The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part VIII

[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]

Most of the posts in this almost-complete-ten-part-series on The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, or How Did Pittsburgh Become the "It" City All of a Sudden, have had a good news/ bad news flavor. Pittsburgh has some undeniable economic and cultural momentum. It looks mah-vel-ous, to borrow Billy Crystal's brilliant Fernando Lamas parody, especially on a bright and warm blue day like today. I've been arguing that there is still a long road ahead. Lots of problems and challenges remain. Pittsburgh's progress comes at a price, and a lot of that price still has to be paid. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

As the end of the series approaches, I'm going to let out my inner optimist, so that I can finish with a bang, not a whimper.

Today's topic: Is Pittsburgh hip?

And the short answer is: It never was and it never will be, at least so long as anyone thinks that "hip" is defined by a New York or Los Angeles aesthetic. (Of course, those are two completely different things.) But -- good news ahead -- in the last few years Pittsburgh seems to have attracted and supported a younger, more progressive social, cultural, and political "scene" than anyone might have thought possible as recently as ten years ago. It's wrong to put too much emphasis on surface phenomena like the Whole Foods market in East Liberty, which gives a patina of cool to part of a single neighborhood. But below the surface, there is definitely something happening.

Ten years ago, the region was gripped with public fear of "brain drain," anxiety that the area's adolescents and recent college grads would leave Pittsburgh and take the brightest ideas and most passionate energy with them. That anxiety was almost entirely misplaced to begin with; young people in America are fated to move around. Leaving home and leaving their native region seems to be an American birthright. Pittsburgh is a more rooted (some would say, "European") city than many of its peers, but it never had any realistic hope that its experience over the long run would be different.

Pittsburgh's true anxiety was and to some extent, remains that no one from other parts of the country and the world wants to move here. More dynamic cities, places where "hip" really means something, are places where population churn is a fact of life: People go, people come. New ideas are constantly being imported as well as exported. The concept of the Pittsburgh "Diaspora," both natives and non-natives around the globe who are bonded psychically to Western Pennsylvania, has emerged to focus attention on the need to cultivate the economic value of Pittsburgh's international network. That link goes to Jim Russell's Globalburgh blog. Local Pittsburgh official-dom has recently joined this important bandwagon: the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors was recently rebranded "Global Pittsburgh." Actual and would-be Pittsburghers can come home again, and even if they don't, their investment dollars can.

That's the smart money; what about the smart people? Population trends overall have not changed dramatically in Pittsburgh. The city's population continues to decline; the regional population stays mostly flat. Age distributions, however, are changing slowly, and the city of Pittsburgh remains surprisingly and importantly a key location for regional employment. The state as a whole may be getting slightly younger, and in Pittsburgh at the margins and in some particularly visible parts of the region, there seems to be movement: In arts, culture, and politics, there is an emerging tier of 20-something leaders who embrace what I call the "best of Pittsburgh's past" - the neighborhoods, the older racial and ethnic communities, even steel -- yet want to build something new on top of it. Residential and retail neighborhood revival in places like Lawrenceville, the Mexican War Streets, and parts of the Southside, the Strip, and even Downtown are emblematic of the new younger tone of Pittsburgh. The start-up economy in Pittsburgh -- the topic of Part IX of the series, coming next -- is slowly but surely leveraging this younger talent. Note yesterday's news: Carnegie Mellon's computer science rock star, Luis von Ahn, sold his company to Google. That is two great birds with one stone, a data point that shows that young + hip can meet big + rich, right here in the Burgh. (I don't want to set the bar too high; you don't have to be Luis von Ahn to make magic happen here.)

Social enterprises in Pittsburgh are on the march, combining not-for-profit social ambitions with for-profit strategies. The Sprout Fund, for example, finances people with big ideas yet small budgets. I can't catalog all of the landmarks in this space, but they include relative newcomers with a big impact such as Brillobox and pieces of the Pittsburgh establishment that continue to push the envelope, such as The Warhol. Podcamp Pittsburgh deserves a special shoutout for constantly supporting social media ventures in Pittsburgh that model best practices for the rest of the US. Even the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project (PUMP) seems poised to finally escape its long-standing image as a boring place that serves the pinstripe suit set.

Rich Florida hypothesized years ago that cities of the future would rise or fall with the fortunes of young "creatives" of the type that animate the enterprises I've linked to above. His hypothesis was criticized intensely, primarily on the ground that a bustling sector of young "creatives" may be the result of emergent economic activity, rather than its cause. This post doesn't take a stand in that debate. The point is that a growing "creative" class is a signal that is positively associated with an urban economy on the move. Pittsburgh appears to have that going for it.


5 Responses to "The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part VIII"

Mark Arsenal said... 9/18/2009 6:02 PM

I guess the big question is whether a 'revitalized' city is desirable. One of the things that attracts me to Pittsburgh is the idea of a "safe decay" atmosphere; as opposed to the threatening and uncomfortable decay of Detroit or Cleveland.

The idea of Pittsburgh becoming a "hip" city with lots of "young creatives" turns me off to some extent because I liked it as a post-apocalyptic paradise.

I think the big question is whether Pittsburgh can still be attractive to the people that are now 'revitalizing' it, down the road, when its hipness will inevitably make it more expensive and less diverse like every other 'creative' city (a la Austin, Portland, Charlotte). Only time will tell...

Mike Madison said... 9/18/2009 6:19 PM

"Post-apocalyptic" chic. I like that. Reminds me of the upcoming movie, The Road, filmed around Pittsburgh.

Mark Arsenal said... 9/18/2009 6:28 PM

Yah. I think this is the part that gets me banned on so many a creative class fetishist's blog (such as Jim Russell's). I like cities that are slightly unhip and declining - I'm just not always comfortable or safe in them.

I fell in love with PGH because it seemed unhip and declining, but didn't make me feel like I was in an Iraqi war zone. The $30k houses were nice too. I often wonder if Butler and Liberty would attract such a variety of young, upstart businesses if building codes got me strict and rents doubled. The cheap, unpolished, no-central-A/C charm has a lot going for it, provided it doesn't go away.

Richard Florida and the creative class lobby don't seem to question the morality of success. I would say that there are drawbacks to be found in being hip, having young people, and rising asset prices.

I just think that sometimes mediocrity needs its standard-bearers, and I am he.

C. Briem said... 9/18/2009 9:23 PM

There is always The Pitt

Mark Arsenal said... 9/18/2009 9:50 PM
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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.

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