Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Pittsburgh's Revitalization Myth

By now, you all know the story. But in case you've forgotten, a blogger for Time reminds you and Detroit about the wonders of Pittsburgh:

Just like Detroit, Pittsburgh had massively high unemployment rates (18.8 percent at one time). It had a failing industry (steel). And it had some of the worst media relations out there – even people who were from there wrote nasty articles about the city. One writer called it "hell with the lid off."

These days, Pittsburgh serves as a model for a city in renaissance. It's gone green. It has lotsa new industries. In fact, some say the city is in its third renaissance – a sign that even an old doggie can learn new tricks. Part of the reason I wanted to talk to Dearth is the city's impressive campaign to retain its college graduates as well as draw young, educated workers to the city.

It took Pittsburgh 30 years to get it right. How long will it take in Detroit?

Via Null Space, the phrase "hell with the lid off" doesn't mean what everyone thinks it means. There's a Rust Belt Chic tale in there somewhere, but I digress. The deconstruction is of little consequence. Pittsburgh is selling itself as a clean and green city. The transformation is what counts.

The advertisement accompanying “Deaths at America’s Coal Mines” opens with a symbolic sunrise over a coal facility. Viewers then hear the story about Daniel Connell, an engineer/project manager at Consol Energy, and his work on attempting to find ways to capture and store CO2 (a job, as the images show us, that occurs above the surface of the earth).

As we hear about Dan’s research, the advertisement shows us an iconic image of Pittsburgh, the once sooty industrial town that has slowly been transforming itself in the more sanitized post-industrial age. By contrast, mountain top removal operations in West Virginia or Kentucky, or photos of miners suffering from black lung like those of Les Stone, are–it should go without saying–nowhere to be seen. Remember, coal is clean.

Coal is no longer "hell with the lid off". You can find the ad here. Pittsburgh is national (international?) shorthand for successfully sprucing up your image, whether you be a blighted Rust Belt city or King Coal. No matter that coal is still a "mountain with the lid off".

This post isn't intended as a critique. I'm in awe of the makeover. Geographic myths are very powerful. They can influence migration, both domestic and international. Just getting onto the map can be a huge accomplishment. The use of Pittsburgh to sell something else is astonishing. Along the lines of trying to be "the next Silicon Valley", we have cities aiming to be "the next Pittsburgh".

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