The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part IV

[Part I is here] [Part II is here] [Part III is here] [Part IV is here] [Part V is here] [Part VI is here] [Part VII is here] [Part VIII is here] [Part IX is here] [Part X is here]

Part IV was going to be about politics in Pittsburgh, but the tidal wave of G20 media has started to crash on the shore around me, so I'm interrupting the series to take a topic out of order.

I want to challenge some Pittsburgh orthodoxy, something is that is spreading like a virus -- the bad kind -- through well-intentioned journalists who do what well-intentioned journalists sometimes do: Write the story they want to write, rather than write the story that's really there.

The story that they want to write, but the story that gets in the way of the truth, is a simple tale of hard work. Pittsburgh owes its current success to the hard work and grit of Pittsburghers themselves, who stuck with their beloved city through thick and thin. Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers are the tortoise to the hare of places like Florida and Arizona. There is a culture of hard work and modesty here, combined with an unrivaled passion for and loyalty to the city, that was forged in the steel era and drives the city forward today.

That theme -- that "character" matters most of all, and Pittsburgh's character has never really changed -- is most clearly on display in this recent love letter to the city, from ("Pittsburgh? Yes, Pittsburgh: Why the city on the Ohio River is the perfect G-20 host"). (A footnote: the author of that piece is a young and successful Pittsburgh expat. She is Mt. Lebanon High School Class of 2000!)

What's the problem? It is this: I doubt that Pittsburgh's "character," whatever it might be, is the cause of Pittsburgh's current condition.

I'm increasingly skeptical that Pittsburgh today has this "gritty" character that lots of people assign to it. Maybe it does, especially in some neighborhoods and communities, and especially among people who have lived here a long time. I know a lot of "gritty" people here. I also know a lot of enthusiastic and energetic movers and shakers, in the arts, in the neighborhoods, in politics, and in entrepreneurship -- and they aren't "gritty" at all. Many of them didn't grow up here and don't have family here and wouldn't know the inside of the region's steel history if they were hit on the head by a bust of Andrew Carnegie. Instead, these people have the same kind of passion and spirit and talent that you find in arts advocates, neighborhood organizers, emerging political leaders, and entrepreneurs anywhere. Eventually, I might make the case that Pittsburgh isn't succeeding today *because* of its historic gritty character -- assuming that this gritty character survives -- but *despite* it. Maybe. Count that as a hypothesis to be explored.

I understand why the "gritty character" story survives. It's a very American way of combining political/economic/cultural success with a morality tale: The good people, the folks who put their heads down and planned for the future and avoided the flash and dash, have come out on top. (And we Pittsburghers, of course, are the good people, especially when we're contrasted with Clevelanders or Baltimoreans.) Never mind that over the course of the last 100 years in Pittsburgh, many of the people responsible for organizing and leading Pittsburgh's major successful economic, cultural, and political institutions either weren't very nice (or even "gritty") and would struggle to achieve characterization as "the good people." In the morality tale, the workers and a small number of selfless capitalists and politicians are usually "the good people."

Never mind that putting Pittsburghers' collective heads down and planning for the future and avoiding the flash and dash ended up driving the city over an economic cliff in the 1970s and early 1980s and did precious little to bring things back to life over the succeeding 25 years. I do not suggest that Pittsburghers are not good or hard working or that our steelworker forebears didn't struggle mightily to achieve success for their families and for the region. They are, and they did. But I am skeptical of the morality tale that says that Pittsburgh is where it is today because good people wanted it and worked hard for it.

Let me suggest that if Pittsburgh really does want to continue to embrace its alleged "gritty" character, it might start by turning the directional arrow around. Pittsburgh's gritty character, if it has one, may not be the *cause* of Pittsburgh's alleged revitalization. Instead, Pittsburgh's character may be the *effect* of Pittsburgh's alleged revitalization. In truth, of course, there is probably some of both things at work, but the *cause* part is already out there in the public mind. Let me write briefly about the *effect* part, which doesn't get a lot of play.

In the story I linked to above, Council Member Bill Peduto is quoted: In the wake of the steel industry's collapse, "Pittsburgh really had no choice .... It was diversify or die."

There are a couple of ways to read that statement. I'll give Bill Peduto, who is a smart person, credit for the better version. The lousy version is this: Pittsburgh somehow *decided* to diversify its economy, and we all see the results today. "Eds and meds" were strategic investments in the 1950s that were seeded in anticipation of the end of steel. (I wrote about the key investments in Part I of this series.) But that's the lousy version, because it makes the implied statement that Pittsburgh somehow planned for the end of steel. And the historical record is quite clear: Pittsburgh didn't. Pittsburgh didn't diversify. [Harold Miller's Post-Gazette column yesterday made a related point: As late as 1980, "UPMC didn't even exist, and that Carnegie Mellon and Pitt were merely good regional universities."] Pittsburgh didn't want steel to stop, least of all the steelworkers who, as I wrote before, negotiated for better and better packages for themselves as steel sank inexorably towards its end. (I'm advised to include a link to John Hoerr's history of steel.) The region was perfectly happy to continue to rely on steel, until the market forced it to stop.

The better and more accurate way to read Peduto's statement is this: Pittsburgh had economic diversity thrust upon it. And, over a very long period of time, Pittsburghers threw off the psychological shackles that kept the population hoping and waiting for the big thing that would save the city. As Harold Miller points out, steel never completely left Pittsburgh; it's still here, though in a vastly smaller and different form. Pittsburghers -- including a growing number of vocal non-gritty, non-Pittsburghers who moved here and like it, like me -- eventually learned to stop worrying and love economic diversification. They really had no choice. Fortunately for the region, some key "eds and meds" investments had been made way back when, and those investments were waiting for more attention.

Having done that -- gradually accepting the reality of a new-ish economy -- Pittsburghers decided that they were not sad sack losers for letting steel slip away, at least not when someone from the outside world came to ask about the region. To those folks, whether they came calling in the late 1980s or late 1990s or late 2000s, Pittsburghers decided they were gritty after all. The city is still here; therefore it has grit. Pittsburgh's character today is its reward for not having melted away, like the Wicked Witch of the West, when steel had the cold water of mini-mill production poured on it.

But when Pittsburghers talk to each other? No grit. Pittsburghers are notoriously proud of their city, but they are also notoriously insecure about it. Readers of the blog will remember my characterization of Pittsburgh as an "Oreo" cookie: "Tough and proud when Pittsburgh takes on the outside world; chewy and marshmallow-ish when it comes to self-scrutiny." That's what finally persuades me that Pittsburgh's character is an over-drawn stereotype. The grit doesn't stick.

Next in the series: Politics (I promise).


2 Responses to "The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part IV"

Nancy Thompson said... 9/08/2009 6:29 PM

Every place (yes, two words in this instance) on earth has a distinctive character based on its history, sociology, and natural features. But most cities aren't nearly as unique as they think they are. This excellent commentary on Pittsburgh reminds us that most of the Rust Belt cities share this characteristic of having outgrown their grittiness. And most are insecure when presented with New York or Las Vegas.

Let's all get over the insecurities and concentrate on creating great places with real economic bases.

JRoth said... 9/11/2009 4:40 PM

A couple notes to what I think is a basically correct argument:

The point about sitting around waiting for Big Steel or Big Something Else to save the city is a really important one. In 1994 I was interning for a regional heritage/tourism org* and talked to some fellow interns who were living in Johnstown for the summer. They described to me the crowd in local bars as "old men sitting around waiting for Big Steel to come back." Even then - 15 years ago - such thinking was a thing of the past in Pittsburgh. I'm sure there were a few bars like that, but they were a tiny relic, not the dominant way of thinking in the city. Instead, the focus was on how to turn the things we were doing (biomed, robotics, computer science) into the Next Big Thing. There was always the underlying, ancient mindset of hoping for the next Carnegie or Westinghouse, but the social and political discussion in the city was all about moving forward. As a concrete example, I'll note that, when the Hazelwood works were going down a few years later, there was interest from an outside company (Canadians maybe?) in building a modern coke works there, and the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. I can't vouch for the reaction you'd get inother parts of SWPA or elsewhere in the Rust Belt, but it was clear that, by the late 90s, the city had decisively abandoned the Big Steel mindset.

The other thing I want to talk about is "grit." I guess it depends how you define it - there's a certain bullheaded, romantic notion that I agree is inapt to describe what has happened. But there are 2 quotes that I think are relevant for describing the Pittsburgh mindset. One is from Graham's "Singing the City," and I don't have it exactly, but it's to the effect that, in Pittsburgh, there's a sense that a desk job is what you get if you don't want to work. Now that's a very blue collar, outdated way of thinking, but I also think it has left remnants in the region's workforce: outside employers are often pleased at the productivity they find at their Pgh locations, and I think it ties back to the idea that jobs are for working at, in a very practical, hands-on way. The other quote is actually about Chicago, but I think it applies equally here (and surely throughout the Rust Belt): "I've always been impressed by people from Chicago. New York is talk and LA is flash, but Chicago is work." The gist is similar, but it clarifies exactly what Pittsburgh is not about: talk and flash.

I, like you, know a lot of enthusiastic and energetic movers and shakers, in the arts, in the neighborhoods, in politics, and in entrepreneurship -- and I disagree with your characterization. To me the clearest example is a local reading series that has a serious national reputation (they are booked well over a year ahead, and have to turn down requests from established authors). Its founders are from the region, but not the city, and lived away from here for a long time before coming back and, soon after, starting this series. And in conversations with them (they're close friends), the distance they see between themselves and their counterparts in places like NYC and SF is clear, and it's precisely around the kind of issues I'm getting at. The acclaimed NYC reading/performance series The Moth came to town recently, and it was oozing with self-congratulation in a way that frankly disgusted my friends. The Pittsburgh reading series is all about getting top-flight talent and presenting it in a comfortable, cheap, and unpretentious setting; The New York reading series is all about letting everyone know how great the NYC reading series is.

I could list other examples - from the arts, from the neighborhoods - but I think you get my point. The reading series and its founders aren't "gritty," but they sure are Pittsburgh.


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Updated September 2020:

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

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, 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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