Monday, August 31, 2009

Pittsburgh Renaissance: False Positive

Mike Madison (Pittsblog) dishes up some of his tough love for Pittsburgh. The PR machine is cranking out one feel good story after another, using the upcoming G-20 Economic Summit as a springboard for revamping the image of the Steel City. Mike tempers the enthusiasm:

Question: Is Pittsburgh undergoing a renaissance?
Answer: Only if you focus on bright, shiny buildings in the Downtown neighborhood and in a couple of neighborhoods nearby.

Mike has a lot to say on the matter and this is only part I. A wandering eye to the top of Mt. Washington, for example, might wonder what all the fuss is about. The celebrated Pittsburgh is, indeed, geographically concentrated.

Actually, I think that is worth celebrating. I'm not alone:

Unlike other notorious Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh is most certainly not a dump. While it might suffer statistically in a variety of economic categories, it has arguably the healthiest downtown and most active midtown area (Oakland, home to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh ) in flyover country excepting Chicago.

That Pittsburgh isn't a "dump" is faint praise. But a vibrant downtown is a big deal. The Chicago renaissance followed this pattern. This is the urban economic geography of globalization. We don't get to sweep Uptown under the rug and exclaim missioned accomplished. However, I would argue that the term "revitalization" does apply to the entire region, even if most of the area appears to be to the contrary.

I think Pittsburgh's renaissance claim is legit. We needn't qualify it. But that doesn't absolve the leadership of past mistakes. Furthermore, I would be very suspicious of anyone claiming credit for the turnaround. And where does Pittsburgh go from here? The pension disaster could derail everything. Status quo approaches from those fat on recent successes will do more harm than good.

Pittsburgh may do well in spite of itself, but I wouldn't bank on it.


AmericanDirt said...

I appreciate you and others pointing out that my photo of the "dump" of a house with the great view has since been converted to a better use. I was actually hoping someone would be able to tell me that.

I would agree with others: from my total of six days in Pittsburgh, one could scarcely call it a dump. It has a number of flourishing neighborhoods--far more than Indianapolis--and the Midtown of Oakland is very active. I would argue that downtown itself did not seem lively at all unless you extend those boundaries to Oakland, but downtown scarcely looks devastated in the way you might expect from a city suffering so much population loss.

I did notice, however, that while many neighborhoods in the city limits remain intact, Pittsburgh suffers from inner ring syndrome to an extreme. Many of those small boroughs subsisted solely on the steel industry, and now lack any tax base to speak of. The ones I saw at greatest length was McKeesport, which seemed to have an infrastructure to support over 50,000 people; downtown was basically completely abandoned when I was last there. Other suburbs which I have heard are quite distressed include Braddock, McKees Rocks, and Wilkinsburg. Perhaps someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but it appears as though a disproportionate amount of unemployment and poverty in the metro is concentrated in these smaller suburbs, making Pittsburgh as a city reflect quite positively in areas such as crime rates, education level of the population, etc.

Jim Russell said...


First, let me say that I very much enjoyed your post about Pittsburgh. I don't consider it to be a drive-by shooting and you raise a number of important questions.

How might someone ascertain urban economic health? What to make of Pittsburgh? What happened to Braddock?

There's no denying the dramatic out-migration, particularly during the early 1980s. But that's old news. There is also no denying the anemic in-migration. That's a current concern. Slice it any way you want, Pittsburgh is still a shrinking city.

The trick is identifying a useful geographic abstraction, a bellwether. Does Braddock define the region? Or, does Oakland?

Pittsburgh's urban core has the lowest unemployment in the SW PA region. That's unusual for a Rust Belt city. Then there is the interesting pattern of foreclosures which, along with unemployment, nicely demarcate the PA-Ohio border. As for the very uneven development you highlight, welcome to the global city. You'll see the same disparity in Chicago.

Robert Pontzer said...

I would counter that Downtown Pittsburgh is indeed quite lively... as it features one of the greatest employment densities in the U.S.... it operates on an entirely different tier than most peer cities. Tall buildings crowd the streets, and urban-fabric-destroying surface lots are remarkably absent. After a period of post-industrial sluggishness, the Downtown real estate market has been hot in recent years... continuing to experience net absorption during the recession. It remains an attractive location for corporate headquarters and is the unquestioned economic heart of this region... where the "edge city" phenomenon is rather undeveloped. Usually, when people criticize Downtown Pittsburgh for not being "lively", it's related to after-hours entertainment activity (which is clustered in one half of downtown, while the other half empties). But the East End and the South Side tend to be the focal points for Pittsburgh nightlife.

You make a good point, however, that the "worst" areas of Pittsburgh (in terms of socio-economic devastation) tend to be scattered outside the city limits. Greater Pittsburgh's historical pattern of urban and economic development is pretty unique based upon its rugged topography/hydrography, resource extraction and heavy industry. Many of Pittsburgh's "suburbs" never really developed as "suburbs", and were instead industrial entities themselves... centers of economic activity as opposed to bedroom communities. This pattern of development resulted in a system of municipal hyper-fragmentation... each factory would incorporate its own small worker town. These small industrial municipalities quickly became obsolete, and due to their limited resources and assets... small factory-dependent municipalities like McKees Rocks and Braddock have been unable to adapt to the post-industrial landscape and have withered. This is not an "inner ring" phenomenon, but rather a "factory town" phenomenon... the inner ring of Pittsburgh suburbs are a mixed bag of devastation and prosperity.

One must really understand the unique topography of the region in order to understand how it works.