Final Pittsblog Wrap Up Post

Can Pittsburgh dig out of the narrative hole that it's dug for itself? My last post was melancholy, to say the least. But I want to close out the blog on an upbeat note. There are good things happening in Pittsburgh. There is reason to believe that more good things are yet to come. (Still, read this piece on equilibrium-based economics from yesterday's New York Times. Everyone should.) I want to call out some of them, focusing on economic development and the tech sector in particular.

I've written before that I've convinced myself that Pittsburghers themselves aren't capable of turning the region around. Finding better, smarter, harder-working, and more innovative souls among the million-plus who call themselves "Pittsburghers" simply won't do it. Whatever the solutions might be, they are structural, not personal or individual, and they require insight and input from people and firms who know how the world works outside of Southwestern PA, who in most cases have lived in that world, and who are willing to suffer the burdens of bringing knowledge from the outside to what ails the Burgh. And there are burdens: Local resistance to outsiders and outside knowledge is deeply-rooted. The inverse of the Pittsburgh Diaspora that I'd like to promote today is the Scots-Irish-Welsh diaspora that settled much of Appalachia, including Pittsburgh, and the populist descendants of those groups still influence cultural things in the region today.

Here, then, is a non-exclusive list of local institutions, groups, firms, structures, and innovations that have impressed me over the last four years and that I think stand a good chance of impressing in the future, though in different ways. This is a non-exclusive list! By naming names, I'm breaking a Pittsburgh rule of sorts: Don't needlessly run the risk of omitting someone who be offended simply by being excluded. (The best example of this rule has always been Henry Hillman's decision to invest his millions in a venture capital firm -- in the Silicon Valley, not in Pittsburgh. Kleiner Perkins. You might have heard of it. Fabulously successful, fabulously rich.) I haven't done a comprehensive study of this, but having met most of the people involved in these initiatives, it's my distinct impression that many if not most of them were raised outside of Pittsburgh, spent a significant part of their professional careers outside of Pittsburgh, or both.

Innovation Works. Head and shoulders above every other economic development shop in Pittsburgh.

Alpha Lab. An IW spin-off of sorts. (Entrepreneurs getting entrepreneurial -- that's a good thing.) Among other things, AL now offers something that Pittsburgh has long needed: a place for entrepreneurs to get together informally and hang out with one another.

Project Olympus. Both Pitt and CMU have technology transfer offices (TTOs, in the jargon of the trade), and both offices have gradually gotten stronger and more competent over the decade that I've lived in Pittsburgh. But research faculty who want to play in the entrepreneurial space are still frequently stymied by university bureaucracies (of course, research faculty aren't alone in that!). Lenore Blum at CMU is putting her students in the same room as investors. The next "show and tell" is Oct. 22.

Pittsburgh Technology Council and the TECHburger blog. After years of running around in unhelpful circles, the PTC is a player again in the Pittsburgh tech community around Pittsburgh. The energy coming out of its Hazelwood HQ is palpable. Regis McKenna, Pittsburgh native and once a Kleiner Perkins partner (hmmm!), is speaking at the Tech50 bash on Oct. 16.

Donald Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at CMU's Tepper School of Business. A great collection of entrepreneurs teaching the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Enterprise Forum Pittsburgh (formerly the MIT Enterprise Forum). I was delighted when these folks dropped "MIT" from the name; the mission is clearer and broader. On Oct. 24, they welcome MIT president Susan Hockfield, who is a spectacular catch for MIT and for the Forum. Go!

Entertainment Technology Center at CMU. For all the talk about life sciences research in Pittsburgh, the ETC is quietly making a big impact on the computing world.

Vivisimo. Entrepreneurship done right. It's a mystery to me why this firm isn't celebrated from one end of Allegheny County to the other.

Ed Engler and Pittsburgh Equity Partners. Pittsburgh isn't a big enough market to support a huge range of venture-level investments, and I'm regularly told that the angel investors here get cold feet if they lose money in a single deal. As I understand it, PEP is trying to make a market in between those tiers. If it can raise money, and the current market may make that difficult, then it could do a lot of interesting things here.

The CityLIVE! series produced by No Wall. Keep prodding and provoking the power elite. Pittsburgh needs to recognize and respect thought leaders.

Finally, blogs that seriously address economic issues around the region are few and far between, but there are some good ones. What I read and recommend:

Pittsburgh Ventures blog by Alan Veeck and Matt Harbaugh.

Harold Miller at Pittsburgh's Future.

Chris Briem at NullSpace.


Jim Russsell at Burgh Diaspora.

This is the final wrap up post, but I'll have one more so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish / I'm-so-glad-we-had-this-time-together / It's-such-a-good-feeling post in the future.


11 Responses to "Final Pittsblog Wrap Up Post"

Anonymous said... 10/02/2008 1:18 PM

The inverse of the Pittsburgh Diaspora that I'd like to promote today is the Scots-Irish-Welsh diaspora that settled much of Appalachia, including Pittsburgh, and the populist descendants of those groups still influence cultural things in the region today.

Wow. What kind of comment is that? The Scots-Irish-Welsh dispora is holding us back as a region??? That is your final analysis?

Way to end your blog on an sour note MM.

Mike Madison said... 10/02/2008 1:52 PM

Your characterization mis-states what I wrote, but if it stings, it stings. The pioneers of Appalachia still influence local culture, here and elsewhere. I'm hardly alone in expressing this view. Anecdotally, the whole "yinz" affair of a couple of years ago, as well as a lot of academic linguistic analysis of the persistent Pittsburgh accent, is traceable to that history. For a contemporary account that's not grounded in Pittsburgh, but which should resonate with a lot of people here, read this long piece in the current New Yorker magazine.

Jim Russell said... 10/02/2008 5:04 PM

There is plenty of risk aversion along with parochial attitudes across a variety of cultural landscapes. I don't think cultural influence or disposition explains much.

The people who leave shrinking cities such as Pittsburgh are the gamblers, the entrepreneurs, and the investors. That's the case just about anywhere. The difference is a region's ability to attract migrants from somewhere else. The thread that binds most Rust Belt cities is anemic in-migration, primarily immigration.

The acceptance or tolerance of outsiders isn't predictive of where these migrants will go. That's just Richard Florida nonsense. It isn't a push factor, either. Local resistance to outsiders is ubiquitous. However, a well-entrenched political machine successfully protecting its turf is not.

I don't think the structural problems you highlight really matter.

Mike Madison said... 10/02/2008 6:46 PM

I'm not much of a believer in the influence of individual disposition or ideology, and I'm inclined to accept the role of culture. Not everyone is. The persistence of cultural types associated with the original Appalachian pioneers has been widely noted, including previously on this, and not by me -- rather, by local descendants of those original communities. Make of that what you will.

While I certainly agree that Pittsburgh suffers from a profound lack of in-migration, I don't think that righting its demographic imbalance is alone the key to prosperity. I do think that local hostility to outside influences is markedly more pronounced than similar attitudes in Minneapolis, or Providence, or Louisville, Denver, or St. Louis, to pick three cities more or less at random, and that the difference makes in-migration far more problematic as a Pittsburgh solution. "You're not one of us" is a nearly universal human emotion, but its impact depends on the existence of an "us." Pittsburgh is one of the most powerful and enduring "us"-es in the U.S.

Jefferson Provost said... 10/02/2008 7:31 PM

The combination of selection effects and time conspire to conflate individual dispositions and culture. If a mass emigration leaves behind a strong bias in individual disposition, after a while that becomes the culture. Likewise with immigration.

Jack Auses said... 10/02/2008 7:46 PM

The people who leave shrinking cities such as Pittsburgh are the gamblers, the entrepreneurs, and the investors. That's the case just about anywhere.

That's true in a normal urban area. I think the reality in Pittsburgh is much more complicated and has a lot to do with culture. I grew up in Pittsburgh and left because Pittsburgh let me down. Twice.

I'm not a gambler, entrepreneur, or investor. I'm a skilled web designer and want a stable job that pays well. I also want to live in a dynamic urban community where I don't have to stay in the same job for 25 years. That's a fairly simple and conservative set of criteria. In terms of quality of life, Pittsburgh is great. Unfortunately, it fails miserably on the employment piece. And it isn't because there aren't jobs in Pittsburgh. There is a cultural resistance to outsiders and an almost perverse, adversarial game played by employers toward prospective employees.

I moved away the first time for Boston because I wanted to change careers and had no luck finding a new job in Pittsburgh. Worked in Cambridge for several years and then came back to be closer to family and to escape the extreme cost of living in New England. I thought things would be different, but they weren't. I spent A YEAR looking for a job. A YEAR of sending out resumes that went unanswered. A YEAR of working professional contacts to no avail. A YEAR of getting by on a sliver of freelance work and no healthcare.

I gave up on Pittsburgh, made the decision to move to Chicago and found a job that I love almost immediately. In Chicago, I'm highly compensated for my work and know that when the time comes for me to move on I won't be stuck facing another unending job search. Employers are actually interested in new talent and folks are very open to professional networking and helping each other out looking for work. That's just not the case in Pittsburgh. I've heard this same story told over and over. I'm not unique in my experience.

Anonymous said... 10/02/2008 8:32 PM

Here's a couple of points that occur to me reading this post and the comments.

1) I have no Scots-Irish ancestry, but this business about the deficiencies of Scots-Irish culture is a little offensive. Imagine if such a thing were written about any non-European ethnic group. It would be considered an outrageously bigoted statement.

2) I wonder about some of these beliefs that people have about immigration. If you want to make comparisons to other cities, consider Philadelphia. It really should be condsidered part of the Rust Belt. Years ago, there was many factories there which have since been shut down. Why have so many immigrants chosen to move there? Is it really because there is a culture there that is more welcoming people from other countries?

Also, consider a place with really high levels of in-migration, like Florida. Thousands of people move there every month from both Latin America and the cold, northern states and that's begin going on for decades now. It's hard to imagine people there getting upset about this because a) everyone is quite used to all of the in-migration, b) most of the people in FL were born out-of-state, so it wouln't make sense for them to object to outsiders moving in, and c) the house construction and real estate industries are a major part of the state economy.

So the receptiveness to high levels of in-migration may actually be result of the in-migration itself, not the cause of it.

3) Also, is the "local hostility to outside influences" a real phenomenon that has a siginificant effect on economic development, ot just nother stereotype? For example, when Apple and Google decided to open R&D office in Pittsburgh, was there a negative reaction that discouraged other companies from moving in?

Mike Madison said... 10/02/2008 9:06 PM

The accusation of bigotry, mike, is ignorant and just plain foolish, so I'm going to object. There is nothing in the post that points to alleged "deficiencies" of anyone.

The relevant parts of the original post, and the references in my comments above, talk about populism. Political and cultural populism is an undeniable and significant part of Pittsburgh and the rest of Appalachia today. It's hardly limited to Appalachia, but it has a longer history here than in almost any other region of the country. Populism has been an undeniable and signficant part of Pittsburgh and the rest of Appalachia since the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The reason that it got rooted in Appalachia is that populism was and remains strongly associated with the Scots-Irish-Welsh immigrants who populated the area originally. The roots of the Whiskey Rebellion. The rise and success of the Mellon family, beginning with Thomas Mellon. What I was trying to point out, and what you obviously overlooked, was the parallel between the impact of the in-bound diaspora of 200 years ago and the outbound diaspora of today.

What we see today in the region are the populist descendants of those immigrants. I don't mean (and didn't mean) descendants in the strict biological/genealogical sense, though clearly those communities remain strong throughout the region. By populist descendants, I mean that the political and cultural populism of those original communities -- a powerful force in American life generally, if an often destructive one, IMO -- remains vibrant in the area.

Again, as I wrote earlier, well-known members of those communities have participated in conversations on this blog, explaining the communities' continuing cultural influence. The New Yorker article that I linked to in my earlier comment also talks about this at great length, and not at all in disparaging terms.

I won't both with a full bibliography here, but anyone wondering about the history and political/cultural influence of the diaspora can go to just about any branch of the *Carnegie* Library of Pittsburgh and read up on it. Or they can read via Google Book Search. Try Ron Chepesiuk, The Scotch-Irish, or Thomas Mellon's autobiography or best of all, try "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America," by James Webb, now a Senator from Virginia.

Jim Russell said... 10/03/2008 11:45 AM


I still think the kind of populism you think that Pittsburgh is struggling to overcome hasn't resulted a uniquely difficult barrier to progress. As I understand it, the frustration you are expressing pops up in a number of Rust Belt cities. I'm deeply skeptical that things are particularly bad in Pittsburgh.

What strikes me as unique is just how fractured and parochial the Pittsburgh region is. That's a result of the industrial political economy and the physical geography of the area. The circles of trust are so tight and cover such a small amount of space that the term "Balkanized" comes to mind. And this Balkanization is impressive even within the region of Appalachia.

The political geography of Pittsburgh has been both a boon and a curse. These ties are powerful connectors outside of Pittsburgh, but they represent something to be overcome inside Pittsburgh. I would argue that there is great value in the coming together of the like-minded voices you list. People who can effectively work "across the rivers" will have an advantage.

Anonymous said... 10/03/2008 8:23 PM

Sorry to see that you're throwing in the towel on Pittsblog. (I don't mean that to be harsh, but you've been on such a downer trend that it really feels like you're waiving the white flag, whether you mean to be or not). Being one myself, there is no doubt that it isn't always easy being a migrant to Pittsburgh.

That said, I do think that things are changing for the better. As Briem has recently and correctly noted, Pittsburgh's economic statistics have really begun to look different--for the better--from the rest of the Rust Belt.

While your Scotch-Irish "populism" argument, I believe, has some merit, I'm not completely sold. I still think that the unbelieveable dislocation of people and jobs this region suffered in the '80 to '82 recession is the event that still defines the region. It almost certainly exacerbated the populist trend you note.

After 150 years of boom and bust, but mostly boom, cycles of heavy industry (glass then iron then steel), the jobs and the industry . . . never . . . came . . . back. After 150 years, in a blink of an eye, the entire skeleton of the region's economy--at least the part that created jobs--disappeared. (And that's just steel. The TMI disaster essentially started a 25 year hiring freeze at Westinghouse nuclear that is just now beginning to thaw.)

Anyway, my complete guess is that much of the region's affinity for the past grows out of the fear engendered by that period. Think about it: after 4 or 5 generations of men earning decent middle-class wages wihtout a college education--wages that let mother stay home and raise a family--that way of life was gone. Replaced with, well, nothing in the immediate term. (And, with all due respect to San Jose, that's a helluva different scenario than the development of greenfields.)

Yet, despite this shelacking (sp?), the region picked itself up, soldiered on, and seems to be slowly finding its legs in the new economy. I challenge anyone to show me another region that was as decimated by the body blow called the Voelker recession (and the unwillingness of big steel (management and union) to recognize and prepare for the future) and that looks so good today.

I don't know. Maybe those fightin' Scotch-Irish roots (I'm not Scotch-Irish) kept this region from hanging out the "Closed" sign.

Understand that I'm not is total disagreement with you--I think that we have a lot of common views. And you're especially right when you say that we need to find a way to turn the narrative of the past into a narrative that informs and fuels our future. But the patient isn't on life support anymore. And that in and of itself could have been assured at the end of 1982.

Mike Madison said... 10/03/2008 8:46 PM

No white flag intended here, whether or not it seems that way. There is a light at the end of the tunnel in Pittsburgh, and I don't think that it's a train headed our way. I'll just be contributing in different ways.

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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, 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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