Thursday, March 19, 2009

Can Pittsburgh Save Detroit?

The post title is the title of the CNN report on Pittsburgh that was supposed to run on last night's Anderson Cooper 360 but didn't, depriving me of my 5 minutes of national media fame. Natasha Richardson died yesterday, and the AIG bonus brouhaha took up most of the rest of the hour.

The CNN report lives in text at the AC360 website, under the same title (and be sure to read the comments), even though neither I nor Pittsblog get a mention. I thought that I'd walk through my interview and its context, because Anderson Cooper moves on to the New York area tonight and to Miami (I believe) on Friday. "Can Pittsburgh Save Detroit?" doesn't fit those story lines, so my mug may just stay in the can.

The background:

The possible collapse of Detroit-centered American automobile manufacturing has put Detroit at the front of national conversations about de-industrialization and urban failure and renewal. The buzz has it that Pittsburgh went through this process and has come out the other side, successfully. CNN called me on Monday to ask if I would be part of a segment, shot here on Tuesday, that would look at Detroit from Pittsburgh's perspective. (CNN found me via this blog. I'm not sure how they found this blog, though perhaps it's because I was quoted in a similar story last year in the Detroit Free Press.) The story pitch: Pittsburgh is doing pretty great. How did it happen, and what lessons should Detroit learn? The producer planned to shoot my piece of it at the Waterfront. Massive steel mill becomes shopping mall. How better to illustrate an American story of urban renewal?

On Wednesday afternoon, we did meet at the Waterfront, and we spent an hour or so taping an interview. The piece was shot on a strip of grass right next to the Courtyard by Marriott, by the Gantry, just west of the Homestead bridge. The camera guys wanted to have the river and the bridge in the shot. The reporter (oops -- in TV speak, the correspondent) was Randi Kaye. (No, I didn't meet Anderson Cooper or even talk with him.)

The payoff:

While I can't know how much of the interview made it into the segment that CNN originally planned to show last night, the gist of what I said added up to this:

1. Pittsburgh had its economic and spiritual heart ripped out in the late 1970s and early 1980s when steel collapsed. This isn't any secret. Close to 40% of the local economy disapppeared more or less overnight; hundreds of thousands of people left the city.

2. Thirty years on, Pittsburgh's economy is doing OK, but the "reinvention" of the region and city is hardly complete. It's well-known that the "eds and meds" mantra isn't enough. Pittsburgh is primed for more diversification; it needs other sectors to succeed, too. There are significant pockets of the region that have not benefited much or at all from economic development efforts. The Waterfront/Homestead relationship is itself evidence of certain blindness, rather than evidence of great success. The Mon Valley is still suffering terribly. Some neighborhoods in Pittsburgh experience serious problems today. I mentioned the Hill and Homewood, which represent different stories, and they aren't alone in their struggles. The CNN team focused on certain indicators of prosperity: raw numbers of jobs, major real estate development projects, and the relative stability of the real estate markets. A short TV segment isn't the place to correct the record in all respects, but these aren't necessarily the things that I would focus on.

3. Still, there is an optimistic buzz in a lot of quarters here that wasn't present even a decade ago. I talked about three reasons for what's happened over the last 30 years, but especially over the last decade.

First, Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers share a history of success and faith in themselves that is unbelievably powerful. The region has consciously built on its impressive past. Pittsburgh's sports successes have played a huge role in preserving Pittsburgh's pride in itself, though the word "Steelers" wasn't uttered on camera. When I tour people around Pittsburgh, I sometimes describe the Steelers as a metaphor for local culture. It's a run-first, throw-second kind of region, strong on fundamentals, low on flamboyance. This year's Steelers partly proved me wrong, but the exception seems to prove the rule. My bet is that the Steelers will have to run more successfully next year. This isn't Philadelphia.

Second, the Pittsburgh region has world-class raw materials that rival those of any urban center in the country. I use "raw materials" to refer to the foundations of what others call the "eds and meds" economy. Pittsburgh has unbelievable research institutions in Pitt, UPMC, and CMU. There are other super colleges and universities in the area, but those three grow knowledge at the highest level and across a wide range of disciplines. (Read Harold Miller's post about this, extending his Post-Gazette piece from last weekend -- it's good stuff.) Pittsburgh has other raw materials of note: capital, talent, and a well-trained and hard-working labor force. That mixture creates a tremendous infrastructure for success.

Third, getting the economic train to move down the infrastructure track takes initiative, and over the last decade Pittsburgh has witnessed the emergence of an impressive (and still emerging) tier of leaders, mostly working from the bottom up rather than the top down. "Leaders" doesn't quite capture these folks. They are champions, individuals who identify a need, marry it to a passion, and run with the combination. They create their own weather. A handful of champions does not a vibrant place make; those people need to be networked and institutions and organizations need to take root. That's happened all across the region, whether you look at economic development organizations, neighborhood groups, social entrepreneurs, Downtown and Strip District real estate developers, or arts institutions. Few of these are brand new, but there is a vitality and sense of connectedness that you can see and feel and that was missing until a very short time ago. "City of Champions" now refers to more than our sports teams.

Ten years ago, when I moved to Pittsburgh, in an instant I could sense the history and the raw materials; I couldn't see any energy. Five years ago, when I started Pittsblog, I was a very small part of a larger movement that sensed that Pittsburgh was poised to get moving, and I wanted to lend my voice to that movement. Today, stuff is happening. I'm bullish on Pittsburgh.

All of that said, two questions remain:

First, what about all of Pittsburgh's serious problems?

The political system here is essentially broken at almost every level. It has been essentially broken for many, many years. (There is nonetheless a romantic attachment in Pittsburgh to the arguable successes of certain former mayors. As a non-native who sees only what lies before me, I view that romance with measured skepticism.) The city is still under Act 47 supervision, even though it is not technically bankrupt. The mayor of Pittsburgh touts current major construction projects as evidence of a Renaissance III (the casino, the PNC tower, and the arena, all of which the CNN team cited, too), when major construction is drying up. Allegheny County is still slowly losing population (the silver lining is that when deaths are added in, it's clear that Allegheny County is slowly but surely getting younger). The mainstream business community still suffers from a top-down obsession and excessive big-company risk-avoiding conservativism. But a national TV interview that is set up as a Pittsburgh promotion is not the place to go Luke-bashing. (I can do some bashing here: Why are Pittsburgh powers promoting Pittsburgh's success on a real estate "wins" list that includes Detroit (#5 to Pittsburgh's #7)?)

Second, can Pittsburgh save Detroit?

Obviously, no, and I don't know enough about Detroit to say anything intelligent on the question. Every city has its own narrative. Detroit has history, resources, and champions; it may not have them in the same proportions as Pittsburgh does, and it may have (and lack) other things. Detroit has a special history of political corruption and race relations, for example, that contributes in distinct ways to its economic struggles. I doubt that the Detroit economy ever was as concentrated in a single industry as Pittsburgh's was concentrated in steel. The auto industry has repeatedly been the beneficiary of federal financial assistance. Pittsburgh in the 1970s and 1980s? Not. Detroit's auto industry may or may not collapse as steel did in Pittsburgh, but both industry and city will be changed. (Again, this isn't news.) Whatever happens in Detroit, the city -- like Pittsburgh -- will be transformed. That transformation will take decades. And its success will ultimately depend, as Pittsburgh's does, on a grass-roots commitment to invest in the future of the city, financially and socially. Randi Kaye asked me if I had advice for Detroit. I said the only thing that makes sense to me, even though it's intuitive and anecdotal: Hang in there. That's what Pittsburgh did.


Mark Rauterkus said...

Pittsburgh saves Detoit in a couple of weeks when the Pitt Panthers take the hardcourt in Mo Town at the Final 4 of the NCAA DI Men's Hoops Game(s).

Anonymous said...

Sorry to leave this as anonymous, but I thought I should at least let you know (can't get onto my email as I'm at school).

So it turns out that you get to be on AC360 after all! Even if you're not actually on the show. Although you still may be.

Just letting you know.

Sorry you don't like the anonimity.


Signed, Joel Goodson

Anonymous said...

John Craig also had a piece in the Washington Post this weekend that talked about the lessons the Detroit could learn from Pittsburgh. His perspective was much more humble and measured than I would have predicted, but it was very appropriate. Economic restructuring is neither fast nor easy.

I wonder how well the lessons of Pittsburgh have been fully identified? For instance, it is very rare for a politician to facilitate its population's exit in search of jobs, and while Pittsburgh has obsessed with keeping people in the region (Border Guard Bob), it was this out-migration that brought down the unemployment rate and took a lot of pressure off an already overburdened public system. Unfortunately, mobility was not uniform across all populations, and it has been the poor neighborhoods that have suffered most from this lack of economic opportunity and new beginnings, leaving them stuck in a fairly rigid class system.

Pittsburgh's foundation community really focused on leadership in the non-profits, with both good and bad results. But you are right on in the observation that little was done on the political side, both to right-size municipalities to fit a reduced population and changing live-work relationships, and to build an effective political infrastructure to develop and manage this new environment.

Mark Rauterkus said...

The outward migration is important and is one reason why I think that the Pittsburgh Promise needs to fund college expenses anywhere -- not just to public and private schools (new in March 09) in PA.

Let's get the kids $ for study abroad, in Florida, in Canada -- wherever.