The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part VII

[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]

Where did Pittsburgh's revitalization come from? This is the seventh installment in a promised ten-part series. Today's topic: The uneven distribution of Pittsburgh's contemporary economic success.

The happy part of Pittsburgh's revitalization story focuses largely on some bright and shiny and pretty successful real estate development (and redevelopment) projects around the region. These don't tell the whole happy story, but they tell it simply and easily: A new casino and two relatively new sports stadiums on the North Side of Pittsburgh. New office towers, some renovated bank space, Market Square under reconstruction (again!) and a nearly-complete sports arena Downtown (well, we'll say that the arena is Downtown even if it isn't, really). The Southside Works mall/office/residential complex and the UPMC Sports Medicine Complex on the South Side, both occupying recovered steel mill space. The Waterfront mall in Homestead, punctuated by relics of the former Homestead steel works. New construction, especially medical research and hospital construction, in Oakland; a new Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville to go with newly chic Butler Street there. Lots of new, neat stuff in East Liberty: medical research, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, hardware, lofts. New development in Pittsburgh doesn't seem to be concentrated in one place. And the suburbs are getting into the act: Ross Park Mall in the North Hills now has a Nordstrom, of all things. (Which makes Pittsburgh, at long last, as cool as ... Providence.)

There is more to say about precisely how this development and redevelopment came about; I'll save that for an installment on urban planning and land use policy.

Here, my caution is that enthusiasm for all this new stuff should be tempered by recognition of just how much of Pittsburgh -- city and region -- remains essentially untouched. There is a structural problem at work: Pittsburgh's 20th century prosperity was driven by the fact that Pittsburgh possessed a nearly unique combination of access to raw materials, transportation, energy, and financial resources. Because of the location of those things, however, Pittsburgh's economic might was distributed across the region -- up the river valleys, in particular -- rather than being concentrated in one place, such as Downtown.

When the steel economy crashed, those valley communities were the hardest hit. As the region's economy has slowly re-emerged and parts of it have been re-developed, there has been little reason, in purely economic terms, to focus on them. In a manner of speaking, the money was sucked out of one part of the Pittsburgh region; new money is being injected elsewhere. That proposition holds in the broad, overview sense in which I've been writing; as to any particular town or neighborhood, the details may vary.

Combine that proposition with a history of racial and ethnic diversity that has left Pittsburgh composed almost exclusively of a white majority and black minority population, and you see the overall landscape that I described in this post not long ago. I'll re-post the relevant part of that observation:
"There are two Pittsburghs today. There is the city and region that is the object of some guarded optimism courtesy of tech and arts and higher ed and health care that supports emerging economic development. Call that First World Pittsburgh. And there is the fading Steel Valley region with no advocates, but plenty of pure pessimism and worse. Call that Second World Pittsburgh. Our "Manifesto" is nominally addressed to both, but in reality our limited ability to affect First World Pittsburgh is diminishing rapidly when it comes to Second World Pittsburgh.

Couple those "two Pittsburghs" with these two Pittsburghs. Today's Post-Gazette headline says it all: "Pittsburgh's 'Livable' label called lie for blacks." The story and the meeting that it covers follow on this report from the University of Pittsburgh that describes the bleak condition of Pittsburgh's African-American population. There are clearly not two but three Pittsburghs. Call this Third World Pittsburgh, burdened by poverty and crime and no obvious way out.

Second World Pittsburgh and Third World Pittsburgh, the closing of Duquesne High School and the condition of the African-American community, are symptoms of a single problem. Describing it fully would take volumes, and my relative ignorance of Pittsburgh's history puts me at a disadvantage that is deeper than usual. The core problem, however, is simple: Pittsburgh's industrial economy shifted sharply downward shortly after WWII, at right around the same time that that city's African-American population was swelling with newcomers. Structurally, lots of new people arrived; yet jobs were on the way out. What we see today is the product of long-time systematic inattention to that combination. First World Pittsburgh largely takes care of First World Pittsburgh.

What to do? ... Our Manifesto and Diaspora projects have to include them as part of their agendas, naively optimistic as our group may sometimes be. The Diaspora should be metaphorically as well as literally geographic; the Manifesto needs to address all of Pittsburgh's Worlds. No number of new startups in Oakland will compensate for the disappearance of the Steel Valley, or the inequities described by Larry Davis and Ralph Bangs at Pitt."
The comments to that post added some important elaborations: There are "Suburban Pittsburgh" and a "Central Pittsburgh" subdivisions of what I called "First World Pittsburgh." The two groups share positions of power but do not identify with each other; their alliance is tenuous at best. And we might recharacterize "First World Pittsburgh" yet again, as "Traditional Pittsburgh," those who long primarily for the prestige that the city enjoyed in its golden age; "Corporate Pittsburgh," those who associate Pittsburgh with the benevolent dictatorship that governed the region during and after the first regional renaissance; and "New Pittsburgh," the Young Turks who are at the forefront of new efforts in arts, tech, and real estate -- and who are impatient for "Traditional Pittsburgh" and "Corporate Pittsburgh" to get out of the way.

No matter how you divide up the community, it is clear that "Pittsburgh," like many cities, is an amalgam of cultural and economic interests that are in conflict as often as they are aligned. It is tempting and even sometimes right to see Pittsburgh's revitalization as the product of the convergence of these interests, and to see flaws in the revitalization project as the products of a failed infrastructure of cooperation. Even the struggling Steel Valley is sometimes characterized by micro-versions of these same conflicts. Head out to Braddock, where the force and face of "new," mayor John Fetterman, struggles against the town's old guard. There was a time in Pittsburgh when an infrastructure of cooperation existed, and it worked well, across public and private lines, and city and county lines. But the region was a simple place then, economically and culturally. It was relatively easy for all of the oarsmen to pull together.

That is no longer true. There aren't enough resources to go around. Pittsburgh's "renaissance" today celebrates the effect of the resources that have been put to work. But there are those communities that go without. At times, the conflict between New and Old (or Traditional and Corporate, City and Suburb) masks the deeper problem that some (many?) former steel communities, and some neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh itself, are sliding more deeply and inexorably into ineradicable poverty.


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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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