What's your dream? Season tickets.

When I first moved to Pittsburgh, I experienced a deeper culture shock than I could have imagined. I had never encountered such fanatical loyalty to a region. I heard stories of 'Burghers who had left for the big time and, astoundingly, chucked their success and bright futures to return, like salmon, to the rivers of their childhood to live in modest circumstances and find jobs far more humble than what they'd been doing. The insistence on proximity to family and high school friends mystified me -- that's what phones, e-mail and airplanes are for.

But the most baffling part of all this to me was the lack of something I used to hear a lot about in high school and college: "striving for excellence." I was raised to believe that you were born with gifts and brains and talents, and you should do your level best throughout your life to make the most of them. You apply to the best colleges you have a shot at getting into, you go to the best one that will take you, and you pursue dreams. You aim high when young so that, when you inevitably have to adjust your expectations downward, they don't slide into the basement.

Pittsburgh has a completely different ethos; I would call it "striving for contentment," or the pursuit of "good enough." You go to a college within 150 miles of your home, and you don't even bother to think about one far away, because the local ones are good enough and you couldn't afford it anyway. (No one can afford top-tier schools. That's what grants and loans are for.) You get a job that is convenient for your family. Don't think about a promotion that would take you to another city (and double your salary and provide more opportunity). Stay here, stay close, stay safe. Don't get a swelled head and think you can run off to New York or L.A. and forget where you came from.

In so many conversations I've had with Pittsburghers -- including, most disturbingly, teachers -- I get the strong impression that "ambition" is a dirty word. Ambition is a sin because it means "you think you're better than other people." Isn't everyone better at something than other people? Must that be suppressed? Is conformity the way to happiness? Is it arrogance to strive for excellence when what you have is good enough?

I'd also never lived in a place where even the young people have little interest in seeing the world. I'm always stunned when I hear a college student say, "Boy, I sure hope I can find a job here. I'll live with my parents if I can't find anything right away." Whatever happened to, "Boy, I can't wait to ditch this backwater. I'm going places! I'm going to be rich and famous and set the world on fire"? Isn't that what young people, wherever they've grown up, are supposed to say and feel? If you don't have passion and drive and big plans at 20, how are you going to conjure them at 40?

In a city with so much potential, so much to offer, so much to recommend it, and such a mysterious sluggishness when it comes to growth and progress and vibrancy, could this complacency be an undiagnosed disability? Or is restless striving merely a recipe for disappointment? Are Pittsburghers so devoted to the city because without dog-eat-dog competition, it's easier to find the bluebird of happiness in their own back yards?


41 Responses to "What's your dream? Season tickets."

Anonymous said... 1/28/2009 4:27 PM

I think this is a symptom of a long period of people moving away and a relative lack of newcomers. Many of the people who exhibited these qualities and would instill them in the next generation left Pittsburgh. And they were not replaced by enterprising outsiders like in the rest of Pittsburgh's ling history as a destination for immigrants. The result is a kind of cultural stagnation, and as more outsiders move in, you'll see this reversed in subsequent generations.

Unknown said... 1/28/2009 7:39 PM

My wife and I grew up, went to school and bought a house in Pittsburgh. We moved to England a few years ago, and have spent a significant amount of that time traveling around Europe for business.

We have really enjoyed our time here. But Pittsburgh's charm has not been diminished by comparison. It has most things you would want, is affordable, and fairly stable. I can understand why some feel no need to travel to realize their dreams.

However, I would say there are an unhealthy number in the area who are generally miserable and stuck in rut. I think this is one of the drawbacks to the stability... it's easy to stay stuck in those ruts.

Bram Reichbaum said... 1/28/2009 7:43 PM

I know we do produce at least some number of folks desperate to spread their wings and fly the coop. Yet the numbers in Chris's post below are compelling, and I think there is a certain identifiable Pittsburgh Shireism (coming from the Shire from the Hobbit), and I agree an "undiagnosed disability" sounds warm.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, in many ways, it can seem like pretty major town -- there are big-league museums, universities, hospitals, law firms, sports teams -- so it may not feel as necessary at first to flee this jerk-water do-nothing 'burgh. By the time you realize Pittsburgh is really just small potatoes after all, you've grown roots.

Anonymous said... 1/28/2009 9:08 PM

I see this at my day job in a specialized field; a local college makes sought-after grads, they get hired all around the country - but under protest, because they all want to stay here - and they'll spend decades working to get back (often at a pay cut). It's a great thing for us from an HR perspective because we always have more well-qualified applicants than we need.

I like living here; I've chosen this as a great place to raise my kids. Most of the "great" things about this area are the absence of problems rather than unique positive factors, driven by the way we're 30 years behind the country so we don't have as much of any recent ills. We're just about ready to enter the '90s.

The bright spot in the Burgh perspective is there's a strong family orientation. The dim spot is that with a focus on family and not on work/economy, maybe the region doesn't focus enough on quality -- because work doesn't matter that much.

The Western-PA quality expectation - AKA the "just good enough" steel-mill attitude - is a barrier to excellence. I think our patron saint could be Our Lady of Raging Mediocrity.

Is it possible that the "just good enough" attitude, driven by a focus on family rather than work, causes both the positive and negative aspects of the region?

Anonymous said... 1/28/2009 9:34 PM

I've only been here three years, but I get the same impression. People who grew up here don't seem to get what it means to compete and be the best, it's all about doing the minimum amount needed to get by.

Here's an example. It took me more than FOUR WEEKS to get business cards printed at a local Oakland print shop. Meanwhile, my wife was able to get similar cards printed for a client over the weekend at a franchise shop.

Where else in the US would you have to wait an entire month for a simple business card job?

And I didn't even get a discount or an apology, just an excuse about how the new girl wasn't very good at things or something like that.

Anonymous said... 1/28/2009 10:48 PM

The people that strive, that go to an Ivy or Duke or Stanford; you know, those colleges that allow you to participate in "The Right Stuff" singles network I see in the back of my wife's alumni magazine - they do leave. It sounds like you're sampling the people that are left, so your sample is biased. Likewise, most of the teachers (I'm assuming high school) are from that pool of grew up here, went to IUSlipperyCalboro, or if they really had it together, Pitt or Penn State Main. The people with ambition are probably tenure track faculty somewhere if they saw teaching as their calling.

I think the decrease in corporate HQ from the 80s to today contributes. When you had companies rotating in executives, who would tend to be strivers, they'd pass that mentality on to their kids. There's much less of that now. Who is left now, BONY, PNC, Bayer...maybe UPMC brings in MDs from top tier schools...

Anonymous said... 1/28/2009 10:52 PM

Soar higher, and the fall is deadlier, right? People who grow up drinking a working class ethos, particularly the working class ethos of Pittsburgh, generally expect to see those of their own kind fail in their ambitions. Success of the truly impressive variety is considered something that "other" people (rich people) do. Parents encourage their children to go for low-risk, low investment, modest-return investments (pharmacy is an immensely popular major, for that reason), because people around Pittsburgh are petrified of debt. I watched so many talented people my age (mid-twenties) stay local for school because they were afraid of incurring debt, and most of them are completely directionless, now. Previous generations, who didn't know any better, might have been okay going through this old cycle of stagnation, but my own age bracket and younger -- more aware than others (thanks to the Internet) about what all is out there in the world -- is finding itself torn between what it wants to be and what its elders have been content to be.

And yeah, there's a lot of this going on, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

I don't doubt that some people do deliberately sabotage their opportunities because they're afraid of alienating their roots.

Anonymous said... 1/28/2009 11:43 PM

This post was right on the mark. (as way of background, I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but moved away after college at Carnegie Mellon). Part of the blame certainly lies with educators - guidance counselors only encourage people to go within 60 mile radius. No one ever says anything to anyone about schools like the ones in the Ivy League. Who do you think you are?

And certainly the broader community doesn't really push either. It has become self-reinforcing- parents who never lived anywhere else or interact with non-Pittsburghers discourage their kids from acting differently. There are people like this everywhere in the world, but there aren't enough people flowing in to expose people to something different to change things up. My sense is this is improving, albeit slowly.

For me, Carnegie Mellon was transformative - I was finally around other "dreamers" like your article described, and they did want to see and conquer the world. It was somewhat the culture shock you described in reverse.

The struggle for all of those people who moved away is not knowing if your own ambitious path will ever run thru Pittsburgh again. Pittsburgh moves along, with some small successes that kindle the hope that you can find your way back. But the successes aren't large enough or frequent enough to make it a real possibility right now.

Ultimately it's also our responsibility to blaze our own paths of ambition thru Pittsburgh if that is truly important to us. You can't wait for someone else to do it.

EdHeath said... 1/29/2009 6:31 AM

I'll echo ChrisP here. I'm not from here, and in fact my family lived in several places before I was ten. When we moved here we moved I ended up going to high school in Squirrel Hill. The crowd I hung out with assumed they would be going to schools outside the City, and most did. As I remember it, a lot were the kids of faculty at Pitt or CMU, and just assumed they would want to get the best education they could. Our high school teachers encouraged us to think this way as well. Needless to say most of the people I knew in high school have moved away. Maybe the group I knew in high school was a particular type of insular community within a different type of insular city, but they did exist and that was my experience of Pittsburgh (no comment on why I’m still here).

Sam said... 1/29/2009 11:06 AM

Things are indeed very different in the East End. That's an enclave full of academics and transplants, with upscale lifestyles and upscale ambitions, and their kids are the ones who will go away to college and leave Pittsburgh without any regrets. But that's still a loss for the city: Many if not most of the people with drive and a passion for excellence will leave here, and very few transplants will permanently replace them. There aren't many tall poppies in town for kids growing up here to take as role models, and if they decide they really need to be in another city to pursue their dreams, they risk the cold shoulder from family and friends.

illyrias said... 1/29/2009 11:27 AM

I grew up in a Boston suburb and my "insular community" was in the same boat as EdHeath's. But the vast majority of my cohorts ended up at UMass or Boston schools. I got lots of scholarships to Mass schools, but wanted to leave that backwater and see the world as it were.

Seems to me that's pretty typical. Less than 5% at a given high school will leave the area leaving about 95% to stay within 60 miles, i.e. the vast majority.

Unless you purposefully surround yourself with those ambitious/bored folks, odds are you're going to meet the majority.

Anyways, it just seems like the same old story for me from Connecticut to New York to Massachusetts to Hawaii. Maybe where Sam is from is different? Or maybe it's a more prevalent west coast mentality? Though from the stories I hear about California - if you live in Southern California you go to school in Northern California and vice-versa.

Mark Rauterkus said... 1/29/2009 1:37 PM


First blush.... We lack 'Brushes with excellence." That is a key to my teaching / coaching philosophy.

This is one reason I have been pushing hard to have the Pittsburgh Promise be a scholarship program without limits to in-state colleges and universities. Pgh Promise Scholarship cash should be able to be spent anywhere in the world for IB grads (at the least) and nationwide for all others.

Another giggle. Staying home is not staying safe. It is often much easier and safer to move away.

Seeing the world is a keen interest of our family. We've taken our kids to China 4 times. We are weird, but not so much.

The backwater is what needs to be ditched from your perspective. Go places -- and here is place too.

Passion, drive and big plans are not the monopoly of the 20-somethings. True, the 40, and 50 year olds have a drive, more often for their kids than for themselves. But, those are big, precious dreams and ambitions -- to parent. That is nobel and stands next to nothing else.

I think you are close in your rant -- not not exactly hitting at home yet (PUN).

Now to read the other comments....

Mark Rauterkus said... 1/29/2009 1:55 PM

The "steel mill attitude" is not about "just good enough" IMNSHO. That is way off base.

They made steel, the hardest material next to diamonds. Steel is for bridges, dams, skyscrapers. They took raw materials and worked in a process with heat, passion, muscle, capital and coordination to win wars, dominate the economy, strive like few others.

We need more 'mill work ethos' in most instances. That isn't the problem.

Sadly, the mill work was replaced by going to the ball park (PNC Park, Heinz Field, Arena). TIFs, retail, and economic folly of Tom Murphy kicked out the mill-worker ethos for the less than genuine and passion-less.

Those urban planning things kicked the city and its residents in the teeth. They didn't make value.

East Busway Blogger said... 1/29/2009 4:54 PM

I write this comment as an outsider, who came to Pittsburgh for college, left, and then ultimately came back. This is purely opinion on my part, but my opinion is why I am here today.

While I do think there is some underachievement that goes in the region, in my case I came back, because my bluebird of happiness is right here.

When I came here, I could have cared less for Pittsburgh. It was a place to go to college for me. I didn't care about the region, or the sports teams. (I violently resisted cheering for any Pittsburgh team for two years, but alas, I now bleed black and gold).

I never appreciated this place until I left, but when I did, I didn't find myself wanting to go home (where I was raised), I wanted to come back to Pittsburgh. I've had the luxury of living in several decent to large size cities (Louisville, KY and Atlanta, GA), and have been able to travel both within the U.S. and abroad to Europe and Asia.

Still, I made the conscious decision, despite opportunities for greater personal (monatary )gain elsewhere, to come back to Pittsburgh. It's been hard, the job market sucks, and I had a hard time finding a job that was equal to my experience. (By the way, I don't call that under achieving, I call it making sacrefices in certain areas of my life to be happy over all)

I will make it work, and I will be successful. But I will do all of that here.

Is it perfect? No. Does this place make me happy and feel like where I am supposed to be? You're damned right!

Anonymous said... 1/29/2009 8:48 PM

Another one of those imaginary "only in Pittsburgh" problems that some of us obsess over.

Schultz said... 1/30/2009 9:39 AM

My experience is almost the exact same as the East Busway Blogger. I moved here for school in '96. I moved away to DC. I came back. Went to grad school. Bought a house. Since I first came here there has been a lot of progress...that is, if we are talking about population loss and taxpayer subsidized commercial, retail and stadium developments. Cranberry Township has just about doubled in size since then, thanks to the number of businesses and residents fleeing the high taxes of Allegheny County. To the South, Peters Township has done really well over the past decade. But enough about progress.

There are so many great things about Pittsburgh but especially this year the level of sports obsession is really getting to me. I appreciate the passion and I realize how important the team is to the city, but do we really need a Steelers rally in downtown every other day? The other day an activist from the Hill told me she wished that they were somehow able to tie the passion for the Steelers into passion for education/public schools, or something to that effect. She is on to something. Imagine how good Pittsburgh could be if the citizens treated the government officials as if they were running the Steelers and not the Pirates? The fans expect the Steelers to win it every year and at times are merciless when either the coaches or players screw up (remember Tommy Maddox? Kordell?) They even turned on Bill Cowher the season after he won them a Superbowl!! Yet when the mayor screws or gets caught in a lie time and time again the voters say "just give the kid a chance!" I am pretty sure they will vote for medocrity again this May, but I have hope that someone who has a chance of pulling a Pete "Nobody's boy" Flaherty jumps in the race and pulls off the upset. Maybe instead of running Coach Tomlin out of town after yinz get tired of him winning every year we could convince him to stick around and run for mayor?

Jerry said... 1/30/2009 11:41 AM

"By the way, I don't call that under achieving, I call it making sacrefices in certain areas of my life to be happy over all"
Fantastic comment.

Part of what Sam is identifying in her post is the fact that for most Pittsburghers, the balance of family life/roots vs. business success tilts much more towards family life. New Yorkers, Los Angelinos, maybe most of them think pursuing the best job you can, wherever it may be, is the most worthy goal. I wish them success and happiness.

But there's no reason to believe that this is the best goal for everybody.

Jerry said... 1/30/2009 11:48 AM

I think what you're identifying here is a social analog to what happens in Pittsburgh's housing markets compared to national housing markets. As Chris B. has pointed out, our market never soared like it did in other places, but then, when the crash came, it didn't fall nearly as drastically.

Apply that to quality of life issues. Do you want high highs and low lows, or do you want a less exciting, but more stable life?

Move to New York, and you'll have a great time. But, unless you have one of the top jobs, don't plan on retiring there. And hope that crime stays low. Or move to San Francisco, where you can work for some of the most exciting companies in the world, but your daily commute is 3 hours round trip, unless you live in a tiny apartment in the city.

I don't see Pittsburgh's attitude toward this as something to be criticized. We should just recognize it as an alternative, and accept the fact that some people like this lifestyle, and some people don't.

Anonymous said... 1/30/2009 1:05 PM

I think the issue needs to be fleshed out a bit more. There are people who by all indicators have ambition, strive for the best. They've traveled, seen things, and have decided that what fits them best is to live here in Pittsburgh.

There are also people who are here because it was the default option, the easiest thing to do - "If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice". I think Sam's original post is questioning more this attitude than the attitude in my first example.

Personal opinion is that this is probably the same in all cities, however, in a city with 5 million people, if 20% are ambitious, that can appear to be a critical mass (1 million wordly, intellectual, entrepreneurial people) vs. 20% of 340,000 (so we get more people at a steelers game than all the "striving" people in the city...)

If one's orientation is to try and make the city attractive for business, I can see how you'd view this as an issue that needs to be addressed.

Anonymous said... 1/30/2009 7:58 PM

I realize that blogging is a rather solitary undertaking. For better or worse.

When it's done well it can be interesting and enlightening. When it's done not-so-well, it runs the risk of being self-indulgent and solipsistic.

Unfortunately, I'd have to add "snobbish" to Sam's blog posting.

Don't get me wrong Sam, you may be completely correct in your assessment. And I may even agree with you on alot of it.

However, I'd never allow my subjective reading of my limited experience to be spun into a generalization of an entire community.

That's my issue.

Anonymous said... 1/30/2009 8:29 PM

"If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice"

Speaking of not "striving for excellence," the city has way too many Rush fans.

Anonymous said... 1/30/2009 8:44 PM

I am an outsider/immigrant to Pittsburgh, and I think that another aspect that was referred to earlier, the "steel mill" mentality, is part of the dilemma. Pittsburgh is an early rising/working town that closes down early compared to NY, DC, ATL, etc. People are conditioned to work their hours and go home, with a "can't see the problem from my house" mentality. Striving was something "management" did, not mill workers. As long as they were paid, they didn't want to move up. I'm not saying that Pittsburghers won't work hard, i.e., put in an honest 8 hours, but demanding anything more than that is unexpected and usually rejected.

And let's face it, most of the successful people that start new companies, expand technology, create jobs, wealth, etc. work more than 8 hours a day. And there simply aren't enough of those types of people here. After all, when did the last really successful company rise out of Pittsburgh? Freemarkets? Fore Systems? Those were more than ten years ago.

Mike Madison said... 1/30/2009 9:02 PM

Most of the comments above don't address what I took to be the key question raised by Sam's post.

What about the kids? (Or as Doc Brown says at the end of the first Back to the Future movie: "It's your kids, Marty. Something's gotta be done about your kids.")

Is Pittsburgh complacent? Sure; almost any city of Pittsburgh's size suffers from a meaningful amount of complacency in its adult population; this is an unavoidable result of inertia, rationalization, and selection bias.

What may be different in Pittsburgh -- or may not -- is the extent to which ordinary levels of adult complacency limit the aspirations of and options available to younger generations. I've listened to plenty of parents in conversations about their kids that take a tone that Sam more or less captures in her post: Pitt (or Duquesne, or PSU, or the City of Pittsburgh, or even CMU, etc.) was good enough for me, so it will be good enough for my kid. The East Coast, the West Coast -- even Chicago, to some people I've listened to -- is effectively foreign territory. And in my experience, this isn't a class thing or a neighborhood-dependent thing so much as it seems to depend on the out-of-Pittsburgh experience of the parents themselves.

The data that Chris Briem cites shows just how rooted in place Pittsburghers tend to be. Real estate markets tend to reinforce that in any given generation; homeowners have tended to stay because they can't afford to buy in more expensive markets elsewhere. Does an inward-looking cultural outlook (for lack of a better phrase) reinforce the rootedness from generation to generation? Or do next generation kids develop authentic preferences for Pittsburgh as opposed to other regions?

Can we ever really know the difference?

Anonymous said... 1/30/2009 9:27 PM

I started out adulthood trying very hard to make it to somewhere different than where I was raised. I believe I am the only member of my high school class who is more than 400 miles from home and one of two who is more than 200 miles away (it was a small class).

So, on the one hand, success. On the other hand, those who stayed send their kids to public schools without worry, can buy bourbon in the grocery stores and are always doubtful when I say that a city can levy an income taxes.

Jefferson Provost said... 1/31/2009 1:36 AM

This post captures the thing that disappointed me and my wife most about returning to Pittsburgh after eight years in Austin, and the reason why, after now living in Seattle for six months, I think it's unlikely I'll ever live in Pittsburgh again.

ChrisP is right, it's selection bias. The people with higher expectations just leave.

Mark Rauterkus said... 1/31/2009 6:47 PM


FWIW, the steel mills ran around the clock -- three shifts. The bankers were 8 (or 9) to 5.

Jacks never closes, still.

Lots of the engineers at Westinghouse, Union Switch & Signal, or even the boss at Univ. of Pittsburgh -- rose in the ranks -- getting the jobs done, growing value and relationships. Many -- if not most -- were home grown.

EdHeath said... 1/31/2009 11:55 PM

Well, I want to contribute a couple of thoughts, just to throw gas on the fire.

First, one thought about AMD's comment. I think that there is still a lingering union mentality around here, and maybe that is what you are seeing in the 8 and I'm going home attitude. But of course union workers are just as productive as other workers, possibly more so. And most Pittsburghers probably are not in a union. Still there is perhaps a certain attitude that workers want to choose when to work hard, not have it chosen for them.

One important thing about Pittsburgh is that it was once ranked in the top five for corporate headquarters. Because Western Pennsylvania was so important for the early oil industry, and Pittsburgh was so important for the early steel and coal industries, we had not only corporate headquarters for those industries but also for a lot of supporting industries. So we were once a town of both executives and tens of thousands of workers. Now the headquarters and the executives have relocated and the workers stayed and retired. So we know we were an important town once, and we can't understand why we aren't now. I almost wonder is people are waiting for us to become one again.

Finally, Pittsburgh seems somewhat defined by its neighborhoods, perhaps a holdover of the ethnic divisions. So the East End has a University community with kids ready to go to better colleges and leave permanently. I think some of the upscale northern and southern suburbs and exurbs are in a similar boat, although with less emphasis on academics and more on ambition. But other neighborhoods are as Sam described, with kids that take their clues from their parents or even grandparents. And those elders say that a high school education and a job in a mill was good enough fifty or thirty years ago, and if you have to get a college education Pitt or LaRoche is right here, and there are jobs in Pittsburgh. But the grandparents are dying off and the newspapers (print and online) and the TV are telling us that we need to think in terms of mobility and change. So maybe, hopefully, Sam is seeing the tail end of a previous Pittsburgh. Maybe.

Anonymous said... 2/01/2009 1:43 AM

Mike - could it be a function of the next generation having a strong local network since mom and dad stayed and thrived? If all the people that can give you an internship or a job you're not qualified for are here, by virtue of being the guys your dad went to PSU with and golfs with and sits with at Steeler games, maybe it doesn't make sense to think about leaving for a town where you have no network come junior year of college.

Mike Madison said... 2/01/2009 8:22 AM

The evidence to support your hypothesis is likely different depending on whether you ask 18- year-old natives or 22-year-old natives.

If you're a 22-year-old native and you're about to graduate from a local college or otherwise living here full time, then I suspect that the pull of family is pretty strong -- if there's a job here for you.

If you're an 18-year-old native, and if you have the cojones (or the resources, or simply the choice) to leave the area for college or work at that point, then I suspect that family and its local network may bring you back for summers or breaks -- but is far less likely to pull you home permanently.

I suspect that non-natives, moreover, think in different terms altogether. There are a lot of kids here who weren't born here and who, like my own children, have no family here other than their parents. (Many of them live in the 14th Ward and nearby. Far from all of them do.) These children may or may not know much about living in worlds other than Pittsburgh (mine do), but their parents certainly do, and that likely makes the boomerang effect that you describe much less significant.

C. Briem said... 2/01/2009 8:55 AM

It really is remarkable that people who have moved to Pittsburgh from elsewhere, or moved back after having lived elsewhere are almost universally more positive on Pittsburgh than those who have stayed and never left. That does not apply to everyone for sure (I know Amos is out there), but it is almost a universal truth in my experience

I really hate to be a broken record, but if there is anything to this argument about Pittsburghers being more conservative in their outlook as it relates to the economy, you just can’t ignore history. Things really were bad here and worse than most comparisons people like to make. It clearly forced out a large part of the young working age population. I overuse the factoid, but Beaver County reached 28% unemployment in the early 1980’s. Many states would not see conditions that bad during the Depression. That context matters to all of this and was not that long ago.

But if this is all meant to be a comment on how Pittsburgh’s children are raised here then there is something missing. There is a decent history of success in most any fields. I am not aware of anyone trying to quantify the benchmark, or even it that is possible. What would you define as success is unanswerable. The simplest thing to look at might be commercial wealth only because it has the advantage of being quantifiable. Relatively new Pittsburgh bred Billionaires from Cuban to Druckenmiller are in themselves more than most comparably sized regions can claim as natives. Granted they have moved away, although Druckenmiller may count as a boomerang wanna-be with his attempted buyout of the Steelers franchise.

The point is that I can’t think of a metric that would imply we lag at instilling ambition or success at a young age. It is true everywhere and always that migrants are more risk-taking than non-migrants. It is self-selection by definition. This could never be tested, but I bet every region’s most successful natives are the ones who moved away at some point from their place of birth. What could be the Pittsburgh difference is that the region forced so many more people to move than might have chosen to in normal circumstances. Did that make them into greater risk-takers along the way? The impact on the region are very different in the end since they are not here, but still, that is a different issue from how the kids are being raised.

But just consider as a ‘what if’.. If Pittsburgh ranked high in terms of ‘breeding’ success, what would that say about this argument. I think Sam is onto something, but I just am not sure it translates into a lack of ambition.

Mike Madison said... 2/01/2009 2:12 PM

I think that history here is less useful than it is elsewhere. Did Pittsburgh's collapse during the 1960s and 1970s breed complacency, or was it the product of complacency? The answer is "both," so there you are.

Data? Sure, all of this is anecdotal. But notwithstanding the suspicion that the adventurers and aspirers always leave a region and the self-satisfied stay behind, Sam's post would make no sense at all in the San Francisco Bay Area, including but not limited to Silicon Valley, or in Los Angeles, or New York. (That is, imagine a post that begins, "Why is it that everyone who grows up and stays in the Silicon Valley exhibits a 'do what you need to do, but not too much' attitude?")

Do patterns of immigration explain part of the difference? Whatever is in the water in Pittsburgh, so to speak, may also be in the water in other, similar second- and third-tier regions. I *can* imagine this conversation taking place in a city like St. Louis, which, like, Pittsburgh, experienced enormous commercial success in the hands of first-generation immigrants and which has struggled in the hands of their second- and third-generation descendants. Unlike Pittsburgh, places like New York and the West Coast continue to attract sizable waves of first-generation immigrants. The sense of social mobility that attracts that wave, and that the wave reinforces, is palpable.

Anonymous said... 2/01/2009 5:21 PM

We'll never be New York or the West Coast, though. The magic wand touched those places long ago, and they'll never be rivaled. The image they project is what draws people to them. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, never had an image as anything more than a place where (if you were a worker) you could make a solid, humble living for a family, and (if you were a capitalist) you could make a fortune. Now, you can sort of do the former (but that's not exactly the dream of the creative class), and chances are very unlikely that you can do the latter. Now, it just looks like the rest of the rust belt.

This is why I feel like all the fixation on our history and our supposed "specialness" actually hurts the region. It keeps us from developing a realistic assessment of what we are, and therefore, what we can hope to be. C. Briem notes that outsiders who move here generally have a more positive image of the area than locals do, and there's a simple reason for that: they aren't hung up as much on things that Pittsburgh used to be. They can see the things that it can boast in the here and now (good geography, nice scenery, pleasant climate, laid-back atmosphere) and be comfortable.

Perhaps success for Pittsburgh will simply mean fiscal solvency (equilibrium rather than entropy), a streamlined political configuration, and an openness to outside investment; a celebration of the creative trailblazer. It's unglamorous, but it's workable. The worst that happens is you stay fiscally solvent; the best that happens it that some creative trailblazer does something phenomenal that puts the city back in an upward spiral. You can't necessarily plan that sort of thing, but you can foster an environment in which it's possible. Paradoxically, "settling" might be the solution, here.

C. Briem said... 2/02/2009 7:44 AM

But again, the thing is.. is the premise true or is the premise part of the parochialness of Pittsburgh. I thought of trying to count things like maybe 4 star generals, or nobel prize winners and some other things. All are problematic, but at first pass there are enough of both to dispute Pittsburghers lack achieving whatever success they set out for. I think Sam does identify what is a deeper parochialness created by whatever forces or history could have done that. I think a lot of folks have no desire to join another social class in a broad sense may indeed be one manifestation of that.. but the leap to calling it a lack of ambition is what I don’t see and reflects the other side of the misunderstanding.

A little more esoteric. But this whole debate is a awfully Weberian. There was once a real literature trying to study whether Catholics were less successful than Protestants. The idea somehow linked to a misunderstanding of Weber’s thesis on the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. That get’s a bit too deep to get into here, but the arguments are remarkably similar.

Mike Madison said... 2/02/2009 9:01 AM

Chris (B),
I'm surprised that Chinitz has not come up in this thread. Is his work relevant here?

C. Briem said... 2/02/2009 7:04 PM

For sure, but I was trying to stick with the cultural theme which even Chinitz really didn't push into. This thread may be near its end, but for those still listening..

Chinitz proposed a theory just about 50 years ago on why entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh compared badly to other regions even (or especially?) back then. He argued that the industry and ownership structure here was so concentrated it depressed normal entrepreneurial activity. Big bureaucratic organizations did not necessarily look for the best new widget as much as they should have is the general idea.

50 years is a long time, but by most measures we still compare badly by what counts for entrepreneurship . It's even tougher to measure entrepreneurship than it is to measure individual 'success'. And despite what you read, the processes that inspire entrepreneurship are not really understood very well.

So sure.. it could explain many of the other pathologies we debate. The region had a workforce that was told for generations that the jobs their fathers had would be theres when they were ready. (and apologies, but it was at the time mostly fathers, women working in Pittsburgh were a lot rarer than most other places for a long time). That expectation probably did inspire even less risk taking than the migration theory we talk about. That and it explains even more how traumatic it was when Lucy pulled the football away and the promised jobs disappeared.

Jefferson Provost said... 2/03/2009 2:24 AM

I think Chris B's comment about Nobel winners actually points up part of the problem: the notion that the only people who "excel" are super elites (like Nobel winners and 4-star generals). From there it's a short step to the notion that there's no point in striving if you're just "ordinary".

I think the point was more that it is possible for each person to excel at the things the he or she does daily, without ever winning a Nobel or achieving greatness or renown. As James Cagney said, "one shouldn't aspire to greatness, one should aspire to doing the job well." The point is to aspire.

But it just didn't seem to me like that many people in Pittsburgh were trying very hard. When I was there Pittsburgh seemed to be suffused with low expectations down to the level of the details of everyday life. I felt like there were hundreds of little mundane annoyances that I would encounter throughout the day that could have been better if the people responsible would just exert a little more effort. For a while I wrote off the deficiencies to lack of capital caused by a sluggish economy. I assumed that people wanted to fix things, but they couldn't afford it. After a while, though, I became convinced that hardly anyone really cared. That's when I started thinking maybe it was time to go.

Mike Madison said... 2/03/2009 7:36 AM

This thread is already the longest in Pittsblog's short history, so as Chris noted, so thanks to those of you sticking around.

I misremembered the Cagney quotation as lifted from "Mr. Roberts," in which Cagney played a petty tyrant, Captain Morton, ultimately one-upped by the quietly ambitious Henry Fonda, who played Mr. Roberts.

Misremembered or not, the allusion has value. I don't know that Pittsburgh has too many Captain Mortons, but my impression is that there aren't enough Mr. Roberts.

Schultz said... 2/03/2009 9:51 AM

It's actually not the longest, Mike. Last summer we had a barn burner of a thread on the whole Pittsburgh migration issue. I think we hit close to 50 comments with that one, so this one is almost there.

Anonymous said... 2/03/2009 3:58 PM

J - if they're satisfied though, how do you get them to buy-in to try a little harder? I recall you regaling us with tales of crappy service from small local proprietor shops south of the Mon. And I've experienced it north of the Allegheny too. But if they're meeting their non-discretionary outflows, and making enough to put a kid through college, have season tickets, maybe a camp at Deep Creek or up in Potter County; is it possible, or worthwhile, to try and get them to buy in to trying harder just so some yuppies will move here and not get "nebby" about their business?

Mark Rauterkus said... 2/04/2009 10:18 PM

Looking to count something (i.e. 4 Star Generals) ... how about OLYMPIANS?

Jefferson Provost said... 2/06/2009 5:50 PM

Mike: The quote is actually a misquote. The actual quote has "stardom" instead of "greatness". I don't actually know the context of the original. I know it because a good friend wrote it, misquoted, in my high school yearbook, and I've always remembered it.

ChrisP: It's a good question, and I don't know the answer. It's hard to blame anyone who is, in fact, content, for maintaining the status quo. But contentment and complacency are not exactly the same thing, and I suspect that Pittsburgh's complacency derives more from fatalism than contentment.

Either way, I don't really see such complacency as a moral failing. It's just annoying. Plus, the lack of hustle bodes ill for any prospects for economic development.

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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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