Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Primary Pittsburgh Project

The following is my submission to The Primary Pittsburgh Project:

During the seemingly endless coverage of the upcoming Pennsylvania primary vote, I've followed the media representations of the state's human geography. The negative stereotypes range from Rust Belt to Redneck. Overall, the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have faired well, the islands of cosmopolitanism at either end of the state. But as Mike Madison relates over at Pittsblog, the regional landscape of Southwestern Pennsylvania is nationally and locally misunderstood:

I don't do politics on this blog, much, and I'm linking to this [post] and quoting from it less to make a point about Barack Obama or presidential election politics (though I guess a point is unavoidable) and more to make a point about what's authentic and what's manipulable in understanding this region and others like it. In both short and long run, communities and the people who serve them are better off acknowledging the complexities of culture, even while it's cheaper and easier to play off simplified abstractions.

Local politics and development economics aren't immune to the problem; policies and positions here are regularly manufactured to suit an abstraction of the "true Pittsburgher" rather than the million-plus people with diverse interests and needs who inhabit Allegheny and its surrounding counties. Like me, George Packer is a suburban liberal raised in the shadow of San Francisco and educated at an Ivy League university (the same one that I attended, in fact). If he can figure out what's what while sitting in Brooklyn, and I think that he has, surely people closer to Pittsburgh can do the same.

The essence of any place is elusive and I'm deeply skeptical of anyone making claims of authenticity. That said, a person can find whatever "Pittsburgh" he or she has in mind. My Pittsburgh isn't even located in Pennsylvania. I harbor a romantic construction that serves my expatriate interests. I have argued that the only true Pittsburgh to be found is in a football stadium parking lot of a Steelers away game.

While acknowledging the geographic variation of SWPA, I find abstractions and generalizations useful. My sense is that parochialism and risk aversion predominate. This is the result of years of anemic in-migration (NOT strong out-migration). In Pittsburgh, political innovation is not forthcoming. Yet to consider Pittsburgh chained down to its past would be a mistake. Unconventional political and economic spaces are wide open, rich with opportunity. Thus, the Pittsburgh I see is vibrant and on the verge of a major breakthrough (no thanks to the local leadership).

Welcome to America's Yugoslavia.

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