Diaspora Fever

Clark Thomas joins the diaspora bandwagon with his column in today's Post-Gazette. Welcome aboard.

His column includes one particularly interesting nugget. Recounting a recent panel that included WTAE anchor Sally Wiggin, he writes:
Ms. Wiggin commented that the plant closings of the 1980s were so sudden the community was unprepared. "There was no time to fix things. Everyone left; no one came back in." That led to a discussion of Pittsburgh attitudes, as reflected in Steelermania. Did the sudden need to change foster nostalgia and a reluctance to change? Has there been a continued resistance to what is happening in the rest of the world, summarized in the term "globalization"?

There's a narrative nugget worth chewing on. "[T]the plant closings of the 1980s were so sudden the community was unprepared." The plant closings of the 1980s were sudden? They must have been sudden from the "jobs here today, gone tomorrow" point of view, and they had an immediate and dramatic impact on all of the people who lost their jobs. In that sense, individuals were unprepared. But the closing weren't sudden in the context of Pittsburgh's 20th century industrial history. Steel had been on the decline regionally for decades leading up to the 1980s; anyone who was suprised by its actual demise was, in historical terms, either not paying attention, not privy to what was actually happening over the prior decades, or ignoring it.

I should emphasize here that I am not blaming anyone for what happened. What I'm interested in here is the idea (to paraphrase Sally W.) that the region still senses that it woke up one day in the 1980s and the world had changed entirely. True? Let's assume that it is. What are the implications?

In my view, one implication of the "sudden disappearance" theory may be that the region's legendary fatalism and risk-aversion may be less difficult to overcome than is commonly believed. As a non-Pittsburgher, I've tended to assume that the region's nostalgia and resistance to change weren't prompted by the sudden disappearance of industry (pace Wiggin) but by its presence, that is, by the accretion of tradition-laden attitudes over a period of many decades. Local attitudes are so difficult to change because they have such a long pedigree. I've had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues over the last several years that start from the following premise: How do you change the psychology of a city?

Maybe we've been asking the wrong question; maybe Pittsburgh's fatalism isn't so hard-wired after all. If the narrative arc of the city includes "the world stopped turning circa 1982 [give or take a few years]," then maybe what we have here isn't deeply felt fatalism so much as grieving for a death in the family. And not just any death; to mix metaphors slightly, steel was literally and figuratively the heart of the region. The patriarch and matriarch, if you will, rolled into one.

What Pittsburgh has seen since that time may be less a reluctance to let go of a decades-old psychology and instead more a collective version of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I'm not going to speculate on where Pittsburgh now sits in the context of those stages (have fun in the comments!), and I'm not going to claim that I'm the first to draw the analogy that I'm working with (help out in the comments: where has this point been made before?).

Still, if this is the right version of the story, then that may be grounds for optimism. There is no need for collective therapy or for some kind of urban personality transplant. Resistance to change and fatalism aren't part of the city's DNA; they are at least partly responses to a traumatic event. If that's right, then those attitudes may evolve and improve organically; acceptance should arrive eventually, and with acceptance comes opportunity and possibility.


13 Responses to "Diaspora Fever"

Anonymous said... 6/06/2007 7:28 PM

When my dad got out of the Army right after the Korean War, a lot of his Pennsylvania buddies took off for Pittsburgh and the mills. In his telling, the promises were akin to what the Pilgrims probably saw about the New World before they got on the Mayflower. Eight weeks of vacation! Top pay! Work 25 years and retire on a huge pension when you are 45!

He thought, "That doesn't sound right."

And he moved to Detroit.

Right choice? I don't know. But he ended up back in Western PA as a mechanic.

He says he doesn't regret it. BUt you know, he would have been ready to retire in the late 70s. Instead, he worked until the late 90s. Tough call.

At any rate, if he was questioning the industry's future, I am sure he was not the only one.

Jefferson Provost said... 6/06/2007 10:28 PM

Interesting theory, Mike. I hope it's right. My pet hypothesis about the source of Pittsburgh's attitude problem is that it's a selection effect. The non-fatalistic, non-change-averse people were those who were willing to leave in search of greener pastures 20 years ago.

I like your theory better.

Anonymous said... 6/07/2007 9:29 AM

Your theory is quite interesting, and I think it's probably at least partly true. If so, I would guess the city is currently coming out of the depression stage. That's just the sense I get. How long it will take to fully come out of that stage, I don't know.

Whatever the case may be, I think the newer generations are much more optimistic and less change-resistant than the older generation. And by older generation I mean the people who were working when the steel industry went bust.

So whether your theory is true or not, I think we are on the brink of a collective attitude change.

Anonymous said... 6/07/2007 10:15 AM

Come on folks, we all know Pittsburgh is doomed - we just don't want to acknowledge it in writing.

Look, it's been 20+ years since this place imploded and things haven't exactly returned to its former glory.

I was in Houston when it experienced a similar (though not as signifcant) collapse in the energy industry. Within 5 years the city was stronger than ever and had solidly diversifed its economy. It's now the nation's fourth largest city.

What was different? It had strong political leadership but more importantly, a strong pro-business class built on hard work, low taxes and limited regulation. We simply don't have that here.

That's what this region still doesn't get. The best way to move out of this funk is for the government hacks to get out of the way. Cut taxes, sacrifice a union to show the general public that they are more important than special interest, and make it pathetically easy to start and build a business.

We need to follow the George Costanza ethic from that classic Seinfeld episode" "Do the opposite of every instinct that we have". Only at this point will we start getting things right.

Until then, this is all blogger class chatter that will go nowhere.

Mike Madison said... 6/07/2007 10:35 AM

Anon 10:15 am -- You mean that bloggers should make public appeals like this one? Right on.

Anonymous said... 6/07/2007 1:13 PM

The situation between Pittburgh and Houston, or Seattle, or others cities can't accurately be made.

On a side note, Houston is note really the nation's 4th largest city, sure it annexed 100's of square miles and has a huge city limits, but metro areas are cities, city populations are all but useless other than the political nature of boundaries.

Pittsburgh has diversified. I realize saying this makes me sound like a cheerleader, but if one looks closely they will see, that while Pittsburgh has a long way to go, it's hardly the city it was in 1985.

Schultz said... 6/07/2007 2:22 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
C. Briem said... 6/07/2007 4:56 PM

Seriously, there really is no comparison to the loss of jobs in Pittsburgh and what happened in Houston. Some myths are real and the permanent job destruction here has few analogies in peacetime US history. Seattle in late 60's early 70's actually compares in scale of job loss, but the difference was that those same jobs mostly came back within a couple years.

I have been thinking about this all in relation to the entrepreneurship debates and the point articulated by J-P has a lot to say for it. Migration out of the region was very selective by age. There is no reason to believe it was not selective in a lot of other ways that are hard to quantify such as risk aversion.

Anonymous said... 6/08/2007 9:56 AM

I just relocated to the area from Washington, DC, and wanted to share my initial impressions. Overall, the region seems to have a kind populace and an undeserving national reputation. However, a few thoughts:

* Sentiment seems to reign supreme in public policymaking. I don't believe new stadiums for the sports teams will make Pittsburgh what it needs to be -- a 21st century city that competes in the global economy. Would it be possible in this town to marshal similar resources/support for real public transportation and tax cuts? So many of the city's neighborhoods are brimming with potential and lagging with residents. I would have told the hockey team to go ahead and skate in Kansas City -- lower taxes and a light rail system linking Oakland, Bloomfield, Downtown, the Hill District, etc (perhaps even the airport and Cranbery Township), along with lower taxes would give the city a truly significant, lasting boost.

* The blogosphere seems to be the only facet of the Pittsburgh media that truly makes compelling, hard-hitting commentary on how Pittsburgh can progress on a global level. The Post-Gazette has a lackluster op-ed page and poor world coverage; KDKA actually seems inferior to Youngstown's WKBN; and local television news is simply rubbish. I'd like to see some local economic development organization put some marketing punch behind this blog to expand the discussion.

* Lastly, the mayor seems like a perfectly capable young man, but I have to ask if that is the best the city has? Surely someone resides within the city limits that has more experience and a greater grasp of policy (you wouldn't think so from watching the media, however).

All in all, nice city, great potential, poor collective will to make needed changes. Just some initial impressions.

Jonathan Potts said... 6/10/2007 9:08 AM

I still think the reliance on a single industry for so long plays a large part in the region's risk-aversion, though I think that JP's Darwinian explanation makes a lot of sense as well.

That's not to say that I don't think you make a good point in noting that we may not yet be over the shock of the steel industry's final collapse. (To extend the analogy, some people react to the death of a loved one who has died a slow death by cancer the same as others whose loved ones died in a sudden accident.)

But I also think there is something self-serving in describing the collapse of steel as "sudden." If it happened suddenly, then there was nothing that community leaders (government, business, media, etc.) could have done to prepare for it. It also justifies the continued insistence of many of our elites to search out the next big thing, instead of embracing economic diversification. (Which would also encourage risk-taking.)

Anonymous said... 6/10/2007 1:21 PM

With all due respect, I beg to differ Chris. Sure Pittsburgh took it hard when big steel melted away but it's how a region reacts to diversity that defines it. As you note, steel was in decline for decades prior to its utlimate collaspe here. Leadership was still unprepared and after twenty years, is still dependent on the BIG GOVERNMENT SOLUTION to fix things.

Houston (and Texas in general) never developed this philosophy. As a result, they were nimbler and better able to address the collapse of the energy industry in both the 1970's eand early 1990's.

It's also important to highlight that the steel industry is thriving both domestically and worldwide. It no longer thrives here because the labor and regulatory environment suffocated it. Businesses just took their opportunities to areas that were more welcoming. Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania still don't get this. Until they do, I believe all we are doing here is talk - no action will result.

Amos_thePokerCat said... 6/14/2007 5:41 PM

I too like JP's post, since I have said much the same. Although, I would say it is more self selection rather than natural selection.

I wonder, CBreim would know if the data exists, what percentage of the people that left were really blue collar vs college educated and above?

Second, the myth of the Steeler Nation. Sure there are Steeler bars, but there are not for the most part the Uber-Yinzer that stayed here. Remember, when it hit the fan, which I put as the second half of the 70's, and on for 15 years or so, there was not DirecTv NFL Season pass. Moving out of town for the most part was losing that weekly game, at least in the beginning. There were no Steeler bars in Denver in '77. I am not sure when NFL games available on the big dish, but I would guess the middle 80's. In fact, not being able to watch Steeler games seemed to be the #1 reason not to leave, back in the day.

ken thompson said... 7/08/2007 7:21 PM

hi all,
this is a just a response to a comment thread that has been non-active for a month, so i have no idea if anyone will want to read this..

i think mike is right that there is clear evidence of a grief process in the city- and that we are working our way through some kind of process to resolve it, for better or worse.

but i think our grief was complicated by the city's narcissism (read insecurity or lack of self worth). i think one of the reasons its been so hard to resolve our grief is because we were ultimately so ambivalent about steel and ourselves and each other. it was an extraordinary industry- huge wealth and huge filth. and we were wealthy and filthy...

to love something you also hate, you have to love it blindly and with great passion. but you don't actually want it around.

Its how we feel about the whole working class nature of the town.. a nature that is rapidly vanishing, actually being expurged as the yunser now signifies not working class pittsburgh, but regional pittsburgh.

anyhow, i think its an historical accident that the regions psyche developed as it did... our capacity to dig coal and make steel in part flowing from our backcountry, scots irish heritage. effete people dont go into this line of work.. and we then brought many other non-effete people here and some of them got truly rich and a lot died in the mills and mines..

so i think its been a complex love story between a people, a place and an industry that only a pittsburgher could love..

trying to rebound from the loss of our soul mates has meant that we have had to rethink who we are- and even remake who we are. thats all still in progress.

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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at madisonian.net, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog 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.

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