Pittsblog Wind Down Wrap Up Post #3: Back to Pittsburgh's Future?

It's Pittsburgh valedictory time, in the blogosphere and elsewhere. In this still-not-quite-the-final-end-yet Pittsblog post, I want to tie together some narrative themes.

I start with the premise that Pittsburgh is an insanely nostalgic place. Most fading Rust Belt cities wallow in their fair share of nostalgia; perhaps all do. I've long wondered whether Pittsburgh's nostalgia industry is more powerful than its Cleveland and Milwaukee cousins, that it might be so insidious, so pervasive, and in the end so corrosive that it's a nearly absolute bar to meaningful economic, political, or social progress. The names sometimes change, but the underlying stories never do. Pittsburgh may well be way, way too caught up in validating its own history -- and I'll include individuals and institutions alike in this claim -- to see its way to writing its future.

A month or so ago, in an email conversation with a new acquaintance here, I talked about the stories that the new Pittsburgh might tell. Here's an abbreviated version of my end of the exchange:

I've come to believe that letting go of the past isn't the right narrative [for Pittsburgh]. The narrative should be to let the past influence the future, but in different ways.

One possibility is to change the narrative of the past ("Back to Pittsburgh's Future"). We've seen a little of this with stories that re-invent Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse as proto-modern entrepreneurs, but I think that those stories aren't credible. "Pittsburgh was first in innovation before and it can be first in innovation again" ... is another "Back to the Future" narrative; again, I think that it doesn't quite work, largely because being first to invent something doesn't count for as much as people think. First to build a market around something that someone else invents (often, elsewhere) is much more important.

A second possibility, not entirely inconsistent with the first, is to essentialize the narrative of the past so that it evolves seamlessly into the future ("Citizen Carnegie," a la Citizen Kane, whose life turned out to be a search for the lost innocence of youth, or ... Star Wars/ Wizard of Oz: you have to discover the power of change in yourselves ..., and that's the power of "home"). ... Pittsburgh's modern life sciences sector builds directly on Jonas Salk's program to develop a polio vaccine. ... [There is a powerful] narrative of scientific enterprise that Salk's research created at Pitt, and that largely remained behind even after he left. ... Pitt may have been stupid to left Salk leave, but it was brilliant to let Salk's research out into the world, where it could do the most good. The current "patent everything" climate is crushing a lot of potentially useful academic research, at Pitt and elsewhere.

There are other narrative possibilities, of course, but the culture of Pittsburgh, when it looks inward, is generally defensive and backward-looking, rather than open to the new -- new ideas, new people, new anything. "Critical engagement" is hardly a Pittsburgh watchword (or a pithy Pittsburgh phrase, which would be better, syntactically speaking). Instead of "Back to Pittsburgh's Future," we have "Building a Better Past." I borrowed that last phrase from a Pittsburgh expat that I met recently, who left years to ago to find a career in San Francisco and who now lives in Connecticut. To him, Pittsburgh is warm and fuzzy memories, but it's basically cooked.

I'm hardly the first person to point this out, but it's been a consistent theme of this blog since I started posting early 2004. Trying to turn lemons into lemonade, colleagues and I concocted the idea of the Pittsburgh Diaspora as a social movement and posted the ambitious but little noticed Manifesto for a New Pittsburgh. Has the needle moved, even just a little? Bill Toland has picked up the theme, and a few in Pittsburgh's tech communities (more on those in a future Wrap Up post) but elsewhere, I have my doubts. Consider today's valedictories in the Post-Gazette:

Valedictory #1: Chad Hermann, late of Teacher.Wordsmith.Madman, posts a blistering explanation of his abrupt departure from the blogosphere:
I expected people to disagree with me and, when those disagreements came in the form of impassioned, respectful e-mail exchanges, always appreciated that they did. But as those responses gradually gave way to bunkered assaults, as my posts began to fuel not thought or reflection but the very sick, sad opposite of them, it became clear that the reach of my efforts had exceeded the grasp of readers willing and able to engage them. As my reputation grew, the caliber of my audience precipitously declined. And much of what I'd hoped to achieve with TWM no longer seemed possible.

I had my share of vituperative rose-goggled critics (search the blog's archives for the keyword "yinz"), but nothing ever rose to the level that Chad experienced. For more on this theme as it relates to the blogosphere in particular, see Saturday's post by the Hon. Peckham, J., at the Pittsburgh Men's Blogging Society. And don't miss the Comments there.

Valedictory #2: Barry Balmat, who founded and ran the RAND Corporation's outpost in Oakland, is returning to California. Comments that I noticed:
When you experience Pittsburgh versus a place like Silicon Valley, [Pittsburgh] people hold their cards close to the vest. They're not quick to say, "Let's partner and do this together." ...

People in the region should appreciate the change that has taken place and the progress the region and the city have made. It needs to continue to be open to change.

There are a number of key people in town who are bringing change and I think the population needs to be supportive of that. One is [Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent] Mark Roosevelt. It's not just outsiders like him. There are other people who have been here for a long time and have been working to change the area like one of our trustees, [PNC Financial Services Group Chairman ] Jim Rohr. I don't want to get into naming names because I don't know everybody in town. There's a mix of people who have been here for quite a while as well as some fresh blood.

Right on the merits, disappointing on the tactics. Note that Barry Balmat (who I've never met) is leaving Pittsburgh, never to return -- and he's still not willing to name names. Who's in the way, Barry? I hear things, I hear names -- but I'm just a guy with a keyboard. (Cf. Hermann, Chad, supra.)

Valedictory #3: The most poignant and tragic valedictory of them all, Michelle Massie's "Loving/hating Pittsburgh: It's not easy being black in my hometown," by a native who is in many ways more comfortable living a healthy distance away:
While Pittsburgh is being rebuilt as a technology hub and health-care mega-center brimming with jobs and opportunities, I can't help but wonder if that insightful gentleman from the bar might be a hiring manager charged with deciding a jobseeker's fate.Pittsburgh's social disgraces have existed since its founding 250 years ago. It's so ingrained in the psyche that most people don't realize it when they say or do something offensive.

Like a neglected child, I want to love Pittsburgh and I want it to love me. In fact, I think I love the city more than some self-proclaimed die-hard Pittsburghers because I am willing to recognize its flaws and challenge others, as well as myself, to do something to fix them.

I'm not going to pretend everything is fabulous when black neighborhoods remain blighted until developers feel they are ripe for gentrification or when the social and economic conditions of blacks remain unchanged or have worsened over the past 30 years. The only time we genuinely come together as a city is to rally around the Steelers; then we return to our segregated neighborhoods.

This echoes a Pittsblog post from 18 months ago on the different Pittsburghs out there, what I called First World Pittsburgh (the Allegheny Conference, the SEEN section, the corporate and emerging high tech communities); Second World Pittsburgh (our working class forbears, Steel Valley communities); and Third World Pittsburgh (communities, largely but not exclusively black, cursed by structural poverty and crime).

What do I make of all this? When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1998, I had lunch with a colleague (since departed for other pastures himself) and talked about what might be labeled the "Rocco Mediate Rule": Pittsburgh's obsession with its place in the world, and especially with its former place in the world, and its hypersensivity to reasoned criticism (again, cf. Hermann, Chad, supra). He and I agreed that the Rule could be compared to what I had once observed about San Jose, California, which passes as the largest urban center in the Silicon Valley (which is not to say that it is the heart or the HQ of the Silicon Valley), which in the 1970s and 1980s was home to the San Jose Mercury, and the San Jose News (two newspapers then, one newspaper now). Back in those days, the San Jose newspapers of record behaved like Pittsburghers today often do: They lashed out at the real and imagined enemies of what had once been great and good about San Jose and what they believed was still great and good. To those who know San Jose's history, you might justifiably wonder just what that was, exactly. The answers were the small town bankers and businesses that built San Jose into the center of a vast agricultural economy, into which some techno-upstarts -- HP, IBM, Xerox, Ford, Westinghouse (Pittsburgh is everywhere!), Lockheed, and this thing called Fairchild -- had in recent years injected themselves.

Today, Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley. San Jose is a part of it but by no means the hub. Agriculture has been mostly but not entirely extinguished in the Valley. (Think steel in Pittsburgh.) And the San Jose Mercury News is a real newspaper, at least most of the time, not an apologist for the ancien regime. What happened? Newcomers. The Valley is overrun by them, and it has been for several decades now. The new is welcome. Ideas, and money, and people. The past is respected but not venerated. On the whole, and with some interesting and important exceptions, ancient tribal affinities (that is, neighborhoods and towns, not just ethnic, national, and religious identities) are not. In many ways, Southwestern PA should not want to emulate that part of the United States, but in some crucial respects -- this willingness to accept novelty and to put the past in perspective -- I wish that it would. Back to Pittsburgh's Future. Coming anytime soon?


12 Responses to "Pittsblog Wind Down Wrap Up Post #3: Back to Pittsburgh's Future?"

Anonymous said... 9/29/2008 8:32 PM

I think that the nostalgia lovers have a few valid points. I have some family members who used to live in San Jose. They moved to the Central Valley because they couldn't afford the insane house prices in Silicon Valley. A couple of times my aunt mentioned a place called the Prune Yard, which is some sort of shopping center/shopping mall. I imagine that there was probably some sort of orchard at that location many years ago. San Jose and the surrounding area was probably quite a picturesque place 50 years when agriculture was the biggest industry. A lot was lost when those farms were replaced by high density suburban development and the attendant freeways, shopping malls, etc.

Mike Madison said... 9/29/2008 10:02 PM

The Pruneyard Shopping Center was (and still is) one of the original modern enclosed shopping malls (and the setting for a major California Supreme Court case on First Amendment rights!). It is not in but near Downtown San Jose (more precisely, it's located in Campbell, CA), and it was so named not only because it sits on the site of an old prune orchard but because the entire South Bay Area was once known as the Prune Capital of the World. But the prunes have been gone for decades. The Pruneyard was built in 1964.

As a native of that area, I don't have much nostalgia for its agricultural era -- and I can clearly remember the cornfields in Sunnyvale, Los Altos, and Milpitas that were still there when I returned from college, 25 years ago. Real nostalgia would take me back to California's authentic rural roots, to the brown hills of summer, dotted with oak trees, that can still be spotted in spots south of Gilroy and north of Paso Robles, or in certain areas of the Sierra foothills.

The point being: Nostalgia means different things for different people. How do you pick one era as the "right" and "perfect" one? Progress and change bring deep costs and hurt people. But they're often better than the alternative.

Brett said... 9/30/2008 12:16 PM

This post made me think a lot about a project my partner and I set out to do with a blog of our own: The Blurgh. We were both living in DC at the time, and we were using it as a way to reconnect to our hometown and envision it as the place we wanted it to someday become. After moving back to Pittsburgh, though, we found it hard to continue--for some reason, it was easier to re-imagine the city when we were outside looking in.

I've been wanting to get back into re-envisioning the city, but this time with a clearer purpose of making some of those dreams happen. If anyone would like to partner (and hopefully this post was an inspiration for that!), toss me an email!


I will definitely miss this blog--you have been doing a wonderful service for the community, and I hope one day you will get the itch to start it up again!

Jim Russell said... 9/30/2008 4:52 PM

Concerning the formally agricultural Silicon Valley, two things pique my curiosity:

1) How much did the agricultural economy help establish a healthy immigration pathway to the region?

2) What kind of political regulation existed in the agricultural areas?

#1 may be a useless point, but I think #2 was instrumental in laying the groundwork for all the innovation. Steel and other industry gave birth to the entrenched political machine holding places such as Pittsburgh back to this day. My suspicion is that wasn't the case in the agricultural heyday of Silicon Valley.

Mike Madison said... 9/30/2008 5:13 PM

The answer to 1) is "some," but not in the sense that you might expect. The agricultural economy of yore was not supplied by migrant workers to the degree that its counterpart is today. There clearly was an immigration pathway from Mexico, but the Latino population was nothing close to what you see today, either in absolute terms or in relative numbers. The lasting impact of that pathway on immigration patterns affecting the Valley's industrialization is doubtful. The economic tiers are very different. On the other hand, California has had an "immigrants welcome" sign out more or less since the mid-1800s -- with the salient exception of Chinese and Japanese migrants during the first half of the 20th century.

The answer to 2) is "I'm not sure" (surprise!), but it's clearly true that the Valley was *not* integrated politically. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1990s that any kind of regional economic organization got underway. That organization is now called "Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network," and it is reasonably successful at what it does. (See jointventure.org. But it did not have to compete with an incumbent elite.

Bram Reichbaum said... 9/30/2008 5:27 PM

On the meta issue of how to reconcile nostalgia with change and "Back to the Future" stuff that makes sense -- I've been thinking we could continue interpreting our history as we have been (which probably makes sense) but it would be helpful if we could uncover something along the lines of a fatal flaw or even an original sin. This factor, if there was substance to it, could be woven into the existing narrative as we understand it, and yet justify change, even energize us to pursue that change -- but do so on historical and nostalgic grounds that make it feel more like fulfilling a prophecy than trying something new and untried.

Defining that fatal flaw would be an interesting project for a historian, although I suspect it would need to be contracted out to one not from Pittsburgh, if from the United States at all.

Unknown said... 9/30/2008 10:29 PM

I think Balmat touched on the fatal flaw with the observation about 'burghers playing it close to the vest. The part of the elephant my wife and I encounter has led us to describe it as the "poverty" vs. "abundance" mentality.

The poverty mentality is characterized by the "that's my area. I don't care about your area, outside of that it does worse than my area so I look better relatively speaking. If you area does better, I hope it has no intersection with my area, because then someone might associate you with my area instead of me." This contrasts with the characteristics of abundance "hey, this is mine, isn't it cool. What are you doing? that's cool too. It might be cool if we put our two things together and increased the amount of cool. I know someone who does something like you, do you know her? Cool..." Also known as the rising tide lifts all boats, or the love is like a magic penny outlook.

I've watched people come to the city with the abundance attitude for a good 15 years now. They start out like the ocean against the rocks thinking they'll eventually make sand, eventually they realize they are only flesh and either give up, content being the leper with the most fingers in their area of the town, or they pack it up and head for their next home.

Why? That's the big question. Could it be the big labor background, everyone had their defined job, you didn't stray into other areas, you waited until seniority allowed you to work on the better tasks? I was a tween when steel collapsed and grew up in a neighborhood where out of my 10 closest friends, there was 1 intact family, we were already on the low end of the socio-economic ladder, so I don't have a feel for the earth-shattering blow that was. I can see growing up enveloped in that could cause a certain amount of posessiveness over stuff.

I'd also throw out that San Jose was bit more attractive, all things considered, so perhaps it evolved due to a critical mass of the abundance types arriving, overcoming whatever entrenched poverty types were there. Nice weather and proximity to San Francisco as opposed to 220 days of cloud cover and being the San Francisco of Appalachia...

Anonymous said... 10/01/2008 4:37 PM

You make a good point there, Professor, about the downside to agricultural nostalgia. Lost farm land is a part of ecomonic growth. Industries develop and farms and orchards are replaced with factories, office and residential neighborhoods. Sometimes the farmers are able to retire in wealth after selling their land to developers.

It would have been nice, though, if San Jose could have been grown into a real city. A real city, in my opinion, is a high-density place where the public transit makes car ownership unnecessary. A good example of such a city is close by, in San Francisco. Instead, San Jose and the surrounding area was developed on the Los Angeles model - a vast sprawl of high-density suburbia where life is miserable for people without cars.

Unfortunately pretty much every metropolitan area in the country that has had siginificant growth since 1945 has developed in that way.

On a side note, I'm a little surprised to read that you have no fond memories of cornfields in Sunnyvale, etc. Didn't I read somewhere on this site that your family is originally from Iowa? Isn't that blasphemy?

Brett said... 10/01/2008 4:54 PM

Those are interesting points, chrisp. Maybe one of the problems (and this may speak to a "fatal flaw" and the difference between silicon valley and here) is a lack of networking between all the different people with the "abundance" mentalities. If abundance folks come (or grow) here, but are essentially islands of optimism with no others in sight, they quickly get discouraged.

To counter this, two things need to happen: 1) abundance folks need to be better able to find each other, and 2) they need to work together to start chipping away at the status quo. Small successes will build and bring in people who are on the fence between abundance and poverty (or optimism/pessimism, etc), which will create more successes, and so forth.

The thing about pessimists is that once they are convinced to believe and think positively about something, they can become the biggest and strongest supporters.

Mike Madison said... 10/01/2008 5:47 PM

Anon --

I grew up in the Bay Area. I have powerful family connections to Iowa, but no nostalgia for the place or its products.

On development patterns, the Bay Area today looks in many ways like parts of greater Los Angeles, but the histories of the two regions, and the reasons for their particular transportation infrastructures, couldn't be more different.

Anonymous said... 10/04/2008 10:40 PM

Chrisp has hit the nail on the head with his "abundance mentality." Having grown up in Pittsburgh at the end of its salad days with Big Steel, I returned at the start of this decade, full of this abundance mentality, armed with a Top 10 MBA degree and years of advising C-level Fortune 500 execs on critical decisions (AND I note those achievements not for my self gratification, but to set the tone for WHAT talent at this level believes it is bringing to Pittsburgh, especially in light of all the bellyaching about the dearth of talented young folks). Earlier this year, I moved onto the next stop in my life/career, not having made much sand, but with plenty of deep cuts from being slammed into the rocks onshore.

The Pittsburgh tendency to dwell on the past as future is one of the most disheartening things I have experienced in life -- it's been noted here and elsewhere but once more for the record -- the region REPELS top level talent that will not pay homage to the precious Pittsburgh traditions and way of doing things. Before checking this blog tonight I was on the P-G website and, what is front and center but the Pittsburgh 250 section with a video of a bunch of overweight fools pretending to be General John Forbes, et. al. Does anyone realize how pathetic this looks to that bright young graduate student at MIT, Penn, Michigan, Duke, Berkeley, etc. I cannot tell you how many times in nearly a decade back in Pittsburgh I felt that I would have done better if I had just stayed there and gone to RMU or Duquesne, rather than deliberately seeking out both higher education and career opportunities that enabled me to work with some extremely bright and driven folks!

How can anyone familiar with the history of the region have one whit of concern or sympathy for it, especially when the "First Pittsburgh" gleefully thumbs its nose at the steady drumbeat over the years, from experts around the globe (and I was personally involved in bringing in some of the experts to share their expertise), on issues ranging from creating a modern highway/transit network to actively fostering the creation of the next generation of regional leaders (vs. the same old, OH so tired faces in the SEEN column every week) to facing down the public employee unions so that the costs of state and local government come back in line with what the populance in the region earns.

Based on my experience there is no way that I could recommend Pittsburgh in good conscious to a bright, aspiring person. And, to anticipate some reaction, there is significant sour grapes on my part in this post, but when one considers how many have had similar experiences, that is a significant amount of negative PR/advertising/whatever one wants to call it that Pittsburgh cannot afford

The Urbanophile said... 10/10/2008 12:10 PM

This is interesting to say the least. Much of the Midwest is excessively nostalgic in my view. However, I'm curious if any people here have lived in other Midwestern type cities besides Pittsburgh and can contrast the attitudes there versus Pittsburgh. Is there something uniquely wrong with Pittsburgh, or does it just simply suffer from a typical Rust Belt malaise?

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About Pittsblog

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.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.


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