburgh leveraging those resources? Why wasn’t it a proud economic powerhouse?

I spent many thousands of words a couple of years ago reviewing my answers to those last questions, as the tides came in and Pittsburgh's fortunes slowly turned. I won’t repeat all of that here.

Instead, the question now is: What would my impressions be today? I’ll take things in a series of posts: the economic climate, the social/cultural climate, arts and sports, politics and government, and the environment.

Today: The economic climate.

Economically, there is living, and there is working.

On both fronts, Pittsburgh today suffers from a collective boosterism that is difficult to avoid or ignore. The Allegheny Conference and its affiliates focus relentlessly on the Pittsburgh’s silly “most livable city” status. And it's not just the ACCD; somewhere, there is a giant vat of Pittsburgh Kool-Aid, and folks like the well--intentioned staff of the National Geographic are drinking it.  Set the livability rankings aside; any newcomer to the region would have to do the same thing. Look at where people are living, and what they are doing there.

First, on the living front, the good news: A new generation of developers and urban homesteaders have revived residential real estate markets Downtown, in the Strip, across to the North Side, up into Lawrenceville and Highland Park, past the 14th Ward and the East End, across to Greenfield, and down into the South Side. My best guess is that Uptown is poised for a move, and when the post-Civic Arena dust settles, the Hill, too, may re-emerge. (It may re-emerge to discover a Cheesecake Factory at its edge, however.) Pittsburgh’s “livability” reputation is due largely to its low-priced and modestly moving real estate market, but it isn’t entirely undeserved; newcomers have a broad range of attractive living options, especially in Pittsburgh proper.  Pittsburgh’s suburbs haven’t benefitted from quite the same buzz that has driven and been driven by a few city neighborhoods, but you can find a few with mojo, I think (Dormont?), even if the majority are cruising complacently along (Mt. Lebanon?). A dozen years ago, when I was deciding whether to live in the city or in the suburbs, the quality of public schools was a key factor for me, and perhaps the only factor.  As a veteran of urban public school politics in other places, I didn’t have the energy to fight or to ask my children to endure the school-based battles that I foresaw if I settled in the City of Pittsburgh. To the suburbs I went. I haven’t regretted that decision. But I am not sure that I would make the same choice so quickly today. In part the City of Pittsburgh has made education a priority. That road has been rocky at times, but on the whole city residents have options for their kids that didn’t exist a dozen years ago. In part some of the better suburban districts have taken their eye off of the education quality ball. I know that’s been true in Mt. Lebanon, where I live. For several years the Lebo School Board and much of the community have been embroiled in a nasty and unproductive debate about how gold-plated a gold-plated new high school complex should be. A while back I called Mt. Lebanon the canary in Pittsburgh’s community coal mine; if Lebo, as smugly well-managed as it has been historically, can’t keep its act together, then what would the future hold for the far more economically diverse and historically contentious City of Pittsburgh? The jury is out on that one; maybe Lebo is just an outlier.

There is not so good news on the living front. Neighborhood and community revival has come, when and where it has come, largely on the heels of population turnover. Pittsburgh neighborhoods and communities in the region that have seen less in-migration (or continued out-migration) continue either to suffer and stagnate or not to reap the benefits of Pittsburgh’s newish buzz, or both. Schools are mediocre – when they aren’t being closed. Pittsburgh broadly writ still bears the burden of a century-long decline of the steel industry that, in many subtle ways, the region didn’t internalize until the early 1980s, when the region had no choice.  Those places aren’t “livable” in the sense that Forbes or The Economist recognize. A dozen years ago, a newcomer to Pittsburgh couldn’t help but notice them, because the scars of the collapse of steel were just about everywhere. I remember the first time I drove up to Kennywood, during my first summer here, and thinking that what I saw pretty much confirmed my stereotyped sense of a place that had never escaped its Deer Hunter time or iconography. Today, many of those scars give the appearance of healed tissue, but some of the deepest wounds remain.  They are marginalized, to a special degree, in Pittsburgh’s modern public narrative.

Second, from living to working: Here, too, there is good news and bad news. The good news, I think, is that a sense of cautious optimism pervades most of Pittsburgh’s private economy today to a degree that is unprecedented in my time here. The fact that this optimism persists in the face of a global recession/depression makes it all the more impressive. In 1998 I felt a distinct sense of apathy about the region’s future; today I feel a corresponding sense of pace, even impatience.

The bad news, is that optimism about the region’s future is badly distributed across Pittsburgh’s geography and across markets. Focus on energy, entertainment, IT, robotics, life sciences, and higher education, and the future looks bright. Focus on low-tech manufacturing, professional services, and health care, and the future looks glum, or murky:  declining employment (manufacturing) or consolidation and oversupply (professional services, health care).  That's the mixed figure; the equally mixed ground is a new labor market and a new global context.

From the standpoint of labor markets, on this blog I used to complain a lot about Pittsburgh’s shortage of middle management. Pittsburgh had the technology developers, it had the CEOs, and if you knew or know where to look, it had the investors. It didn’t have, and couldn’t attract, corporate middleware: VPs and directors to run growing companies. I don’t hear those complaints any longer. Anecdotally, that tells me that the demand curve has shifted; moving to Pittsburgh isn’t quite the risky career move that it might have been back in 2002, because exit options exist here now that didn’t exist before. A less-risky labor market for newcomers means a modestly more risky labor market for those who already live here.  I've said before that I think that Pittsburgh wins in that trade-off, but I'm sure that not everyone agrees.

From a global perspective, in 1998 Pittsburgh was almost righteous in its insistence that the city and region had little to do with the rest of the world, unless the rest of the world wanted to buy Pittsburgh stuff. That attitude has largely evaporated. Pittsburgh isn’t as aggressive about building economic bridges to other countries as I think that it should be, but the region is light-years ahead of where it was a decade ago. That openness has done wonders for Pittsburgh’s small and medium size firms. A better funded if still somewhat conservative investor community has also helped, along with some important real estate development initiatives in the city proper and some key local R&D investments by global firms. In many ways East Liberty has been malled over, but a thriving mall is much better for the city than a lot of vacant housing and storefronts.) Pittsburgh’s giants are trying to figure out their places in the new world order. Higher education is, all things considered, on a slow but steady path to stability, although in general higher education here is a bit “old school,” if you will, in its thinking about what colleges and universities should be. The recent and ongoing UPMC/Highmark battle suggests that the region’s sclerotic health care community has a long way to go. Opening Pittsburgh's doors more broadly to the outside means that there will be some winners in Pittsburgh.  And some losers.  To a newcomer, in time this will make Pittsburgh more like many regions elsewhere -- somewhat more prone to highs and lows than it has been over the last several decades.  Will that be good overall for Pittsburgh? 

Next: Pittsburgh’s social and cultural climate.

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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.

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